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Keeping fuelled on a long ride

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19 Jul 2020
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If you’re an experienced cyclist, you’ll know that it’s important to keep fuelled on a lengthy ride to avoid the risk of “bonking”. Suddenly running out of energy is inconvenient at best, and at worst can mess up your entire ride.

Ensuring that you don’t run the risk of “bonking out” requires careful planning and a good understanding of how your body works and what it needs for optimum performance – what to eat, what to drink, and how to pace yourself on the road.

What does your body need?

When it comes to fuelling long periods of aerobic exercise, carbohydrates really do the legwork. Stored in your muscles and your liver as glycogen, carbs act as a reserve fuel – allowing a slow energy release that helps you maintain stable blood sugar levels. If you’re planning on tackling a long route, you need to think carefully about keeping your body’s energy reserves topped up and stable so that you stay at your best throughout the ride.

However, a common misconception is that the more carbs you load up on, the more energy you’ll have during your big ride. Most people can only process 1g of carbohydrate per minute, so consuming more than your body can process won’t provide you with extra energy – instead, it can negatively impact your performance, leading to discomfort or a stomach upset. Based on the rate of absorption it is generally recommended that you eat between 30 to 60 grams of carbohydrates per hour during extended periods of exercise.

Hydration is also key, especially on hot days and long, intense rides. Your body will lose a lot of fluid through perspiration and respiration and this needs to be replenished as you go. While water will go a long way to hydrate, your body needs more than this on a big ride. You should have at least one bottle of an electrolyte drink to replace vital body salts such as sodium, potassium and magnesium, which are essential for your body to function properly.

Before you get going

It’s important to remember that energy comes from your body’s fuel stores, and these need to be in a good state before you get on your bike. It’s no good eating the perfect combination of snacks on the ride if you neglect your nutrition the night before or skip breakfast.

Prepare a high-carb meal the evening before your big ride to make sure your body is as fuelled up as it can be. Choose something simple and easily digestible to avoid any stomach upsets and eat dinner at least an hour before bedtime to avoid any issues with sleeping on a full stomach.

First thing in the morning, drink plenty of water (300–500ml) to wake up your metabolism and rehydrate your body after a night’s sleep – this is particularly important if it’s going to be a hot day. About an hour before you get going, eat a nutritious meal packed with slow-releasing, complex carbohydrates, such as a breakfast bowl of porridge if you’re starting your ride in the morning.

When you’re on the move

Eating and drinking the right amount at the right time is crucial for sustained energy on a long ride. Eat too little and you risk the dreaded “bonk” as your body runs out of fuel and you hit the metaphorical wall of fatigue. Overdo it on the carbs and sugar and you may be headed for a performance-stunting stomach upset, or an uneven spike in blood glucose levels.

So how can you ensure you remain at the top of your game? The best way to keep your energy levels constant is to consume small amounts of food and drink frequently. Try to stick to the 30 to 60g of carbohydrates an hour recommendation and make sure you're eating real foods (snacks such as dried fruit, cereal bars or nuts) rather than just gels or chews, which are good for a boost but don’t contain much nutrition.

Gels and chews can also be hard on the stomach, so they’re best consumed sparingly and towards the end of the ride when you really need that boost. Alternatively, a good, natural replacement for these supplements is the humble raisin, which is much kinder to the stomach, more nutritious and contains both fructose and glucose. A study by Currell & Jeukendrup found that a mix of fructose and glucose (as opposed to just glucose) led to an 8% improvement of power output in cyclists.

If you want to really stay at peak performance, you should also adjust your intake according to the intensity and stage of the ride. It can be harder to digest food towards the end of a long ride, so eat your more solid snacks at the beginning and leave the sugary boosts for later. If you have any tougher sections with steep inclines, you will want to eat something on the higher end of the recommended carbohydrate intake in preparation for these parts of the route. Most packaging on snacks such as cereal bars will display nutrition information, which can help you manage your intake.

Pocket-sized snacks such as packs of dried fruit like California Raisins are also convenient to store and easy to eat on the move. You may also find that you have different tastes when you're exercising. Milder, simple flavours tend to be more palatable, so snacks such as rice cakes and raisins are a good option – it’s definitely not the time to get adventurous.

And finally, don’t forget to keep yourself hydrated – one of the main causes of “bonking” is dehydration. Stock up on water and electrolyte drinks for the ride and try to drink something approximately every 15 minutes. You certainly shouldn’t wait until you get thirsty to drink, as this is a sign of dehydration. Generally speaking, you should be drinking one to two bottles per hour – depending on your size, the intensity of the ride and how hot it is.

If you want to get a more accurate indication of how much you personally need to drink, you can conduct a sweat rate test. This involves weighing yourself before and after a 60-minute ride to see how much fluid you’ve lost. The weight difference in grams is the number of millilitres of lost fluid, although if you consume any extra fluids on the ride you'll need to remember to subtract this. While it may not be possible to replenish it all during the ride (some people find they lose up to one litre per hour), you should aim for at least 75%.

With the right preparation, you should never fear “bonking” again. Instead, you should be able to focus on enjoying and getting the most out of your ride.

For more information visit the California Raisins website