Conquent: Without Limits
Conquent: Without Limits
John Bissell's Blog

Training for Long Rides - Part II Nutrition

2010-02-07 12:11:21
Shortcut URL:

Training planning:

Our local YMCA bike club is growing, and the members are growing more ambitious. Several members have decided to train for longer rides, centuries and double centuries and were asking what they needed to do to train for those rides. We had a meeting to discuss this, and the following articles in three parts are a summary of the discussion.

Three legs:
1. Hydration
2. Nutrition
3. Physical stress and Recovery (riding your bike)

These legs all go together, but the story will get too long, so I will post it in three parts.

Part II

In the previous article which focused on hydration ( ) I noted that the story of drink, drink, drink is a little more than misleading. Well the story with nutrition is the same but with added complexity. The complexities are how much, how often, and what is the make up – protein, carbs, simple sugars, complex sugars etc. This is all made more complex by the marketing of many different products from Gator Aid to Powerbars to gels and supplements. And don’t underestimate the power of marketing. They all say they are good, but most are not going to help you at all.

First is the question of how much:
With nutrition, your body can process much fewer calories than you can burn once you work as hard as a brisk walk (over about 120 beats per minute). I’ve read several articles about this and the study groups show that the athlete can process fewer than ˝ the calories burned. To use myself as an example: I weigh about 175 pounds, and I am about 6’ 2” inches tall. In an hour of hard work I can burn about 900 or more calories. In a multi hour sustained effort I often burn closer to 600 calories per hour. Through trial and error, I have found that I can process about 300 – 400 calories per hour. The variable is with effort; as I slow down – and burn fewer calories, I can process more calories. Part of your training program is learning how this system works for you. I smaller person will burn less, and will be able to process less as well. You need to know the maximum number of calories your body can take in while exercising. You need to figure this out on rides longer than two hours because things work differently the longer the ride. Plan enough training rides of substantial distance to test your different ideas of what will work for you and how much you can take in.

This theory goes against what most of us have been told all our lives. You need to fuel or you will bonk. You need to replace your calories or you will not be able to go. However, studies have found that even the racers in the Tour de France who enter the race at 4 – 5% body fat have enough reserves to fuel their bodies through the grueling 21 days of riding – with a caloric loss every day. This is because there is stored energy in your body in the form of glycogen in your muscles and stored fat.

The problem here is nearly the same as the problem with fluids. It is very easy to get behind. If you are burning 600 calories and hour and taking in 300, you’re behind, but your body knows how to deal with it. However, if you forget to eat for an hour, you’re now behind an extra 600 calories. Your body cannot process extra calories per hour, so you can never really catch up.

This process ties I with the fluid consumption process, the electrolyte consumption process and the ride and rest rate witch I will talk more about in part III to come. It takes fluid to process the electrolytes, and to process the calories. Some find that it works to mix the electrolytes and the carbohydrate source in the same bottle. HEED made by Hammer Nutrition and PowerBar Endurance Sport Drink are two examples of this type of product. This seems to work well for rides less than 2 hours, but can lead to real problems on longer rides. During the ride, your effort will change as will the conditions you’re riding in. Even with no outside changes, the demands of your body are likely to change over a very long ride. Mixing the carbohydrate, water and electrolytes together limits you. Even if you are consistent and drink one bottle of water with electrolytes per hour and you consume your magic number of calories per hour, you may need more fluid at 1:15 and more food fuel at 1:40 and so on. For rides longer than two hours, it really is important to keep your food and drink separate (though I am a big believer in putting the electrolyte supplement in the water as I noted in part I)

How Often:
Studies have found that the trained athlete has about 90 minutes of glycogen supplies stored and accessible in his/her muscles. If your ride is less than 90 minutes you can usually get away without eating. But it takes about a week to 10 days completely recharge depleted glycogen supplies (so those 90 minutes without food could take you off the bike for a week). If your ride is longer than 90 minutes, you CANNOT skip the first 90 minutes and run off your stored energy. You may not be hungry in the first 90 minutes, but you will need that stored energy through your ride, and trying to do a ride entirely off what you eat, when you eat it is horrible.

People often make the mistake of eating at the rest stop and not in between. Why doesn’t this work when on a normal (not workout) day you eat just three meals? When you’re going above a brisk walk your body processes differently. Energy stores are made available for action. Muscle repair becomes a secondary consideration, as the body needs to keep moving forward. But when you stop for more than about 15 – 20 minutes, the system changes form energy store going for action to energy store going to repair or what we call recovery today. Once you are in recovery it is very hard to get going again.

So if you stop for a small meal at each rest stop, you are changing you’re metabolic system each time you stop. Each time getting going is a little harder, until you finally decide it just might be better to give this ride up. So eat often, measure your calories and don’t stop long. Make sure your bike and jersey are designed to allow easy access to food while riding. When you do stop it should be to refill your jersey pockets, fluid and get going again. There are some exceptions to this rule and I will talk about those in Part III to come.

The bottom line is: you really need to be consuming something about every 20 minutes starting at the very beginning of the ride. You also need to start with your tank topped off. That means taking care of your nutrition every day while training (on or off the bike) and being very careful the whole week before your big event.

What to eat:
What an array of options out there. There are things we know your body needs and a wide range to meet those needs – then there is the range outside of what works that lots of riders like to try. I urge caution here. When there is a wide range available, it is tempting to say that something works well for you and to ignore the fact that it doesn’t actually meet the nutritional need you have while on the bike.

When exercising for more than two hours your body needs protein. If you don’t give your body protein you will take it from muscles, which decreases power, adds to fatigue, increases muscle soreness and in some people adds to cramping problems. If you ride less than two hours, just about anything you can easily digest works – powerbars (I hate those and feel like I have a rock in my stomach if I eat one, but if it works for you..) gels, cliff shot blocks – simple sugars (maybe – I’ll explain further on).

On a ride longer than two hours you have to treat things differently. And you need to start treating things differently right at the beginning of the ride, not two hours in. It is important to understand that when you go for more than two hours you are really stressing your system. That’s not bad; it just means you can’t put the same stuff in your body as when you’re sitting around. Your body wants easily digested foods that hit the right spot. Often simple sugars sound the best (glucose, dextrose fructose, sucrose, brown rice syrup), however, those can be very hard to digest, and can lead to spikes and falls in energy. Most of the athletic nutrition available out there uses these simple sugars so be careful what you buy and use.

The sugar that seems to be the easiest to digest and leads to a constant energy flow is Maltodextrin. This sugar is a long chain carbohydrate (considered a complex carb). It burns slow and leads to fewer conflicts in digestion. Maltodexrtin is found in several products so you have to read the labels. One issue found in some studies is that mixing simple sugars with either complex carbs or protein causes upset stomachs in many athletes – especially ultra endurance athletes (I’m one of those). Many brands of gel and other sports supplements mix these three which can lead to trouble for some. According to a Hammer Nutrition study, most high functioning endurance athletes cannot tolerate simple sugars – even by them selves, when under load, and never if mixed with complex carbs or protein. However studies done by others (PowerBar, Carmichael Training Systems, Robobank Pro Cycling Team) have found benefit to mixing complex and simple sugars so that the athletes get an immediate boost with a slow let down. The Robobank study found that athletes could process more total calories per hour with this mix. So we find PowerGel, Gu and Accelerade (Gel and drink) all using the mix of a simple sugar with maltodextrin (and Accelerade adds protein).

You also need to find a protein source you can digest. You want protein to be about 15% – 20% of your calories with carbs making up the rest, and maybe a little fat in there if you can stand it. There are some bars like the ProBar and the Larabar that come close to these numbers and are all natural real food (mostly raw), which makes them easier to digest. Cliff bars also can work here. In the old days we ate a lot of peanut butter and jelly to get this ratio (before anyone knew this ratio was important). I have a friend who brings hard boiled eggs to get his protein while riding.

So you can mess around with all of these ides, but be aware: Peanut butter is hard to digest and the simple sugars in the jelly upset some stomachs. Eggs are hard to keep fresh and require you to ingest a big quantity of protein all at once, (which works fine for my friend, but would certainly make me barf) and the bars can be challenging on the stomach for many.

I have moved to an almost all liquid diet. I use Hammer Nutrition Sustained Energy which tries to hit the carb – portion ration just right. Hammer also makes a product called Perpetuem which is slightly higher on protein and has a little fat in it. I have trouble digesting that much protein with the fat, but Perpetuem works well for many others. Hammer uses soy protein which they have found to be easier to digest.

Accelerade is another one with protein that many people like. It is about 20% protein, (whey protein) so it is on the mark for what you body needs for the long rides. I have heard people complain that it is too sweet, and the first ingredient in the powder form is sucrose, while moltodextrin is there too, but much further down the list. So it mixes simple sugars, complex carbs and whey protein which is a mix that has been shown to cause upset stomach in some people (like me). That does not mean it won’t work for you, because it works well for lots of people. It just means use caution.

It is worth noting that what tastes good when at a rest state (like when you’re shopping for products) is never what tastes good 120 miles into a 200 mile ride. I find I never want the sweet stuff when I’m beat tired. So I buy unflavored gel and unflavored sustained energy. Off the bike it takes like rubber and pancake batter respectively. However, on the bike it is just right. (My friend Geoff disagrees and thinks the unflavored gel never tastes right).

It is also important to note that if you use a liquid with protein in it, it will get rancid just like milk does if you set it out for a few hours. Bacteria loves to eat protein in a carb solution. Bacteria in your drink will make you sick. So plan to bring the powder with you and make new batches as you get more water on the road.

The key to all this is practicing with what works. You need to know how your body responds to what kind of food. My goal here is to narrow your spectrum so you try things in the range that might work, and can eliminate those that we know will not work. After you know what works, you need to stick to the plan. That means being very careful rest stops during supported rides. I’ll talk more about that in part III

There is much more to know, like how to eat when you’re off the bike, how to eat when you are preparing for and event and how to eat when you are recovering. That is all for a later article. And nutrition discussions invariably bread controversy, so feel free to e-mail me or file comments on this blog and I will try to answer any questions.

Training for long rides - Part III Riding the Bike
Training for Long Rides - Part I Hydration

Steelcycling: Re: Training for Long Rides - Part II Nutrition
2010-02-08 08:54:37

So combining electrolytes and your carbo-protein drink is bad because it makes everything hard to measure, what about in the first couple hours of a multi hour sport?

I like to have pure water available at first in the longer rides. Without adding additional bottle cages, it seems to make sense to combine things, at least at first. What do you think?

John Bissell: Re: Training for Long Rides - Part II Nutrition
2010-02-13 08:34:28

From what I have read, using a different method early in the ride is not recommended. In fact Hammer recommends that you start your electrolytes 1.5 hours before the ride.

Comment on this blog
Your name:

Your email (will not be displayed):



Enter the text above to help us filter spam: