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Eating for Endurance Cycling, Part 2: Fueling for Longer Rides

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Eating for Endurance Cycling, Part 2: Fueling for Longer Rides
by Heather Nakamura, MPE, MS, RD

Have you ever been on a long ride and suddenly run out of energy or suffered from leg cramps? One of the biggest mistakes new cyclists make is failing to hydrate and fuel during longer rides.  Cycling longer than 60 minutes requires additional hydration. Adequate fluid intake is important for temperature regulation and transporting fuel and waste products to and from working muscles. Dehydration can lead to muscle cramps, fatigue, headaches, nausea and overheating. To maintain hydration, aim for 16-24 ounces of fluid (one water bottle) per hour, or enough to maintain body weight. Weigh yourself before and after a long ride.  For every pound lost, plan to drink another 16 ounces of fluid during your next long ride.

Research has shown that consuming carbohydrate during activity longer than 90 minutes can prolong endurance.  Most athletes should aim for about 150-300 calories per hour, though high intensity training or longer duration activities will require more.  Here’s a summary of different energy products and tips on using them to fuel your workouts:

Sports Drinks

Sports drinks provide fluid, carbohydrate and electrolytes during endurance activities.  If you’re cycling longer than 90 minutes, start consuming fluid and carbohydrates within the first 30-60 minutes.  A sports drink should have a carbohydrate concentration of about 6-10%, or around 50-70 calories per cup.  Sports drinks also contain electrolytes, which help to maintain optimal blood chemistry, especially during endurance events in hot and humid temperatures.  Manufacturers have also begun to include some protein in their sports drinks.  Including protein may help the body digest and absorb more calories during activity, increasing endurance.  It may also help to reduce muscle damage and promote recovery.  The recommended ratio of carbohydrate to protein in an endurance formula is about 4:1.

Sports Gels

Sports gels provide a portable source of energy and electrolytes during activity.  One packet of gel contains about 100 calories.  Energy chews are products similar to gels, but in a solid form. Clif Shot Blocks, Sharkies, Luna Moons and Honey Stingers taste like gum drops, and can be chewed or dissolved in your mouth.  Many athletes feel these products are neater to dispense and consume in small amounts.  Whether you use gels or blocks, make sure to consume each serving with 1-2 cups of water, to help maintain hydration and decrease risk of stomach upset.

Some gels contain additional substances, such as vitamins and herbs, which have no proven benefit and may decrease tolerance for certain individuals.  Some also contain caffeine, which can have beneficial effects on endurance performance.  Individual response can vary, however, and consuming large doses of caffeine can lead to dehydration, nervousness, anxiety, palpitations and stomach upset.  Experiment with caffeine before trying it during an event, and alternate caffeine containing gels with plain gels during long distance rides to moderate caffeine intake.

When choosing a sports drink or gel, experiment with a number of brands and flavors until you find one you like and can tolerate during activity.  It’s also a good idea to determine which gels and/or sports drinks will be provided at your next event, and try them out during training. If they don’t work for you, bring your favorite brand to the event and carry it with you.

Energy Bars

Bars containing carbohydrate can provide sustained energy during longer duration activities.  Those containing protein may also help to limit muscle breakdown and promote recovery. During moderate intensity activities such as walking, cycling or hiking, energy bars can provide a longer lasting fuel source than sports drinks or gels.

Energy bars come in a variety of types, with varying amounts of carbohydrate, protein and fat.  High-carbohydrate bars, with lower amounts of protein, fat and fiber, can provide a good fuel source during moderate intensity activities.   Look for bars containing less than 10 grams of protein, 5 grams of fiber and 5 grams of fat. Examples include Powerbar, Clif, Luna, PRIA, Peak bars and many granola and cereal bars.

Studies comparing the effects of consuming energy bars to bagels during cycling found no difference in performance.  As long as there were equal amounts of calories and carbohydrate in each food, the effects on performance were the same.  Cost-conscious individuals, or those preferring whole foods, may want to try fueling with high-carbohydrate snacks like dried fruit, cereal or granola, fruit bars, baked potatoes, bagels or pretzels

Bottom Line…

Sports drinks and gels provide a convenient source of fuel during endurance activities, but individual response can vary, so try them out before using them during an event.  Some energy bars can also work during moderate intensity activity, but make sure to read the nutrition label and list of ingredients before making your choice.  So whether you fuel up with a bar, gel, pretzels or a bagel, it really doesn’t matter. Just follow the guidelines mentioned above and experiment with different options until you find what works for you!

See you on the road!

Heather Nakamura, MPE, MS, RD is a registered dietitian with Masters Degrees in both Nutrition and Exercise Physiology.  She works as a “Personal Wellness Coach”, to help active individuals develop nutrition and training programs that focus on improving performance, maximizing energy, and achieving optimal body composition and health. For information on personal health coaching or upcoming seminars, call (206) 595-2688 or visit her website at www.targetgoodhealth.com.



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