September 22, 2022
Riding a long tour or GranFondo is a big test to yourself, for your legs but also for your metabolism. How can you make sure you do all the right things for optimal performance?
Most cyclists have dealt with it at some point: the man with the hammer. Once you meet him you are literally parked and you are simply too late to turn the tide. You think you can quickly eat a banana or a sandwich and hope to continue your ride. That turns out not to be so easy. The cause is simple: you haven’t eaten or drunk enough carbohydrates, or you took them too late. As a result, the stock of carbohydrates in your body is depleted. In scientific terms these stored carbohydrates are also known as glycogen stock. When your carbohydrates are depleted, you can only digest body fats which come at a low pace, disabling you to push substantial powers on the pedal. Since you generally burn more carbohydrates on the bike than you can digest, you need to pause or pedal easy for a long time to charge this ‘battery’ again.
The amount of glycogen in our body is limited, there is only enough energy for an intense ride of about one and a half hours. If the ride is easier you can last longer, but it can still make you feel a bit empty and perhaps dizzy. The more trained you are, the better able you are to store glycogen in muscles. Your stock of fats is many times larger, and almost unlimited, even as a very thin person. Whenever possible, Our body mostly relies on fats for energy supply. However, as your exercise intensity increases, the proportion of carbohydrates serving as an energy source is much higher than the proportion of fats and at some point, you only burn carbohydrates. What does this mean in practice? When you double your power, you carbohydrate burn can increase with up to a factor four.
Consider the impact of such a quadruple on your nutrition intake. At easy pace you would burn 75 grams of carbs per hour or 225 grams in total for a 3 hour ride. Now imagine you burn 150 grams per hour for 4 hours, The 225 grams now suddenly became 600 grams and while you had enough stock for the 225 gram, the additional 375 grams extra will be needed mostly from nutrition. That could be as much as 9 bars extra on top of almost nothing. You see, a big differences you can get as well as the importance of solid intake. The longer and more intense the bike ride is, the bigger importance is of quality products with high amounts of carbohydrates that are easily digestible.
Not everyone will be itching to plan and keep track of all their nutrition on a daily basis. That is not necessary either. A nutrition app can give you a lot of insights in a quick way with which you can optimize your own performance. While most caloric tracking apps don’t make the split in fat and carb burn, the EatMyRide app is specifically tailored to the cyclist. With the EatMyRide app you can load or create a route, enter what you like in terms of food and drinks, and the app calculates the optimal nutrition plan for you during your ride. To make it even more efficient, you can also send this plan to your Garmin.
It’s a classic image: cyclists consuming an overflowing pasta the night before a long important ride, firmly convinced that the specific plate of pasta should not be missing the night before to keep the engine running. Indeed, when you know that a longer effort is planned, it is smart to be aware of carbohydrate intake in the days before. It is vital to recharge those glycogen stores as much as possible, and to prevent too low energy availability during the ride. Consciously increasing carbohydrate intake is also known as carbohydrate loading, or carb loading; a well-known phenomenon in professional cycling. A very effective strategy, but not entirely without risks.
The high amounts of carbohydrates consumed can also lead to nausea and bloating. A simple trick to avoid that bloated feeling is to spread the carbs throughout the day, not just consuming that double plate of pasta the night before. In addition, a lot of fibers in the diet increases the risk of gastrointestinal complaints. This means that if you are sensitive to this, you should opt for white pasta, rice or bread instead of whole grain products the night before your important race or tour. An extra benefit would be you might also lose some weight since fibers attract fluids.
Tip: ensure an even spread of carbohydrates in the days leading up to your long ride. Make sure you consume carbohydrates at breakfast, during the ride, the lunch/recovery meal, dinner and snack. This way you ensure that you are sufficiently charged, and it is not necessary to eat two full plates of pasta the night before and go to bed with a stomach ache. Aim for an intake of at least 8 grams of carbohydrates per kilogram of body weight, total over the day.
The breakfast before a tour or Gran Fondo can sometimes lead to some tension. You may not always be hungry – an early start also means an early breakfast. With good preparation the days before, you are well on your way. Breakfast is the last meal before the tour starts, and therefore also the last moment to consume extra carbohydrates. Limit the intake of proteins and fats, because they increase the risk of gastrointestinal complaints and delay the absorption of carbohydrates while they have no added value during the trip. That means limited use of protein-rich products such as meat, fish, cottage cheese and limited use of fat-rich products such as salami, bacon, salmon, nuts and avocado.
Tip: do not take products the morning before an important trip that you are normally not used to eat. Experiment in times of training times, but not during competition.
Have your breakfast well before the event starts, about 3 hours before the race. This gives the body enough time to absorb the carbohydrates, and to reduce the risk of gastrointestinal complaints. Does the event start early in the morning and you don’t want to get up in the middle of the night? With carb loading the carbohydrate intake becomes all the more important in the days leading up to it. Then reduce the breakfast and make sure you continue to consume enough carbohydrates every hour from the start of the event. Aim for a breakfast of at least 1.0-1.5 g carbohydrates / kg body weight for a long race.
How many carbohydrates should you consume during a cycling event, and in what form? This depends on the duration and intensity of the event but also on the training of your gut. In the case of a Gran Fondo where you are on the road for several hours, you will have to aim for a maximum carbohydrate intake because of your carb burn rates will be high. It helps to consume carbohydrates that our body can easily absorb. We also call these simple carbohydrates, or sugars. Glucose and fructose are two examples of this. Roughly speaking, our body can absorb 60 grams of glucose per hour, and 30 grams of fructose per hour. By combining these two sugars, an intake of 90 grams per hour can be achieved.
Nowadays, many sports nutrition brands develop sports nutrition with a 2:1 ratio glucose:fructose. This means that an energy gel consists for 2/3 of glucose and 1/3 of fructose. Most sports bars and gels contain around 20-40 grams of carbohydrates. That means approximately a desired intake of 3 bars per hour. For most cyclists, that is certainly not realistic and requires a lot of training before the event. Not to mention that the number of carbohydrates you burn per hour during an intensive competition such as the Marmotte can at times approach 150 grams per hour. With an easy workout, this can be half as low or even less.
Where we just said that the maximum intake per hour is around 90 grams per hour, it is extra difficult to complete that during your intensive competition. But with an average usable supply of about 300 grams of glycogen – depending on multiple factors such as training and muscle mass – it becomes all the more important to consume enough carbohydrates from the start of your event so as not to deplete that glycogen supply too much.
Do you want to know how many carbohydrates you burn on average during your rides? Try the EatMyRide Carbohydrate Burn/Intake Balancer app on your Garmin to see this in real time.
Train your nutritional intake for a longer period in the trainings prior to your event. The EatMyRide app helps you to train your carbohydrate intake. Do you now take an average of 30 grams per hour? Then gradually build up towards those 90 grams per hour and increase the period you can sustain it. You will have to train your gastrointestinal system for this, the more so if the ride is longer than 4-5 hours. Do not take products or brands that you have not tried in training. Do you always train with a brand like SiS and do you know that this is not available at the event? Make sure you bring enough products with you.
Tip: do you feel off-colour during your long ride? Caffeine stimulates your alertness and suppresses the feeling of fatigue. Take a gel with caffeine or a caffeine shot. An intake of at least 3 mg/kg body weight prior to your ride is proved to be effective in promoting your sports performance. Again, practice this during your training before applying this in a competition.
In addition to sports nutrition, there are also other alternatives. Don’t you want to train specifically to increase your nutritional intake in preparation for an event? There are plenty of products that contain a lot of carbohydrates and are therefore also suitable to consume during your ride. These products just don’t have the optimal 2:1 ratio, which shouldn’t be a problem during less intensive workouts. You can think of banana, currant bun, bread with sweet toppings, muesli bars or gingerbread. Nice for a change, and often a lot cheaper.
Heat is an external factor with a major influence on your sport performance. In warm conditions, two factors are important in order to keep the sports performance at the right level; (1) adequate fluid replenishment to compensate for sweat loss and (2) adequate electrolyte replenishment.
Our bodies begin to sweat as a response to get rid of heat. Our sweating behavior depends on many factors such as weather conditions, humidity, clothing and training status. For the most part, our sweating behavior is also genetically determined and varies greatly from person to person. Some cyclists can sweat more than 2 liters per hour in hot conditions, while others sweat less than 1 liter per hour in the same conditions and with the same level of fitness.
If you don’t drink anything for too long, or if you take the wrong (sports) drink, you can become dehydrated. Dehydration symptoms such as fainting, dizziness and confusion occur. It is therefore better not to take too much water with you during a long trip with warm temperatures (>25-30 degrees). This can disrupt the balance of electrolytes in the body, leading to hyponatremia. This means that the concentration of sodium in the blood is much too low, which can be very dangerous. Therefore, choose an isotonic sports drink to which sodium has been added.
Complete your sweat test during workouts of 1-3 hours where the temperature is relatively high (20-35 degrees). With a low sweat loss (≤ 0.5 liters/hour) it is sufficient to drink as needed. Drinking more is unlikely to improve athletic performance, as total fluids and sodium loss will be relatively low. Aiming for 300 milliliters per hour will be enough to keep your hydration on track.
With a high sweat loss (≥1.0 liter/hour): you will get many benefits from planning and practicing your hydration strategy in good time. Aiming to replenish at least half of your sweat loss per hour is a realistic guideline. This means with a sweat loss of 2 liters per hour, at least supplement with drinking 1 liter per hour (2 normal water bottles). Use an isotonic sports drink, to sufficiently supplement with sodium.
Do you ever see your shirt turn white during a long ride? This is salt that you have sweated out and indicates that you are a relatively salty sweater. All the more important for you to know exactly how much you lose! Loosing too much sodium might lead to cramp.
Your sodium loss is a fixed number per liter of sweat. It is largely genetically determined and remains a relatively stable value over time.
After hours of hard work on the bike you reach that magical finish. There is no longer much attention to food. A beer is well deserved, and is often accompanied by a lot of tasty snacks. Logically not optimal for recovery.
That long drive has been an assault on the body. Your glycogen stores will no longer be optimally filled, muscle damage has occurred due to the long exercise, and you may also be somewhat dehydrated after a long exercise in the heat. In order to recover optimally, it is important to replenish carbohydrates properly, to consume proteins for optimal muscle recovery and to drink enough fluids to get your hydration back on track. Aim for an intake of about 20-30 grams of protein here.
Do you think it is important to recover well, but do you still want to enjoy optimally? Semi-skimmed chocolate milk is a perfect recovery drink. Half a liter of chocolate milk provides you with a good portion of carbohydrates and proteins to start the recovery, and you also immediately replenish your fluids. Half a liter of chocolate milk provides you with almost 20 grams of protein. In addition, have a pasta salad with pesto, chicken and mozzarella or a tasty bouncer with an egg, wholemeal bread and a slice of bacon. After all, you have earned it!
Immediately after exercise, your body is very sensitive to carbohydrates. In order to quickly replenish glycogen stock, it is wise to consume carbohydrates relatively soon after the exercise. That way you will promote recovery. This is especially useful when you have another tough training or competition on the program the next day. A handful of wine gums or Haribo is ideal for quickly replenishing the glycogen stock. This can be further supplemented in the form of pasta, bread, oatmeal or, for example, fruit. Well-deserved after a long journey!
To get the fluid balance back on track, you can in most cases consider the color of the urine as a good indication of the hydration status. A dark yellow color indicates that you are dehydrated and means that you will have to replenish extra fluids. Ideally, the color of the urine is light yellow after exercise. Keep in mind that certain foods such as beetroot or multivitamins can change the color of your urine and therefore it is in that case not a good indicator of your hydration status.