How to fuel your cycling

Be it a long endurance ride, a shorter more intense session, a time trial, or a road race, ensuring that your fuelling is optimised is an important part of ensuring performance is the best it can be, as well making sure you don’t hit the dreaded Wall! But how can we ensure that our fuelling is optimal for different cycling events, distances, or other factors? That’s where we’re going to try and help

Long easy rides

For longer endurance rides over 90 minutes, although they are lower intensity and where you predominantly use fats as fuel, it is still essential to fuel these adequately for several important reasons.

Firstly, we do still use carbohydrates during Zone 2 intensity rides, and if we are doing a 3+ hour long ride, and we have training to do the next day, it is essential that we keep muscle glycogen stores nice and topped up so that we perform well in the sessions over the coming days. However, as we want to improve fat oxidation rates in these rides and carb ingestion can reduce fat oxidation, it can be useful to delay exogenous carb intake until an hour into a longer Z2 ride, or at least consume lower glycemic index carbs before the ride and during the earlier stages of the ride.

Additionally, not consuming enough carbs during Zone 2 rides will affect the way we feel mood wise and also our head, as the brain predominantly uses carbs for fuel, so not enough carbs can lead to a sort of brain fog later in the day that can impact productivity. It is also important with these longer rides to ensure you drink enough fluids and, if it’s warmer or you are sweating more, salts. Not only is water needed for carbohydrate storage, but the salts are essential for maintaining muscle contractile function. Even if it is cold, you are likely wrapped up warm and still sweating and losing salts.

Finally, for long term health and performance it is essential that we maintain a good energy availability, which means as well as consuming enough calories to fuel the work and recovery, we also need to consume enough carbs. Risks of not meeting the energy and carb demands of our body is the possibility of slipping into RED-s (relative energy deficiency in sports) as well as impaired performance, recovery, and increased risk of moving into dysfunctional overreaching or overtraining. So pre-ride, during, and post-ride carbs are very important.

For ultra endurance events, or multi-day events such as LEJOG and the Trans-Continental, as there are no days to recover and any missed out energy intake is very difficult to catch back up on later in the event, it is even more essential to ensure you eat enough. For single day timed events, it will be fastest if you carb up well throughout. For the longer lower intensity events such as the Trans-Continental, it is more about overall energy intake as consuming the necessary carbs day in and day out would be very challenging on the gut and gastrointestinal system.

3 hour Z2 fuelling suggestion:

  • Pre – Porridge made with either 80g rolled oats/buckwheat (gluten free)/dessert rice (dry weight), milk or vegan alternative, 15g mixed nuts, frozen berries, maple syrup.
  • During – x2 750ml bottles of Secret Training Training Mix, x2 Veloforte Energy Bars, x1 Veloforte Energy Chews
  • After (within 30min ideally) – Baked beans on toast, or For Goodness Shakes (FGS) Recovery Shake, x1 Veloforte Protein Bar.

Short intense sessions

For shorter intense sessions under an hour, it isn’t essential to consume carbs during the training session, however it is important to ensure you are well fuelled before and top up after training. Ideally you want to eat a few hours before the training session to allow proper digestion of slower release carbs. If you are in a rush though it is important to consume faster release simple carbohydrates (higher glycemic index) to fuel the training session.

If the session is between an hour and 90 minutes long, it may be necessary to consume some carbs during the sessions such as a gel, energy drink, or some sweets for sugars. After the session it is also important to consume carbs and protein, ideally in a 3:1 ratio as that improves muscle protein synthesis as well as topping up muscle glycogen stores.

Hydration wise, intense sessions often lead to a higher sweat rate, and if doing the session on the turbo then it will likely be even warmer. Ensuring you’ve got a drink with suitable electrolytes will be essential to maintain muscle contractile function if it is a longer effort session, and will also help with reducing RPE during a warm and intense session. Mixing this with a carb drink mix is a great way to top up the fuel gauge for a tough session between an hour and 90 minutes.

60min interval session fuelling suggestion:

  • Pre – Any meal with a good balance of carbs, healthy fats, and protein 3ish hours beforehand, rice is ideal. If within 60min of the session, then fruit juice, banana, white bread and jam.
  • During – 500ml bottle with x1 Secret Training Hydration Tablet.
  • Post (within 30min ideally) – Omelette with rice, or FGS Protein Shake with Veloforte Wellness Bar.

Time trials

For the sake of this we’re going to focus on shorter TTs, so 20 minutes to an hour. Firstly, same as with a short intense session, it is vital to consume a meal several hours before the event to ensure there is limited gastric distress. Secondly, having faster release carbs just before the event. A few ideal ways of doing this are by sipping an energy drink in the hour leading up to the race, or an energy bar an hour or so before. Then, if a shorter TT, swilling and high carb concentration energy drink in your mouth to allow the carbs into the system quicker via the mouth and gums. If it’s a longer TT then consuming a gel 5min before along with caffeine gum is a good tactic, as well as taking a gel or high carb drink with you on the bike.

After the event it is again essential to refuel shortly after the event. A recovery drink is a good quick and easy way to do this, especially if you don’t feel hungry after intense sessions. Alternatively you can bring something simple like rice and a protein source (more protein if following a vegan/vegetarian diet).

10mile TT fuelling suggestion:

  • Pre – meal at least 3 hours beforehand, x1 Veloforte Energy Chews in the hour leading up to the event, or sip on a half bottle of Secret Training BiG Energy (half serving). If not in the evening, then Secret Training Energy Gel with Caffeine and Betaine.
  • During – non required.
  • Post (within 30min ideally) – Pack of supermarket rice and tin of tuna with sweetcorn, or FGS Recovery Shake.

Road races

Road races are of course a longer high intensity event where you will be using carbs at a higher rate for a longer period of time. For these it is again essential to fuel up properly in the morning before the event, but also to up the carbohydrates in the days preceding the event. Not the full on week of carb loading, but a couple of days of higher carb intake should be adequate.

During the race itself, the amount of carbs you will need will vary based on you as an individual. Depending on your gastrointestinal tolerance, power output, and demand for carbohydrates, then between 60-120g of carbs per hour may be needed. Ideally, 60g/hour of glucose is the maximum we can tolerate, with fructose added to increase the total exogenous carb intake levels to 90+g/hour. As the intensity will be high, the easiest way to consume these will likely be in more liquid forms such as high carb energy drinks and energy gels. It is important to trial these nutritional methods and strategies in training before an event so you can find out what works for you. Also, fuel based on the intensity, you don’t want to be fuelling while working super hard, so fuel while intensity is lower such as flats or downhills, and eat proactively not reactively, if you get hungry it’s likely too late!

Also important is consuming enough fluids and salts so as to avoid dehydration and cramps, and maintain ideal muscle contractile function. Other elements to consider are caffeine intake, bicarbonate, and beta alanine, as these three supplements have been found to be beneficial for performance in several ways. Caffeine is good for reducing the RPE of a relative effort level, while bicarb and beta alanine have been found to be useful buffers for muscle acidity.

As with all intense exercise, it is important to consume carbs and protein shortly after the event, as well as drip feeding carbs throughout the rest of the day. This will optimise recovery and ensure that you are better prepared for any training or events in the coming days after this event. Rehydration will likely be necessary too as at higher intensities we can sweat up to 2.5 litres an hour! However we cannot replenish this lost fluid at this rate or we will not feel good and likely be sick. So it is important to rehydrate well after the event and hydrate as much as possible, and is optimal for performance, during.

4 hour RR fuelling suggestion:

  • Pre – meal with 100-120g of carbs 3-4 hours beforehand, Veloforte Energy Bar 2-1.5 hours before, sip on 500ml bottle of Secret Training BiG Energy in the hour before.
  • During – x2-3 500ml bottles of Secret Training BiG Energy Peppermint with Bicarb, x2 500ml bottles of Secret Training Hydration tablets, x3-4 Secret Training Isotonic Energy Gels, Veloforte Doppio Caffeine Gel.
  • Post (within 30min ideally) – FGS Recovery Shake, Veloforte Protein Bar, 1000ml with x2 Secret Training Hydration tablets.

Hot weather or altitude

When training or racing at either altitude or in warmer conditions, there are two important considerations. Firstly, for both of them, the amount of carbs that you use during exercise will increase so it becomes even more important to consume carbs during training as well as around training too. So if you are used to 60g/hour, then increasing to 70+g/hour will be beneficial.

For hot weather, it also becomes more important to consume more water as well as salts. Consuming just large quantities of water will actually be detrimental to performance! Overconsumption of water without adequate salts can lead to a dangerous issue called hyponatremia. This occurs when our sodium levels drop too low, as when we sweat the sodium is needed to transport the water to our skin to allow us to reduce body temperature. However this sodium is needed to maintain cellular function, blood pressure, and transmission of nerve signals between cells. When sodium levels are too low in the body and we consume excessive water, the water is retained in the cells and causes them to swell and in some cases break down. Side effects of this in their most severe are seizures, coma and death. Ways to avoid this are to consume enough salts with fluids, and to not consume excessive water without salts. The side effects of dehydration are less risky than hyponatremia, with that being the leading cause of mortality during marathons.

You can work out sweat rate simply by weighing yourself naked before a workout, then weighing yourself after a workout with any fluid weight consumed during exercise subtracted. So if you are 75kg before, and 74.5kg after 1 hour cycling having consumed 500ml, your water loss is around 1kg/litre. It’s not exact as other elements are lost during exercise, but gives a close estimate. As for salt loss, this requires proper testing to determine the sodium concentration of your sweat. You can eyeball it to an extent with if you develop salt patches on cycling kit after riding in warmer conditions, but this will be a ballpark figure.

Hot weather (30ºC+) fuelling suggestion:

  • Pre – more carbs than normal pre workout meal.
  • During – 10g more carbs per hour than normal, plus added salt in bottles along with drinking more, menthol infused energy gel or drink may help too.
  • Post (within 30min ideally) – 1.5x more fluid than was lost during the entirety of the ride plus salts, carbs and protein.

Menstrual cycle

An area that has often been overlooked in the scientific literature, which is heavily male dominated when it comes to researchers and participants for studies, is female physiology and nutrition. Hormones have a great impact on the rate that we require energy, and also how our bodies prefer that energy demand to be met. For women who go through the menstrual cycle, their hormone profile changes throughout their cycle, and so too do their nutritional requirements.

During the Menstrual phase, the body is shedding the lining of the uterus and requiring more energy, and protein especially, to repair the tissue and because menstruation is an inflammatory process, increasing the amount of anti-inflammatory foods rich in antioxidants can be beneficial to recovery and performance in training.

For the Follicular phase, estrogen and progesterone levels are at their lowest (estrogen rises leading up to ovulation though) and the body relies more heavily on carbohydrates for fuel rather than fats. So if you consumed 60g/hour of carbs in training, you may need to up that as well as consuming more for pre ride and post ride meals. There are also several pieces of research that suggest that strength performance is reduced during the early follicular phase.

Moving into the Luteal phase, progesterone and estrogen levels increase before dropping down before menstruation, and the body becomes more reliant on fat as a fuel source. Along with this, the body’s metabolism increases so overall energy demands increase as well. So although carbs during and around training are not needed in the same quantities, overall energy consumption and availability are important to maintain performance.

Another factor to consider, is menopausal or post-menopausal athletes. The biggest change of nutrition guidelines here is the inclusion of more protein in the diet, and in particular consuming them during training. Using branched chain amino acids (BCAAs), specifically leucine, has been shown to be important for maintenance of muscle mass for menopausal and post-menopausal athletes. This should be combined with more power work on the bike and as part of your S&C routine.

Menstrual cycle phases fuelling suggestions:

  • Menstrual – more energy intake overall and more protein, also potential need to reduce training intensity
  • Follicular – particularly early phase, more carbohydrates required for regular fuelling, so extra 10-20g carbs per hour than normal and more before and after training. Some suggestions that strength is reduced in the early phase.
  • Luteal – fewer carbohydrates required but metabolism increases so overall energy requirements are higher. Eat more overall in training as well as pre and post meals. Veloforte Energy Bars are a good mix of carbs and fats.
  • Menopausal/post-menopausal – 5g BCAAs per hour when riding and greater protein before and after training.

A note on fasted and low carb training

Fasted training is an interesting one, as there have been shown to be some benefits to it, especially in improving fat oxidation rates during low intensity training as well as boosting certain gene signalling pathways for improved aerobic performance. However, chronic fasted training can result in low energy availability which over long periods of time can lead to relative energy deficiency in sports (RED-s). IF, and this is a big if, you want to incorporate fasted training into your routine, I would recommend no more than once a week, and ideally on the turbo so you can control intensity perfectly to not go above the first lactate threshold, otherwise performance and recovery are impaired. Additionally, research around fasted training has primarily been centred on male athletes, for female athletes, it is recommended to avoid fasted training all together!

We then also have low carb training, or ketogenic diets. For the purposes of this article, we’re looking at performance optimisation in non-diabetics, and in that case, low carb and ketogenic diets are generally not the best for performance. There are arguments that for ultra-endurance it is better to be more efficient at using fats, and this is true. However this does not mean having no carbs, and more current research is discovering that the maximum performance that is achievable comes about from being able to produce a huge amount of energy, and to do this properly, you need to consume carbs, lots of them! The downside of this is that if you miss a feed or aren’t disciplined with your fuelling, you will blow up. But the potential for greater performance is worthwhile, as demonstrated by Chris Froome at the 2018 Giro D’Italia, and the power that professionals are now doing in races with much better understanding of fuelling.

Summary

Hopefully you’ve found this information helpful and it will assist you in your aims to improve performance and optimise fuelling. If you want to find out more or have any specific questions, please drop us a message! We also offer both full nutrition planning, as well as further nutrition advice as part of our Elite and Premium Coaching packages.

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