3 (or 4) Things You Need to Fuel Your Ride
All endurance athletes burn hundreds or thousands of calories during workouts and races. It is critical that you replace some of those calories in the form of carbohydrates during your prolonged periods of exercise. Let's take a look at some tips on what you need for every ride, and what you need only for specific sessions or desired outcomes.
There are a ton of different strategies out there that you may have heard about. For example, "fasted riding" - the practice of doing your rides with at least 8 hours since your last meal. I'm not going to cover those advanced strategies here (and some of them are just outright fads). This is going to be simple, which is how we should keep this stuff, especially for almost every amateur athlete.
What do you need for every ride?
You should carry water with you on every ride or trainer session that you do. The warmer it is, the more water you'll need. A simple rule of thumb is one bottle per hour.
I typically carry at least a 500ml (or 16oz) bottle for a 1-hour easy ride. In the summer when it's warmer, I'll go up to a full 1L bottle. Hydration needs vary by individual, intensity, humidity, and heat. Our bodies have a good hydration management system, so when you start to feel any kind of thirst, drink. If you're feeling thirsty on a ride, you're well on your way to dehydration. Start with downing that 500ml/16oz bottle each hour, and adjust as you need.
That's it. Water is literally the only thing you need on every single ride you do. Provided you are adequately fueled (you've eaten enough carbohydrates throughout the day), I recommend only water on your easy-to-moderate-intensity rides of 1 hour or less. Your body has enough glycogen stored to get through most anything you can do to it in an hour, again, assuming you are eating enough off the bike.
What DO you need when the intensity or duration ramp up?
As your rides get much longer (greater than 90 minutes) or include intervals with increased intensity - sweet spot, threshold or higher - you need to properly fuel your rides with some carbohydrates and replenish sodium.
Let's be clear: you should never aim to replace every calorie you burn on the bike. Most of us won't be able to tolerate that many calories while working out anyway. So let's break this down into the component parts:
This is accomplished via ingestion of simple sugars, and not much else. You've heard of glucose, fructose, dextrose, sucrose, maltodextrin (which is a processed, generally flavorless long-chain glucose equivalent carbohydrate - anything but "simple"), and so on. These are the sugars we're looking for during most of our workouts. As a general guideline, most people can comfortably ingest and absorb 60g of glucose per hour during a workout. If you wish to fuel beyond that amount, you'll need a second sugar (this gets into absorption pathways at the cellular level - we're not going there), and that is commonly fructose (or fruit sugar), where many people can tolerate an additional 30g/hr. With training, you might even be able to take in more of both sugars if you find you need it.
There's a lot of debate about how much of all these sugars to take in, and what ratios to use in your mixes. Recent science has seemed to settle on a nearly 1:1 ratio of glucose:fructose (~ 1:0.8 to be exact) as the ideal for absorption... guess what's 1:1 glucose:fructose? That's right, sucrose - plain old table sugar.
It's quite possible you don't need to drop hundreds of dollars on maltodextrin drink mixes and gels, when less-expensive sucrose-based drinks (or home brews!) work just as well for a lot of people. The qualifier is that some people don't tolerate sucrose well when they're exercising, so it's up to you to try it out. If you don't tolerate it well, it usually becomes apparent in the form of burps or bloating. That is an indication you've ingested too much sucrose (or fructose) for your stomach to handle.
OK Kurt, but how much of this stuff do I need?
This is where we get into the "it depends" part of the write-up.
What does it depend on?
Intensity. The harder you're going, particularly efforts around and above your lactate threshold, you need more carbs. The easier you're going during your aerobic riding, the fewer carbs you need because you're just not going through that much sugar.
Duration. As mentioned above, for 60-minute rides of easy to moderate intensity, I recommend just water. When you start getting above 60 minutes at easy to moderate intensity, I recommend 20-30g of carbohydrates per hour up to about 90 minutes. Beyond 90 minutes, you'll want more.
Below is a simple reference table that you can use to dial in your carbohydrate needs based on the duration and intensity of your riding, provided by Dr. Alex Harrison, a PhD in Sports Physiology and Performance, triathlon and running coach, excellent MTBer, and van-life liver. I have used similar recommendations from European sports nutritionists for the last several years that align very well with this with great success.
My personal use cases for the above chart: for easy to moderate rides of 60-90 min, I just use water or aim for the "minimum" to "recommended" amount. For races under 90 minutes, I'll go higher. Where I really start to get into big-time carb consumption is 3+ hour rides, where I generally aim for 90-100g of carbs per hour.
This is very individual, more than carbohydrate intake, and depends on factors like sweat rate, size, hydration status, and what kinds of foods you normally eat. In general, most people can perform well at 300mg of sodium per hour, though up to 600mg per hour may be needed by some. Many commercial products out there get you in that range.
While completely optional, caffeine is a relatively safe, fully WADA/USADA legal, performance-enhancing drug. There I said it. I use caffeine for most of my long rides, and some of my shorter, more intense sessions. Caffeine intake is very individual and dependent on a number of factors such as tolerance, how fast your body absorbs and responds to it, and body weight. I don't need very much. 75mg is enough to get me going. In my home-brew bottle, I'll add 200mg to cover me for a 3-4 hour ride.
If you choose to use caffeine, I find it's best to steadily take it in or take it in mid-ride so you get the "buzz" near the end of your workout when you're tired. Generally, the effects of caffeine peak about an hour after ingestion, and the rule of thumb for ingestion amount is 3-6mg per kg of body weight. For a 150lb athlete, this means about 200mg of caffeine will have you going for most of your rides. You can then top off with smaller doses throughout longer rides (such as the 75mg in many gels or drinks). I caution against using too much caffeine as it can make you jittery, anxious, and edgier in high-pressure situations such as races.
A pretty good strategy for a 1-hour road race might be to drink a cup of coffee about an hour beforehand (140mg or so) and then take in a caffeinated gel 15-minutes prior to the start time. That gives a total of 215mg of caffeine and should have you going steady throughout the entire event. This is something you should experiment with in training to get it dialed in for you.
How do I get these nutrients?
Below, I'll give some general recommendations and a couple of brands that I've had success with, but a key takeaway is that this is very individual. What works for one person may not work well for another. People have different tastes and different digestive requirements. I've used commercial endurance sports products for close to two decades - at this point, I can handle almost anything. What works best for you is for you to determine. I recommend that if you find something that works for you, don't get distracted by the newest shiny object, stick with what works!
Liquid vs. gel vs. solid
I like to get my calories on all my rides from liquid sources. They are easier for me to digest, generally easier to carry, and the flavors are much milder than gels. I have a home-brew recipe I use on all of my rides longer than 3 hours that works well for me, and allows me to carry 1000-2000 calories in a single bottle, along with another 1L water bottle that I refill periodically. It works for me; others may not tolerate it or enjoy it.
I have had good experiences with gels, as well, but I find that after about two hours (six gels on most long rides), my palette wants something else and my stomach doesn't love it.
I have had terrible experiences with solid food. I don't personally absorb solid food (like bars) while riding well at all. They just sit in my stomach like a brick. I generally don't eat much in the way of solid food unless I'm out for 4 or more hours and I'm feeling legitimately hungry for something.
The drawback of solid food vs. gel or liquid is the absorption rate: carbohydrates are generally not as readily available in solid sources. You don't get the quick satisfaction of sugar replenishment as you do with gels and liquids. The tradeoff is that solids are more satisfying in the long run. So, you could take in a bar in hour 1, then switch to liquid or gel sources later on. Odds are that Clif bar you ate 45 minutes before the end of your ride didn't help you much; your body didn't digest and process it quickly enough to benefit you on your ride.
My strong preference is for liquids first and foremost, gels sometimes, and solids rarely. Again, experiment and see what you like.
I'll end this section with a couple of product recommendations, but my advice is that you should look for the ingredients you want in as simple a formula as you can find (or make your own!). Ignore the marketing hype... most of these products accomplish the same thing, you just have to find what works best for you.
Skratch Sport Hydration Mix. It's no secret I'm in love with Skratch. It comes in at 20g of carbs and 380mg of sodium per scoop - perfect amounts to maximize water absorption for hydration. I use Skratch on my 60-90min rides that have intensity when I'm aiming for that 20-30g of carbs/hr. I also use Skratch for hyperhydration during the evenings before long, hot rides. It's just great, it tastes great, and there's little to no "crap" in it.
Tailwind Endurance Fuel. I have used Tailwind for going on 4 years now. It is sucrose-based (table sugar), with great flavors, and comes in caffeinated and decaffeinated varieties. I like Mandarin Orange, Colorado Cola and Berry (both with caffeine). These days, for fueling my longer rides I am making my own homebrew, but I still keep a stock of Tailwind for the road.
Hammer gel. I particularly like the apple-cinnamon flavor. The reason I favor Hammer is you can buy it in large, 26-serving bottles, and then you can use one of their flasks to carry up to five gel servings very easily without having to tear open pouches on the road or put nasty gel packs back in your pockets (never litter!). There are other options out there like this - Gu has a flask and I've heard good things about Roctane, I just can't personally vouch for it. I've had good success with Gu and Clif brand gels as well. Like I said above, they're largely all doing the same thing.
Gummy Bears. Seriously. They make you happy. They come in 12 flavors. They're softer and smaller than Clif blocks or any of the other chews, so they're easier to eat. They can even stick to your bike frame (yes, this is a thing!). I wouldn't fuel a 5-hour ride on gummy bears alone, but they're good for a change of pace and a treat. Get the "Gummy with the A on the Tummy" from Albanese candy - they're the ones you buy in bulk at many grocery stores (from Indiana, my home state). Way better than Haribo, trust me.
If you're feeling a bonk coming on, Coke! The original bonk-breaker. Sugar and caffeine, plus the carbonation can help settle an upset stomach (saved my backside in a 70.3 once!). In a pinch at a gas station, this is a great option in ride. If they have it, opt for the "Mexican" stuff made with real sugar rather than high fructose corn syrup. Again, I wouldn't fuel a whole ride on Coke, but it's an option in a pinch.
Gatorade Endurance is totally fine, too, and less expensive than Skratch. The trick with Gatorade is to make sure you look at the label and see what you're taking in. They often list a "per serving" amount on their bottles, but if you down the whole thing you're taking in 2.5 times what's written on the side. A single serving of Gatorade Endurance is similar in profile to Skratch, but the flavor is much more intense and there is a bit more artificial stuff in there, too.
Some things to avoid in-ride
Protein. There is no scientific evidence that should be trusted that indicates that protein added to your in-ride nutrition is in any way beneficial. In fact, for some, it will stymie their guts (me!) and lead to bloating and other unpleasantness. There is no reason to go there.
Amino Acids and B vitamins and Nitric Oxide and other marketing hype products. There is no evidence that BCAAs do anything for you in-ride (or even afterward) provided you have enough protein from a variety of sources in your diet. Sorry, 5-hour Energy... and basically every other neon-colored "beverage" out there.
Energy Drinks. Outside of outsize caffeine amounts, these usually have high-fructose corn syrup, which most people don't absorb very well. In addition, they have a boatload of "other" things like Taurine, guarana root extract, ginseng, and other stuff that's just going to make you edgier and more hyper. Most people don't ride or race as well when over-stimulated, especially artificially so. Sorry, CBR sponsors, I can't get on board with Monster Hydration (or anything Monster) or Red Bull, etc.
Other electrolytes. Taking in potassium or magnesium or other electrolytes probably isn't harmful, and there is some evidence it's helpful after your workouts. But there's just not much to support their addition to in-ride nutrition. While they probably aren't as bad as some of the stuff above, they're usually added to products for marketing purposes and to jack up the price - you don't need them. Don't bother.
A great final rule for in-ride nutrition: Keep It Simple. If you can survive on a single source, do it. If you can get it all into one bottle, even better! Experiment on your training rides - find what works best for you within the bounds of the recommendations above. You'll feel better when you start properly fueling and hydrating your riding!