When and what to eat on long rides

Beyond learning the basic technique of cycling and building your fitness, the next most difficult task is learning what and when to eat when riding. If you mess up your nutrition during a long ride, it can be just as detrimental as landing in the ditch.

Cycling NutritionMany new riders start riding with some experience of fitness training such as spin classes, hiking the grouse grind or training in the gym. Most of these activities take up to an hour so you shouldn’t need to eat during the actual training session. But if you are trying to ride 60, 80, or more than 100km you better show up prepared.

I would love to give you an exact prescription of what to eat and when but I can’t because every person, every ride and every situation is individual and will change on a daily basis. But there are some guidelines and facts that I can help you with, so you can find out what works for you, on that day, for that ride. If you really don’t want to do the work, a good sports nutritionist can lay out an exact training diet specifically for you, but even then, it will take some trial and error.

There are so many misconceptions of sports nutrition that it is hard to even know where to start.  So lets start with some facts and how we can put these facts into practice.

Fact # 1: Your body requires fuel to function. If you don’t fuel your body, it will not function for you.

Start every ride having eaten your last meal between 45 and 90minutes before the ride. Never start a ride hungry. After your ride begins, eat your first snack at 45minutes into the ride and continue eating every 30-45mins for the duration of the ride.

Fact #2: The most readily available fuel for energy is glycogen or sugar.  Simple sugar only takes 20mins to 30mins to digest.

Eat the majority of your calories while riding in the form of simple sugar.  Some fat and protein is beneficial but too much can slow digestion

Examples of good foods to eat while riding

  1. imagesbananas or fruit of any kind
  2. fig newtons or cookies
  3. bagels or sandwiches
  4. endurance bars (my favorites are: Vega sport bar, Cliff bars and Larabars)
  5. sesame snaps
  6. fruit source bars
  7. cliff shots or sharkies
  8. gels (my favorites are Gu or Honey Stingers)
  9. boiled baby potatoes with salt (if you really want to eat healthy and with no preservatives or artificial sugar)

Fact #3: Fat and protein take 2-3 hours to digest.

Do NOT eliminate but limit your fat and protein intake to small amounts before and during your ride. The exception being for rides that are longer than 3 hours, where a greater amount of both fat and protein will help sustain your energy.

Examples of foods you should only eat on rides longer than 3 hours.

  1. mixed-nuts-roasted-unsaltednuts
  2. homemade bars made of mainly fat such as peanut butter or bliss balls

Examples of food you should avoid on ALL rides:

  1. high fibre bars or dried fruit such as prunes – you don’t want to be running to the can every hour
  2. high (over 15g) protein bars require too much work to digest – leave these for after the ride
  3. chocolate by itself – it melts

Fact #4: Your brain only survives on sugar.

If you eel sluggish, confused, light headed, dizzy or suddenly angry or irritated you are probably low on sugar. Eat or drink simple sugars immediately.  The best would be gels or sugar mixed in a drink form. If you are eating on a schedule, try to eat or drink before you get to this state.

Fact #5: Your body can only store so much energy as glycogen. When those stores are full they will move additional sugar into your fat stores.

Even if you eat a big meal before your ride, you will still need to eat every 45mins. So don’t try to “overeat” before a ride in an attempt to pack away the calories.

Fact #6: Eating a meal high in protein or fat (or any large meal for that matter) either before or during a ride means that your blood will be in your stomach trying to digest the meal instead of in your muscles where you need it to help push the bike up a hill.  This may result in stomach or muscle cramps and you may have to stop your ride until your meal is digested.

Eat small meals (250-350 calories) often so you have a constant supply of energy without the extra stress of digesting large quantities at once.

Fact #7: After a long or hard ride, your glycogen (sugar) stores will be empty and need to be replaced quickly. If you don’t replace these stores within the first half hour of riding, your body will take longer to recover and you may feel run down or tired on your next ride.

Eat a small snack (250-350 calories) that contains carbs, protein and fat within 30mins after every long or hard ride.

Examples of healthy post ride snacks:

  1. Half a bagel with avocado or peanut butter or even a sandwich
  2. Vega One shake
  3. Rice, vegetables and olive oil
  4. Coconut water and an apple with almond butter


Fact #8: Most cyclists will burn anywhere between 500-1000 calories an hour while riding. If you are riding regularly and eating a healthy, conscious diet weight loss should be inevitable. If you aren’t recovering quickly enough, you are losing too much weight or you are gaining weight, you need to monitor your calories going in and out.

Start being more aware by reading food labels and wearing a heart rate monitor. Count your calories, consult a nutritionist or use a free website such as http://www.myFitnessPal.com to track how many calories you need on a daily basis to ensure you are not over or under eating. Your daily calorie needs will change each day depending on how much riding you are doing.

Fact #9: Although it won’t be fun, you can survive without food but you can’t survive without water. You will notice an immediate decrease in performance as soon as you become even slightly dehydrated.

Drink a minimum of one water bottle every hour. If you are a heavy sweater or riding in a hot climate, you may have to drink two bottles every hour.

Fact #10: Water cannot be absorbed into the bloodstream without salt (sodium). Salt and   electrolytes are released when you sweat so these needs to be replaced while riding. The more you sweat, the more you have to replace.

Read your food labels to see if your snacks contain electrolytes, specifically sodium and potassium. If they don’t or if you need more, you can add them to one or both of your water bottles as a supplement.

Examples of good electrolyte replacements (from my favorite to my least favorite because of ingredients or flavor) are:

  1. Vega hydrator (no calories)
  2. Nuun or H2Prohydrate tablets (no calories)
  3. Eload
  4. Cytomax
  5. Heed
  6. G2

So where can you buy all this stuff?

You can always try making your own snacks but if time and convenience are a factor these stores will have most of the supplements I have suggested, all packaged and ready to go.

  1. La Bicicletta
  2. Mountain Equipment Coop – MEC
  3. Speed Theory
  4. West Point Cycles
  5. The Run Inn
  6. Forerunners
  7. Running Room
  8. London Drugs
  9. Your Vitamin Store
  10. Body Energy

One last bit of advice: When packing your jersey for a long ride, always bring more food than you think you need. It is better to return home with an extra gel than to wish you had one when climbing Cypress Mountain.

Stay fueled and enjoy the ride!

If you have any questions please email Kristina at Kristina@kitsenergy.com.


4 thoughts on “When and what to eat on long rides

  1. Highly recommend that you read “The Art and Science of Low Carbohydrate Performance” by Volek and Phinney. They debunk the all too prevalent myth that “carb loading” is required.

    • Thanks for the book recommendation. I am always looking to learn more and I know that the best nutrition for everyone is very individual.

      Sent from my iPhone

  2. Pingback: Hill Grunts Make Fit Chicks | Women In Cycling

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