I like to read about food and because I also like to ride my bike I like to read about eating and cycling. Or, to say it the sporty way, fuelling.
When I was a kid the only kind of sports nutrition you could get was a Mars bar – “helps you work, rest and play”. Back then Lucozade was a drink for sick people not athletes. And at the local canoe club (yep, I paddle as well as peddle) we swear by Mars bars and sweet coffee when out on long or cold river trips. Cyclists, it seems, take their nutrition a little more seriously than recreational canoeists and since I’m working towards a fitness goal and want to improve my performance (as well as my weight) thought I would take this a bit more seriously.
Diving straight in and it’s all a bit confusing : Gels? Protein bars? Whey powder? Isotonic? Electrolyte? I know what the words mean but why do I need them? Or do I need them? Chocolate milk and a Mars bar anyone?
When I’m bodding down to the shops on my bike, or taking a 30km jaunt round the countryside I don’t think about it. I take my emotional support banana in case of emergencies, have my breakfast, go for a ride, come home, have a cup of coffee and get on with my day. Now that I’m doing intervals and structured training, as well as bodding about, I want to be sure I’m taking in the right nutrients to allow my muscles to recover and build whilst not limiting my weight lose.
In an interval session I burn around 250 cals/30 mins. I don’t want to eat back those calories as I want to create a calorie deficit in order to lose weight, but I also know that after intense exercise my muscles need something to help them recover. The general consensus seems to be to eat a protein snack after this type of training to aid recovery. This is easy for me, I keep hens and love eggs – I can time my interval sessions so that I eat an egg based lunch within 30 mins of finishing. (I’m extremely lucky to have that kind of flexibility during the day.)
But what about longer rides? My goal is to cycle 100km on my next birthday (early summer) so, although my rides are around the 90-120 minute mark at the moment I’m going to be increasing this. Do I need to eat on these rides? Do I need to eat for energy or can I rely on my fat reserves?
It looks like the answer is sort of to both these questions. I did some maths using formulas from a range of sports nutrition and training books and calculated that if my ride is less than 2 hours I don’t need to take on extra energy whilst cycling. And this seems to be supported by my hunger and energy levels – I know I can cycle consistently for 2 hours without having to take on additional food (as long as I’m not cycling across a meal time – my stomach lets me know if I’m late for lunch). More than that and I start to feel hungry. So, if I’m on my bike for 2 hours + how much food do I need? Not much – although I can be burning around 500 cal/hour I certainly don’t need to eat that much. I have plenty of reserves to draw on – theoretically I have far more fat reserves than I could possibly burn through in 24 hours but, as we all know, that’s not quite how this works. In order to keep my body ticking over in such a way that it can actually use those fat reserves and not cause muscle cramps, fainting etc, I need to take in around 120 calories per hour. Well that’s easy – a packet of Quavers and a ginger nut.. maybe not.
So, knowing how many calories I need is part of the story. What type of calories do I need? Obviously crisps and biscuits may not be the most suitable choice but since most nutritionists (the online ones anyway) seem to recommend carb based snacks for in-exercise eating they are not a million miles off the mark. My emotional support banana is a good choice and at around 90 cals if I add a couple of brazil nuts it fits my energy needs nicely. Oat snacks, flapjack and granola bars, are a good option too – and like the banana fit nicely in a cycling jersey pocket. Dried fruit – not so easy to eat unless I stop, and on even longer rides a sandwich made with wholemeal bread and a protein filling.
This all seems much simpler than the marketing brains behind nutritional supplements and functional foods would have you believe.
And don’t forget you can’t digest anything if you’re dehydrated, so hydrate – little and often.