Believe it or not, you can probably ride further than you think. For most of us our actual potential is often far beyond what we think it is, but what separates us from more seasoned riders often boils down to diet and determination.
This week we had World Porridge Day, apparently. Perhaps this is the perfect time to talk about fuelling your rides. Porridge is often the go-to meal for many cyclists –even British Cycling has a recipe card for it. However, there are other strategies too.
Now, as humans we really need two things out of our meals –protein and energy. We need protein to enable our bodies to create new cells and to repair damaged tissue. Exercise that results in overload of our muscles causes damage to the tissue, called microtrauma. This damage is then repaired by the body in a somewhat overzealous way to be bigger and stronger in an attempt to prevent that overload occurring in future –known as muscle hypertrophy. To repair these muscles requires protein.
Proteins are the building blocks of life and our bodies are in a constant state of renewal, so we need quite a lot of it. It is recommended that around 20% of the food you consume during the day is protein, but as we can only process around 10g of protein per hour, we need to spread that out through the day. This will mean eating smaller meals more often, but that’s ok because going from 8am to noon without eating anything is a thoroughly miserable experience! The trick is to make sure what you eat between breakfast and lunch, or between lunch and dinner isn’t wasted calories. We are big fans of keeping the sweet stuff for when we are actually cycling, so that in-between meal for us is often a protein shake, hard-boiled eggs or a large handful of nuts.
It’s also worth bearing in mind that not all proteins are created equally. Protein from animal sources –chicken, eggs etc will generally contain a complete set of amino acids, whereas many plant-based alternatives are incomplete, so some mixing and matching is required. However, Quinoa (actually pronounced Keenwah, so we’re told…) contains the full set and has been shoehorned into all sorts of things in recent months.
Protein aside, you also need energy to allow you to live, exercise and create that overload in the first place. How you source that energy should depend on the sort of exercise you plan to get up to. At this point things start getting complicated, but as luck would have it this is ground we’ve covered already in our weight loss post. So, on with the fuelling…
If you are planning a long ride that’ll last more than a few hours, be that a sportive, an audax or just an epic ride with your friends it is worth taking on a good meal a couple of hours before you set off. But what?
Ultimately, your meal needs to contain a good proportion of carbohydrate, but it needs to burn slowly and not send your pancreas into an insulin-producing frenzy. Your breakfast will end up being turned into fat before you’ve even had chance to wash the bowl.
This is why porridge is held in high regard. It’s low on the GI scale so will not provoke a large insulin response, instead drip-feeding glucose into your bloodstream and will keep you topped up for a good few hours. Best of all it’s really, really cheap –oats are oats whether they are supermarket own-brand in a plastic, bag or in a fancy box with an old man on the front. We bought a large bag of porridge oats from the supermarket for 75p.
It is also worth taking on some protein before you ride too. You will wake up in a protein-depleted state, so engaging in vigorous exercise without taking any on will result in your body metabolising lean muscle if it runs out of glycogen. At the very least, it’ll extend your recovery time. Preparing your porridge with milk rather than water is one way to add some protein to your breakfast –plus it’ll taste less like wallpaper paste that way.
However, if you don’t like porridge, we have found eggs to be another good source of fuel. Scrambled eggs on potato waffles was our go-to pre-audax breakfast for much of this year. Ultimately, there’s a lot of trial and error involved here. Everyone has different tastes and everyone responds differently to different foods. Take some time to familiarise yourself with the foods on the low end of the GI scale and see if there is anything there that takes your fancy.
Experiment with different foods before shorter rides or while you are at work. Are you hungry again half hour after your breakfast? Chances are it was a high-GI breakfast like Cornflakes or toast and has been quickly dispatched by your pancreas. Still not hungry at lunchtime? Maybe that’s the pre-ride meal you are looking for.
What you eat while you ride will depend very much on the intensity of your ride. Going back to our GI scale, if you are going to be racing cyclocross or a crit you will deplete the glycogen stored in your muscles very quickly. You will need to keep that topped up with fast-acting carbohydrates. Gels are popular, but we’re big fans of solid food and will go for granola bars, flapjacks, wine gums, peanut M&Ms and pretty much anything before resorting to a gel. It all depends what you can fit in your back pockets.
However, if you are doing an Audax, providing that you ride your own ride and not try to keep up with riders much quicker than you, you should be able to find a pace that’ll let you stay off the sugar in between controls. A good Audax route will have controls every 40-50 miles, where you can often stop for a meal –even if you have to buy it from a petrol station and cobble it together in the forecourt.
If you do get to stop somewhere like a pub, just remember that you are going to have to ride afterwards and should perhaps avoid food that is going to sit heavy in your stomach. Pasta, soup & a roll –not a 16oz steak with all the trimmings.
For the long, steady rides a bag of mixed fruit & nuts (providing you don’t have a nut allergy, obviously) in your back pocket is an option. However, carrying a couple of cereal bars isn’t going to hurt…
Your priorities for when you get back home again should be to take on protein and carbohydrates. Protein for muscle repair, carbohydrates to replenish your glycogen stores. We have found that eating a large meal when we get back is the last thing on our minds, but guzzling down a protein shake or a large mug of hot chocolate is far more palatable.
When you do feel like eating, it’s easy to fall into the trap of gorging on rubbish. We’ve munched through entire bags of chocolates during weak moments. A better idea is to look to the sort of meal you would normally have in the evening –meat & two veg, a bowl of pasta etc.
You will also need to continue taking on fluids. Even the most diligent rider will compromise on their fluid intake on a long ride –there’s only so much you can carry, plus there are distractions that’ll let you forget about taking on water, especially as you need to drink whether you are thirsty or not. If you are thirsty, you’ve probably left it too long. You will sweat a lot, plus your muscles and digestive system may well have been under constant bombardment for a few hours or even a whole day or more.
We have an article on hydration that is worth a read.
A change of attitude
Cycling is such a broad term. It’s an activity that can either mean riding 5 miles to work or 5,000 miles across the planet. However, it goes without saying that there is a line to be drawn between pootling to the office in the morning and taking on a serious challenge.
However long your ride is going to be, we cannot emphasise enough how important diet is to your enjoyment of that ride, or the speed at which you can recover enough to do it again. Even the fittest of people will be found out if they fail to fuel and hydrate properly. Rides of 100 miles or more are a serious undertaking and training for one involves more than just a lot of pedalling.
Please take the time to explore your options during your downtime. There’s a lot to be learned by embracing some of the nutrition strategies used by the professionals; recommended to you by your club coaches or by fellow randonneurs.