FUEL THE FIRE: Proper nutrition & hydration while riding

USA Cycling's Race Director Certification Manager, Tara McCarthy fuels up with a Bonk Breaker By James Herrera
One of the most important things many cyclists forget is that every time we go over our threshold, we burn valuable glycogen, stored carbohydrate. And once the race car’s out of gas, our Ferrari turns into a jalopy.

Take in calories frequently

You’ve got to keep the muscles going by stoking the fire with small, frequent bouts of calories in the form of foods and fluids. Bars and gels are great because they’re small and portable, they fit in our jersey pockets, and they're formulated with the right mix of protein, carbs, and fat. But just as useful and sometimes more pleasant is REAL FOOD. Consider this, when you’re working over threshold. What’s important here is quickly absorbed carbohydrate. If you’re carrying things you like, start chowing down. We’re much more likely to consume foods and fluids we like the taste of. A wise man once told me, “A Snickers and a Mountain Dew will get you home from anywhere.” Eat your M&M's, Snickers, Fig Newtons, favorite trail mix, cookies, or the trustworthy bars and gels.

Keep the portions small

Another thing to keep in mind is that a body working hard doesn’t handle huge influxes in calories well. That being said, you should eat frequently in small, more easily digestible portions. GI distress is no fun when you’re 20 miles from home.

Don't forget recovery

A final thought on nutrition: Don’t forget that glycogen window - the 30 minutes post exercise when our body is primed to ingest and store carbohydrate. Recovery drinks or a good fruit smoothie are a great way to start the process. Also consider a carbohydrate-rich meal with a lean source of protein to help with carb uptake and a small green salad to aid digestion. Great recovery is putting more matches in the book for the next day’s ride.

Stay hydrated

A body progressing towards a dehydrated state can lose up to 30% power on the bike. That’s a whole lot of oomph you’re sacrificing at the expense of not sipping your sports drink. As with feeding, drink early and often, and choose to consume a combination of water and your favorite sports drink. It’s important to replace those electrolytes you lose while sweating on your ride. Most sports drinks are formulated with a combination of good electrolyte balancing and carbohydrate sources. A great sports drink is three steps in the right direction: fluid, electrolytes, and carbs.

Nutrition Review

  • Eat early, frequently, and in small portions.
  • Eat foods you like the taste of.
  • Keep bars and gels on hand, but also consider eating real food: Fig Newtons, candy bars, a homemade scone, trail mix
  • Treat yourself when you’re working hard. Consume a few of those forbidden snacks that you otherwise wouldn’t: M&M’s, Snickers, and chocolate chip cookies. A great friend and athlete I coach is known to chow on gummy bears while on long training rides.
  • Don’t forget the glycogen window. Carb it up post ride to ensure the muscles are rebuilding after your training session. You’ll be one step ahead for the next ride.

Hydration Review

  • Drink your calories. Most all energy drinks will contain an easily digestible carbohydrate source
  • Drink both H2O and sports drink to get adequate amounts of fluid and electrolytes into your system
  • Drink early and often throughout the course of your ride
  • Consider a recovery drink immediately post ride to help begin the rebuilding process and hit that glycogen window.