Even if you ride mainly for fun you probably know how important eating and drinking are in order to keep pedaling. And, if you're a weekend warrior or racer, you've likely experienced how quickly you can run out of energy on hilly, demanding and/or long rides if you don't stay hydrated and fed—and how badly it can make you feel.
Eating and eating right is that important. Which is why today's vast assortment of energy drinks and foods is such a wonderful thing, and why we keep them in stock and carry and consume them ourselves on all our rides, too.
However, there are so many options in sports-nutrition products these days that choosing the right ones to purchase and eat gets confusing. To help, we offer this basic guide. First, keep in mind that sports drinks, energy bars, gels and chews all keep you riding efficiently and ensure that you can achieve your goals by replenishing what you use while riding, which includes water, energy and minerals. And, how much you burn and need to replace depends on many factors, including your level of fitness, your effort, the course you're riding, the weather and more.
We've broken down the components of many sports foods to help reveal some of the mysteries behind sports nutrition and help you decide which are right for you and how to best use them. Tip: If you have some energy drinks or food handy you can learn by reading the labels as we go over the details of similar items below.
Water On rides less than 90-minutes long, you can get by drinking good-old plain H2O, which is usually all you need to stay hydrated. Ideally, you'll replace the water you're losing through sweat, and no faster than your body can absorb it because too much water can leave you feeling bloated. Studies have shown that the rate of water loss through sweating is nearly the same as the body's rate of water absorption, about one to three quarts per hour. That's the same as one to two small water bottles of water you're losing! Obviously this amount depends on several factors including your adaptation to the environment and how hard you're riding.
An easy way to check your hydration needs is to weigh yourself just before and right after your rides. Every pound of weight you've lost represents 16 ounces of water that didn't get replaced. If you've gained weight, then you're drinking too much water. Tip: For best results, try sipping every 15 minutes instead of waiting until you feel really thirsty and chugging it down, because drinking too much too fast can lead to a queasy stomach and you don't want that.
Carbohydrates While you do burn some fat cycling and during other types of aerobic exercise, your body can actually demand more energy than it can get from burning fat, which is where carbohydrates (essentially, sugars), come in. On rides less than 90-minutes long, your body uses the sugar (glycogen) stored in the muscles and liver for the energy to keep you pedaling. These stores of energy are more readily available to your muscles than fat and than anything digesting in your stomach, too. They are also the limiting factors to the amount of energy you have on the ride.
In fact, if you have ever used up these reserves you may have experienced the lightheadedness, cold sweats and disorientation that come with it, an uncomfortable ride-ruining feeling that experienced cyclists call "bonking." Tip: To prevent this, carry and consume alternate sources of sugar (energy foods and drinks) so that you can top off your stored glycogen and never run out.
It's important to understand that carbohydrates are made up of different sugars, which then become your primary source of fuel when you've burned up your glycogen stores. Sports drinks, bars, gels, and chews contain different amounts and combinations of sugars to keep you energized for the entire ride. Your body breaks down all of these sugars to create muscle energy and this process starts as soon as the energy food is in your mouth. However, everyone digests and absorbs various sugars differently, so don't choose a carbohydrate source just because your friend recommends it. Tip: Be sure to experiment with different foods to find out which ones work best for you. Here's an overview:
Glucose: Also known as dextrose or blood sugar, this is the basic form of sugar that your body uses for energy. All other forms of sugar are broken down through digestion into glucose to be absorbed into the bloodstream and used by your muscles. Glucose is only mildly sweet and is more costly to produce than other sugars.
Maltose: Commonly listed as maltodextrin, this sugar is two glucose molecules bonded together. It's easily broken down and readily absorbed into the bloodstream. Maltose is sweeter than glucose and less costly, too.
Fructose: The sugar naturally found in fruits and honey, fructose is broken down into glucose by your liver. High fructose corn syrup (HFCS) is a mix of 55% fructose and 45% glucose and is both very sweet and inexpensive to make.
Sucrose: You probably know this one better as table sugar. It's made of a glucose and fructose molecule which must be broken down through digestion before it can be used by your body. It is almost as sweet as HFCS and costs only a little more.
Sugar substitutes: There are both natural and artificial sugar substitutes. Natural ones, including sorbitol and xylitol, have fewer calories than other sugars and are found in fruits and vegetables. Consuming large quantities of these sweeteners can cause gastrointestinal distress. Artificial sweeteners including saccharin, aspartame and sucralose are synthesized in a lab. While these taste sweet like sugar, they are not recognized by your body as fuel and do nothing to keep you energized on a ride.
Tip: To figure out which sugars are best, experiment with different kinds of foods reading the ingredients list on the label and you'll learn which foods work best for you and which ones you should avoid. If you have a sensitive stomach, look for products with easily digestible carbohydrates to use while you're riding, such as glucose and maltose.
A rule of thumb is to eat 30 to 60 grams of carbohydrate per hour while riding whether you are training or participating in an event. Be careful though because the body can only process about 250 calories per hour and eating or drinking more than that can upset your stomach. So, be sure to read the labels to find out how many calories per serving are in the foods and drinks you're consuming as well as how many servings they provide.
Electrolytes When you ride for over two hours, or when it's hot, you can lose a detrimental amount of electrolytes through sweat, including sodium, potassium, magnesium and chloride. Low levels of these vital minerals can cause muscle cramping and headaches. It's actually the amount of these electrolytes, not water, that determines whether or not you're hydrated. Tip: The trick is to keep your intake of water and electrolytes balanced, especially on long rides and on hot days. Because consuming too much water can cause bloating, while excess electrolytes cause fluid retention, which makes it harder for your body to cool itself.
Some sports drinks and gels contain carbohydrates and electrolytes as an all-in-one way of replacing what you're using when you ride, and there are separate electrolyte supplements as well. Again, read those labels to know for sure what you're getting. The amount of electrolytes you lose will vary by your level of exertion, adaptation to the environment and rate of sweating. Tip: While you can have your sweat rate analyzed in a lab, it's probably easier to experiment on your own to decide what your individual electrolyte needs are. Start with the lowest dose recommended by the manufacturer and adjust your dosing up or down from there.
Protein Protein helps repair and maintain your muscles and is an important part of post-ride recovery. If you don't provide it with another source of energy while you're riding, your body will break down muscle protein into glucose once you've used up your stores of glycogen. So, certain makers are now including some protein in their energy foods for use during exercise to help prevent muscle breakdown. Protein, however, takes longer to digest than carbohydrates and is most important after your ride.
Whey: Derived from milk, whey is the most easily digested protein and can help build your immune system as well as your muscles, making it ideal for post-ride recovery.
Soy: A great alternative for those who can't have milk, soy is quickly absorbed and minimizes the build-up of ammonia in your muscles during exercise. Recent studies have shown that soy does not have a detrimental effect on male hormones as was once thought.
With so much focus on carbohydrates for fuel, it's easy to forget that you need protein to keep your muscles happy and healthy. Tip: Within 30 minutes of finishing your rides, you should eat a small post-ride meal that includes protein and carbohydrates, such as a recovery shake, chocolate soy drink, or an egg sandwich. This short window is the ideal time to repair your muscles.
Caffeine Some cyclists can't get going without their daily cup of Joe, and others swear by its energy-enhancing abilities so today there are plenty of drinks and energy foods that contain it. Caffeine gives you a boost by triggering the "fight or flight" response in your brain, making your heart beat faster and increasing the blood flow to your brain and muscles.
Tip: While moderate amounts of caffeine can help you, larger amounts have no added benefit and can upset your stomach, too. Also, depending on your daily intake of caffeine, you may or may not notice a boost from a caffeinated sports drink or gel. So, this is another area where a little experimentation pays off.
Conclusion By now you understand that unless you have a superhuman cast-iron stomach, it's wise to watch what and how much you eat and drink when you ride. Know how many calories are in your riding foods and drinks and pay attention to the number of servings per package as well. Don't be afraid to listen to your body before, during and after your rides, too. Tip: If you find yourself suddenly craving strange foods, your body is probably trying to tell you something. A hankering for some salty potato chips could just mean that your electrolytes are low, for example.
Whether you ride for fun, fitness or competition, using the right fuels to keep you going will make every ride even better. Find foods that you want to eat while you're riding, and always remember that they don't do you any good just sitting in your pocket or pack. Don't take your food for rides; eat it!
If you're training for an event, be sure to test out any new foods or drinks in your training first so there are no unpleasant surprises the day of your event. Tip: You may also want to find out what types of energy foods will be available at the event rest stops and plan accordingly. This could mean switching to whichever brand sports drink they'll have at the event or bringing extra of your favorite foods and drinks to carry.
And, remember that we're here to help. Feel free to ask us about the nutritional products we carry and we'll let you know what we like, how it's used and how it works for us. For special dietary needs or concerns, we recommend seeing a professional nutritionist. Thank you!