Calories: How to Refuel During a Ride


What are you eating to charge up and store calories before, during, and after each ride?  What kinds of energy sources are required for cycling, and then at how we can refuel after a ride?

Cyclists are mostly concerned with two sources of energy, fats (triglycerides) and sugars (glycogens).  Whether you are maximizing speed, distance, or both, your body will have to use both kinds of energy to complete any ride. The problem is being able to access the energy when you need it and burn those calories.

Energy Consumption
Even a novice rider can pedal for hours before running out of energy if they pace themselves, whereas the most fit individuals hardly hold an all out sprint for even a minute.  Why the stark contrast?  Sprinting surely requires more energy per minute, even so, our body stores enough energy to sprint for at least half an hour. The problem is that although we have enough energy stored, our bodies cannot burn it fast enough to provide the energy needed for a longer sprint.

We keep lots of fat on reserve, and it takes our bodies a while to use it.  We store less sugar and it gets used up fast for quick bursts of energy. The oxidative system converts fat to energy and will supply most of the bodies needs at lower intensities. The body still needs glycogen at lower intensities. Organs like the brain and eyes rely solely on blood sugar. If you start to experience blurred vision or feel light headed it is a sign that they are running out of, or not getting enough sugar. Endurance is usually determined by how long you can maintain your reserves of glycogen.  The higher the intensity of the exercise the quicker you will deplete your valuable stores of glycogen. Regular eating will help top off reserves and is quite important in cycling. So what can you do to keep these glycogen levels up?

Before Your Ride
You don’t want to be on a ride with an empty stomach.  You’ll feel sluggish and drained throughout your ride without calories to burn.  At the same time you don’t want to be completely full from a heavy meal either.  If you are planning on a ride, eat a good mixture of healthy food, primarily being complex carbohydrates like whole grain pastas and breads.  You should also intake some healthy protein like lean white meat, Greek yogurt, and almonds.  A balanced diet is key, and not only that, but eating small portions more frequently throughout the day rather than 1-3 large meals will provide you with sustained energy rather than blood sugar peaks and crashes.

During the Ride
I would recommend bringing a variety of snacks for every ride.  The basic rule of refueling on the go is to eat before you are hungry and drink before you are thirsty.  If you feel hungry, you have likely waited too long to refuel.  A good rule of thumb is to eat at least every 45 minutes of riding time, but everyone is a little different so find what works for you.  Eat foods with lots of carbs.  Don’t rely on energy gels alone.  A mixture consisting of real food and nutritional supplements is best.  For example: on a longer ride I like to pack a peanut butter and jelly/honey/banana sandwich, a granola bar, a few energy gels, some Shot Bloks, a banana, and occasionally some M&Ms or Skittles.  Be sure to check out our post on: How to Make Your Own Energy Bars.   While the simple carbs provide quick energy, the complex carbs will provide longer lasting and stable energy.  You can combine heart rate training to burn different types of energy.  Lower heart rates will burn fat and higher, more intense heart rates will burn sugar. You can read more about hear rate training in our Heart Rate: 5 Steps to More Effective Winter Training.


After Riding
When your ride is finished your body needs to recover.  If you have been riding pretty hard, its likely that you’ve used up a good portion of nutrients.  After riding you will want to eat a good healthy meal to restore those nutrients.  Make sure you get some more complex carbs for glycogen restoration.  My favorite recovery drink is chocolate milk.  The chocolate provides the simple carbs to restore energy while the milk has protein for muscle recovery.  Sometimes I make a protein shake with whey protein powder which is even better for muscle recovery.

Proper nutrition is essential to training and improving your fitness.  Follow these guidelines to get more out of your rides and increase your performance.  You’ll feel better and more energetic before, during, and after each ride.  In addition to nutrition, proper training is also essential.  Check out this post about Base Heart Rate Training to improve your fitness.

If you are looking for a great way to store food while riding check out the Fezzari Jerseys and be sure to take a look at Saddle Bags as well.  The jersey has pockets in the back you can pack with food, and the saddle bag has an expandable pouch to include both food and tools.

Written by: Ethan Galloway

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