Fueling for Sportives – Part 1

What do you eat when on the bike. The longer sportives are coming at us fast and cyclists need to start considering their on the bike fueling strategy. We share a few suggestions and tips to help you understand what is a good approach to keeping your engine topped up.

Wondering how to fuel cycling energy for a long bike ride or sportive?
Start from the basics of how your body fuels itself when cycling. When you understand the basic principles, it will make it easy to see how all of this works together for you.

Understanding your energy supply when cycling:
When cycling along, your body can access two energy tanks. The first energy tank is your fat tank and it has a tiny tap from which fat can be accessed as a fuel. To access this fat, you have to cycle really, really slowly because fat trickles out only slowly.

However, the fat tank is massive, so ‘potentially’ it could fuel you for a few sportives back to back without you eating anything else if you went slow enough! (In reality, though it’s not quite like this as you still need carbohydrate, but for arguments sake, let’s say it is).
The second tank is your carbohydrate tank. This tank has a much bigger tap from which you can readily access carbohydrate. As you cycle faster, your fat tap quickly ‘turns off’ and you now access carbohydrate as the preferred fuel. You can access this tank of energy easily because the tap is so big – but the drawback is that the carbohydrate tank is very small, in comparison with your fat tank. Because it’s small and the tank tap big, you can only access about a 2 hour supply of carbohydrate before you run out of energy…

Can you train your fat tank to be more efficient?

You can train yourself to access more fat from your fat tank, preserving your carb stores in your limited carbohydrate tank. The key is in trying to make the fat tank’s tap bigger. When it gets bigger you can go that bit faster and use more fat for fuel, hence preserving precious carbohydrate from the carb tank. In other words, you can ‘delay’ the length of time it takes to run out of energy by burning more fat for fuel.

This is in essence is what “fundamental endurance” training is all about. Not only are you training your muscles to cope with longer distances, but you are also training your body to use more fat for fuel, preserving carbohydrates and going faster for longer. Professional cyclists are a great example of having extremely well trained fat taps. They’ve cycled for so many years and built layer upon layer of fundamental endurance that they can go fast for a good number of hours on little food intake. They do need carbs, but run out of energy ‘much later’ than the sportive cyclists do.

On the other hand, obese/highly unfit subjects have such poorly trained fat taps that they access their carb tank readily with hardly any exercise. They deplete their energies quickly many times a day.

Now you can see why obese/highly unfit subjects crave sugary food so often…which in turn leads to diabetes and so the cycle repeats itself and they get fatter and fatter. The solution here is to exercise like riding a bike and train that fat tank to release more fat to curb sugar cravings and restore better energy balance during the day.

So how do I train my fat tank to get more efficient?
You might be thinking long and slow is the answer, but unfortunately, not all of us have the time to do long, slow endless miles like a professional does over winter.
The solution is keep working on your one long bike ride each weekend will help considerably, AND do some faster work midweek. The faster cycling has the effect of increasing your metabolism AFTER your bike ride. Because you’ve got your feet up and got a ‘revved up’ engine, the preferred energy source is…you guessed it… fat! So, yes, you can burn fat while sleeping as well as by cycling too.

Do your normal training and keep it consistent from week to week, month to month. Over the course of a good 4-6 months, you should see a difference in the time it usually takes before you run out of energy. You will notice you go faster for longer before petering out which means you’ve become more ‘enduring’.
How do I fuel when out on the bike to ward off running out of energy?

BUT I hear you say, you don’t want to run out of energy on the bike AT ALL! Of course not. In which case you have to eat at some point during your bike ride. As you may know, your preferred energy source is going to come from carbohydrates. You are looking for carb foods which supply you with energy slowly over a long time period, – up to about 30 minutes each time.

Examples include: oat based cereal bars, dried fruit, bananas, fruit cake, commercially formulated energy bars, energy drinks and gels.

TIP: If you eat sugary bars on a bike ride, like a mars bar you will be in for trouble. Pure sugar releases quickly into the bloodstream causing a sugar spike. When this happens, you usually trigger a hormone called insulin to bring it under control.

Unfortunately, insulin can end up causing your blood sugar levels to swing from being very high, to being very low – and you may find you’ve completely run out of energy after 20 minutes of ingesting the nasty culprit! You (endurance cyclists) need to look for ‘slow releasing carbohydrate foods’ to supply you with a continuous ‘flow’ of energy.