Cycling Nutrition: How to fuel for different types of rides
Nutrition is a polarizing topic. There is loads of information available, in online and offline sources, on optimizing food intake for sports, especially endurance-focused approaches, but some of it can be frustratingly confusing, not easy to understand for the average rider or even offering contradictory advice. Suboptimal food intake can often be the culprit of mediocre performance on the bike, as opposed to (lack of) training. Here is a short primer on how to keep your body correctly fueled on rides of varying lengths, and certain things to keep in mind if you're getting into long-distance gravel riding. The first step in building a good understanding of how to eat correctly for cycling is to start with the simple fundamentals.
Regulate your carbohydrate intake
Let’s begin with carbohydrates: the average person can process a maximum of around one gram of carbohydrates per minute, regardless of the amount consumed. This is just the speed at which your guts can get glucose from digested food into the bloodstream. Accordingly, a carbohydrate consumption between 30-60 grams per hour is advised (according to the American College of Sports Medicine). Carbohydrate intake beyond this amount doesn’t boost the absorption rate, but can result in an upset stomach which many athletes suffer from in racing scenarios where they consume much more carbs than their body can efficiently process. Therefore, it is best to control your carb consumption by dividing the intake between energy drinks or gels and solid food rich in electrolytes, like bananas.
Fueling short rides
For rides under one hour, the priority will be hydration replenishment more than solid food intake. You will probably have adequate energy reserves from prior food consumption to finish the ride with ease, but it is always a good idea to take a small and easily pocketable snack, like a banana, dates or figs. A bottle of plain water or with an electrolyte drink mix will suffice.
Fueling long rides
For rides three hours and above in duration, your nutrition strategy should focus on frequent replenishment of carbohydrates and electrolytes. You also need to supplement with some protein intake, especially in endurance racing situations. Try to take a variety of foods to prevent onset of palette fatigue which can prevent you from remembering to eat at regular intervals. Remember: you will need between 30-60 grams of carbs per hour, so read the labels on your energy gels and drinks, understand the energy content of solid food you will carry and do some food math to figure out your best feeding strategy, be that whether you will be doing a self-supported ride or have refueling stops or feed stations along your route.
A note on long self-supported gravel rides
Big gravel rides often take us on paths less travelled, and consequently (depending on where you are in the world) chances to replenish your food and hydration might be scarce along certain routes. If that will be the case on your planned rides, it might be wise to outfit your gravel bike with additional cargo carrying capabilities such as top tube or frame bags as well as additional bottles cages (if your bike has the mounts for them), which will enable you to carry large reserves of food and hydration to go longer without the need for replenishment opportunities, which may not be readily accessible.