I know you want to skip right to the stuff about how to tackle the hills. But truth be told, you can't do the hills or the flats, if you crack, bonk, hit the wall, whatever you want to call that feeling where your legs simply won't go around anymore.
I have found that the topic of nutrition and hydration is something quite personal – and hotly debated. Just ask any avid cyclist what the “best” food/drink is for before/during/after a ride and every one of them will have a pat answer. Ask them when and how much and they will also likely have a quick retort. It’s kind of fun to drop one of those topics into a group of outspoken cyclists and then just duck and watch. Listen, take mental notes and then try some things yourself. The truth is that all our bodies work the same … but different. There are some general guidelines, but you have to experiment a little here. And I can only tell you what has worked for me so far. Also keep in mind that this is from the novice point of view, so I’m talking about a 20-30 mile ride over the course of about two hours. I’ve had riders tell me I “have to eat every hour” on the bike. I’m no fool and I know that longer rides will call for different strategies, but I’ve already got my mind set on what I’m going to try there. For this distance, this is working. For me.
In general, I'm often amazed at how we treat our bodies and then still expect them to function, much less perform. Even for a relatively short Novice ride, you simply can't neglect fueling your system. I ate poorly before my first ride and thought I might puke half way through. And I’ve seen several new riders over the summer get to the point of nearly passing out from lack of proper nutrition or dehydration. You have to fuel properly before you get on the bike.
While doing some research I found a nice summary on webmd that a pre-workout meal should be:
- Low fat
- Moderate in carbohydrates and protein
- Low fiber
- Contain fluids
- Made up of familiar, well-tolerated foods
In my life I try to eat and drink as much “real food” as possible. Meaning that in general I don’t eat a lot of processed or “fake” foods. I think that is why some of the highly processed options for hydration and nutrition do not sit well in my stomach. I had to find “real food” options that I could eat beforehand and even take with me on the bike. My “go to” pre-ride food is usually one of two things:
- a small bowl of my favorite Sprouts granola (pumpkin and flax seed) with almond milk and a small handful of dried fruit (e.g. cherries, blueberries, raisins)
- a small bowl of “Biju’s Oatmeal” (google it), which also includes almond milk and dried fruit
I think why this works for me is a) my stomach tolerates it well and b) what I’ve got is mostly complex carbohydrates from the grains and dried fruits, with a little protein from the almond milk. The little bit of protein and the complex carbs take longer to digest, but aren’t difficult to digest, so they stick with me without sitting heavy in my stomach. For me, too much protein and my stomach gets queasy. Something lighter and/or sugary and I don’t have enough long-lasting energy.
I started riding in June so I rode through the heat of the summer. For hydration, I quickly realized I needed more than just water. I don't know if I'm going to modify any of this over the cooler months, but for hydration I like an additive powder called Skratch. It has all natural ingredients and a very light taste. I tried a few things, but I found that with their formulation of sugar and electrolytes I felt and performed much better. In a pinch if I forget to order more Skratch, I can stomach half G2 Gatorade and half water. Anything stronger tasting than that though and I get "flavor fatigue" during the ride and don't want to drink, which is bad. Something called “Hammer Gel” (don’t you love the name?) has also been recommended as an all-natural hydration supplement. It has less sodium than Skratch so I intend to give it a try at some point during the cooler months when I won’t be sweating as much and see how that works. Some of you may look up Skratch on Amazon and think it's pricey. Maybe. But I figure this. I have only one body to last me my whole life. I would rather fuel it with natural ingredients than stuff that wasn’t even invented until the last century.
One trick I used during the heat of summer is to fill the bottles half way, then freeze them on their side over night. That way in the morning I have a giant ice cube in the bottle. Keeps the water cool for most of the ride.
If I properly fuel beforehand, I find on the 20-mile rides I don’t need to eat anything during. I’m sure someone reading this is going to think “heresy!” Granted, sometimes I am a little hungry at the end, which means I’m probably just about tapped out physically. But I’m at the end. I’m also probably at a caloric deficit, which is actually fine with me because I’m trying to lose a few pounds – and it’s working. However, on a 30-mile ride, I might down a handful of raisins at the break point, but not always. Please note, this works for me. You have to do it over and over again and find out what works for you.
Now if at 20 or 30 miles I were in the middle of the ride distance or at the beginning of a “century” (for you novices that is a hundred freaking miles), I wouldn’t let myself not eat. If you have to keep going, you have to keep fueling and I would start getting some more calories from some “real food”. But that kind of distance for me is for next year. Besides, I have to leave something for a different post.
Lastly, and I’m not as good at this part of the fueling (well re-fueling process) as I should be, but you should find something you like for post-ride recovery. Most research will tell you that after a workout (and if your ride isn’t a workout, then step up!) you should have some protein. My understanding is that the purpose is two-fold. The protein essentially turns off the “fast burn” of carbs that your body was doing during exercise and the protein will help rebuild those muscles that you taxed during the workout so they do a better job next time. My research says that your body doesn’t know whether it got protein from an egg, some fancy whey protein powder or cold chocolate milk. So find something that is about 10g-20g of protein that you routinely eat/drink after. And now that I wrote this and realize just how logical that sounds, I vow to do better for my body at the post recovery refueling so next time I can "ride happy".