What to Eat for a Long Bike Race

“You are going to bonk.” Those were the words that went through my head when I reached back into my pocket and felt nothing. I had eaten every bar, Gu gel, and Gu chews that I brought for the race…and I still had nearly two hours to go.

I felt fear in that moment. If you’ve felt it before you know how unbelievably painful a bonk can be. As your body slows down, the world around you does too. Each pedal stroke begins to feel like a burden. You crave food like you never have before. I felt like in that moment, I would have given $100 for a Vanilla Gu. It was all I could think about.

When I crossed the finish line, I was a shell of a person. My insides felt like they had been scooped out with a melon baller and I was just left as the rind. How had I miscalculated so poorly? How did it get to that point?

Burger
Photo Credit: Jessica Alexander

What To Eat In the Cold

I’ve done testing to know how many calories, carbohydrates, and fats I burn and at what intensities. Once you add 40 degrees, pouring rain, and mud madness, all of those numbers can essentially just be thrown out of the window. On the start line, I had 7 hours worth of food in my back pocket (for normal conditions). Last year the winning time of the race was about 5 hours. I felt like I was over-prepared. Not only did the race last almost 8 hours for me, but the conditions were far from normal.

It’s important to know that in cold conditions your body will burn more calories! Your body is working hard to keep you warm and that hard work is maintained through shivering and non-shivering thermogenesis. That takes calories!

In the cold, we are often tempted to eat less. We don’t get as hungry. We have more layers on and it’s harder to reach back to get our food out of our pocket. That is a recipe for a huge bonk! You need to eat more!

Around hour 4 of the race, I recognized that I was working harder to stay warm. I used the knowledge I have to feed that need with extra calories. It was the correct move, but I didn’t have a bottomless supply in my pocket. At some point, I would run out…

Why You Need Carbohydrates

This could get controversial. There is a lot of hype around fat-adaption now-a-days. Yes, it’s possible. Personally, and this is my own personal and educated opinion: it’s impractical for racing. At a certain intensity, your body can only use carbohydrates as fuel. When your body is lacking carbohydrates, you will be forced to slow down. Without carbohydrates you cannot operate at such high intensities, the intensities that are needed to win bike races. This is why when my body became severely deficient you can watch my power profile drop dramatically. I didn’t have the rocket fuel of carbohydrates anymore to power my engine.

Midsouth 2
Photo: J Vargus
How Much To Eat

It’s different for everyone! But here is a really, really good place to start:

In a normal training or racing scenario, you should be consuming at least 30-60 grams of carbohydrates per hour! If you are bigger and/or working at a higher intensity then you should be at the upper end of that range. If you are smaller and/or working at a lower intensity then you might be at the lower end of the range.

If your effort is going to be longer than 2.5 hours then you can increase your consumption up to 90 grams of carbohydrates! That is about the maximum that your body can process.

So…MidSouth was nearly an 8 hour race, at high intensities, in cold conditions. Realistically, under those circumstances, you should be aiming more toward 90 grams of carbohydrates per hour in the form of 200-300 calories.

What did I Eat During the MidSouth Gravel Race?

Here is what I ate by the numbers:

  • 5 x Gu Gels (~115 grams carbohydrates, 500 calories)
  • 3 x Gu Chew Packets (~120 grams carbohydrates, 480 calories)
  • 1 x Kendal Mint Cake Bar (~125 grams carbohydrates, 500 calories)
  • Total:  360 grams of carbohydrates, 1480 calories

If that was split evenly (which it was not) it would have come out to 45 grams of carbohydrates per hour and 185 calories per hour. Not terrible for normal conditions, but these were not normal conditions.

What Would I Do Differently?

If I were to experience these same circumstances again, I would try to almost double that intake- at least in terms of what I have available to me so that I would cross the finish line with extra “emergency food” in my pocket.

I would pack about 5 hours worth of food in my pockets to start, and picked up the other 5 hours at the halfway mark instead of trying to carry it all from the start.

Some of my Favorite Ride Snacks:

Soooo…everyone always wants to know, “What should I eat during a long ride.” The above information told you how much to eat, but from what sources do you obtain those carbohydrates? Here are some of my favorite ride snacks. (Keep in mind, I’m allergic to nuts!)

  • Gu Gels (Strawberry Banana, Salted Caramel, Espresso Love, Jet Blackberry)
  • Gu Chews (Orange, Blueberry Pomegranate, Salted Watermelon)
  • Gu Waffle (Salty’s Caramel, Gingerade)
  • Kendal Mint Cake
  • Medjool Dates
  • Russett Potatoes with Sea Salt
  • Sunflower Butter and Applesauce
  • Egg in a Tortilla
  • Sunflower Butter in a Tortilla

Have fun with your nutrition. Be creative, but remember there is no prize for finishing the race with the arrow pointing to E. Fuel up and ride on! And if you have any favorite ride snacks make sure to leave a comment and let me know!


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