Cyclists try adding real food to their diet of gels and bars

By Ann Brennan
More and more cyclists are realizing that there options other than bars and gels. Though endurance nutrition companies are getting better and better at creating tasty fueling options for athletes, more and more athletes are adding real food to their cycling diet.

Cyclists are adding real food for a variety of reasons -- from not liking the taste or texture of the gels and bars that are currently available to wanting more variety to experiencing stomach upset from the lack of solid food. The real food options cyclists turn to vary just as much.
Many of the cyclists I spoke with enjoy the convenience offered by bars and gels and try to mimic the convenience in their choices for real food. Sandwiches cut into small pieces, Uncrustables and trail mixes all rank high for these cyclists.

Ironman athlete Ron Bowman likes the feel of having something more substantial to eat while riding but ranks convenience as the most important consideration in making food choices.

“M&M’s, Pretzel’s, and those airplane size bags of peanuts are good,” Bowman says.

As a bonus Bowman has found a way to get many of these convenience items for free.

“When I fly, I will often ask the attendant if I can raid the small packets of peanuts, pretzel’s, and cookies. They usually nod and smile when I tell them I am an ultra-marathoner and triathlete.”

For most of the cyclists I spoke with, though, it is all about taste. From peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, to half-baked potatoes to miniature burritos, riders sacrifice convenience for having something that tastes good.

Dr. Bill Vickers who completed RAAM (Race Across America) as a member of a relay team in 2010, says burritos filled with rice, avocado and a little cream cheese are hard to beat both for the nutritional value and the flavor.

“Before we left for RAAM, I told my teammates about my food strategy and received a couple of skeptical looks but no takers on my kind of food.” Dr. Vickers said. “The decision to stick with gels as a primary source of fuel was fine for the first day but after 24 hours of nothing but gels their stomachs revolted and a couple of the riders had real stomach problems.”

Stomach upset is the biggest reason I found among cyclists for adding real food to their fueling bank. But without exception, the cyclists I spoke with warned against trying a new food for the first time on an important ride.

After experiencing stomach bloat from gels, Diana Mestrovic tested different combinations over an entire season until she came up with a combination that worked for her.

“I decided to try honey for the natural energy. That worked well, but was a little too intense.” Mestrovic said, “So I introduced string cheese to get some protein to calm me down and stabilize my blood sugar a bit. Then I added seeded flatbread because it is a more complex carbohydrate and has the same effect.”

Mestrovic discovered two bonus effects in the process of experimenting with her fuel.

“These three things actually take up less space than the bars and gels. And the cheese and flatbread are a bit dry, so I hydrate better.”
Though most of the cyclists I spoke with choose to use a combination of real food and gels and bars, many avoid them all together for dietary reasons. Because of specific food allergies, these athletes choose to make their own energy and protein bars to get them through the long rides.

Jenn Sutherland of The Whole Kitchen started preparing Dashew Nut Bars for her rides because she has a completely gluten free diet, but stuck with them because they taste.(See below for a recipe for Dashew Snack Bars).

Long distance cyclists are learning more everyday. Thirty years ago, a cyclist would head out the door without giving a second thought to fuel intake. That is no longer the case. The invention and progression of bars and gels have revolutionized the way athletes think about fueling on the fly, but that doesn’t mean the cyclist’s nutritional education has stopped. If anything, it is through the introduction of these products that cyclists have learned to analyze their nutritional needs and make smarter choices.
Jenn Sutherland’s Dashew Snack Bars
Serves 12 
97 cal, 5.3g fat, 9g sugars, 2,1g protein, 12g carb
4 oz cashews, unsalted, raw
4 oz dates, pitted
1/2 cup dried coconut, unsweetened
1/2 tsp cinnamon
pinch of salt

1. Preheat the oven to 300 degrees. Spread the cashews on a baking sheet and toast in the oven for 10 minutes. Add the coconut to the sheet pan, and toast cashews and coconut for another 5-8 minutes, until both coconut and cashews are a toasty golden color. Take them out of the oven, and then set them aside on a cooling rack to cool.

2. When the cashews and coconut have cooled, add all ingredients to your food processor. Process until the mixture is ground fairly fine, and begins to ball up into a thick paste. Line a small baking sheet with parchment. Turn the paste onto the parchment paper, and press the bars together into about 1/3″ thick sheet. Fold the parchment over the top of the bars, and press very firmly to evenly distribute the mixture to form nice, uniform bars.

3. Stash the sheet pan in the fridge to cool for 30 minutes, then remove and cut into 2″ blocks. Wrap in waxed paper and store in the fridge for an easy to grab snack.