So you’re thinking about going for a ride. Not just any ride but an event ride where you plan on setting a new personal best or maybe to attempt a distance you’ve never tried before. Maybe you have your eyes fixed on the podium! You’ve done your training, got your game plan and your bike prepped and shiny as a new saucepan!
Let’s face it, you can’t ride a dirty bike at an event, they always go slower. You’re set. Or are you? Have you neglected one of the most crucial steps to any great sporting achievement? Nutrition. With gran fondo season upon us, it seems like the perfect time to talk nutrition for event rides of various lengths. Rides of 120km or 160km will understandably require different nutrition strategies.
“The longer the distance, the greater the nutrition I’ll need” I hear you thinking. Hold on a second cowboy, because although you are partly correct, it’s never quite that simple. Sports nutrition is actually largely governed by body weight and duration, rather than distance. So forgetting all the other individual differences between us, such as hipster beard length, generally sports nutrition guidelines are based on someone pushing their ‘good pace’.
This can vary enormously between individuals and fitness levels. My good pace might be 20km/hr whereas your good pace might be 40km/hr. So the time it takes both of us to cover the same distance will vary dramatically. Assuming I held 20km/hr the whole way, I would finish 160km in eight hours, well in reality I would probably have finished the last 60kms in an ambulance. You, however, would have it done in four hours. So using duration as our measure, the total amount of nutrition I require, if we are both pushing our good pace, would theoretically be double what you would require, even though we rode the same distance.
Carbohydrates – Pre Event
Possibly the most crucial source of energy during any event, of any distance, is carbohydrates. Simply put, sugars and starches in food. They are a rapid fire source of energy for muscles and brain power. They help you move well and think fast. Critical when you need to summit that climb, chase down a mate or get away from swooping magpies! You may have come across the term ‘carb loading’, which refers to loading your body with as many carbs as possible in the days before an event.
If you Google carb loading, you will find numerous ways to attempt this including the classic and modern methods, which I won’t detail here. I would like to suggest a simpler, easier to remember strategy that suits most people. Just eat enough carbs every day in your diet. This way you will never be so depleted that you need to load. Simple really. It comes from that classic saying ‘a sandwich a day keeps the loading away’. Okay, that’s not a saying. Here are daily carbohydrate goals based on the latest sports nutrition guidelines:
– Low intensity or skill based activities: 3-5g/kg/day
– Moderate sport up to 1 hour per day: 5-7g/kg/day
– Endurance sport 1-3 hours per day: 6-10g/kg/day
– Ultra endurance or multi-day sport: 8-12g/kg/day
Most avid cyclists will land in the endurance category depending on how hard and often you ride. Using this category, for an avid rider aiming at a 160km ride and assuming you weigh 75kg, this would equal 75kg x 6g = 450g carbohydrate per day. Sounds like a lot but if you have a bowl of oats for breakfast, four pieces of bread with lunch, some rice with dinner, along with all the normal fruits and vegetables you eat, you can get close very quickly. Again it’s a suggested figure, no need to hit 450g exactly. I find it’s much easier to incorporate this habit into your daily diet than to do a forced carb loading period that may leave you full and bloated on event day.
Carbohydrates – During Events
Riding an event is where duration now becomes very important. Sports nutrition guidelines recommend carbohydrate intake during an event purely based on the time you think you will be riding for. Having an estimation of how long the ride will take you will help you decide how much carbohydrate you may require. My rule of thumb is work out roughly how much you will need and then always keep a spare gel in your pocket just in case. The guidelines are as follows:
– Less than 45 minutes duration: no need to consume carbohydrate
– 45-75 minutes duration: Carbohydrate intake and/or carbohydrate mouth rinsing
– 1-2 hours duration: Carbohydrate recommended from 30g-60g per hour and up to 90g per hour for 2.5 hour plus events or multi-day races where refuelling is essential.
So using the example speeds from before, in 45mins at 20km/hr I would cover 15kms. Riding at 40km/hr you would cover 30kms. Already you can see why the distance becomes less and less important. We both rode for 45mins, we both rode at a good pace and we both probably feel just as exhausted. Looking back at the guidelines, however, neither of us would require carbohydrates during this ride.
For 160km, it would be safe to assume most riders will be in the ‘2.5hrs and above’ category for carbohydrate intake. If you manage to ride at 80km/hr for the whole race, well you should probably join a Grand Tour. Guidelines recommend 30-60g and up to 90g of carbohydrate per hour for 2.5 hours plus duration.
Firstly, the body’s main carbohydrate fuel is glucose. The recommendations are built upon the fact that the body can only process up to 60g of glucose per hour when pushing good pace. An average energy gel contains 25g of carbohydrate and a bottle of sports drink approximately 45g. So one gel and one bottle of sports drink per hour would cover you nicely for 60g per hour, regardless of how fast you ride. Great, we’re all sorted! Well, hold on. Didn’t I just say we can get up to 90g per hour? Yes, I did. It’s done using magic.
Actually, it’s done using science! The 60g cap is based purely on glucose, just one type of carbohydrate, but what if we also used a different carbohydrate at the same time? Played a little trick on our body? Say hello to fructose. Fructose is processed quite differently and much slower than glucose so it is not counted in the 60g cap. A mix of glucose and fructose, usually in a 2:1 ratio, now allows the body to process more than 60g of carb per hour, potentially capping out at 90g now. You will find most gels these days contain a mix of glucose (or dextrose or maltodextrin) and fructose.
Two gels and one bottle of sports drink would give you a total of 95g per hour, perfect to try this out. The 90g limit is only really possible if you ride longer than 2.5 hours and are pushing a good pace. A word of caution. If you have not consumed fructose regularly during training, do not add it on event day. Due to the way it is passively digested, it is notorious for causing gut problems, especially if you have not adapted to it. I rode a 50km mountain bike marathon at Mount Buller once with some ‘nutrition’ I hadn’t tested during training. My main race that day was to the bathroom.
I’m sure I don’t have to tell you that you need to drink during an event so you don’t get thirsty, but did you know fluid intake also helps lower body heat and assists with breathing, kidney function and digestive processes.
To give fluid intake some context, though, depending on duration (there’s that time thing again) heat, altitude, fitness and intensity of the event, it is possible to lose up to 2.4L of sweat per hour. Multiply this over a 4-hour ride and you could lose a whole mop bucket full of sweat! Sure this is extreme but you get the point. The guidelines here are a bit trickier with the main goal being to not lose more than 2% body weight during the event. So if you weigh 75kg at the start, you shouldn’t weigh less than 73.5kg at the end. Every kilo of weight loss equals about one litre of fluid lost.
Honestly, though, these figures aren’t that helpful when you are on the bike. Generally, at good pace, you will need to consume between 400ml-800ml of fluid per hour to avoid dangerous fluid losses. So again the duration you are riding for will dictate this. You may need four bottles, I may need eight. Going back to the carbohydrate recommendations, if you were drinking a bike bottle of sports drink per hour with your two gels, you will probably sit safely right around the middle of the fluid recommendations. Nice and simple to remember also. The other key time for fluid intake is post event. During this period you will want to consume 1.5 litres of fluid for every kilo of bodyweight lost.
Naturally, you won’t be carrying scales in your car, so make sure to slowly consume at least one bike bottle of fluid post-event, then when you get home you can weigh yourself and if you have still lost weight, be sure to drink some more slowly over the next 4-6 hours. It’s important to note that alcohol is not suggested as the fluid of choice. Excessive alcohol is actually a diuretic, meaning it causes you to lose more fluid. Not ideal post event. A single frothy straight after a big day out isn’t going to hurt, though.
Making It Work
Try a few of these strategies during your training and see how you go. Chances are you won’t require more nutrition and fluid than suggested, but some of you may certainly function fine on less. Some of you may even get so nervous before an event your nutrition strategy goes out the window, and you need to be aware of this. But please try to avoid adding new things on event day. This is one of the most common reasons people cannot achieve their event goal. These guidelines are just that, guidelines. They are not hard and fast rules.
They are built on the best science we have at the moment but all good researchers acknowledge that everybody may be different. Heck, sports nutrition as a field is incredibly young, the new kid on the performance science block. We still have a long way to go and things may change a lot. In the meantime, no matter who you are, I hope some of these guidelines help you achieve your goal. Mine is usually just to finish without dying.
Thomas T. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise. 2016;48(3):543-568.
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