Tips for Fitz’s Challenge: Nutrition during a training ride

September 13, 2018

Adjunct Associate Professor in Sports Nutrition Vicki Deakin takes us through her top tips for nutrition during a training ride for Fitz’s Challenge.

When riding continuously during a long training ride that lasts for 60 to 90 minutes or more, you need to consume foods and/or fluids with a high carbohydrate (CHO) content. At around 60 to 90 minutes into a hard ride, the rate of utilisation of glucose for muscle and nervous system function does not match the rate of breakdown of glucose from your body’s storage sites (i.e. glycogen in the liver and muscle). There are clear metabolic and performance advantages to consuming CHO and fluid early and often during your long ride. The main benefits of CHO consumption during a ride are to maintain high-intensity effort and prevent hypoglycaemia (low blood sugar). Consuming foods rich in protein as a fuel source during your ride is unlikely to be of direct benefit, although this strategy is important for recovery at the end of the ride.

Start consuming fluid and CHO at around 60-90 minutes into the training ride. Your fluid and CHO source can come from:

  • a solid CHO-rich food consumed with plain water
  • 1 bidon of plain water and 1 bidon of sports drink
  • 2 bidons of sports drink

Seven nutrition tips for you to consider, adopt and practice during a long training ride.

Importantly… trial any changes to your usual eating and drinking choices during a bike ride before applying them on the day at Fitz’s Challenge.

1. Be organised and take responsibility for your own food choice

Always carry food and fluid during a long distance training ride and event. Although food stations are available on the routes for Fitz’s Challenge, you may have a flat tyre and be delayed.

Portable, non-perishable foods that are CHO-rich (e.g muesli bars, sports bars, sports gels, sandwiches, jelly beans or jelly snakes) are suggested.

2. Consume fluid often and in small amounts

Thirst is not a reliable indicator that you need a drink. The thirst sensation can turn off when you are dehydrated.

Always carry at least 2 bidons on a long training ride. Train yourself to eat during the ride so that at least one of your bidons contains water. Some riders crave the refreshing taste of water and find sports drinks as the only source of fluid in their 2 bidons too sweet and gluggy.

At times, I have used an alarm on a mobile phone or another device to remind riders when to eat and drink during a long ride. It’s so easy to get in the zone and forget.

3. Choosing your fluid

Water is fine if you can eat while you ride or stop and eat during the ride.

Sports drinks are ideal for riding long distances, particularly in very hot conditions. In 2015, it was uncharacteristically hot so pace yourself and modify your Nutrition Plan (and ‘race’ plan) if the conditions are unexpected.

Sports drinks allow more rapid delivery of water (~10% faster absorption) from the gut than plain water while providing a slow uptake of glucose into the cells. They also contain electrolytes (e.g sodium) in the ideal concentration for absorption. Some sports drinks contain protein and caffeine. Use a sports drink with a CHO content of 4-8% (4-8g/100mL water). If making the drink from powder and the weather is hot where fluid intake is the priority, dilute the mix to around 4-6% CHO. If CHO is the priority (i.e. in cold conditions) then a slight increase in concentration is recommended. Sports drink powders are available at the aid stations on the routes at Fitz’s Challenge.

The location of a good coffee shop is evident from the density of bikes and lycra-clad riders enjoying the moment. Some riders look forward to a mid-ride stop at the coffee shop to recover. Others reward themselves at the end. At Fitz’s Challenge, we provide lunch (and a coffee van) at the Tharwa aid station for those in the longer rides.

4. Consume enough fluid to avoid a large drop or a large gain in weight during the ride

Contrary to popular belief, there are no definitive fluid guidelines for exercise. There are too many variables and individual differences observed between cyclists of similar body mass riding together.

To obtain an estimate of your fluid requirements, check your weight before and after each long training ride. Determine the amount of fluid consumed and estimate the volume of urine loss. This exercise provides a crude assessment of fluid loss and hence requirements. Weight losses of greater than 2% of body weight during a long training ride (of 2-4 hours) can compromise performance. As a rough guideline 1 kg of weight = 1 litre of fluid as replacement. This method gives a very rough estimate of fluid requirements and can overestimate fluid deficit in high-intensity long rides.

It’s OK to have some weight loss after a long ride. A small deficit is expected. In single day endurance events, 1-3% loss of weight or body mass is not unusual and can be tolerated as a one-off situation.

The volume of fluid is more important than the timing. Estimate your fluid losses, devise a drinking plan and be prepared to modify it to suit the varying ride conditions.

Watch drinking too much fluid (overhydration) during a long training ride. This is evident from a gain in weight or body mass. This is a risk factor for a condition called hyponatraemia. This is not a common problem in cyclists (or cycling events) compared to running events but still happens in long distance rides at high intensity and is more likely to occur in an event than a training ride.

5. How much CHO to consume?

The amount consumed varies with your weight or body mass (actually muscle mass), the intensity of your effort, the ride conditions and the duration of the ride.

As a ‘ball park’ figure, consume between 30-60g of CHO per hour during a long ride. For Fitz’s challenge or when you are riding for more than 3 hours at constant effort, higher CHO intakes (up to around 90g/hr) may be needed. This is the upper limit of the rate of glucose absorption that has been measured in well-trained athletes so there is no point in eating beyond this amount or having a large sugar hit at once. (See below for food choices).

As suggested in my earlier blog, large intakes of high sugar foods such as sports gels, sports confectionery, jelly beans, snakes, sports bars, dried fruit may cause abdominal discomfort, nausea, gut cramping and diarrhoea and do not address fluid requirements.

Similar to the guidelines on the timing of fluid, take small amounts of CHO-rich food frequently.

Use sports drinks if you have difficulty consuming solid food during your ride.

If you use gels (which are a concentrated source of CHO) then you need to consume them with plain water to dilute the concentration and minimise gut problems.

6. Allow enough time between training rides for adequate rest, sleep and recovery

This helps the immune system handle the metabolic stress induced high-intensity exercise and promotes full recovery of CHO stores. You need to reduce your ride distance and intensity (i.e. taper) before Fitz’s challenge so your CHO storage sites are maximised.

7. Sources of food during a ride

Food contains a mixture of nutrients (carbohydrate, fat, protein, vitamins and minerals). Foods that are practical, portable and non-perishable and rich in CHO are the best choice during a ride. The protein content in the CHO-rich foods below is not relevant to performance capacity. A higher intake of high-quality protein-rich foods is more important to consume after the ride to promote rapid recovery. Suggested CHO-rich food sources are found below.

Description (%=g carbohydrate (CHO)/100g food) Amount to provide around 30g carbohydrate
Sports drink (~8% CHO, some may contain protein and caffeine) ~400 mL
Banana  (20% CHO, 1.5% protein) 1 large, 2 small
Orange (8% CHO, 0.5% protein) 1 large
Apple (13% CHO, 0.3% protein) 1 medium apple
Dried fruit (apricots, sultanas)(40% CHO,4% protein) small handful ( e.g. 8-10 dried apricots)
Jelly beans, jelly snakes, jubes (80% CHO, 4% protein) 10 jelly beans, 3-4 jelly snakes
Bread (40% CHO, 9% protein) 2 slices, 1 roll
Sports gel  (65-70% CHO, no protein) ~1 sachet
Muesli bar/cereal bar (53-60% CHO, 6-8% protein) 1 bar
Sports bars* (varying content, read more) 1-2   bars

Useful links

Find more information on eating and drinking during exercise

Find detailed scientific information about specific sports foods or sports supplements

Read my blog on planning for a long training ride

(Adjunct) Associate Professor Vicki Deakin is a keen rider and a member of the organising committee for Fitz’s Challenge. She was the former Head of Nutrition and Dietetics at the University of Canberra and initiated the nutrition services at the Australian Institute of Sport and the ACT Academy of Sport in Canberra. She is co-editor, with Professor Louise Burke, of the reference textbook, Clinical Sports Nutrition, now into its 5th edition.