Fueling Properly on the Bike
Oh nutrition, nutrition, nutrition,…why are you so complicated?
My name is Chaz, head coach at Elevate Coaching. I want to hit on the topic of on the bike nutrition today. This is something that a lot of people have questions about. I want to talk about bike fueling strategies for different types of rides such as chill endurance days, recover spins, hard intervals days, and lastly, races. But before we fully dive into those different strategies, it’s important to first understand what to look for when it comes to nutrition.
Break Down of Carbs/Studies
In my personal experience and in studies, carbohydrates are the most precious macronutrient that you can take during exercise. Seeing as when you exercise or ride, you are mostly using carbs to fuel those efforts. As these carb stores or glycogen levels decrease in your body from the activity, you need to replenish it. This is where on the bike nutrition comes in.
Studies have shown that taking in around 60-90grams of carbs per hour led to increased cycling performance (Colombani, Mannhart, Mettler, 2013). I know a lot of people focus on calories to take in but in reality, your body uses mostly carbs for fuel. So one should be focusing on carbs vs calorie content. On top of this, the type of food consumed plays a role in how fast those carbs are able to be absorbed. Things such as bars, which are made up of also fats and proteins, take longer to digest. These carbs are not used as quickly such as something lighter like bananas, chews, gels, or drink mixes.
In further looking through studies and my own experience as well, depending on the type of activity or intensity of the activity dictates the type of nutrition you should be taking in. If going for a longer endurance type day, things that are more solid like cliff bars are okay to eat as you are not putting as much stress on your digestion system. If planning to go harder and do a race group ride or intervals, something like gels or chews are best. This is because the intensity of the workout changes how your body breaks down the food in your gut.
When going harder, your body needs to push more of its resources towards those hard-working muscles and also towards the skin because this helps with sweating, especially on a hot day. Your GI system or gut can take the back seat. This leads to things known as GI distress. It’s where you are trying to fuel with the wrong things and your gut gets bloated, gassy, or even cramps. When fueling properly with the right type of foods, you can reduce this or illuminate it all together.
Looking at Food and Content
Now let’s take a look at some different types of nutrition. I personally use Science in Sport. I have found good success with them. Although sometimes their taste isn’t the best, I still find them as one of the easiest products to consume. Their gels are more like a runny liquid vs the very think and syrupy type of texture like GU. Their bars are definitely not the best-tasting things out there but again, they are easy to eat compared to a waffle or cliff bar.
So when looking at their gels, they come with about 22g of carbs per gel. So if you think about the 60g per hour rule, you’ll need to consume 3 gels per hour. This would be best to break up in 20min segments. So every 20mins, smash a gel.
Let’s look at their bars. I know some people prefer bars so their bars contain 21g of carbs. So again, you would need to take 3 per hour to meet that 60g of carb target.
Lastly, let’s look at drink mix. I think drink mix is very important especially when the weather warms up. Not only do you get a decent amount of carbs depending on the brand of drink mix but you also get those electrolytes that you need to replenish in order to help with aidding your body in keeping up with the demand for creating sweat in order to keep your core temperature down.
Now the drink mix that I use has a solid amount of carbs. It is around 37g of carbs. So a bottle and a half of this per hour would allow me to hit that 60g per hour target.
Now obviously, you do not have to stick to just one nutrition item. You can mix and match as you wish. I do about a bottle of drink mix per hour along with a gel every 45mins. So if you take the drink mix at 37g of carbs plus the gel at 22g of carbs, that puts me at 59g of carbs per hour. Now I am meeting my carbs per hour goal.
Type of Rides/Fueling
Now all of this is great information but do you need the same fueling strategy for a ride that is not full gas? Honestly no. So let’s breakdown a fueling strategy for different types of rides.
Let’s start with easy recovery rides. Usually, these are around 45mins-60mins. You typically are just spinning the legs. Honestly should be at about 55% of threshold. At this given intensity, you are using fat for fuel and are not using those precious glycogen stores. So no carbs being used during the ride. I would just do these rides with plain water. No need for gels or drink mix.
Endurance rides are a step up in intensity but are still using primarily fat for fuel. On these days, you should be around 60-65% of FTP (Functional Threshold Power) which puts you right in there for maximum fat burning. Yes, some carbs will be used as well since you are riding towards the lower limit of when your body starts to switch from using fat as fuel to using carbs. So typically, you have some carbs being used. I would recommend maybe 40g of carbs per hour these days. So for me, that would a bottle of drink mix split over the course of two hours with a gel every hour. That puts me at 40.5g of carbs per hour.
Lastly lets hit on interval days, fast group rides, and races. You will most likely be doing a lot of efforts well above 65% of FTP. So we are talking a lot of tempo, threshold, vo2 max range, and some anaerobic efforts such as sprints or attacks. You’ll need to really stay on top of fueling. Especially when the pace is hard and fast, it can be easy to ignore nutrition. This is why I would practice eating on the bike while smashing tempo on a training ride. Now for these types of rides, I always do a bottle of drink mix every two hours. This is because too much drink mix may upset the gut. So I like to have a second bottle with plain water. Now the drink mix is again 37g but this is for every 2hrs. That means I’ll have to take at least two gels every hour. So at about the 30min mark, I take a gel. That's 44g of carbs in gels per hour. Add that with the drink mix and I am taking in 62.5g of carbs every hour.
Solid vs Liquid
Last thing I want to hit on before finishing is when certain foods should be taken. For digestion benefits, taking in more solid foods like bars or bananas is best in the first half of the ride. These types of food generally take more time to digest. The energy from these will be available more in the middle to the second half of the ride. As the ride goes on, your gut can experience more difficulty digesting food as well depending on the intensity of your ride. That is why drink mixes and gels or chews are best to focus on at or beyond the halfway point of your ride. They can digest and be absorbed easier than the more solid foods as I just talked about.
I know we went a bit deep into nutrition but I do hope this helps in terms of fueling for your different ride types. As always, I appreciate you taking the time to read. Keep up the riding and training!
Colombani, P.C., Mannhart, C. & Mettler, S. Carbohydrates and exercise performance in non-fasted athletes: A systematic review of studies mimicking real-life. Nutr J 12, 16 (2013). https://doi.org/10.1186/1475-2891-12-16