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How to Optimize Your Nutrition and Hydration for Bike Rides

We have seen how the popularity of ultra-distance activities has increased over the last couple of years and with the issue of social distancing facing us now there is even more reason to go on those long solo rides.

As more riders venture out for long adventure rides, gravel events, and endurance mountain bike races, they face distinct challenges when it comes to staying hydrated and fueled. Water and nutrition tables are often few and far between and based on weather and terrain you may be on your own for much longer than you anticipate.

Hydration determines your nutrition plan

Before getting down to details about what to eat and when, it is important to understand some overarching concepts. Hydration drives nutrition. Your hydration status significantly impacts your ability to break down and move the food you eat from your stomach to small intestine, and then transport nutrients into your bloodstream. Dehydration and hypothermia slow gut motility, which means the energy you desperately want stays in your gut instead of reaching working muscles. Worse than that, as it sits there it increases your risk for gastric distress, and a sour stomach is one of the leading causes of DNF (Did Not Finish) in ultra distance events. The lesson: prioritize hydration status over energy intake. You can fix an energy problem quickly, but fixing hydration- and hypothermia-related problems is a slower process.

Separate food from fluids

One of the best ways to prioritize hydration is to keep your calories in your jersey pockets. Carbohydrate-rich sports drinks like are designed to provide 25 grams of carbohydrate (100 calories) in about 500 millilitres of fluid. That is roughly equivalent to a serving of chews like PowerBar Powergel shots or most carbohydrate gels. We recommend incorporating sports drink into you fueling strategy, but make sure that it is not to carbohydrate rich. Something like Isostar’s Hydrate to Perform has a particularly good balance. We also suggest that you make sure you have plain water and a pure electrolyte drink so you can increase fluid intake in response to higher temperatures. You want the flexibility to adjust your energy and fluid intakes independently.

Match foods to pacing strategy

In long endurance rides it is common for athletes to start with solid foods that are rich in carbohydrate, fat, and protein early in the day. These foods are slower to digest so they provide longer-lasting energy, and you can digest them because the intensity is generally low. Because everyone starts in big bunches at gravel races and endurance mountain bike events, the first 1-2 hours are fast as riders work hard to stay with the fast group before dropping off and settling into a more sustainable pace for the long haul. It is important to eat during this period, but you will want to have “fast calories” like gels, sports drink, and chewables even though you still have many hours ahead of you. Once you back off and set a more sustainable pace, switch to solid foods for “slow calories” and reserve the fast calories for later in the day.

Consume and carry from water tables

Self-reliance is an important part of the culture of gravel and endurance mountain bike events, and water tables are often few and far between. If you have 40 kms to ride between stops, you must plan that a headwind, flat tire, or technical terrain could add 30-45 minutes to your expected time for that leg. If it is 60 kms between stops, those same variables could add 90-120 minutes. It is easy to carry more than enough calories for longer-than-expected sections; having reserve fluids is more of a problem.

No one wants to haul extra water because it’s heavy, but when you are loading up to leave an aid station, estimate how long it will take you to reach the next stop and then carry enough water for an additional hour (at minimum). And even if you are moving through water stations quickly, consume a 500ml bottle of fluid and then take full ones. It is like leaving the station with an extra bottle.

Save yourself from a stomach problem

Even if you have a tried and true fueling strategy and a list of foods you know work for you, there will be a time when your stomach stops cooperating. Dehydration, hypothermia, and reduced gut motility are the most common combination of factors leading to gastric distress during long endurance rides and events. If you are nauseated, bloated, and struggling with a sour stomach, you must work the problem: slow down, cool down, and sip small amounts of plain water.

Slowing down is better than stopping altogether, but reducing intensity gives your body a chance to redirect blood to gut to get digestion moving again. It also reduces internal heat production, which along with proactive measures like dousing yourself with water and opening layers, helps alleviate hypothermia. Finally, sipping small amounts of water helps improve hydration status and restore gut motility.

On long days, how you feel in the last third of the ride depends on the nutrition, hydration, and pacing decisions you made getting there. When you dial in your fueling strategy for the long haul, you can feel strong and satisfied crossing the finish line – no matter how long it takes to get there.

-Johann Wykerd 

Credit to article written by Chris Carmichael

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