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How much food should I take on a ride?

Audax food
Michael Donlevy
8 Jun 2021

Get the energy you need without carrying too much extra weight on the bike

The energy you require on any ride is determined by intensity and duration. These are inversely proportional – you can’t sprint a marathon, so longer rides will be lower intensity, with fewer calories burned per hour. The higher the intensity, the quicker you burn through calorie stores. But that doesn’t mean you should take more food on a short, hard ride, because your body won’t be able to absorb and use that energy in time.

A rule of thumb is that if you’re on the bike for longer than an hour you’ll need to take on energy in the form of carbohydrate. For shorter durations you need to focus more on pre-ride preparation: breakfast and your meals the day before.

These are important for longer rides too, but are only the first phase of your nutrition strategy. On short rides they are your nutrition strategy. You’ll have less opportunity to eat, and unless the carbs are fast-acting it probably won’t fuel your effort in a meaningful way.

Extremes of intensity change not only how fast your body burns fuel but what your body is burning. Lower intensities burn more fat but your body’s fat stores should have this covered. In practical terms you need to concentrate on carbs to keep blood glucose levels up.

My advice to athletes is always the same: go for familiar foods you know you tolerate well. The night before, eat a healthy mix of carbs, protein, fats and veg. Avoid eating too late or smashing down lots of carbs. There’s only so much carbohydrate you can store in one go – aim for around 1g per kilogram of bodyweight.

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Never skip breakfast, no matter how early the ride. Here you should take on 0.5g-1g of carbs per kg, aiming for the top end if you’re riding longer or harder. Always drink water, although you can have a drink with carbs if you’re planning a harder ride.

On the bike, you shouldn’t need anything more than water, bar maybe an electrolyte drink in hot weather, for up to 45 minutes. For rides of up to two hours focus on liquid carbs and energy gels. Any longer than that, use drinks and gels plus food in between those.

Sports drinks are a good first option as they provide both hydration and carbs, plus in some cases electrolytes and protein. Start drinking after 30 to 45 minutes on the bike – you’re thinking 15 to 20 minutes ahead – and fuel at a rate of between 20g to 60g of carbs per hour.

Illustration: Clear As Mud

The longer you’re going or the harder you’re working, the closer to 60g you want to aim for. Don’t go above this and don’t do it all in one go – three to five feeds per hour will do the job.

The best options are sports drinks, gels, energy bars, ripe bananas and even raisin biscuits or fig rolls. One carb drink, gel, energy bar or small-to-medium sized banana will give you around 20-25g of carbs (but always check labels).

Less experienced riders overestimate the amount of food they need but underestimate fluid loss. They often pack more than they need and eat less than they expect to, because eating on the bike isn’t always easy. But on a long ride it’s still worth drinking in the last half hour or so, even if you’re not planning a sprint finish. You can view this as the start of the recovery phase in the hours after the ride.

The expert

Drew Price BSc MSc is a nutrition consultant who has worked with sports teams, elite athletes and sports food companies. He is author of The DODO Diet (Vermillion), which examines intermittent fasting and food coaching for active people. More at drewpricenutrition.com

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