What am I going to eat?

I am not a nutritional expert but I have researched the subject in depth.  What follows is a summary of much reading on the matter and hopefully distills the relevant points without getting too deep into the science.

I am going to say this at the very beginning and remind you again at the end of this section:

Getting your nutrition right during training and on your trip will give you greater benefits than anything else you can do to prepare for the ride.

On a fundamental level this means making sure you consume the right amounts of food and drink at the right times.  On a higher level it means eating and drinking the right things.

I have separated hydration out as a category in its own right because it is so important.

Your body needs fuel.  More precisely it needs the energy contained in the fuel.  The proper unit of measure for this energy is a kilojoule but a more commonly known unit is a calorie, expressed as cal or kcal.  There are 4.2 kilojoules in a calorie.

The estimated average daily energy requirement for a normally active woman is 2,000 kcal or 2,500 for a man.  These are figures for ‘average’ people and will vary depending on your size but can be used as good ball park figures.

Your body stores energy in the form of fat and as glycogen in the muscles and liver.  The glycogen store, when fully topped up, equates to about 2,000 calories.  The amount stored as fat varies from person to person but for most of us it is too much!  The energy in fat is not as easily accessible as that stored as glycogen and to optimize energy release from your fat stores you need to be exercising at fairly low levels of intensity.

When exercising your body requires more energy.  It will obtain this energy from the most available source, which is food being processed by the stomach.  If this is insufficient it will then deplete the glycogen supplies and then move on to either fat or protein (produced by breaking down muscle mass), depending on how much effort is being expended and how rapidly the energy is needed.  Okay, it’s not actually that simple but that linear view will be sufficient for our purposes: we’re not top flight athletes.

The amount of additional energy you need will depend on the amount of effort you are putting in.  On a fairly gentle recovery ride you might need an extra 3-400 calories per hour of riding.  If you are powering along at maximum speed in hilly terrain the figure could be more like 800-1,000 per hour.  Personally I don’t get too scientific about it and work on an average of 600 calories per hour.  So if I ride for 5 hours I would need an extra 3,000 calories.  This means that in total I should consume 5,500 in the day.

If I ate my normal 2,500 calories and let my body use up its entire 2,000 calories glycogen store (not wise – see box on Bonking on the Bike) I would still be 1,000 calories short.  This could come from fat but if I am working hard it is much more likely to be extracted by breaking down the protein in my muscle.  If I don’t put any protein and energy back in, the net result is I am exhausted and my muscles are weaker than if I hadn’t exercised in the first place.

So I need to put in lots of calories.  In the above example more than twice as many as I would on a normal, non-cycling day.  And ideally I should keep my glycogen supplies topped up as much as possible throughout the ride.

Where do the calories come from?  Well, from what we eat.  More specifically from:

Carbohydrates

100g

400 kcal

Protein

100g

400 kcal

Fat

100g

900 kcal

Alcohol

100g

700 kcal

Good news!  That liquid lunch break at the pub is a brilliant way of topping up the glycogen supplies.

Sadly not.

Although alcohol contains a lot of energy per gram and is rapidly absorbed by the body, the available evidence suggests these Calories are not used significantly during exercise.

And unfortunately there are also negative effects:

  • it is a diuretic and contributes to dehydration
  • it slows down glycogen production and release from the liver so energy is slow to get to the muscles and the stores are not topped up quickly enough
  • it can make you wobbly!

In fact studies have shown that cycling after taking alcohol requires more energy, produces a higher heart rate, and stimulates a higher cardiovascular demand.  And you fall off a lot.

So what should I eat?

Having read all around the subject and found vastly conflicting views, it seems to me that the answer to good nutrition whilst training is not really any different to good nutrition when you are not training.  You should eat a well balanced diet combining carbohydrates (about 60%), protein (about 15%) and fat (about 25%) [and maybe a little alcohol].  You will need to eat more of it though to replenish the extra energy you are using.

Carbohydrates – 60%

 If you have every suddenly become completely exhausted on a ride suffered from ‘the bonk’ on a ride (also called ‘crashing’ or ‘hitting the wall’) it is because you have depleted your glycogen supply and your body is switching to back up energy supplies which it cannot access as fast as you are demanding it.  Its back up energy sources are fat and muscle protein.  Unfortunately your body will find it easier and quicker to break down the protein in your muscles for energy than to release the energy from fat stores.  You need to put calories in quickly with high GI carbohydrates and combine this with low GI carbohydrates to start filling the glycogen tanks again.

Carbohydrates are the cyclists main source of energy.  They are basically either simple carbohydrates which the body can break down and utilise very quickly or complex ones that take a little longer.  Put another way, some get used up very quickly and others are slow burners.

A useful tool is the Glycemic Index.  This gives a ranking of carbohydrates on a scale from 0 to 100 according to the extent to which they raise blood sugar levels after eating.   The higher the GI a food has, the more rapidly digested and absorbed its energy is.  I have included a table of some common food types but if you want to find the GI value of other foods visit http://www.glycemicindex.com/ which has an extensive database.  Most people are surprised at the GI value of some foods the first time they come across them.  For instance grapefruits, which are sweet and sugary are low GI and white rice, viewed by many as a bulk slow burner, is one of the highest GI foods going.

In general we should eat foods with low GI values to help maintain a steady blood sugar level.  However, whilst on the bike we might need to use high GI food to provide a quick boost, especially if close to bonking.  Personally, if I am going on a long ride I try to pack in some low GI foods before I start and then keep up a regular supply of medium/high GI foods interspersed with low GI foods whilst on the move.  After the ride pack in more low GI foods to provide sustained energy for recovery.

Glycemic Index (0-100)

Low GI Foods

Medium GI Food

High GI Foods

Peanuts

14

Boiled potatoes

56

Mashed potato

70

Grapefruit

25

Sultanas

56

White bread

70

Red lentils

26

Pitta bread

57

Watermelon

72

Whole milk

27

Basmati Rice

58

Swede

72

Dried apricots

31

Honey

58

Bagel

72

Skimmed milk

32

Digestive biscuit

59

Branflakes

74

Low-fat fruit yoghurt

33

New potatoes

62

Cheerios

74

Wholemeal spaghetti

37

Coca cola

63

French fries

75

Apples

38

Raisins

64

Coco Pops

77

Noodles

40

Shortbread biscuit

64

Jelly beans

80

White spaghetti

41

Couscous

65

Rice cakes

82

All Bran

42

Rye bread

65

Rice Krispies

82

Peaches

42

Pineapple, fresh

66

Cornflakes

84

Porridge made with water

42

Croissant

67

Jacket potato

85

Baked beans in tomato sauce

48

Shredded wheat

67

Puffed wheat

89

Milk chocolate

49

Mars bar

68

Baguette

95

Stoneground wholemeal bread

53

Ryvita

69

Parsnips, boiled

97

Crisps

54

Weetabix

69

White rice, steamed

98

Banana

55

Wholemeal bread

69

Glucose

100

 Fat – 25%

Fat has long been labelled as an evil in dietary terms but it is an essential part of our nutritional needs.  A lack of fat in the diet can adversely affect blood pressure and blood clotting, inhibit the body’s ability to control inflammation and lead to low energy levels and poor recovery from exercise.

Fats come in three varieties:

  • Saturated – If any fats are ‘evil’ then these are they.  These major contributors to heart disease have no known positive benefits for sporting performance or even health generally.  Typically these fats are animal based, such as cheese and butter, and are widely used in processed foods.  Of course most of us find them to be the tastiest fats as well.
  • Monounsaturated – Generally monounsaturated fats are widely believed to be the healthiest of all the fats.   They are said to help reduce the bad form of cholesterol in the body and to increase the amount of good cholesterol.  Sources of monounsaturated fats include nuts, seeds, avocados, olives and oils made from these products.
  • Polyunsaturated – These contain ‘essential fatty acids’ which the body cannot produce by itself and have to come from food.  Whilst they can also reduce the harmful kind of cholesterol in the body they can also reduce the good cholesterol so need to be balanced with monounsaturated fats.  Good sources of polyunsaturated fats are vegetable oils and oily fish.

Protein – 15%

The major consideration for a long distance cyclist is that protein’s role in maintaining and replacing the tissues in your body.  Your muscles, organs and many of your hormones are made up of protein, and it is also used in the manufacture of hemoglobin, the red blood cells that carry oxygen to your body. Protein is also used to manufacture antibodies that fight infection and disease and is integral to your body’s blood clotting ability.

So you need protein to help your muscles repair after you have been punishing them all day, to maintain your red blood cell count so you don’t need a transfusion every evening, to help fight off illness and to make sure you don’t bleed to death from minor road rash.

Good sources of protein include:

  • Meat – e.g. beef, poultry, pork and lamb
  • Fish and shellfish
  • Dairy products – e.g. cheese, yogurt and milk
  • Eggs
  • Beans, peas, oats and legumes
  • Tofu and soy products
  • Nuts and seeds

For post ride recovery try a yoghurt after a short ride or a milkshake after a longer effort. It can be worth trying a carbohydrate and protein recovery drink after an all day effort to maximise recovery before the next day.  On my trip I tried to make sure I drank a whey protein drink as soon after the end of each day’s ride as possible.

There is also evidence to suggest that protein can help the body in the processing of glycogen and that consuming protein and carbohydrate in a ration of 1:4 optimises the absorption rate.  You can buy sports drinks made up in this proportion.  Personally I find them heavy on my stomach but replicated the effect on my trip by  eating half a protein bar about every couple of hours.

Micro Nutrients and Vitamins

Whilst carbohydrates, proteins and fats provide the body with fuel (as well as other things) it also needs a variety of other things in order to function properly.  These are broadly termed micronutrients and include things like vitamins, minerals and enzymes.  The body needs these to maintain the body’s immune and hormone system (you’ll need some adrenalin to get you up those hills), to repair body tissues and to control nerve and muscle function and fluid levels.

The best way to make sure you are getting the micro nutrients you need is to eat your ‘five a day’ fruit and vegetable portions.  Although, when you are training hard and using twice as much energy as usual, you will also need to up your micro nutrients.  So you may have to eat ten a day.  [Please note that whilst wine is made from grapes it does not count as one of your five a day.  Nor does cider.  Or any other alcoholic beverage.]

You should strive to maintain the balance of 60/15/25 (or so) at each meal to provide the body with a steady stream of all the things it needs.  Of course this is not always particularly easy when you are on the road for possibly 12 hours or more a day.  Even if you stop for proper meals you will still need to maintain a steady supply between stops if you do not want to suffer from peaks and troughs in performance.  Which is why most professional endurance cyclists use a predominantly sports drink. energy bar and energy gel diet when in competition.

How much do I need to eat?

Finally I would like to point out is just how much you will have to eat on your ride.  Actually that’s not true, I don’t know how long you are intending to cycle every day or how fast you intend to ride or how hilly your route is or how big you are etc..  The point is, it may be more than you think. 

To illustrate, this is how I estimated my calorie intake.  I worked on an average calories consumption of 600 kcal per hour (I was between 70 and 75 kg during my ride).  Each day I was intending to spending about 10 hours in the saddle.  So 10 x 600 = 6,000 kcal.  Say 7,000 kcal per day because I would be burning some energy in the other 14 hours of the day.

To put this in context, the consumption of an average man should be about 2,500 kcal per day or 2,000 for a lady.

 

Food Serving Kcal
Potato Baked, Flesh & Skin 1 Med/180g 245
Banana Fresh 1 Med/150g 143
Apricots, Dried 1 Serving/50g 83
Pear 1 Med/170g 68
Orange 1 Med/160g 59
Apple 1 Med/112g 53
Pasta – white 100g (uncooked) 357
Rice – long grain 100g (uncooked) 358
Bread – multi grain 100g 250
Chicken – roasted 100g 128
Pork sausage One link 48
Heinz Baked Beans can 540g 396

You can see from the table of calories contained in some basic food item that to consume 7,000 kcal I would have to eat 28 baked potatoes or 49 bananas or 18 large cans of beans or 146 pork sausages (!) each day to replenish my energy supplies.

Unless I wanted to spend a huge amount of time off the bike in café’s etc.. I would have to find a way to eat the bulk of this on the move.  I tried stuffing my pockets with 28 baked potatoes but they didn’t fit [not really] and I would look ridiculous with a string of 146 sausages looped round and round my shoulders [that is true] so I had to find something which packed the calories into a smaller package.  For me my main energy supply was cereal bars and energy drinks (but not with caffeine) supplemented with bacon sandwiches, pasties, pot noodles, crisps, sandwiches and multi vitamins.  I also made sure to load up at breakfast where I could. 

Please note that this is not the world’s best diet!  It is lacking in many ways but was based on the fact that I only needed to maintain it for a few days.  My main concerns were energy and muscle recovery.  My diet during my training period was based on the balanced diet discussed above [vaguely].

Of course everyone likes different things to eat and drink, some are restricted in diet medically or through belief and we all have different approaches as to how we want to eat whilst on a ride.  Many people like to make regular stops to eat and drink and it becomes an integral part of the ride, a chance to have a break from pedalling and to socialise for a while (especially if riding solo).  Others, like me, pack our pockets and chaff at every stop or slight detour from our route to have to deal with the tedious task of loading up with food and liquid again.

Whatever your preferences you will need to think about the logistics of nutrition.  In some areas there can be long stretches between places to eat.  If you are riding a route using major roads these bypass most towns and you can ride for hours without passing any shops or even services on the road.  Equally, in 2013 and in 2014 I rode LEJOG on very minor roads, canal paths and cycle ways and also found very few shops.   So you have to balance how much you can carry and how much you can buy en route each day.  

Top tips

  • eat little and often.  Set a timer to remind you to eat if necessary.  Eat even if you are not hungry – you have a lot of calories to consume!
  • listen to your body.  If it starts craving bacon its probably after protein, if its chocolate you need carb energy fast.  Get a sugary fix AND eat some slower burners otherwise you will ‘crash’ again quickly.
  • down protein after your ride each day to improve your recovery.  Try to do it as soon after the end of the ride as possible.  There is an optimum window of between 10-20 minutes after the ride when the body can make best use of the protein to repair muscles and aid recovery.
  • on long rides consume carbs and protein in a 4:1 ration.  This will aid energy levels and boost recovery.
  • caffeine can help your concentration levels towards the end of a long ride but don’t overdo it.  Carry emergency caffeine gels.
  • things can taste sweeter towards the end of a long ride so if you are using energy drinks dilute them a little more as the day progresses.

Final Word on Nutrition

I know I have whittered on about nutrition but that is because it is so important, especially on a tour of several days or more.  My personal opinion is that getting your eating and drinking right will have a greater impact on how you feel and perform on your end-to-end than getting your training right will.

Of course eating and drinking right doesn’t mean you don’t have to do the training. Sorry. But if you can get the eating and drinking right during your training as well, you will get much more out of it.  Firstly it won’t be as painful, secondly you will recover from each training ride more rapidly and thirdly, your fitness will improve more quickly. 

Finally I would point out that training when dehydrated and with low energy levels can be a wasted effort or even detrimental.  I know riders who pride themselves on being able to complete a 100 mile ride on one 500ml water bottle and a lick of a flapjack wrapper.  I can’t help thinking how much better they would feel and how much fitter they would become if they weren’t so hard.

 Mystery Superfood

And the superfood is – milk!  No really.  Not only is it an excellent source of protein, it contains good levels of carbohydrate, packs a range of vitamins and minerals and hydrates you as well.  When you’re training hard, drink one to two pints a day. This sounds a lot, but you’ll feel the difference when you recover quicker and whizz through that training.

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