I am not a nutritional expert but I have researched the subject in depth. What follows is a summary of much reading on the matter and hopefully distills the relevant points without getting too deep into the science.
I am going to say this at the very beginning and remind you again at the end of this section:
Getting your nutrition right during training and on your trip will give you greater benefits than anything else you can do to prepare for the ride.
On a fundamental level this means making sure you consume the right amounts of food and drink at the right times. On a higher level it means eating and drinking the right things.
I have separated hydration out as a category in its own right because it is so important.
Your body needs fuel. More precisely it needs the energy contained in the fuel. The proper unit of measure for this energy is a kilojoule but a more commonly known unit is a calorie, expressed as cal or kcal. There are 4.2 kilojoules in a calorie.
The estimated average daily energy requirement for a normally active woman is 2,000 kcal or 2,500 for a man. These are figures for ‘average’ people and will vary depending on your size but can be used as good ball park figures.
Your body stores energy in the form of fat and as glycogen in the muscles and liver. The glycogen store, when fully topped up, equates to about 2,000 calories. The amount stored as fat varies from person to person but for most of us it is too much! The energy in fat is not as easily accessible as that stored as glycogen and to optimize energy release from your fat stores you need to be exercising at fairly low levels of intensity.
When exercising your body requires more energy. It will obtain this energy from the most available source, which is food being processed by the stomach. If this is insufficient it will then deplete the glycogen supplies and then move on to either fat or protein (produced by breaking down muscle mass), depending on how much effort is being expended and how rapidly the energy is needed. Okay, it’s not actually that simple but that linear view will be sufficient for our purposes: we’re not top flight athletes.
The amount of additional energy you need will depend on the amount of effort you are putting in. On a fairly gentle recovery ride you might need an extra 3-400 calories per hour of riding. If you are powering along at maximum speed in hilly terrain the figure could be more like 800-1,000 per hour. Personally I don’t get too scientific about it and work on an average of 600 calories per hour. So if I ride for 5 hours I would need an extra 3,000 calories. This means that in total I should consume 5,500 in the day.
If I ate my normal 2,500 calories and let my body use up its entire 2,000 calories glycogen store (not wise – see box on Bonking on the Bike) I would still be 1,000 calories short. This could come from fat but if I am working hard it is much more likely to be extracted by breaking down the protein in my muscle. If I don’t put any protein and energy back in, the net result is I am exhausted and my muscles are weaker than if I hadn’t exercised in the first place.
So I need to put in lots of calories. In the above example more than twice as many as I would on a normal, non-cycling day. And ideally I should keep my glycogen supplies topped up as much as possible throughout the ride.
Where do the calories come from? Well, from what we eat. More specifically from:
Good news! That liquid lunch break at the pub is a brilliant way of topping up the glycogen supplies.
Although alcohol contains a lot of energy per gram and is rapidly absorbed by the body, the available evidence suggests these Calories are not used significantly during exercise.
And unfortunately there are also negative effects:
In fact studies have shown that cycling after taking alcohol requires more energy, produces a higher heart rate, and stimulates a higher cardiovascular demand. And you fall off a lot.
Having read all around the subject and found vastly conflicting views, it seems to me that the answer to good nutrition whilst training is not really any different to good nutrition when you are not training. You should eat a well balanced diet combining carbohydrates (about 60%), protein (about 15%) and fat (about 25%) [and maybe a little alcohol]. You will need to eat more of it though to replenish the extra energy you are using.Carbohydrates are the cyclists main source of energy. They are basically either simple carbohydrates which the body can break down and utilise very quickly or complex ones that take a little longer. Put another way, some get used up very quickly and others are slow burners.
A useful tool is the Glycemic Index. This gives a ranking of carbohydrates on a scale from 0 to 100 according to the extent to which they raise blood sugar levels after eating. The higher the GI a food has, the more rapidly digested and absorbed its energy is. I have included a table of some common food types but if you want to find the GI value of other foods visit http://www.glycemicindex.com/ which has an extensive database. Most people are surprised at the GI value of some foods the first time they come across them. For instance grapefruits, which are sweet and sugary are low GI and white rice, viewed by many as a bulk slow burner, is one of the highest GI foods going.
In general we should eat foods with low GI values to help maintain a steady blood sugar level. However, whilst on the bike we might need to use high GI food to provide a quick boost, especially if close to bonking. Personally, if I am going on a long ride I try to pack in some low GI foods before I start and then keep up a regular supply of medium/high GI foods interspersed with low GI foods whilst on the move. After the ride pack in more low GI foods to provide sustained energy for recovery.
Fat – 25%
Fat has long been labelled as an evil in dietary terms but it is an essential part of our nutritional needs. A lack of fat in the diet can adversely affect blood pressure and blood clotting, inhibit the body’s ability to control inflammation and lead to low energy levels and poor recovery from exercise.
Fats come in three varieties:
The major consideration for a long distance cyclist is that protein’s role in maintaining and replacing the tissues in your body. Your muscles, organs and many of your hormones are made up of protein, and it is also used in the manufacture of hemoglobin, the red blood cells that carry oxygen to your body. Protein is also used to manufacture antibodies that fight infection and disease and is integral to your body's blood clotting ability.
So you need protein to help your muscles repair after you have been punishing them all day, to maintain your red blood cell count so you don’t need a transfusion every evening, to help fight off illness and to make sure you don’t bleed to death from minor road rash.
Good sources of protein include:
For post ride recovery try a yoghurt after a short ride or a milkshake after a longer effort. It can be worth trying a carbohydrate and protein recovery drink after an all day effort to maximise recovery before the next day. On my JOGLE I tried to make sure I drank a whey protein drink as soon after the end of each day’s ride as possible.
There is also evidence to suggest that protein can help the body in the processing of glycogen and that consuming protein and carbohydrate in a ration of 1:4 optimises the absorption rate. You can buy sports drinks made up in this proportion. Personally I find them heavy on my stomach but replicated the effect on my JOGLE by eating half a protein bar about every couple of hours.
The best way to make sure you are getting the micro nutrients you need is to eat your ‘five a day’ fruit and vegetable portions. Although, when you are training hard and using twice as much energy as usual, you will also need to up your micro nutrients. So you may have to eat ten a day. [Please note that whilst wine is made from grapes it does not count as one of your five a day. Nor does cider. Or any other alcoholic beverage.]
You should strive to maintain the balance of 60/15/25 (or so) at each meal to provide the body with a steady stream of all the things it needs. Of course this is not always particularly easy when you are on the road for possibly 12 hours or more a day. Even if you stop for proper meals you will still need to maintain a steady supply between stops if you do not want to suffer from peaks and troughs in performance. Which is why most professional endurance cyclists use a predominantly sports drink. energy bar and energy gel diet when in competition.
Finally I would like to point out is just how much you will have to eat on your ride. Actually that’s not true, I don’t know how long you are intending to cycle every day or how fast you intend to ride or how hilly your route is or how big you are etc.. The point is it may be more than you think.
To illustrate, this is how I estimated my calorie intake. I worked on an average calories consumption of 600 kcal per hour (I was between 70 and 75 kg during my ride). Each day I was intending to travel approximately 150 miles spending about 12 hours in the saddle. So 12 x 600 = 7,200 kcal. Say 8,000 kcal per day because I would be burning some energy in the other 12 hours of the day.
To put this in context the consumption of an average man should be about 2,500 kcal per day or 2,000 for a lady.
You can see from the table of calories contained in some basic food item that to consume 8,000 kcal I would have to eat 32 baked potatoes or 56 bananas or 20 large cans of beans or 166 pork sausages (!) each day to replenish my energy supplies.
Unless I wanted to spend a huge amount of time off the bike in café’s etc.. I would have to find a way to eat the bulk of this on the move. I tried stuffing my pockets with 32 baked potatoes but they didn’t fit [not really] and I would look ridiculous with a string of 166 sausages looped round and round my shoulders [that is true] so I had to find something which packed the calories into a smaller package. For me it was energy bars, cereal bars, protein bars and energy drinks supplemented with bacon sandwiches, pasties, pot noodles and multi vitamins. Not to everyone’s taste but it worked for me!
Here is a list of what I worked out I would need to eat each day:
Please note that this is not the world’s best diet! It is lacking in many ways but was based on the fact that I only needed to maintain it for six days. In those six days my main concerns were energy and muscle recovery. My diet during my training period was based on the balanced diet discussed above [vaguely].
Of course everyone likes different things to eat and drink, some are restricted in diet medically or through belief and we all have different approaches as to how we want to eat whilst on a ride. Many people like to make regular stops to eat and drink and it becomes an integral part of the ride, a chance to have a break from pedaling and to socialise for a while (especially if riding solo). Others, like me, pack our pockets and chaff at every stop or slight detour from our route to have to deal with the tedious task of loading up with food and liquid again.
Whatever your preferences you will need to think about the logistics of nutrition. In some areas there can be long stretches between places to eat. If you are riding a route using major roads these bypass most towns and you can ride for hours without passing any shops or even services on the road. Equally, in 2013 and in 2014 I rode LEJOG on very minor roads, canal paths and cycle ways and also found very few shops.
So you have to balance how much you can carry and how much you can buy en route each day. My strategy had one major flaw – where could I buy sports energy bars, drinks and protein supplements en route everyday? I certainly couldn’t carry them all with me and even if I could I’d have to get them to John O’Groats and the start line. My solution was to post each day’s supplies to myself. I had pre-booked B&Bs so arranged for the owners to received a ‘red cross’ parcel with all my supplies of the next day at each destination. As long as the parcels arrived I would be ok. It also gave me an added incentive to complete my mileage everyday. [As it happened I found it very difficult to eat everything so ended up carrying an increasing weight of surplus food because I was too tight to throw it away. I got really hungry on day four though and ate most of it!]
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Of course eating and drinking right doesn’t mean you don’t have to do the training. Sorry. But if you can get the eating and drinking right during your training as well, you will get much more out of it. Firstly it won’t be as painful, secondly you will recover from each training ride more rapidly and thirdly, your fitness will improve more quickly.
Finally I would point out that training when dehydrated and with low energy levels can be a wasted effort or even detrimental. I know riders who pride themselves on being able to complete a 100 mile ride on one 500ml water bottle and a lick of a flapjack wrapper. I can’t help thinking how much better they would feel and how much fitter they would become if they weren’t so hard.
Lands End to John O'Groats (LEJOG) or John O'Groats to Lands End (JOGLE) Cycling Guide > Beginning >