Cycling Nutrition: Eating After the Ride

I’ve seen this happen time and time again.  Laura and I have had the good fortune to go on several bicycle tours that last one to two weeks.  The tours are advertised for advanced or experienced riders and typically feature hilly or mountainous terrain and daily rides in the 60 to 125 mile range.  You ride from place to place and a van carries your luggage.  The other riders on the tour are almost always experienced cyclists, at least in the sense that they have been riding for many years and are used to riding long miles. 

These tours usually schedule a day or two off when the riders are free to do whatever they want.  This has always puzzled me.  Why would experienced cyclists pay the steep cost of going on one of these tours, go through all the hassle of getting their bike to some exotic location, and then spend a day or two not riding in terrain that provides spectacular cycling? 

​The people who run these tours obviously know more about it than I do because by the third or fourth day of the tour almost all of the riders are noticeably lacking in energy and enthusiasm, are irritably fretting about why they feel so tired, and are looking forward to the break.  Meanwhile, Laura and I are riding extra miles every day because we’re having so much fun, are fresh and ready to go every morning, and are typically the only ones out on our bikes on the day off.

What’s going on?  Why are we riding more miles with less overall fatigue than almost all of the other riders?  I don’t know for sure, but I’m fairly certain the answer lies in post-ride nutrition.  Many of these other riders are active members of their local cycling clubs.  They shine on organized centuries and long weekend rides with members of the club.  After the ride everyone goes out for ice cream or pizza and beer.  They are clueless about post-ride nutrition and have given no thought at all to how what they eat when they get off the bike can affect how they will ride the next day and the day after that.  They finish the first day in glycogen debt and fail to adequately replenish their glycogen stores before the next day’s ride. 

Every day the situation gets worse and the riding becomes more unpleasant until by the third or fourth day their blood sugar levels are so low they’re grinding it out with their head down and need a day off to physically and mentally recover.  All of this can be avoided if you pay attention to what’s happening in your body when you get off the bike and take advantage of the opportunity your body gives you to prepare for strenuous activity on the following day.  Most of it comes down to what you eat in the first 30 to 40 minutes after you get off the bike.

When you finish a long ride your glycogen stores are exhausted and you are very likely to have low blood glucose.  Your body responds to the glycogen debt by going into overdrive to replace the missing glycogen.  Excess glucose in the bloodstream is converted to glycogen and stored in the muscles and the liver.  Under normal circumstances insulin is used in this conversion process.  However, after an extended period of exercise when the muscle glycogen stores are exhausted an abbreviated and accelerated glycogen-storage process kicks into gear that converts glucose into glycogen and stores it in the muscles without the need for insulin. 

This period of intense glycogen production and storage lasts for 30  to 60 minutes. In order to take advantage of this brief period of accelerated glycogen storage the system must have blood glucose that can be converted to glycogen.  And there’s the problem.  When you finish a long or intense ride you are almost certainly low on blood glucose.  Your system is ready to rapidly and efficiently replenish your empty glycogen stores but it doesn’t have the glucose it needs to make the glycogen.

The solution is to flood your system with carbohydrates that can be quickly converted to blood glucose which will in turn supply the accelerated glycogen production and storage mechanism with the glucose it needs.  Although the enhanced glycogen production mechanism will operate for roughly 60 minutes after exercise has stopped, keep in mind that it takes time for carbohydrates in the stomach to be broken down into useable blood glucose. 

Food you eat during the second half of that 60 minute window may still be in the stomach being digested when the enhanced glycogen-storage process ends.  The first 30 minutes after you get off the bike are critical.  If you are going to fully replenish your glycogen stores for the next day’s ride, you must ingest enough carbs during those 30 minutes to flood your system with glucose.  If you don’t, it doesn’t matter what you eat for the rest of the day; you will be building on a weak foundation and you won’t have the glycogen reserves you need to ride with strength day after day.  This cannot be stressed enough; you have to reload your system with carbs during the first 30 minutes after you get off the bike.

How many carbs do you need to eat during the critical 30 minutes?  Current thinking holds that you should aim to ingest one half gram of carbohydrate for each pound of body weight during the 30 minutes after you get off the bike.  This is easy to figure out; simply divide your weight in half and eat that many grams of carbs.  For example, I weigh about 160 lbs so I need to eat 80 grams of carbs within 30 minutes of getting off the bike.  There is also some evidence that combining these carbs with protein may facilitate the glycogen production and storage process.  The recommended ratio of carbs to proteins is 4 to 1.  Thus, at 160 lbs I need 80 grams of carbs and 20 grams of protein.

Eating enough food to provide this much carbohydrate in the first 30 minutes after you get off the bike can be very difficult.  The 30 minute part is much more important than the specific amount of carbs and protein part.  If you can’t manage to choke down the full recommended amount, eat as much as you can, but make absolutely certain you do it in the first 30 minutes after you get off the bike.

You can eat any kind of food you like as long as it’s high in carbs.  Simple carbohydrates that can be more quickly broken down into blood glucose are better than complex carbohydrates that take a longer time because you need to get the glucose in the blood stream within a short window of time.  There are two key factors that will end up driving your 30 minute carbohydrate feast; the food has to be available immediately when you get off the bike, and you have to be willing to eat it. 

The carb sources you’ve been eating on the bike will work equally well during this critical 30 minute window but you may be sick and tired of sports drink, energy gel, low-fat fig newtons or whatever you’ve been eating by this time.  Laura and I drink a recovery drink called Endurox that contains carbs and proteins in the recommended 4 to 1 ratio.  We find it’s much easier to drink a large number of carbs than eat them immediately after a long ride.  It’s also very easy to have the drink ready at the end of the ride. 

Endurox comes in a powdered form that you mix with water.  We pre measure the powder, put it in a baggie, and carry it with us on the ride.  Water is almost always available at ride’s end and we simply mix the powder with fresh water in our water bottle and chug it down.  Although the manufacturer would have you believe otherwise, there’s nothing special about Endurox other than that we like the way it tastes.  A number of companies make recovery drinks that provide huge carbohydrate loads for immediate post-exercise glycogen replacement.

After the critical 30 minute window, try to continue to ingest carbohydrate at regular intervals throughout the remainder of the day.  Eat small amounts steadily rather than eating nothing and then pigging out at dinner.  Avoid alcohol because it will interfere with the uptake of glycogen and will also dehydrate you.  Avoiding alcohol is especially important immediately after the ride when the body is in the critical glycogen restocking period.

What you eat during the 30 minutes after you get off the bike is probably the single most important factor affecting how you will fare if you’re riding more than 90 minutes a day for more than 2 days.  If you get the carbs you need during this 30 minute window, you can ride for days and days without problems; if you don’t, you’re most likely going to be tired and out of energy by the third or fourth day.
Cycling Nutrition: Before & During The Ride

I’m continually amazed at the things I see cyclists eat during and after rides but am never surprised to see the effects ranging from loss of energy, through loss of concentration leading to mistakes and sometimes injury, to a full-fledged bonk.  The basic roles played by glycogen storage, blood glucose and the extraction of glucose from ingested carbohydrates are well understood as is what you need to do to avoid nutrition-based problems while you’re riding. 

That doesn’t stop riders from falling prey to these problems all of the time, however.  Sometimes cyclist’s ideas about nutrition are based more on currently popular nutritional fads than sound knowledge.  Sometimes riders have an emotional commitment to eating particular foods and don’t want to change.  And sometimes you know what to do but you just can’t bring yourself to do it.  Whatever the reason, ignoring basic endurance nutrition almost always means trouble.   

As detailed in another post, muscles burn glucose for fuel and the body stores glucose in the form of glycogen which can be broken down into useable glucose when working muscles need an increased fuel supply.  The body can store enough glycogen to support approximately 90 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise.  If you are going to ride more than 90 minutes, or if you are going to experience periods of high intensity riding, such as strenuous hill climbing, on a ride of less than 90 minutes, you are going to need to get glucose to fuel your muscles from food you ingest during the ride. 

What kind of food should you eat?  The answer is well known and well supported by decades of research into endurance athletics.  Carbohydrates.  Why carbohydrates?  Primarily because their chemical structure is such that they can be broken down quickly and efficiently into useable glucose.   Glucose can be derived from fats and proteins as well as carbs and fats might seem to be an especially good source of energy because fats have roughly twice the number of calories as carbs or proteins. 

The problem with both fats and proteins is that the process of breaking them down to extract useable glucose takes a long time and is inefficient.  You have to burn more energy to extract glucose from fats than you do to extract it from carbs.  In fact, fat metabolism (the process of breaking the fat down) requires carbohydrate that could have been more efficiently burned for glucose if wasn’t used to break down the fat. 

Moreover, and possibly of more importance to you while you’re on the bike, it takes a fairly long time to extract glucose from fat or protein.  If you eat fat or protein loaded food during a ride, the ride may well be over by the time the fats and proteins have been processed to the point where you can get energy from them.  In the meantime, all the energy used in breaking down the fats hasn’t been available for powering the muscles.  Carbs, on the other hand, can be broken down quickly and efficiently to provide the glucose needed to keep going on the bike.  They are absolutely essential for the long-distance cyclist.

Where do you get the carbs youneed during a long ride? 

Some high-carb foods like pasta and rice are impractical to eat during a ride; you need high carb, low fat foods that you can easily carry with you on the bike.  Good on-the-bike foods include dried fruit like raisins or dates, bagels, and low fat bite-sized cookies. 

Energy bars are a terrific source of carbs.  For example, a single Powerbar has 45 grams of carbohydrate and only 2 grams of fat.  There are also energy gels made specifically for endurance athletes such as Power Gel or Goo that have very high doses of carbs.  If you eat high density carb supplements like energy bars or gel, make sure to drink plenty of water with them or they will sit like sludge in your stomach and you won’t get the quick transfer of carbs into blood glucose you need. 

Another excellent source of carbs are sports drinks like Gatorade.  These drinks are usually loaded with carbohydrates and although they are marketed as important sources of electrolytes, the carbs they supply are probably of much more importance for the endurance cyclist.

When do you eat? 

A common cycling mantra is “Eat before you’re hungry and drink before you’re thirsty”.  This is excellent advice.  By the time the body reacts to low levels of fuel or fluid and sends hunger and thirst signals it’s too late.  Rather than stopping and eating a large amount of food (such as lunch) mid ride, nibble high carb foods frequently throughout the ride. 

This not only provides immediate glucose, it can help protect the body’s glycogen stores; if the muscles are burning glucose from the low-fat fig newton you just ate, they’re not burning your stored glycogen.   Try to ingest some carbohydrates every 30 minutes or so.  Start eating during your first hour on the bike.  The sooner you begin drawing needed energy from food intake the longer you can keep a reserve of stored glycogen. How do you carry the food?  Eating on the bike isn’t easy, especially in the first hour when you probably won’t feel hungry.  Stopping to eat makes eating even more of a hassle which makes it more likely you’ll skip it.  Bad idea.  When pros like the rider in the picture at the top of this post ride in a race, they have feed zones where they pick up a musette bag filled with enough food to get them through the next segment of the race. 

You won’t have this luxury so you’ll have to carry nibble food in a fanny pack or your rear jersey pockets and learn to eat while you ride.  Because I don’t like to hassle with getting food out of wrappers or putting uneaten food away while I’m riding, I usually bring bite-sized foods with me on the bike.  If I have something larger like a Powerbar, I cut it up into bite-sized pieces before the ride.  To get at food easily I put it in a baggie and then roll the baggie up without sealing it. 

​When it’s time for food, I simply unroll the baggie, reach in and pull out something to eat.  No fuss, no muss and no garbage like food wrappers to put away when I’m done.  It takes a surprising amount of practice to get in the habit of eating regularly on the bike.  Practicing eating may sound like a crazy idea but it’s very easy to forget and run into trouble later.  Note the time your ride starts and make yourself nibble some food every 30 minutes.

What’s the best kind of food to eat on the bike?  Disciplining yourself to eat by the clock on the bike is difficult.  It can be a hassle to get out the food, riding with food in your mouth can be unpleasant, and sometimes eating can be the last thing you feel like doing.  For all of these reasons one of the most important considerations when deciding what kind of food you should bring with you on the bike is whether or not you’ll actually eat it when the time comes. 

Having some kind of goo, gel or energy bar with you that is marketed as “scientifically proven” to be the optimal energy source for the endurance athlete and is endorsed by famous cyclists is useless if you won’t eat it because you think the stuff tastes like shit or feels disgusting in your mouth.  It’s easy to find an excuse not to eat when you’re on the bike.  Bring food that is mainly carbs but bring food you like.  It’s better to get a little fat with your carbs by eating a low-fat bite sized cookie than getting no carbs at all because the thought of a mouthful of Goo makes you want to puke.  Experiment with different foods to find a combination that is high in carbs and low in fats and proteins that you will eat while you’re on the bike.

Can I have too many carbs?  If you’re going to be ingesting large amounts of carbohydrate during the course of a ride, you should be aware that high concentrations of carbohydrate in the stomach can cause gastrointestinal distress such as nausea.  The more you rely on dense carb sources like gels and energy bars, the more you’re likely to run into this problem.  If you listen to live broadcasts from multi-day stage races like the Tour de France you will frequently hear reports of professional riders that are having gastrointestional problems during the race. 

Individuals vary widely in their sensitivity to carbohydrate concentration so you will have to experiment to find your limits.  If you’re feeling nauseous, drink water to reduce the concentration of carbohydrate in your stomach and lengthen your feed time until you feel better. What happens if I don’t eat?  Ingesting carbs while you’re cycling isn’t always easy and it it isn’t always fun but it’s absolutely necessary if you want to have the energy you need to finish your ride. 

Failing to take in the carbs you need can lead to pronounced losses of energy and strength, reduced awareness of what’s going on around you, and increased irritability and hostility, all combined with the feeling that finishing the ride is an unbearable and impossible task.  In other words, you could bonk.  Not eating can turn a pleasant ride into an unpleasant one or a challenging ride into a nightmare.  Eat before you’re hungry and continue eating throughout the ride.

​The ride’s over, now what?  If your’re going to ride for two or more days in a row, what you eat iimediately after a ride is as important as what you eat during the ride.