The basics of cycling nutrition are simple and could be summarised into two questions; what and when? We chat with EatMyRide CEO, Joram Kolf and nutritionist Lisa Nijbroek to find out.
We had a chance to sit down with Joram Kolf, CEO of EatMyRide, an app that is designed to help cyclists do just this (perfect their nutrition) and Lisa Nijbroek, the nutritionist working for EatMyRide and for many pro teams, including Quick-step Alpha Vinyl and asked them: what do we need to know to fuel efficiently?
You must have carbohydrates
Starting from the most crucial aspect; carbs. As cyclists, we use mostly carbohydrates for fuel so maybe consider twice before embarking on a keto diet. Depending on the intensity of riding, we might dip into burning some fat as well, but there is a low likelihood we'd ever burn down all of our fat reserves on a bike ride.
Carbohydrates are another thing altogether. We can only store a limited amount of carbs and when those reserves run empty, it can result in a “hitting the wall” feeling. We can store about 1.5 hours' worth (or about 600g) of carbohydrates in our liver and muscles.
In general, carbs can be separated into fibre, starch and sugars. For athletes (aspiring or professional) sugars are the greatest source of energy when exercising. Out of those, two types are the most important and quick fuel sources for us cyclists; glucose and fructose. Our bodies process and can take in different amounts of each of these at any given time, meaning that a mix is always preferred.
Ideally, you are aiming to consume an optimal amount of carbs during your ride and this amount might sometimes be very high, as Kolf highlights: "You are always burning a combination of carbohydrates and fats and the percentage for each is depending on the intensity of your ride. A hard ride can increase your carb-burning by up to 400%."
The maximum amount of carbs you can take in per hour is a hot potato topic, but 90 grams is often considered the upper limit per hour. For a shorter or less intensive ride, a rule of thumb is to aim for 30g per hour. For reference, a medium banana contains about 25 grams of carbs and half of these are fructose and half glucose.
You need to train your nutrition plan - and your gut
“Try eating 90g of carbs for three hours on the bike. If you’ve never done that, you are for sure going to get digestive issues,” Kolf says.
If you have ever ridden too soon after a meal, or overdone your jelly baby consumption, you’ll know the feeling which urges you to be rather sitting on the toilet than the saddle. And that is why you should train your nutrition plan as much as you train your fitness on the bike. You would not go and ride 100 miles without any training, and the same applies to nutrition.
Taking in maximum amounts of carbs on long, intensive rides takes a toll on your digestive system, and also your taste buds as it can get boring to consume the same flavours for many hours. Even though our bodies can technically utilise a high amount of carbs per hour, they will not know how to do so without practice. That is why suddenly consuming high amounts in races will not give you the best results; you need to implement and test your nutrition plan already on your training rides.
Giro stage 10 ride - eating cakes.jpeg, by Dave Atkinson
You can start off by having only 30g of carbs per hour and increasing the amount on subsequent rides to find the perfect balance. This way you can also test different products and find what works best for you, instead of shocking your system.
When choosing the source of your fuel, Nijbroek recommends going for a mixture. This can mean incorporating different textures but also combining solid food and liquids. Especially on long rides, you don't want to consume just one type of product, Nijbroek emphasises. If you rely on bars, on a three-hour ride you'd end up having nine bars to hit the number - something that does not sound very appealing.
Once you have trained your gut to tolerate high amounts of carbs, your fuelling plan can be for example one bar, one gel and one bottle of sports drink in an hour: “Most brands aim to have around 30g of carbs per product, with 2:1 ratio, and this is to help the consumer to know that three products roughly equal 90g," Nijbroek explains.
Don't only use one brand and one product
You should aim to be flexible with your nutrition, and not only use one brand or one type of product to fulfil your energy needs. At events, you might only be able to resupply with a brand you've never even tried, which might lead to issues if your body has never had the same type of product before - so do a little scan on the ingredients before biting into a new-to-you product.
“It is risky to be limited to one brand. For example, if you go to a race that has a nutrition partner, it’s tricky if you always have trained with a different brand because the number of carbohydrates might be different. And the ratio of glucose and fructose might be different. Some brands are simply better than others,” Nijbroek explains.
But trying different brands is not only good for adapting your body to use them effectively, but also helps you to find flavours and products that you enjoy. There are literally thousands of products to try and sometimes what works for your friend might not work for you at all.
It can come down to a personal preference to consume more liquids, or only bars and gummies, but planning your fuel intake in both liquid and solid form is an advantage. On remote, long rides you might not have access to sports drinks which means you might be restricted to solid foods to meet your energy demands.
Having energy products in your drink allows you to fuel efficiently even when the situation gets heated, e.g. before the final sprint, before big climbs, or in general when riding off-road. With modern nutrition products, you can have 80 grams or more of carbs in one bottle, Kolf says. Having a sip from the bottle might be a lot easier than unwrapping a bar or squeezing a gel, not to mention drinking fulfils two functions; hydration and carb intake.
And when it comes to hydration, Nijbroek highlights the importance of refilling the bottles with more than just water. Unfortunately, most of us don't have a support team handing us bottles filled with carb mix in the middle of our rides. When you fill the bottles, remember that if you only fill them with water, you will have no fuel from them for the rest of your ride.
"That means you need to compensate by eating more, which many people forget and then end up eating too little," Nijbroek summarises.
2022 Nutrition-11.jpg, by Suvi loponen
You see professional riders having their breakfast two to three hours before the race, and this is what you should aim to do as well. Have a good amount of time between your meal and your ride, so that your body and mind are ready to get some fuel in. If you still feel very full at the start of your ride, you will likely not eat enough during it.
“If you eat too close to jumping on the bike you have a higher risk that your body has not had the time to store all those carbohydrates and you have a risk that you are still busy with digesting breakfast,” Nijbroek says.
2022 Nutrition-14.jpg, by Suvi loponen
Using technology to remind you to eat and drink at regular intervals is a great way to keep on top of your fuelling on the bike. You can download different apps and widgets onto your head unit, and many have integrated nutrition timers that you can tailor to your ride style, intensity and personal preferences.
If you don't own a cycling computer or a smartwatch, Nijbroek recommends eating every half an hour - this way you won't hit the feared bonk state.
Making your own ride food
2022 Nutrition-13.jpg, by Suvi loponen
We all know that consuming only gels and bars is bound to take a big toll on your wallet, so making your own ride food is not only enjoyable but also saves you money. However, if you want to perfect your nutrition with homemade products, you need to pay a little more attention to what you put into them.
"At least one of the pros of making homemade products is that you won't get bored of the sports brand products. But it is indeed difficult, if you bake your own stuff, to know how much carbohydrates are in one slice of banana bread [for example]," Nijbroek adds.
She highlights that it's relatively easy to use nutrition apps to calculate the nutritional values of the homemade goods - although you will still have a harder time separating the amount of glucose and fructose, for example.
Nijbroek recommends using homemade products for training rides and less intensive races. Having the right glucose-fructose ratio is essential in high intensity and demanding races - and it can really ensure you get to the podium.
Raid the sweet shelves
Homemade doesn't have to mean only baking your own cakes and making rice cakes. You can find good products for cycling from your nearest supermarket - usually from the sweets and baked stuff aisles. A packet of gummy bears or some chocolate-filled mini croissants are a staple - and if you're looking for something very carbohydrate-heavy, search for icing sugar or marzipan.
But as with your homemade goods, buying non-sports products means you need to make sure you're getting what you need and not too much else. Many fitness bars for example contain high levels of protein and fats (often in the form of nuts), which Kolf highlights can actually slow down your carb intake. So aim to have lots of carbs, and leave fats for outside the rides - and protein for after the ride.
Measure your stats
2021 coros apex pro heart rate time.jpg, by Liam Mercer
In order to nail your nutrition, it's very helpful to know your numbers: your heart rate zones, your power zones, your normal sedentary calory requirement, fat percentage and sweat rate. Not all of these are essential but even having some of them measured will help you with planning your nutrition better.
For example, Nijbroek highlighted the topic of sweat loss.
You might be lucky and barely sweat, or you might sweat bucketloads and need to replace that with a lot of fluids on each ride. We all sweat, but the amount of sweat loss, Nijbroek says, is based mainly on genetics, with external conditions such as weather also playing a part.
Is nutrition different for off-road riding?
You might wonder if you should pay special attention to something when you're an off-road rider. Both Kolf and Nijbroek say the basics are the same, no matter what the discipline. But there are a few things to consider.
For example when riding gravel, getting your nutrition might be the biggest obstacle because of the bumpy, rocky and sometimes boggy surfaces you’re riding on. So it can be extra difficult to take in all the carbs that you need.
Similarly, the terrain might prevent you from holding anything in your hands, meaning that having your fuel in your drink is perhaps the easiest solution - unless you prefer to stop to eat which is a lot more common in mountain biking circles.
And overall, it is important you take time to find the best fuelling strategy for yourself. "It is not true that if you’re a good athlete you know a lot about nutrition,” Joram Kolf emphasises.
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