How to fuel the long bike ride

When you’re cycling hard for two hours-plus, fuelling can easily take a back seat. Renee McGregor explains how to manage your nutrition before the session starts, during the session and after, so you get the most out of your long bike sessions.

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We all know that longer endurance sessions are about helping your heart adapt at a cellular level, as well ensuring that you’re able to maintain technique over a long duration, when the body will naturally start to become fatigued. So it’s not about covering a certain distance in a given time frame, but more: ‘Today I’m going to go out on my bike for three hours!’ This helps the body to adapt. For example, it helps cyclists endure sitting in the saddle for long periods, providing both physical and psychological preparation.

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Nutritionally, these are very interesting sessions to fuel. On the one hand, they’re at a low-to-moderate intensity so we know physiologically that our fat stores can fuel such sessions for long periods of time. On the other hand, while out training for long hours, especially once you get over the two-hour mark, there’s going to be an energy deficit that needs to be met. So while at this intensity our bodies might only use 30-60g of glucose per hour, the average male weighing 70kg will burn in the region of 1,000 calories in two hours (this will vary from individual to individual).

FULL STORES

When it comes to long training, it’s useful to go out with full glycogen stores. But it can take up to 48 hours for the body to convert carbohydrate consumed by the body into glycogen stores. So while I’m not suggesting that you need to ‘carb load’, you can ensure that you’re consuming regular amounts of carbohydrate throughout the day preceding the long bike ride.

Key strategies to increase the intake of carbohydrate 48 hours prior doesn’t mean increasing the volume of calories or food, but rather changing the composition of food. So if you normally have eggs for breakfast, have porridge with banana and honey; choose bagels instead of bread or wraps as they have a higher carbohydrate value; swap your snack of Greek yoghurt and fruit or mixed nuts for crumpets or toast with jam or honey; in your evening meals consider having both complex carbohydrate, such as potato, rice or pasta, with either root vegetables such as butternut squash or beetroot, or adding pulses such as lentils or chickpeas, which can further boost the carbohydrate content of a meal.

ENDURANCE FUEL

During endurance activity that lasts over 2hrs, every 30-45mins aim to consume around 30g of carbohydrate. Some examples include:

A sports gel

500ml energy drink

6 jelly babies

45g raisins

1 banana

Half a bagel with yeast extract or jam

2 slices malt loaf

Half a sweet potato brownie

Energy gels versus energy bars

  

RECOVERY FROM ENDURANCE SESSIONS 

Recovery from endurance sessions is extremely important. Although you may not have put a huge amount of stress on your cardiovascular system or muscles, you’ll have completely depleted your glycogen stores, so these will need to be replenished as soon as possible.

A combination of carbohydrate and protein is essential as soon as is practically possible: definitely within the first hour of finishing your session and then every two hours after that until your next meal. Again, aim for 1-1.2g/kg of bodyweight of carbohydrate and up to 0.4g/kg of bodyweight of protein.

So let’s take a 65kg male athlete who’s been on a 3hr bike ride, which finished at 2pm. His requirements will be 65-78g carbohydrate and up to 26g protein in that immediate post-recovery phase. Here’s a more detailed breakdown of what this schedule should look like:

2:30pm 500ml chocolate milk and banana (75g carbohydrate and 18g protein)

4:30pm 2 slices of wholegrain toast with 1⁄2 can baked beans, 150g fruit yoghurt (78g carbohydrate,
17g protein)

6:30pm 3 slices of malt loaf, 50g unsalted nuts (60g carbohydrate, 17g protein)

8:30pm Main meal

And remember, this type of re-fuelling is even more important if you’re planning to do a further training session within 24 hours

FUELLING STRATEGIES

To optimise your long rides, you need to fuel before, during and after. Here’s the how-to…

INCREASE CARBS

Up to 48hrs prior, aim to increase the carb composition of your diet. E.g. Add banana to your porridge or swap houmous with veg for two slices of malt loaf.

2HR+ RIDES

During any ride over 2hrs, aim for 30-60g of carbs every 30-45mins in the form of real food (bananas) or sports-specific food (energy gel or 500ml energy drink).

RECOVERY

Aim to take on fuel within 30mins of finishing – 500ml of milk or flavoured milk makes an ideal choice. This can then be followed with a balanced meal within 2hrs.

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