Nutrition and hydration for long-distance cycling
by Coach Tom Meloy
Before I address hydration and nutrition, note that a taper should be incorporated before a big event. While you can't do anything to boost fitness in the last 7-10 days before a ride, you can definitely boost fatigue. Rest two days before the event, drink a lot of water, and do a short ride the day before to keep the legs loose, perhaps using a carbo loading strategy.
Hydration and electrolytes: For the vast majority of athletes, the easiest way to improve training and racing performance is to consume more fluids. When you're well hydrated on the bike, your muscles function better and you are able to regulate core temperature better, which mean you can produce more power.
The electrolyte repletion rate is generally adequate if 300-600 milligrams of sodium are consumed each hour in a divided dose format in the presence of other electrolytes such as potassium, magnesium, chloride, and manganese. Using Nunn or Endurolytes is one way to get additional electrolytes. Eating salty foods is another, as what the body needs most is sodium. People who sweat heavily need more sodium. Cramping during or after a ride is typically an indication that you didn't have enough sodium.
Your body likes balance. Consuming too much water and no electrolytes during extended exercise is not good and can cause hyponatremia. Some still recommend drinking at least 20oz of fluid per hour, but this doesn't work for everybody.
The best hydration strategy: "Drink to thirst, salt to taste." For less stomach distress, drink in big gulps. Drink whenever you eat solid food on bike. Try a sodium enhanced sports drink like Gatorade Endurance or simply add a pinch of salt to regular Gatorade. I've found that if I don't taste the extra salt, my body needs it. If I taste the salt, I've been getting enough.
As long as you are carrying the weight of two full bottles, I recommend both be filled with a sports drink, but this may be too much sweetness for some people.
On the ride nutrition: Aim to replenish about 30% or a little more of the calories you burn each hour. Over-consumption leads to gastric distress because your body can't absorb and process the fuel fast enough. For an athlete who is burning 800 kcal per hour (very high intensity pace), this would amount to about 240 kcal/45g of carbs (one Powerbar or Clif Bar). The body can process roughly 60 grams of carbs per hour. Endurance riding typically burns 500-600 kcal per hour.
Overloading the system slows it down; starving it brings it to a halt. A simple rule of thumb is to eat one bar an hour and have a sports drink in at least one of your bottles.
A common mistake is to wait until two hours into a long ride to start eating. I like to see athletes start munching 20 minutes into a ride. Rather than eat a bar every hour, nibble on it every 15-20 minutes. You are striving for a constant flow of fuel.
I'm a big believer in eating real food on long rides, but each athlete needs to find what works best for them. People have done the entire RAAM across the country on nothing but Hammer Perpetuem and gel, but not many people are as focused as those riders are! If using a "liquid food" such as Perpetuem, I've found chilling it in the freezer and using an insulated bottle makes it more palatable, as does adding a little gel for flavor.
A little protein during a ride is fine but studies have not confirmed any real benefit. Be aware that too much protein tends to make one feel bloated during exercise. Eating four grams of carbs per gram of protein is a good rule (as found in a Powerbar or Clif bar).
After a hard ride, be sure to take in some carbs during the 30 minute window when your body is very receptive to restoring the glycogen in your cells. Chocolate milk, smoothies, recovery drinks, or regular sports drink all work well immediately after a ride. If you plan on another long ride the following day, eat more carbs than normal the rest of the day. If you are taking the day off, have a beer and reward yourself!
Test everything out in training. If you decide you're going to need 50g of carbohydrate per hour, try it in training and see if it works, and make sure you are matching the training duration and intensity as closely as possible. Keep the nutrition plan simple.
During ultra long events, variety is important because it keeps an athlete from getting complacent about eating. Overly complicated plans often cause more problems than they solve. Anyone who has completed a very long endurance event can tell you a story about a plan that had to be changed. When your nutrition strategy is simple it can be adapted relatively easily and remain effective.
Suffering through a "nutrition malfunction" during a 100-mile training ride can be a great learning experience. It's a good idea to do a minimum of 2 "nutrition training sessions" per month and eat and drink as you would in your goal event, mimicking the intensity and volume as much as is reasonable. It is often during these sessions that athletes realize their nutrition selections are too sweet, too syrupy, difficult to open/eat at higher speeds, too dry to eat at high intensities, etc. If reaching into your pockets is difficult, consider using a "Bento Box" on your toptube.
Recommended training foods:
Boiled potatoes (in plastic bag with salt)
Sandwiches (PB & J, meats only on cold days)
Energy bars (but not protein, zone or balance bars)
Fresh fruit (tends to be low-calorie so combine with other foods)
General nutrition guidelines:
Consume high glycemic carbs during exercise and for 30-60 minutes afterwards (pretzels, baked potato, cereal and banana, white bagel, white spaghetti, pancakes).
Eat moderate glycemic foods before exercise (muesli, whole grain spaghetti, sweet potato, banana, orange juice).