Eating on long rides and cycling trips
As a coach, Tour guide and cycling trip organizer, one of the things I get asked the most is about nutrition for big rides. If you are doing big rides day after day, such as in a stage race or on a cycling trip, nutrition during the rides is very important, however it doesn’t have to be as complicated as some people make it.
As a Tour Guide, I see many people traveling half way around the world, lugging unbelievable amounts of powdered sports drinks and energy products around with them. The extra weight some people insist on flying with boggles the mind. Although all these energy products available on the market obviously do a very good job, it’s important not to get bogged down and dependent on them.
One of the most important things in cycling is being able to adapt. You have to learn to adapt to different weather conditions, different types of terrain, different riding styles, different temperatures and altitudes, and also different foods, drinks and energy products. You shouldn’t be so dependent on one specific energy product that you can’t ride your bike for a week without it. Some people think they aren’t going to cope, won’t be able to make it up the next climb if they don’t have that exact same horrible tasting powdery mix they have at home day after day. This is merely a psychological dependency.
What’s needed for a long ride
Many people fill their pockets with energy products and gels before a long ride. There are a few things you need to know before you set off on a long ride. Long rides and cycling tours/trips usually consist of many hours in the saddle at relatively low intensity. Gels and simple carbohydrates (basically sugar) are great for short efforts but not prolonged low intensity rides. If you must take gels with you, keep them for emergencies or for the end of a ride. The problem with many of these items is that they give you an energy spike, but the spike is short lived. Your body won’t handle 5+ hours of constant sugar induces energy spikes day after day for a week or 10 days. What’s important is to eat “real” food regularly. If you keep your rides within your endurance Heart-Rate zones, and eat regularly, you can theoretically ride all day. You can’t shovel a load of food down in one go. Too much oxygen is needed in the digestive process for your body to cope well with digesting a whole meal and pedaling the bike at the same time. Therefore it’s important to eat small quantities regularly throughout the day, thus ingesting the food your body requires without overloading its oxygen requirements.
Poor man’s Energy Product
You may not find your favorite energy products in the local supermarket when you travel overseas, or to another part of the country. But there are plenty of alternatives out there. One of the best energy foods for long rides is the Banana. Although bananas are slow to digest, unless you are racing, the low intensity of your rides should be fine for banana digestion. Bananas are available everywhere, they are cheap (way cheaper than a box of energy bars), they are individually wrapped, and the wrapping is biodegradable. Therefore once you’ve eaten your banana, you can throw the skin into the ditch or the woods and be free of any trash. Bananas also contain potassium which has been proven to help prevent cramps. Other simple riding foods include cereal bars (or “granola” bars for the Americans) which are also available in pretty much every small town super-market. Again individual wrapping is important so that you don’t end up with sticky food in your pockets as you eat small amounts regularly. Even in stage races, there is always a period of “down-time” in each stage where you can sit up and relax, and eat a banana or cereal bar. Ideally an energy bar/product is easier assimilated and quicker to digest under the strains and intensities of racing; however if you look at some of the Pro stage races in Africa and Asia, where energy products are often hard to come across, many riders turn to bananas as an energy food alternative. I remember following an Ivory-Coast National team rider in a UCI stage race in Africa a few years ago as he grabbed a banana from a spectator during a 170km stage. That’s when I noticed he already had 5 or 6 bananas in his jersey pockets! I think he must have been stocking some of them for after the stage as food was often limited at the hotels.
Drinking is also obviously very important. Depending on the weather you may find yourself consuming vast amounts of fluids. If you are on a trip or heading out for a long ride, always take 2 water bottles. You never know if you are going to be able to stop to refill, or if you’ll come across water or a store. And it’s usually best not to force the people you are riding with to stop every 30mins because you only wanted to take one water bottle. I have frequently seen people show up on trips in the middle of summer with only 1 water bottle for a 100+km ride in the mountains. Some people don’t like the look of a seat-pack, and prefer to use a water bottle to keep their spare tube and tools in. Which looks more dorky? A small saddle pack under the seat of your bike, or a bright red person sitting by the side of the road unable to ride, dehydrated, with one empty water bottle on their bike? Once again you may not find your favorite energy drink if you are travelling, and there are once more plenty of alternatives out there. Simple cordial is readily available in most European supermarkets. High in sugar content, nicely flavored and the choice of many Pro-Tour teams (contrary to what you may think), these sugary drinks that you dilute with water do the job beautifully. Other alternatives include watering down some orange juice or coke, which you can find in any local store, or get from your hotel in the morning. Both contain sugars, offer energy and enable your body to assimilate fluids better than straight forward water.
Where are you?
When embarking on a long ride or a trip, think about where you are. If you are in the high mountains of Colorado, or the Pyrenees, not only are you likely to come across vast changes in weather and temperature, but it may also be many hours of riding between stores, cafes or towns. Plan ahead, take extra clothing to keep warm and take plenty of water and food. The extra weight you carry will slow you down far less than dehydration or not eating enough. Nutrition for long rides is not that complicated. Adapt to your surroundings, eat and drink regularly and enjoy yourself!