Wondering how to fuel cycling energy for a long bike ride or sportive?
Ok, let’s start from the basics of how your body fuels itself when cycling. When you understand the basic underpinning principles, it will make it easy to see how all of this works together for you.
To make this easy for you, I’ve used an analogy instead of tiring scientific jargon. Let’s begin!
Understanding your energy supply when cycling:
When cycling along, your body can access two energy tanks. The first energy tank is your fat tank and it has a tiny tap from which fat can be accessed as a fuel. To access this fat, you have to cycle really, really slowly because fat trickles out only slowly.
However, the fat tank is massive, so ‘potentially’ it could fuel you for a few sportives back to back without you eating anything else if you went slow enough! (In reality, though it’s not quite like this as you still need carbohydrate, but for arguments sake, let’s say it is).
The second tank is your carbohydrate tank. This tank has a much bigger tap from which you can readily access carbohydrate. As you cycle faster, your fat tap quickly ‘turns off’ and you now access carbohydrate as the preferred fuel. You can access this tank of energy easily because the tap is so big – but the drawback is that the carbohydrate tank is very small, in comparison with your fat tank. Because it’s small and the tank tap big, you can only access about a 2 hour supply of carbohydrate before you run out of energy…
Can you train your fat tank to be more efficient?
You can train yourself to access more fat from your fat tank, preserving your carb stores in your limited carbohydrate tank. The key is in trying to make the fat tank’s tap bigger. When it gets bigger you can go that bit faster and use more fat for fuel, hence preserving precious carbohydrate from the carb tank.
In other words, you can ‘delay’ the length of time it takes to run out of energy by burning more fat for fuel.
This is in essence is what “fundamental endurance” training is all about. Not only are you training your muscles to cope with longer distances, but you are also training your body to use more fat for fuel, preserving carbohydrates and going faster for longer.
Professional cyclists are a great example of having extremely well trained fat taps. They’ve cycled for so many years and built layer upon layer of fundamental endurance that they can go fast for a good number of hours on little food intake. They do need carbs, but run out of energy ‘much later’ than we sportive amateurs would.
On the other hand, obese/highly unfit subjects have such poorly trained fat taps that they access their carb tank readily with hardly any exercise. They deplete their energies quickly many times a day.
Now you can see why obese/highly unfit subjects crave sugary food so often…which in turn leads to diabetes and so the cycle repeats itself and they get fatter and fatter.
The solution here is to exercise like riding a bike and train that fat tank to release more fat to curb sugar cravings and restore better energy balance during the day.
So how do I train my fat tank to get more efficient?
You might be thinking long and slow is the answer, but unfortunately, not all of us have the time to do long, slow endless miles like a professional does over winter.
The solution is keep working on your one long bike ride each weekend will help considerably, AND do some faster work midweek. The faster cycling has the effect of increasing your metabolism AFTER your bike ride. Because you’ve got your feet up and got a ‘revved up’ engine, the preferred energy source is…you guessed it… fat! So, yes, you can burn fat whilst sleeping as well as by cycling too…and notice I’ve not mentioned the word ‘diet’ here!:-).
Do your normal training and keep it consistent from week to week, month to month. Over the course of a good 4-6 months, you should see a difference in the time it usually takes before you run out of energy. You will notice you go faster for longer before petering out which means you’ve become more ‘enduring’.
How do I fuel when out on the bike to ward off running out of energy?
BUT I hear you say, you don’t want to run out of energy on the bike AT ALL! Of course not. In which case you have to eat at some point during your bike ride.
As you may know, your preferred energy source is going to come from carbohydrates. You are looking for carb foods which supply you with energy slowly over a long time period, – up to about 30 minutes each time.
Examples include: oat based cereal bars, dried fruit, bananas, fruit cake, commercially formulated energy bars, energy drinks and gels.
TIP: If you ingest sugary bars on a bike ride, like a mars bar you will be in for trouble. Pure sugar releases quickly into the bloodstream causing a sugar spike. When this happens, you usually trigger a hormone called insulin to bring it under control.
Unfortunately, insulin can end up causing your blood sugar levels to swing from being very high, to being very low – and you may find you’ve completely run out of energy after 20 minutes of ingesting the nasty culprit!
Hence, we (endurance cyclists) look for ‘slow releasing carbohydrate foods’ to supply us with a continuous ‘flow’ of energy.
When to eat during a long bike ride?
You may read elsewhere that you can delay to eat for the first hour on the bike, because the body has a good supply for about an hour and a half/two hours before depleting. This is true in some cases; you can go out training and decide to start eating on the hour with no adverse affects to your training.
However, in a long sportive you need to eat sooner than the hour point. I say this because it’s not just the distance that is going to take it out of you. Realise that you will have the course elements to deal with: wind, rain, hills, nervous energy, your pace, your cycling pedalling style and as we’ve mentioned – how well you are trained for endurance. All of this will have a draw on your energies.
The earlier you eat, the better you can preserve your carb tank from getting anywhere near depleted. Even a ‘low’ energy tank can see a decrease in overall performance – you don’t necessarily have to ‘run out of energy’ to have a performance drop…..so eat early and keep topped up!
How often to top up food?
As a general rule of thumb, you should eat every 20 minutes on a long sportive.
Obviously, though this rule is just guidance as it depends on WHAT you ingest. I can only talk from personally experience of riding 6-8 hour sportives/races/long rides and pass on what I’ve found over the years. This may or may not suit you, but this is what has worked/has not worked for me out on the road (i.e. not in a sports lab):
- A cereal bar and/or pieces of fruit cake – probably the best form of food for a long sportive because I find the amount of energy lasts for a good 25 minutes before having to top up again. I will delve in again and eat an energy bar at the 20 minute point throughout my sportive.
At the moment, I use Clif Energy Bars, non chewy, easy to eat and easy to open the wrapper. At the time of writing this today, I notice Evans Cycles have a 15% sale on all energy bars, so worth a browse!
- ‘Pate des fruits’ or energy gels – never worked well because they don’t give enough energy – even though it’s stated they are high energy, I continually found I had to top up with them every 10-15 minutes to get the same energy boost as a simple cereal bar or fruit cake. Great for the last 10km of a 2.5 hour triathlon, hopeless for long sportives + 3 hours!
- Sandwiches - the most fantastic energy boost eaten in combination with cereal bars AFTER about the 3 hour 30 point. I believe there is a tipping point in a long bike ride where you NEED something substantial to boost your carb tank. A good sandwich with honey or peanut butter can lift your whole ride. The only drawback is it’s cumbersome to eat – hence why I only eat it once an hour from about 3hr30 onwards.
- Energy carb drinks like Maxim (a hypertonic solution): you can just get away with using only a carb drink for up to three hour bike rides. Carb drinks are great for short races where you won’t have time to ‘eat food’ as such, but for longer ‘sportives’ or races you need ‘food’ regularly. I also find that carb drinks dehydrate me over the course of a 3 hour ride which isn’t good. If you add a cereal bar to this, you will dehydrate even further! I also find carb drinks make my stomach cramp by the end of 3 hours.
So how do you combine hydration and energy supply?
If you’ve been used to hypertonic sports drinks, an isotonic should taste less concentrated and you’ll wonder if you’ve added enough powder! You should only just taste the flavour – and taste ‘weak’ and watery AND feel so much lighter on your stomach. You don’t need much to replace electrolytes during your rides but it’s critically important not to drink just plain water.
TIP: You might think plain water is best if you’re eating cereal bars, but unfortunately, water doesn’t absorb into the bloodstream as fast or as well as an isotonic electrolyte solution.
You then need to drink regularly during your ride – this is critical if you are also eating at the same time because the body WILL absorb a lot of water from you to digest carbohydrate! This is the drawback of eating carbs and a fine balance for you to find.
As a rule of thumb, drink a full 750ml every hour – really try to do this, don’t sleep on this after 2 hours believing you’ve drunk well – keep doing so to counter your carb intake, or you will run into problems late in the ride.
I’m not saying get uncomfortable with too much fluid sloshing around, but find a balance for what works for you both eating and drinking, specially riding more than 3 hours.
Test everything I’ve said here in training. See where you might improve and then try it! When you feel confident in a strategy, then is time to test it in a local sportive. The differences can be huge performance wise cycling post 3 hours…so it’s worth always seeing if you can improve things.
Testing is the way to become a faster and more experienced cyclist – so don’t just take my word for it – get out there and test it and see if it works!
Take home points:
- You have a fat tank and carbohydrate tank. (In reality both are phased into each other, they don’t actually switch off and on).
- You access each depending on the speed you cycle: slowly you access more fat, go faster and you access more carbs.
- Your carb tank has limited supplies and needs topped up regularly.
- Train your fat tank and you delay using up your carb stores. To do this, continue to do your long bike rides.
- Fast bike rides around your long bike ride, can rev your metabolism, causing you to burn fat at rest.
- For long bike rides look to eat carbs to keep carb stores fully tanked up. Never eat sugar laden mars bars because it can cause you to run out of energy quickly.
- Cereal bars are probably your best compromise versus energy supplied and ease of eating.
- Eat early and drink early on your long sportives because the event as a whole will be draining.
- Eat every 20 minutes on a bike ride. Eat a sandwich if post 3hours 30 and then every hour to boost energies, combined with cereal bars.
- Hydrate using an isotonic concentration of fluid with electrolytes. Stay away from hypertonic energy solutions post 3 hour rides.
- Hydrate regularly throughout your ride to the end.
- Test and find what works for you is the bottom line.
Congrats for getting this far with this very long post! The best way to reward yourself with such a long read is with a hot cup of tea – no sugar now:-)
If you enjoyed this post, do share on social media and with your friends. I look forward as always to any comments or questions you may have.