Nutrition for the Long Ride
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By Andrea Holwegner RD, Health Stand Nutrition Consulting Inc. – for IMPACT magazine

Neglecting your nutrition requirements before or during a long ride can impair your performance, particularly if you are a competitive cyclist. Here are some tips to stop you from bonking.

Goals BEFORE Your Ride

1. Liquid Assets!

Two hours before cycling consume 400 to 600 millilitres (14 to 22 ounces) of fluid.

2. Choose High-Carb Foods:

Foods high in carbohydrates are quickly digested and therefore make ideal pre-training/ racing choices. Carbohydrates also “top off” muscle and liver glycogen (carb) stores. Higher initial glycogen stores lead to greater physical capacity and improved cycling performance. Carbohydrates are found in grains/ starches, vegetables, fruit, and yogurt and milk. Sugary foods and sweets also contain carbohydrates, but it’s best to fill up on the foods listed above.

3. Choose Foods Low in Fat:

Fat is digested very slowly and can contribute to heaviness, cramping, and nausea if you eat too much fat before cycling. Fat is found in high-fat meats, high-fat dairy, high-fat restaurant/fast food, high-fat snack foods such as chips, nuts, and chocolate, and “add on” fats such as butter, margarine, and mayonnaise.

4. Choose Foods Relatively Low in Protein and Fibre:

Protein and fibre are digested slowly. Some protein or fibre in a meal is all right, but avoid large doses to prevent heaviness, cramping, and nausea during cycling. Protein is found in meat/poultry/seafood, dairy foods, nuts/seeds, legumes, and protein bars/powders. Very high-fibre foods to limit include branbased breakfast cereals, bran muffins, and legumes.

5. When to Eat:

Most athletes tolerate eating two to four hours before cycling, and some athletes may be able to eat less than two hours before cycling. The closer you are to training, the smaller your snack should be, and you would want to choose primarily carbs and limit protein/fats to ensure quick digestion.

Goals DURING Your Ride

1. Replace Fluids and Electrolytes

  • The higher the level of dehydration, the greater the decrease in endurance performance. Decreased performance is seen at sweat losses as low as one to two per cent of your body weight.
  • Do not rely on thirst for indication of fluid needs during exercise. Thirst is often blunted by exercise, and athletes typically only replace 30 to 70 per cent of fluid needs.
  • Carry water bottles or a hydration backpack (fluid reservoir with a hose) and follow a schedule to remind you to drink at regular intervals.
  • Ultra-endurance cyclists (competing in cycling endurance events more than five hours in duration) are at risk of electrolyte imbalances and need electrolyte supplementation during exercise.
  • Endurance cyclists (competing in events less than five hours in duration) are not at risk of electrolyte imbalances. However, electrolyte supplementation may help fluid and glucose absorption and make a beverage taste better so that you will drink more.

2. Consume Enough Carbs

  • Eating carbs (liquid or solid) during cycling rides over 90 minutes in length will improve endurance by decreasing fatigue and increasing power output.
  • Some athletes may find that fructose (the carbohydrate found primarily in fruits) leads to stomach cramping during exercise because it is absorbed more slowly than other carbohydrates. Experiment to find out your tolerance.
Major Concerns
Requirement Every 20 minutes
Hourly Requirement
< 1 Hour Duration
150 – 350 ml (6 – 12 oz.) water
1/2 – 1 litre water
1-3 Hour Duration
150 – 350 ml (6 – 12 oz.) sports drink containing 4 – 8% carbohydrates OR 150 – 350 ml (6 – 12 oz.) water & 15 – 20 g of carbohydrates
1/2 – 1 Litre sports drink containing OR 1/2 – 1 litre water & 40 – 60 g of carbohydrates
> 3 Hour Duration
150 – 350 ml (6 – 12 oz.) sports drink containing 4 – 8% carbohydrates & electrolytes OR 150 – 350 ml (6 – 12 oz.) water & 15 – 20 g of food rich in carbohydrates & electrolytes
1/2 – 1 Litre sports drink containing & electrolytes OR 1/2 – 1 litre water & 40 – 60 g of food rich in carbohydrates & electrolytes

Choices to Consume PER HOUR of Endurance Cycling

(after the first hour to supply 40 – 60 grams of carbs and 1/2 to one litre fluid)
2 – 4 cups sports drink containing 4 – 8 % carbohydrates (40 – 80 g carbs per litre water)
1 high carb sports bar (e.g., Powerbar, Clif Bar etc.) + 2 – 4 cups water
2 sports gels (e.g., Power Gel, Clif Shots Gel) + 2 – 4 cups water
4 Fig Newtons + 2 – 4 cups water
3 Fruit to Go Bars + 2 – 4 cups water
1 bag (66 g) Sharkies + 2 – 4 cups water


Choose Familiar and Tested Foods for Competing
The timing, type, and amount of food you can tolerate depend on individual tolerance. Experiment and find out the balance of food that makes you feel comfortable (not too hungry or too full). Test foods during training and stick to this when competing.

Eat Well to Recover Well
Your recovery meal is the most important meal of the day so that you can be strong and fresh for your next ride. Once you are finished your ride be sure to replace fluids and have a solid meal containing grains, fruits/veggies, and a good source of protein.

Key Reference:
Nutrition and Athletic Performance: Position of Dietitians of Canada, the American Dietetic Association, and the American College of Sports Medicine: endorsed by the Coaching Association of Canada. Can J Diet Prac Res 2000; 61: 176-192.

Andrea Holwegner, “The Chocoholic Dietitian,” is a Calgary-based professional speaker and president of Health Stand Nutrition Consulting Inc. Visitwww.healthstandnutrition.com or call (403) 262-3466 for more information about nutrition coaching, workplace wellness, and conference keynotes.

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