CYCLING, EATING LIKE YOU MEAN IT & THE BONK: NUTRITION FOR LONG RIDES

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When you go ride your bike for exercise you get hungry. If you do a long ride, you get really hungry and you enjoy a slap-up meal afterwards. Simples.

Typical View Whilst Bonking

When you go ride your bike for exercise you get hungry. If you do a long ride, you get really hungry and you enjoy a slap-up meal afterwards. Simples.

But if you ride a REALLY long way, or keep doing it day after day, eating can become a joyless task, a necessary evil, fraught with discomfort.

I’m talking about the massive rides. The Etape du Tour, charity multi-day rides, stage races, 24 hour mountain biking events like Mountain Mayhem.

The sheer volume of food necessary to keep you going becomes difficult to manage. How come? Your body can run happily on fat for weeks. It’s an ultra-efficient source of fuel and there’s loads of it (some more than others, ahem). But fat doesn’t burn well without carbohydrate. Your body doesn’t have large handy stores of carbs, because it gets converted into fat if it sits around. So you need to keep topping up, especially if you’re working hard. Really hard exercise uses up a lot more carbs, so you have to replace them mid-ride…..

If you run out of carbs you ‘Bonk’, or you get ‘The Knock’. Your body can’t provide energy properly, and you feel dizzy, wasted, destroyed, unable to turn the pedals. You may not even be that fatigued from riding, but it is hell. You can recover by smashing down the gels, cake, fizzy pop, etc that you so desperately crave. But the damage is done. The group is lost, the lap time is awful, everyone is waiting for you and the fun is gone.

Clip of Lance Armstrong bonking & swearing, plus some rubbish cornering.

That is why it’s essential to eat loads of carbs on long events. It is simply not possible to ride an event like The Marmotte without carrying and consuming a fairly impressive number of gels, bars, bananas….Etc…The number depends on many factors but the ability to get it right is only really possible through one key thing: Trial and error.

You have to ride for 8 hours plus, to push yourself to the nutritional limit and find out where the edges are. You WILL bonk. We all do. You need to work out what you react best to. Do local sportives, training rides to a far city and back, multiple loops (bit boring?!), whatever. Just something that takes alllllll day!

A major limiter is whether you can actually stomach that amount of food and specifically sweet sticky carbohydrates. Some riders can consume 2 gels an hour for 10 hours. Not me! I’d be chucking it up half way through that. Most riders need to chop and change, to prevent stomach upsets. Bars, fruit, gels, drinks, even sandwiches. YOU DO NOT WANT TO LEARN THIS ON YOUR BIG DAY! The slopes of many an afternoon mountain pass in The Etape are streaked with vomit.

During the Tour of Ireland, the hardest event I’ve ever done, I would stop at a garage about 140K into each 210K stage to stuff my face with ham, cheese, Pepperamis, crisps, salted peanuts; anything savoury! The cravings were insane! I always avoid processed sugar sources like chocolate bars and sweets, as they give you a sugar rush that messes with your insulin levels and leaves you fatigued. But they’re very tempting, especially if The Bonk is upon you.

The irony of being totally depleted of carbs is that I feel nauseous. That feeling of extreme, rather wonderful hunger is replaced with staring at a plate of lasagne trying not to think of the bile rising up the back of my throat.

What helps is to keep eating. Constantly. Eat a good breakfast, nibble your snack selections throughout the race/event, don’t bonk (DON’T BONK!), then meals afterwards and even snacks at night. For multi-day events I used to have a full meal at the end of each ride and another a few hours later before bed. I’d take an energy drink to bed, and leave snacks within reach. Nom nom nom nom nom….

It’s important to bring the things that you get on with. I really don’t react well to the more chemically gels and drinks. I prefer ones like Torq, that are natural and organic. "HTFU", I hear you mumble. But your guts are being pushed to their limits. Greg Lemond has written of how he had no time to stop when he had the very common trots that Tour de France cyclists are afflicted with. He just did it in his shorts and it poured down his legs. In front of The World.

One massive and proven help, that seems minor, but I and and many others swear by it, is to get an easily absorbed carb/protein mix into you with 10-15 minutes of finishing. The body needs that stuff right away. You can get recovery drinks with the perfect proportions of nutrients. But I prefer a litre of milk, as its gentler on a carb-ravaged stomach. I also usually down a more savoury energy bar like a seaweed Bounce Bar. They’re a weird green colour, but they’re damned good.

Lastly you need electrolytes. These are the salts (mineral salts, not just sodium chloride) that help vital bodily roles, such as heart function, blood pressure, you know, BIG STUFF. You don’t want to run out of them killing yourself up a climb, 22 hours into a marathon event.

We are constantly excreting electrolytes, or ‘salts’, in sweat and urine. If you have to drink lots, especially when it’s hot, you lose lots of salts. So you must replace them. You can go down the natural route, checking which foods have what minerals, like potassium in bananas. But that’s a faff when you’re riding hard, and easy to forget when you’re exhausted. Take a tube of effervescent pills like NUUN, to drop in water bottles as you refill them and/or use gels and bars that have salts in them too. In extreme heat, be careful not to under hydrate, as this can either lead to minor dehydration and loss of performance at low levels, but is of course very dangerous if you get really dry. If you stop sweating on a hot day, you are in need of immediate help.

Over-drinking at cause you to pass out all your electrolytes, and you can suffer from other, less common, but equally serious ailments. A number of London Marathon runners died in one year from seeing it was warm and over-drinking to compensate. Marathons are very hard, but not that long. They would have been fine.

The rule of thumb is again, to learn from experience, but also not drink once you are thirsty, but before. Constant sips. Try and keep your urine pale straw in colour. If you aren’t going to the loo, or are going very frequently, or the urine is dark, be warned. Again, get experience on rides. Know yourself.

To summarise a lengthy blog:

Get used to your personal food and drink regime. Do long rides to test it.
Take stuff with you that you enjoy and can stomach. Eat quality gear, not processed rubbish.
Keep eating and drinking often and a little. Do not bonk!
Take electrolytes.
For multi-day events all of the above, plus:
Eat/drink a recover drink or similar straight after you finish.
Don’t worry about getting fat. Unless each day’s ride is less than 6 hours or so, you’re highly unlikely to!
For super-long events eat at every opportunity, morning, evening, night.
Take non-ride foods with you that you can enjoy and snack on after rides. Bags of nuts, beef jerky, dried fruit etc.
Hope you enjoy your ride. And your nosh. Mmm.

5 thoughts on “CYCLING, EATING LIKE YOU MEAN IT & THE BONK: NUTRITION FOR LONG RIDES”

  1. Great Stuff! I set the alarm on my Garmin to beep every 15 mins to remind me to drink – otherwise I tend to forget and leave it too late. I also eat half a snack bar every half an hour (seems to work better than a whole one every hour).

    Working on 1g carbs per kilo of bodyweight per hour…

  2. Thanks for this- I am doing The Crossing in July (my first big multi-day race) and have been trying to find info out about what to eat and when. I will be checking out what i need to eat in a couple of weekends time…. 89Km of hills in teh yorkshire dales is going to be fun, perhaps. Would you recommend an ale for hydration, carbs and a bit of incentive?

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