By now, we’re all aware of the benefits of properly fueling a bike. When we exercise, we use the fats and carbohydrates (glycogen) stored in our body. While even the leanest professional athlete has more than enough fat stores for one workout, we all only have limited glycogen stores. Glycogen is stored in the liver and muscles when transported in the blood as glucose. Although we’ve probably all experienced the dreaded “bonk” when our liver glycogen stores are so low that blood sugar levels plummet; even mild glycogen depletion can cause a significant reduction in performance.
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It is for this reason that whenever I work with an athlete, I will prescribe their training and fueling during and after each session. This ensures that the macronutrient intake matches the requirements of that particular workout. This approach to cycling nutrition has recently become known as “fuel for the job required”.
The question then becomes: what is really “required” during the training sessions?
As a (very) rough indication, we can break down the sessions of the cycling training plans into three categories: easy rides, long endurance rides and intensive sessions. Each of these sessions has a different carbohydrate requirement.
What cycling nutrition is needed?
These walks are short (<90 min) and very easy. As a general rule, as long as you refuel before these rides, they do not require additional carb intake during the session. However, if you're doing them the day after a run where you might still be a bit depleted of glycogen, it certainly won't hurt to take some carbs.
These zone 2 endurance hikes are longer (>90 minutes) but still quite easy (if done correctly). However, due to their duration, you will still be using a significant amount of glycogen during a ride and so it is a good idea to consume carbs while riding. At typical endurance intensities, 40-60g of carbs per hour is sufficient.
These can range from short challenging HIIT workouts to long challenging runs. During these shorter sessions (<60-90 minutes), aggressive carb intake is not recommended as the body will not be able to process the carbs fast enough for them to be burned. By the time they have passed through the digestive system, into the blood, and then into the muscles or liver, you will likely be cooling off.
However, during long and intense sessions (>90 minutes), you will need to eat a lot of carbohydrates if you do not want to run out of glycogen and see a drop in performance.
In this case, you will need to take more than 60 g/h. In fact, some professional athletes now eat between 90 and 120 g/h of carbohydrates.
Where should these carbs come from?
Now that we know how much to eat, the next question is where should those carbs come from?
Should you only use (sometimes very expensive) sports nutrition in the form of the best energy drinks, gels or bars, or will any carb do?
Below 60g/h I would say it doesn’t matter where your carbs come from. The reason for this is that different types of sugars are absorbed through different channels in the intestine. The glucose channel (by far the most common carbohydrate) can remove approximately 60 g of glucose from the gut and into the bloodstream per hour. Indeed, in scientific experiments, at these kinds of intensities, feeding cyclists potato products resulted in the same level of performance as specialized sports nutrition. Since this is where most of your training will take place, I recommend finding a product you like, checking how many carbs it contains, then eating enough to hit your 40-60g/ hour.
This is where things get a bit complex. Our gut cannot process enough of one type of sugar to reach the ~90g/h needed to fuel the session. Therefore, we need a combination of sugars. The latest research suggests that a 1:08 ratio of glucose to fructose results in the best carbohydrate absorption and greatest performance improvements. This ratio is only really found in specific sports nutrition products. Therefore, for these sessions, I would definitely recommend specific products.
We also know that before the gut can process 90g/h of carbs, it needs training. Therefore, it is important that you do not suddenly swallow 90 g/h during the first hard session or run and expect your stomach to handle it. Instead, you should gradually increase the amount of carbs per hour, starting at around 60 g/h and working your way up to 90 g/h (even more in some cases).
Also, since all sports nutrition products contain a slightly different mix of ingredients, you can’t expect your gut to be able to process any old product and be fine. It’s a recipe for “gastric distress”… Instead, it’s best to choose a product that you like the taste of and stick to it. Slowly increase your carb intake in high intensity workouts until you hit around 90g/h or your stomach can’t take it anymore.
On easy rides, a little carb is fine and won’t hurt. In endurance racing, you need to fill up on 40-60g of carbs per hour, but you can get those carbs anywhere you want. For intense sessions (especially those >60 minutes), I would recommend finding a product that you like the taste of, that contains a mixture of sugars (ideally glucose and fructose in a 1:0.8 ratio) and use it for all sessions. Not only does this mean you’re maximizing performance on the bike, but you’ll also be training your gut to handle the high carb intake. That means no nasty surprises on race day.
With food prices soaring, it is becoming increasingly expensive to satisfy a cyclist’s appetite. Here’s a nutritionist’s guide on how to get your nutrition on the cheap..
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