Riding a cheap bike but being properly fuelled will give you better results than riding an expensive bike and eating junk. You are the engine for your bike and it really pays off to give it the right fuel at the right time.
To get the best out of your body during exercise it pays to keep it fuelled properly. Fuelling is critical, especially on long distance events over many hours. Knowing what to eat and when will keep you going for longer and help you perform better and have more fun.
Sports nutrition has progressed massively in the last few years with a huge amount of products now available in different formats, different flavours and for different stages of exercise.
This huge array of products can also be baffling but fear not as it’s not as bewildering as it first seems. If you’re not overly bothered about the details and science stuff, feel free to scroll down to the ‘What to eat and when‘ section below.
There are basically three broad categories of sports nutrition products: powders/tablets, bars and gels.
These do basically three different jobs: fuelling, hydrating and recovery.
Certain products are also designed to work best during different phases of exercise so it’s worth knowing what each does and when it’s best to use it.
Nutrition powders are mixed with water to create drinks which not only hydrate but are an ideal way to get fuel into the body quickly and easily. Simply mix in the correct amount of powder to water and that’s it, ready.
There are three broad types of powder available for use before, during and after riding depending on your needs:-
Carbohydrates – these are the main source of energy for the body so are best used before and during exercise for fuelling
Electrolytes – these are not energy, instead they help hydrate the body and replenish salt and sodium levels (as well as other minerals) lost from the body during exercise so are best used during exercise for hydration. Recovery powders usually contain electrolytes as well as protein to help hydrate in the recovery phase.
Proteins – these aid recovery and repair and are therefore better for use after exercise. Some manufacturers, such as the High5 4:1, have a mild protein powder which can be used during long exercise sessions to help the recovery process start earlier as well as providing carbs for fuelling.
There’s a wide range of flavours to suit most palates and for convenience powders are available in bulk tubs individual portion sachets.
Tablets (or “tabs”) work in the same way as powders in that they are simply mixed with water to create an isotonic drink. These are electrolyte tablets used mainly for rehydration purposes as opposed to providing energy.
They can also be used with carbohydrate based drinks to help hydrate as well as fuel in one drink, best to go for neutral flavour tabs if doing this method. They are best used during exercise. A lot of riders prefer tablets to powder because they’re easier to use and take along with you.
Energy bars are an excellent solution for what-to-eat during exercise without feeling bloated. They are packed with all the necessary ingredients – mainly carbohydrates – to keep you fuelled and are easy to digest.
Some manufactures also make a protein enriched version which can be used towards the end of exercise sessions to start the recovery process early as well as fuelling.
Energy gels are the fastest, most efficient and most convenient ways of supplying carbohydrates to the body. These specially formulated gels are packed with carbohydrates and are easily absorbed while exercising to fuel you quickly.
Several manufacturers also offer a caffeine version which as the name suggests is also charged with caffeine for an extra stimulant boost as well as fuelling. A wide range of flavours means there’s something for all tastes including caffeine versions which don’t taste of coffee.
What to eat and when
Knowing what to eat and when is different for each person but there are broad patterns to follow. Don’t be afraid to try different strategies to see what works best for your body and your needs though.
A light meal 2-3 hours before exercise is best but in the real world it’s not possible. In the run up to a hard session a carbohydrate drink or energy bar will help put fuel in before the effort.
If you’d rather leave the ‘science food’ until you’re on the bike, then some brown toast with honey or jam on is good. And a cup of coffee, just because.
Carbohydrates are the most important fuel during exercise so whatever way you find easiest to take them on board (powders, bars or gels) is up to you. On a long session don’t be afraid to use all these forms of nutrition, it’ll stop you getting bored with just one type.
In a hot environment it’s also worth using an electrolyte drink (powders or tabs) to help the body replace vital minerals lost through sweat.
This is the one that most people ignore. Truth be told, you can ignore it if you’ve just finished a regular or short sort of ride. Feel free to have another coffee or a small beer and relaxing post-ride chit-chat.
After a hard session however, it is a good idea to take something protein-based to help your body repair and recover. Powders are ideal as they also contain electrolytes to help hydrate and are easy to digest.
There is a growing range of protein bars now available so if you’d rather eat something instead of have yet more drink, protein bars are a good alternative source.
Which energy and recovery stuff should you buy?
As we have said, what nutrition strategy works best varies between person to person so don’t be afraid to experiment until you get the right product or plan for your needs.
Regular riders who don’t want to go too OTT with this sort of stuff but are interested in having a bit of effective and practical fuel with them on their rides should use carbohydrate energy bars and either carbohydrate drink powder or electrolyte drink tablets. It’s also a good idea to get some gels which you can stash in your pack for emergency use.
Long distance riders can really benefit from modern nutrition and there’s a valid place for having every type of product listed above. You may find that you get bored with sweet-tasting stuff after a few hours so you should contemplate taking some savoury flavoured stuff with you; either one of the new generation of savoury-flavoured bars or possibly something like a small bag of peanuts.