As far back as Ancient Greece nutrition has been linked to performance and health. It was Hippocrates (400BC - ca. 370BC) who said “If we could give every individual the right amount of nourishment and exercise, not too little and not too much, we would have found the safest way to health.”
It is believed that the first documented information about a special diet of a Greek athlete was Charmis of Sparta. He is said to have trained on dried figs. I’m not surprised as figs are a Mediterranean powerfood loaded with minerals such as potassium, calcium and iron as well as high in carbohydrates making it an excellent energy source.
What, how much and when you eat and drink can affect your energy, your training, your immune function, and even your risk of injury.
Muscles burn glucose for fuel and the body stores glucose in the form of glycogen which can be broken down into useable glucose when working muscles need an increased fuel supply. The body can store enough glycogen to support approximately 90 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise. More than 90 minutes, or if you are going to experience periods of high intensity riding, such as strenuous hill climbing, on a ride of less than 90 minutes, you are going to need to get glucose to fuel your muscles from food you ingest during the ride.
What kind of food should you eat?
Supported by decades of research into endurance sports, the answer is carbohydrates.
Carbohydrates (carbs) can be broken down quickly and efficiently into useable glucose.
Glucose can be derived from fats and proteins as well as carbs. The problem with both fats and proteins is that the process of breaking them down to extract useable glucose takes a long time and is inefficient.
Truth be told you have to burn more energy to extract glucose from fats than you do to extract it from carbs. In fact, fat metabolism (the process of breaking the fat down) requires carbohydrate that could have been more efficiently burned for glucose if wasn’t used to break down the fat.
Carbs, on the other hand, can be broken down quickly and efficiently to provide the glucose needed to keep going on the bike. They are absolutely essential for the long-distance cyclist.
Before the Ride
Glycogen replacement before the ride involves replenishing the liver glycogen lost during sleep along with any muscle glycogen burned while you move around during the day before your ride begins. Carbohydrates are the primary source for replacing lost glycogen.
Complex and simple carbohydrate meals are recommended. It is best to consume them on a regular basis and especially more so the night before your long ride.
Examples of such foods are whole wheat pasta, brown rice, white rice, quinoa, buckwheat, bulgur wheat, beans, lentils, chick-peas, oats, potatoes and sweet potatoes.
Great meal combinations are: Chicken stir-fry with lots of vegetables served with brown rice or noodles, whole meal pasta with either a veg or meat sauce, baked potato with a topping (cheese, bean, chilli, tuna, sweetcorn, kidney beans), mushroom & spinach risotto etc.
How long do I wait before I cycle after a meal ?
General recommendations are to plan on waiting 3 to 4 hours to ride after eating a large meal, 2 to 3 hours to ride after a small meal, and an hour to ride after eating a snack such as fresh fruit, yoghurt, or small bowl of oats.
One way to approach snacking is to eat your last snack an hour or so before the ride and nibble small amounts of carbohydrate every 30 minutes or so from the time you finish your snack to the end of your ride.
During the Ride
Good on-the-bike foods include bananas, dried fruit like raisins, dates or figs, oat based cookies, or low fat bite-sized cookies. Energy bars are a terrific source of carbs. For example, a single powerbar may have 45 grams of carbohydrate and only 2 grams of fat. There are also energy gels made specifically for endurance athletes which have very high doses of carbs. If you eat high density carb supplements like energy bars or gel, make sure to drink plenty of water with them or they will sit like sludge in your stomach and you won’t get the quick transfer of carbs into blood glucose you need. Some sport drinks can be an excellent source of carbs, yet in the case of sports drinks it may be best to choose a brand that isn’t loaded with artificial colourings, additives and refined sugars. These drinks may also be the main cause of accelerated tooth decay in cyclists.
When do you eat?
A well known cycling saying is “Eat before you’re hungry and drink before you’re thirsty”. This is excellent advice. By the time the body reacts to low levels of fuel or fluid and sends hunger and thirst signals it’s too late ! It is best to eat high carb foods frequently throughout the ride.
Rather than stopping and eating a large amount of food (such as lunch) mid ride, nibble high carb foods frequently throughout the ride. This not only provides immediate glucose, it can help protect the body’s glycogen stores; if the muscles are burning glucose from the low-fat oat bar you just ate, they’re not burning your stored glycogen. Try to ingest some carbohydrates every 30 minutes or so. Start eating during your first hour on the bike. The sooner you begin drawing needed energy from food intake the longer you can keep a reserve of stored glycogen.
How do you carry the food?
Eating on the bike isn’t easy, especially in the first hour when you probably won’t feel hungry. Stopping to eat makes eating even more of a hassle which makes it more likely you’ll skip it. Not such a good idea ! Carry nibble foods in your rear jersey pockets and learn to eat while you ride. Prepare it before you ride and make it hassle free. That means unwrap foods in wrappers, cut all foods in bite sized pieces and put it all in a baggie. Roll it up but do not seal it. When it’s time for food, simply unroll the baggie, reach in and pull out something to eat. No fuss, no mess and no garbage like food wrappers to put away ! Note the time your ride starts and make yourself nibble some food every 30 minutes.
Can I have too many carbs?
If you’re going to be ingesting large amounts of carbohydrate during the course of a ride, you should be aware that high concentrations of carbohydrate in the stomach can cause gastrointestinal distress such as nausea. The more you rely on dense carb sources like gels and energy bars, the more you’re likely to run into this problem. Individuals vary widely in their sensitivity to carbohydrate concentration so you will have to experiment to find your limits. If you’re feeling nauseous, drink water to reduce the concentration of carbohydrate in your stomach and lengthen your feed time until you feel better.
What happens if I don’t eat?
Ingesting carbs while you’re cycling isn’t always easy and it it isn’t always fun but it’s absolutely necessary if you want to have the energy you need to finish your ride. Failing to take in the carbs you need can lead to pronounced losses of energy and strength, reduced awareness of what’s going on around you, and increased irritability and hostility, all combined with the feeling that finishing the ride is an unbearable and impossible task. In other words, you could bonk ! Not eating can turn a pleasant ride into an unpleasant one or a challenging ride into a nightmare. Eat before you’re hungry and continue eating throughout the ride.
Post Ride / Recovery
Most of it comes down to what you eat in the first 30 to 40 minutes after you get off the bike. When you finish a long ride your glycogen stores are exhausted and you are very likely to have low blood glucose. Your body responds to the glycogen debt by going into overdrive to replace the missing glycogen. Excess glucose in the bloodstream is converted to glycogen and stored in the muscles and the liver. Under normal circumstances insulin is used in this conversion process. However, after an extended period of exercise when the muscle glycogen stores are exhausted an abbreviated and accelerated glycogen-storage process kicks into gear that converts glucose into glycogen and stores it in the muscles without the need for insulin. This period of intense glycogen production and storage lasts for 30 to 60 minutes.
In order to take advantage of this brief period of accelerated glycogen storage the system must have blood glucose that can be converted to glycogen. And there’s the problem. When you finish a long or intense ride you are almost certainly low on blood glucose. Your system is ready to rapidly and efficiently replenish your empty glycogen stores but it doesn’t have the glucose it needs to make the glycogen.
The solution is to flood your system with carbohydrates that can be quickly converted to blood glucose which will in turn supply the accelerated glycogen production and storage mechanism with the glucose it needs. Although the enhanced glycogen production mechanism will operate for roughly 60 minutes after exercise has stopped, keep in mind that it takes time for carbohydrates in the stomach to be broken down into useable blood glucose. Food you eat during the second half of that 60 minute window may still be in the stomach being digested when the enhanced glycogen-storage process ends. The first 30 minutes after you get off the bike are critical.
If you are going to fully replenish your glycogen stores for the next day’s ride, you must ingest enough carbs during those 30 minutes to flood your system with glucose.
If you don’t, it doesn’t matter what you eat for the rest of the day; you will be building on a weak foundation and you won’t have the glycogen reserves you need to ride with strength day after day. This cannot be stressed enough; you have to reload your system with carbs during the first 30 minutes after you get off the bike.
How many carbs do you need to eat during the critical 30 minutes?
Current thinking holds that you should aim to ingest 1 - 1.5g/ kilogram of body weight as soon as possible after exercise
A rough estimate is to eat or drink 60 grams of carbohydrate (if you’re an average-sized woman) or 80 to 100 grams if you’re an average male.
Eating enough food to provide this much carbohydrate in the first 30 minutes after you get off the bike can be very difficult. The 30 minute part is much more important than the specific amount of carbs and protein part. If you can’t manage to choke down the full recommended amount, eat as much as you can, but make absolutely certain you do it in the first 30 minutes after you get off the bike.
You can eat any kind of food you like as long as it’s high in carbs. Simple carbohydrates that can be more quickly broken down into blood glucose are better than complex carbohydrates that take a longer time because you need to get the glucose in the blood stream within a short window of time.
A recovery drink or smoothie is a good option. Just try and make sure that it contains carbs and proteins in the recommended 4 to 1 ratio. You may find it is much easier to drink a large number of carbs than to eat them immediately after a long ride.
After the critical 30 minute window, try to continue to ingest carbohydrate at regular intervals throughout the remainder of the day. Eat small amounts steadily rather than eating nothing and then pigging out at dinner.
Avoid alcohol because it will interfere with the uptake of glycogen and will also dehydrate you. Avoiding alcohol is especially important immediately after the ride when the body is in the critical glycogen restocking period.
What you eat during the 30 minutes after you get off the bike is probably the single most important factor affecting how you will fare if you’re riding more than 90 minutes a day for more than 2 days.
If you get the carbs you need during this 30 minute window, you can ride for days and days without problems; if you don’t, you’re most likely going to be tired and out of energy by the third or fourth day.
Good Hydration Strategies !
Just as is the case with eating on the bike, it’s a good idea to train yourself to habitually drink on the bike at regular intervals. You’re likely to want to drink after you eat so that if you’re following the recommendation to eat every 30 - 45 minutes, you can finish each of these small feeds with a couple of mouthfuls of water.
No matter how much you drink on a long ride you’ll finish dehydrated. Weigh yourself before and after. For every 0.5kg lost, drink 475- 710ml of fluid. Be aware that products marketed as recovery shakes or beverages are designed to replace carbohydrate and supply protein but will not provide enough fluid to re-hydrate fully. If you sweat heavily, be sure to include ample sodium / electrolytes as well as fluid after the ride. Since your body absorbs fluid best in small amounts rather than a lot at once, get in the habit of taking in fluid at regular intervals during waking hours to best enhance re-hydration.
How do you know you’ve caught up?
Your urine will be pale and plentiful, and your weight will be back to normal. Re-hydrating is especially vital during multi-day rides. If you get a little behind each day, by the end of the week you’ll be severely dehydrated, feeling lousy, and riding poorly.
Barbara is a qualified nutritionist offering Health, Nutrition & Lifestyle Counseling. She gives Healthy weight loss advice and promotes the Mediterranean diet. She is the author of the Med Life Diet - creating healthy lifestyle habits and attitudes for life !