On Bike Fuelling
This week I am in Majorca doing an endurance week of training on the tandem with a group of friends. It is the first time since I joined the British Cycling squad almost 10 years ago that I have been away training without the support of British Cycling. It has been incredibly refreshing being surrounded by people who are on holiday to ride their bikes because they love it so much, rather than those who ride daily and train because it is their job. Don’t get me wrong l do still love riding my bike and the reason I train everyday and push myself to the limit is because I enjoy it. But from time-to-time it’s nice to take a step back from the intense environment we are usually in, where everything is so closely monitored and analysed. I do love just riding my tandem up and down hills with like minded people, especially when the sun is shining.
Even though I’m taking a more relaxed approach to my training this week, it is still important that I get my fuelling right. If anything it’s actually even more important as i’m doing many more hours than I would be doing back home on a turbo trainer, perhaps just without the same level of intensity. Getting my on bike nutrition right is something that has never come easy to me. In fact it’s only been in the past 2 years and thanks to the help of the current squad nutritionist Lauren Delany that I have started to understand better what I need to be doing and am comfortable with the amount of food I’m eating.
For a long time I was scared to eat too much on the bike. Coming from a background in athletics when younger, we were led to believe it was beneficial to have a low body weight and so encouraged to survive off as little fuel as possible. I now know that this was wrong but it’s a hard mentality to completely rid yourself of. Thankfully I’m now far more comfortable with the weight I am and understand that you need to be at an optimum weight to perform at your best, rather than the lightest weight possible. Therefore starving yourself through training to try and lose weight will not benefit your performance. Instead maintaining a healthy weight by supplying your muscles with the right amount of energy is far more desirable.
The mental barrier to on bike fuelling wasn’t my only battle though. I physically struggle to eat and drink at times on the bike as well. If I drink too much fluid it tends to sit in my stomach and make me feel bloated and sick. At times I also struggle to eat for this same reason. These symptoms are intensified in warmer environments. When it is cold I physically struggle to both eat and drink. I have to wear thick long-fingered gloves rather than my usual track mitts to keep my hands warm but this prevents me from feeling my bottle properly or being able to feel for food that is in my pocket. When you are riding your window of opportunity to grab a quick drink or bite to eat is only narrow, so taking an age to feel around for things is not desirable. Over time I’ve managed to develop a system that works for me but it took a long time to build up my confidence.
A simple guideline for the amount of carbohydrate needed when training on the bike is to aim for between 30 and 60 grams per hour, depending on your body weight and intensity of riding. The higher these are, the more carbs you need. Most people tend to get the majority of this through using an energy drink which comes as a powder that can be mixed in your bottle with water. I struggle with this powder for two reasons. The main one is that I find it too sweet and false tasting so it makes me feel sick. The other is that when you can’t see, dealing with a lot of loose powder and trying to transfer it from the container to a bottle often gets messy and so discourages me from doing it. My solution is to use an energy gel instead by mixing it in my bottle of water. The water dilutes the flavour, making it more palatable and the single serve sachet means that it is easy to control how much I’m getting and far less messy when preparing.
An energy gel is a thick, sticky carbohydrate solution that comes in a handy single serve sachet. Through British Cycling we are sponsored by Science in Sport (SIS) for all our on bike nutrition. They do many different flavours but my favourite is pineapple. They also do ones that come with added caffeine for an alertness boost, which I use for racing and also when it’s a particularly tough day. There are also ones with added electrolytes which are great on a particularly hot day. My favourite flavour of these is raspberry but it’s not easy to get it as its not a popular choice.
Each gel contains 20g carbohydrate and I mix it with 500ml water and aim to drink 1 bottle for every hour I ride. However this on it’s own is not enough to keep me fuelled correctly so I bulk it out with some solid food. SIS do lots of different energy bars that you can snack on while riding but I feel like they are sometimes a bit false. I prefer to get my nutrition when possible from natural sources. Bananas are great but not the best to carry in the back pocket of a cycling jersey. They are also really difficult to peel and eat while riding along. They are good for when you are on a turbo trainer though. One of my favourite bars to eat, and I think we actually keep them in business in our house because we eat so many of them, is Nakd bars. I like them for many reasons: they taste really good, they are made from all natural ingredients and count as one portion of fruit or vegetable per day,. They are nice and compact so fit in your pocket well, they don’t require too much effort to eat so a quick bite is a quick bite, and the wrapper can easily be opened with your teeth if you need to. My favourite flavour choices are either the lemon meringue pie or the chocolate and coconut.
Malt loaf is another good source of carbohydrate for while I am on the bike. It’s a bit chewier than a Nakd bar but helps to provide variety while training and is something I enjoy eating. While I’m staying in a hotel for training my choices are a little more limited but a good breakfast buffet can also reveal some good treats that can be used for on bike nutrition. Brioche is good, easy to eat and contains plenty of sugar. A bread roll spread with peanut butter, or jam, or best yet nutella, has the potential to get messy in your jersey pocket but the thought of enjoying it at the top of a climb will definitely see you through the tough bits.
Another thing to consider is that if you are riding for longer than 3 hours, which is what we have been doing out here in Majorca, then you also could do with a protein boost while you train. This is a little more tricky, especially when you are away on a training camp, but the easiest solution is to take a protein bar or gel in your jersey as well. I use the SIS protein bars. Its probably the least enjoyable snack in my jersey pocket but it’s needed so i’ve learned to just eat it.
As you can see, if you are doing a long training ride then you actually need quite a lot of food. Space in your jersey pocket is at a premium so the smaller and more compact you can make your snacks the better. Sometimes you do run out however, sometimes you just need more food than you plan for, you might get lost, take longer than planned, or just be very tired. At this point, stopping at a cafe for a can of coke, a coffee, or even a slice of cake is the only option to see you home. When you are training for 4 or more hours a day then calorie counting is not an option, you just need to get as much food in as you can stomach to keep you going and keep you well supplied for the whole week. Yes you can survive for a couple of days on minimal food but the long term impact could be disasterous. Trust me, I’ve learned the hard way and I don’t fancy repeating that any time soon. Fatigue due to under fuelling can take an age to shake off, it can lead to a low immune system and so result in illness, it can also impact on your mood, so it’s best avoided. Fatigue and illness results in time off the bike and so all the quality time spent training is wasted. To perform at your best then you need to keep your body well supplied with the best amount of nutrition.
Thank you for reading and speak soon.