The first time I rode a 122k timed road event I learned a very important lesson. No matter how well you train for a race if you don’t diligently manage your hydration and nutrition things tend to go very badly. For the first 100k I felt amazing, everything was going perfectly to plan. In the last 22k, however, things fell apart. I was so excited by the race that I more or less forgot to eat. Though I was aware of the importance of hydration and nutrition, I didn’t feel hungry, so I didn’t bother digging into my jersey to get out any of my food. At around 100k I was overtaken by lethargy. My legs, which had previously felt strong, were no longer willing to turn the cranks. No amount of cajoling and self talk could get them moving again. Slowly but surely I inched my way backwards and right out of the peloton. I rode the last 20k of what had been a promising experience in a state of desperation.
After the race some experienced cycling friends asked me what had happened. When I told them that I had bonked they all gave me knowing smiles. It is a well known fact amongst cyclists, especially those that engage in lengthy road rides, that nutrition and hydration are one of the cornerstones of success. No matter how much you train, if you do not apply a well considered nutrition/hydration plan on race day you have a good chance of experiencing the proverbial bonk. Bonking happens when the body depletes its internal reserves of glycogen. One moment the cyclist feels strong and powerful, the next moment that same cyclist is riding as though they are pulling a Mack truck. If you have never experienced this, take it from me, you do not want to.
I did some research and discovered that there is endless information on nutrition and hydration. There are so many different opinions and approaches that finding the right one can be ominous. Rather than risk another disaster I sat down with one of the best cycling coaches available, Andrew Tuovinen of Athletic Endeavours Personal Training and Coaching. Andrew has been coaching cyclists of all levels for many years. Andrew takes a holistic approach to his coaching. He believes that success can best be achieved through a consistent plan that involves training, nutrition, sleep, stress management and consistency.
What source of energy does an endurance athlete rely upon when riding at high intensity for a long period of time?
AT: Glycogen is the main source of fuel that a cyclist engaged in a high intensity output relies upon. Glycogen is sugar that the body extracts from consuming a carbohydrate in a liquid or solid form. There are many sources of carbohydrate. When racing it is important to find quality carbs that are easy for the body to convert to glycogen when putting out a big effort.
I have heard of some extreme athletes relying upon fat as a source of fuel rather than carbs, is this common?
AT: Most athletes rely on carbohydrates as a source of energy, but some have trained themselves to rely on fat using a ketogenic diet. Realistically, however, fat is a good source of fuel for an athlete going extreme distances but maintaining a low/level intensity. Once your heart rate rises it is difficult to rely on fats. When the gun goes off and the race starts most cyclists move into a very high effort and the body looks for a “high octane” source of fuel. Athletes who are relying on fat as a source of fuel need to do the work to train their bodies well in advance. Even then, if they move towards a very high intensity effort they may struggle.
I have heard that when you are riding at a high intensity you will experience a caloric deficit, even if you are eating a fair bit. Can you explain this?
AT – Carbohydrates are basically sugars that break down into glucose. When you ride hard you start to deplete the carbohydrate that is stored in your body. The feeling of fatigue that develops during long road races is linked to low blood sugar. The amazing thing about endurance riding is that it is unrealistic to believe that you will be able to consume as many calories as you are burning. When you ride hard you will almost certainly push yourself into a deficit so you must replenish calories at a level that will keep you going. Consistent calorie consumption is key. Though everyone is different a 160 pound rider would need to consume about 250 to 300 calories per hour to stave off the bonk.
How about hydration? What do you recommend?
AT: Again, everyone is different, but as a rule of thumb a cyclist working at high intensity should be drinking around 1 bottle of fluid per hour. One of the beautiful developments in the sport nutrician industry is the development of endurance drinks that include electrolytes and carbohydrates. A good product can help you replenish your glycogen stores as well as your fluid/electrolyte balance.
Do you have any tips or tricks that you use to create a consistent pattern of nutrician/hydration?
AT: As I said, the body craves consistency. I recommend that a rider set up their bike computer with an alert that buzzes every 15 minutes for a drink and every 30 minutes for food. In an event you can get caught up in the moment and you may need a reminder of your nutrient timing.
I know that there are plenty of pre-packaged nutritional substances – are there any home made foods that you ride with?
AT: There are many great pre-packaged products, but I do love taking some of my own food along. Sometimes I boil baby potatoes with a little bit of salt and put them in a ziplock bag. They are a wonderful source of energy and they can help replenish your electrolytes. I also like to ride with a banana. Bananas are full of sugar and potassium which is great for a hard ride.
The final thing that Andrew told me was probably the most important thing of all.
“There is no one size fits all approach to better cycling. The key is to learn what works for you and to be consistent and accountable.”
In the short time that I spent talking with Andrew it was abundantly clear to me that his wealth of knowledge and experience would be a boon to any aspiring cyclist.