12

I have a supply of 100-calorie food (gels).

I go on 2400-calorie rides with a group. (The number is merely my cyclometer's estimate.)

In previous similar rides, I found that I remained among the third strongest riders during the first third of the ride, among the middling middle in the middle of the ride, and could distinctly see myself slipping to being among the laggards during the remainder of the ride. This makes me suspect that inadequate refueling (rather than simply fitness level) is the culprit.

The group ride stops once midway at a coffee shop chain that serves donuts and muffins. Since allowing myself one of this junk food mid-ride ("if you're riding, you can eat anything you want," is a frequent, cheerful quote of hardened cyclists) didn't serve me well, I'd like to attempt more frequent smaller doses of easier-to-digest food.

Is there an established system (intervals, total intake) for fueling over longer rides to avoid a drop in performance?

I'm looking for advice on both timing (e.g "you need not eat during the first 1200-calorie portion of the ride; your body is fully capable of fueling that first segment) and total intake during the ride (e.g. "you should aim to have eaten exactly 24 packages of 100-calories").

Related

Immune system

Also, I've observed that I'm more likely to catch a cold/flu right after a long aerobic workout. Cycling blissfully exposes us to few germs. This observation is from trips to the gym. But regardless, it's relevant to note one more reason for adequate fueling during rides: one's immune system remains more competent.

6
  • 1
    A bit more further reading for you (the 2nd linked question is an old one of mine, and I've had very good answers to similar questions to yours). How quickly can the body restore energy reserves mid-ride/post-bonk, and how do we optimise this? relating to struggles in a strong group and failing to fuel enough. Fasted training - is it worth it? Is it different when the focus is endurance? follows on from that, and helped, but a few years on I still find my engine needs more fuel than some.
    – Chris H
    Commented Jun 26, 2023 at 15:28
  • Don't attempt to eat 24 energy gels unless you plan to wear a diaper for the next 24hrs!
    – Andy P
    Commented Jun 26, 2023 at 15:36
  • @AndyP (I had a good laugh; thanks) But seriously, I'm glad we can nip this idea in the bud before I, or anyone, would contemplate actually doing it.
    – Sam7919
    Commented Jun 26, 2023 at 16:00
  • Are the others in the group outpacing you only feasting on donuts and muffins at the halfway point? Commented Jun 26, 2023 at 16:13
  • Good point @whatsisname, and don't forget they may be using energy drinks in their bottles, which isn't obvious
    – Chris H
    Commented Jun 27, 2023 at 8:30

4 Answers 4

11

Some physiological principles can inform the discussion:

  1. Riding burns a lot of carbs. The more intensely you ride, the more your energy comes from carbs.
  2. Simple sugars get to your muscles about 15-20 minutes after ingestion.
  3. Your muscle glycogen stores (this means readily available carbs stored in the muscles) are sufficient for most 1 hour rides, or maybe even 2 hours of endurance riding.

If you Google, I believe you'll find that at least 30-60g per hour is a typical recommendation. This is something like 1-2 energy gels, or one small granola bar, or similar per hour. How much exactly? I'd suggest experimenting. However, if it's a long ride, you are better off eating early on, even if not hungry. This will help keep your carb availability elevated through the ride. I have found that later in rides, I feel like I might benefit from a bite, but it's "only 10 miles to home" or something - this is a fallacy like the sunk cost fallacy; I should either have eaten more later, or eaten at the same time as I had that thought.

Some individuals and organizations who I think are well-informed (e.g. TrainerRoad, FastCat Coaching) are starting to argue that for intense rides over 2-2.5 hours, athletes can maximize performance if they take in 60-90 grams of carbs per hour, possibly even more (e.g. some products are geared for 100-120g per hour), discussed more below.

Some modern nutrition products are aimed at making large amounts of carbs digestible. Even if you are targeting 30-60g per hour, those products can still be useful on long rides, you just take less of them. Some people even dissolve sugar or maltodextrin powder in their water, or just bring maple syrup, discussed later. It does seem like drinking carbs is easier than eating even simple carbs, so this is something to consider if it's a very long ride and you physically don't feel like eating.

Note the change in emphasis in the answer. I may previously have overemphasized the 90+g carb recommendation. I'm not sure it's necessary for all riders. People looking to maximize performance on long hard rides can certainly think about it and experiment with it, but I'm not sure about the scientific consensus.


One proposal for high intake was made by Dr. Alex Harrison who posted this over at the TrainerRoad forum. I'm unable to find his original post, but this one references it. Some people argue the evidence for very high carb intake isn't clear (Andrew Coggan is one). Regardless, I think the high carb proponents aren't suggesting you do this all the time, definitely not for recovery rides or shorter endurance rides.

enter image description here

The idea is to make sure your muscles have a lot of glycogen available through the entire ride. And that does include taking in carbs at the beginning of the ride, even though you're not feeling hungry. Remember that this is to maximize performance on long and intense rides.

90g of carbs sounds like a lot. But keep in mind that even 90g of carbs is 360 calories. Over a 4 hours, that's 1,440 calories. Looking at my previous group rides (with a power meter), I've typically burned about that many calories in a 4-5 ride with 3.5-5 hours total moving time.note So, a lot of us may be near to or at calorie balance even with a super-high carb in take.

Of the people on the group rides I do, I think most of us don't even hit the lower end of this intake range. I don't, but I have fellow riders who aim for over 60g. 30-60g is likely sufficient to allow good performance for most riders in many group rides. In any case, inadequate carb intake can definitely explain a drop off in performance at the end of rides. If you are on a long and intense ride, you should probably think about increasing your intake.

Footnote: In these group rides, I was usually riding at 50-70% of my threshold power (FTP) in the draft, was in the draft most of the time, and took occasional pulls at around 90-110% of threshold. These felt well within my limit last year. Hillier rides will have higher average power, as will rides where you spend a lot of time on the front or you do a lot of town line sprints. I'm also a light rider at about 144 lbs, so most adult males will burn more calories. Last, the group I ride with is fairly fast, but not the fastest out there; really hardcore groups with a lot of cat 1/2 cyclists probably burn more fuel.


If you want to shoot for over 60g, some things to note are:

  1. Most carbs are going to need to be liquid or gels. You probably can't do gels alone, so you will need sports drinks formulated for this intake. This amount of carbs with solid food alone (e.g. cookies, sandwiches) is probably going to be a disaster.
  2. You probably need to train your gut to digest that much, even if it's liquid carbs. This may mean ramping your intake up over time. Don't let your first time on a high carb intake be at a race or important event.
  3. Specialty products are really helpful if you want to shoot for really high intakes, but there are people who brew their own drinks from sugar, including table sugar.
  4. Over 60g of carbs/hour, you may need to pay attention to the ratio of glucose to fructose if mixing your own, explained below.

Regarding the last point, fructose and glucose are two forms of sugar. They are metabolized by two different enzymes, which work independently. You basically want some glucose and some fructose if you are shooting for >60g of carbs per hour. Table sugar or sucrose is 1:1 glucose and fructose. (Based on this thread on the TrainerRoad forum, I have a bottle of maple syrup, which is mainly sucrose, by my indoor trainer setup.) Maltodextrin powder, which you can buy at sports nutrition stores or Amazon, is (I believe) all glucose. In the past, many products shot for 2 glucose to 1 fructose. I haven't tracked this in detail, but some newer products may use different ratios. The bottom line is that if you are home brewing and targeting >60g carbs/hr, I believe that neither pure maltodextrin nor pure sugar syrum is optimal.

For further education, one place to start is this YouTube video by Road Cycling Academy, which has an interview with a sports dietitian. The TrainerRoad and FastCat Coaching pages linked above are other sources, and they may link to some academic sources. If you want more detailed advice on this, the TrainerRoad forum is probably a good place to start; the link about home brewing goes to a thread there.

5

As I ramped up my distance, typically at endurance paces of 20-23km moving average (compared to a maximum of about 25km/h on rides up to 200km), I realised that what work for me was simply:

Fuel early, fuel often

But this isn't true for everyone.

In particular I find too much hard effort with no input really knocks my ability to digest food, and that can means struggling for the whole of the rest of the ride.

So one thing I did was to set a reminder to have something every half hour. This could be a gel, or a couple of bites of cereal bar (and I'd often roughly alternate). The first reminder could be ignored, but not the rest. Now, with (haphazard) training I can be more flexible.

In general, waiting until your body's reserves are depleted before taking on more calories isn't a helpful strategy. Fat-burning is a good source of calories for base workload (and the more you can do to encourage it the better), but muscle glycogen is very useful indeed when it gets harder. It's as well to avoid running that down too early in the ride, as you can't really build it up again while moving.


The other side of the coin is:

never neglect hydration

Even mild dehydration affects performance. On top of that, if you're burning more fat, you'll need to take on more water.

2

This is a tricky question to give general advice to as both level of training and intensity of the ride are factors.

To perform well at the end of a long ride, we need sufficient muscular endurance that we can still apply good force to the pedals, and sufficient glycogen stores remaining to fuel high power outputs.

The ratio of burned fat/carbs can be drastically different depending on the ride and rider. Lower intensity will burn higher proportion of fat. Better trained athletes will burn a higher proportion of fat than a less well trained athlete for a given intensity.

I'll use examples of my own riding and feeding strategy. All the examples below will burn approximately 2400kcal.

  1. A 6 hour social ride at 100W (z1) with 2 coffee stops. I should be burning mostly fat. I can get away with eating practically anything at this intensity. Diluted energy drink on the bike, a granola bar to nibble, a couple of gels in the pocket for emergency use and whatever takes my fancy at the coffee stop. Totally non scientific.
  2. A 4 hour training ride at 150W (z2). Roughly 50% of my fuel will be coming from carbs = ideally need to replace 300kcal/hr = 75g carbs/hr. 500ml of 2:1 sports drink (45g) and half an energy bar (~20g) per hour leaves me a little short of the target but works well.
  3. A 3 hour hard ride at 200W (z3). Going to want as much carbohydrate as i can get without causing gastro issues. Increased sweat rate so more fluids required. 750ml of diluted 2:1 sports drink (45g) per hour and 1 gel (20g) every ~40 mins.

A larger/stronger rider that has trained their gut to tolerate larger doses of carbohydrate will require more fuel. Some world tour athletes are taking on up to 120g/hr of carbs during races now.

My opening statement said its tricky to give general advice, but if i were to give it, it would look something like this: Aim to replace approximately half the kcals you burn every hour. As the intensity increases, increase the proportion of kcals coming from fluids and reduce/eliminate kcals that aren't carbohydrate.

2

This is merely a personal anecdote of how I "developed" a system for myself.

I participated 4 consecutive years in a 7 day group ride that had many stages with a little more than 100 km of riding per day. The first year it was a disaster, I finished last or near last in almost every stage.

By the third and fourth times, It went much better thanks to a timed hydration and food intake. Through experimentation I found that for my riding level I was OK with about 250 ml of water every 15 minutes. (A litre per hour). The criteria I observed was urine colour before and after the ride. Add to that about Half a litre right before and right after the ride. Drinking more water would result in more diluted, almost transparent urine, while less than that would result in more concentrated urine.

I found out that eating a cereal bar every 30 minutes would keep me from "bonking". The bar was home made from granola, honey and other dry fruits and seeds, including peanuts, cashews, oats. Each portion was approximately 3cm x 3cm x 1cm. I don't have a "method" to back this up, I just tried to observe how tired I felt by the end of the rides, which took nearly 4 hours.

The timing was chosen so it was easy to remember with an easy pattern: drink | eat+drink | drink | eat+drink, and so on. I would keep track of the time with a cycle computer or a watch fixed to the handlebar.

I think the system worked for me as I could finish the rides feeling energetic and being able to "sprint" for the final stretch, as opposed to the first rides were I could barely keep moving.

I should mention that I mounted 3 water bottles to my frame, two of them with plain water and one with pink grapefruit juice sweetened with regular cane sugar. It was somewhat randomly available at the first time and I liked the taste, which I consider mildly relevant as it makes it easier to take when tiredness begins to strike. The point here is to choose a healthy drink that compels you to drink it at the conditions you'll face near the end of the ride.

3
  • Very nice. Also: intriguing that water needs are not a function of the ambient temperature. The reason is perhaps that the skin is at 37C regardless of whether one is riding in freezing temperatures or on a hot summer day.
    – Sam7919
    Commented Aug 4, 2023 at 2:19
  • @Sam Riding Most of my rides are between 15 - 30 centigrade, even though I have rode in up to 47 for short periods. Hotter climates do require more water, although that's intuitive. The funny thing for me is the colder climate rides, one does not perceive sweat and that may lead to not drinking enough water. I have to make more of a mental effort to stay hydrated during cold rides.
    – Jahaziel
    Commented Aug 4, 2023 at 16:07
  • 1
    I have done 60-90-minute rides in -8 – -2C weather. Properly clothed, it's perfectly doable. The big surprise is how thirsty I was. Counting on having ~700ml per hour of riding means that it's not that far behind riding in +25C weather.
    – Sam7919
    Commented Aug 4, 2023 at 17:14

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.