One of the biggest differences between a nice spin around town and true endurance riding is that, on an endurance ride, you MUST consume calories or face the dreaded “bonk.” Anyone who has bonked knows it’s something worth avoiding. Most people have enough fuel stored in their muscles to go an hour or an hour and a half. After that, your muscles look for something else. It would be very cool if our bodies went right to the fat stores for immediate emergency fuel, but they don’t. If there’s nothing in the tank the body cannibalizes the muscles. That’s the opposite of good.
While most people know they need to eat on a ride, many don’t quite know how much is enough or how much is too much. It’s nice to pretend you can just eat as much junk as you want at the rest stops and it won’t matter, but actually it kind of does.
According to our friend Steve Born at Hammer Nutrition, an average-sized rider (about 165 lbs. or so) should consume 240-280 calories an hour. If you’re lighter than that, you may only need 150-200 calories an hour. If you’re heavier than that, you may need slightly more than 280/hour. During the ride, the majority of the calories should come in the form of complex carbohydrates along with some protein. The best way to consume your calories is several small but frequent feedings (every 20 minutes or so).
If you like to drink your calories, this usually means 3-4 scoops of sport drink mix in a large bike bottle per hour. Of course, since sports drinks can vary, it’s best to check the label. If drinking your calories is not your cup of tea, there are also gels, energy bars, and a growing number of other options out there as well as old-school standbys like boiled potatoes or even the good old PB&J sandwich. Of course all calories are not created equal. Refined sugars (glucose, sucrose, high fructose corn syrup, etc.) saturated fats and processed foods make poor choices both on or off the bike – particularly if you’re looking to maximize performance.
When it comes to food, overdoing it can be just as unpleasant as bonking. One of the best places to overdo it at Cycle Oregon is lunch. It’s very easy to overeat when you’re tired and hungry. It’s also easy to wolf down a lot of less-than-ideal calories from sodas, etc. If you do that, be prepared to pay a price. When your body is trying to digest a big pile of food, it diverts resources from your muscles. Best case, you’ll be sluggish. Worst case, your stomach will rebel. When that happens, it isn’t pretty. While there are plenty of blue rooms on the course, even the cleanest and best maintained example is not the happiest place on Earth when you’re sick.
Hydration is equally important. Here, too, you can underdo it or overdo it. While most people underdo it, overdoing it can actually be very dangerous. The folks at Hammer recommend 16 to 28 ounces an hour for maximum performance. Most of the cases of overhydration, and all of the problems associated with it (water intoxication, hyponatremia), have occurred when athletes were consistently consuming more than a liter of fluid (about 34 ounces) an hour. Keeping your fluid intake within that 16-28 ounces per hour range—perhaps slightly higher on a really hot day—will maintain adequate hydration levels and without putting you at the risk of overhydration.
There are times when your body will use more water than you can replenish, so drinking early and often is key. Drinking sufficient amounts of water before and after a ride is also important. That’s why most Cycle Oregon vets are seldom seen without a water bottle nearby throughout the entire week.
Hydration packs are hot and uncomfortable, and, let’s face it, they look a little dorky. But you WILL drink more if you use them. And, trust me, hobbling around screaming when various groups of leg muscles cramp and seize from dehydration when you are trying to rise from your chair in camp doesn’t look all that cool either (and it REALLY hurts).
The final piece in the puzzle is electrolytes. Your body needs them, and they need to be replenished during a long ride – particularly if it’s warm. Hammer recommends 100 to 600 mg/hour of sodium chloride, in a balanced blend with other electrolytic minerals such as calcium, magnesium, and potassium. Most endurance fuel contains electrolytes (as does coconut water, which is amazing). You can also get electrolytes in tablet form.
Feel like getting (way) deeper into fuel, nutrition and performance? Hammer has an “article” – which is more of a book than anything else – that you can check out online. You can even download it as a PDF and enjoy it on a smartphone or tablet.
Post-ride nutrition is also vital… so vital that it’s the subject of a whole other post. Stay tuned.