What, When & How to Eat to Fuel Your Best Rides
March 10 — 2021 | Santa Cruz, California
Words and images by // Uriell Carlson
A few days ago I did a poll on my Instagram asking, “How many of you have had to cut a workout or a race short because of digestion problems?”. Just over fifty out of the 79 responses said “definitely”. Fortunately, as a performance dietitian, a big part of my mission is to help people understand food and fueling so that it doesn’t become the factor that cuts your ride short.
It doesn’t have to be super complicated, but after working with hundreds of clients, I’ve found that understanding a bit about your pre, during and post ride fueling can be the deal breaker to prevent cramping, bonking or any degree of digestive upset and ensure that your performance is optimized every time you ride, whether it be a weekend with friends or race day.
I’m going to break down how to nail your pre, during and post workout nutrition so that you can feel more confident about your fueling strategy every time.
The general rule with pre-workout fueling is to eat your last regularly balanced meal 2.5 - 3 hours before you start your ride.
By balanced meal, I mean a source of protein, complex carbohydrate and healthy fat, plus some plants.
(See my IG post here for another way to look at it. And, here are some examples: 1, 2, 3.)
This is because it takes insulin about 1.5 hrs to kick into gear and start transporting the fuel from your food to your muscles to be used for energy. Knowing that, 2.5 - 3hrs gives your insulin time to kick in and get a head start on digesting your carbohydrates and it also allows time for the slower digesting components of your meal, including fats, protein and fiber, to get moving, without leaving you feeling like you have a brick in your stomach.
If you’re waking up for an early workout or you don’t have the time to eat a complete meal, be careful of the slower digesting proteins, fats and fibers (ex. eggs and bacon or a tuna salad sandwich on whole grain bread). These can sit in your gut and cause cramping or that “brick in my stomach” feeling. Plus, they don’t provide you with a quick source of energy like carbohydrates do.
Instead, if you have 1.5hrs or less before your ride, focus more on just the carbohydrates, with smaller amounts of protein, fat and fiber (ex. rice and egg bowl or a little bit of peanut butter and banana slices on a slice of sourdough toast).
Ultimately, you should be satiated when you begin a workout, not stuffed and definitely not hungry.
I like to have a batch of cooked rice in the fridge so I can use this Rice + Egg Bowl from Bon Appetite as my pre-ride meal. Add a handful of arugula with a squeeze of lemon juice and s/p to add more flavor.
Now, let’s talk about what to do during your workout.
If you’re out for longer than 60-90 minutes, you need to consume calories to prevent building up too much of a deficit.
The General rule here is to replace 40-50% of the calories you burn every hour with food.
How do you know how many calories you’re burning? There’s no perfect way, short of going into an exercise lab and getting hooked up to a bunch of machines, but your HR monitor can give you a good estimate and at least a place to start.
If you’re not sure how many calories you’re burning per hour, my recommendation is to start with consuming 100 calories per hour for every hour past 60-90 minutes and then increase that up to 150 and then 200 calories per hour and see how you feel.
- Just know this: if you’re burning 600 calories an hour and you’re not used to eating 300 calories per hour, you’re not going to be able to eat 300 calories/hr tomorrow. Just like you train your cardiovascular and muscular system, your gut can be trained too. There’s a training phase to figure out foods that do and do not work for certain people to reach these goals and it’s not just an on/off switch that you can suddenly engage.
The main thing to know with fueling while training is to eat a variety of foods to prevent flavor fatigue and avoid overwhelming your digestive system with gut-bombs of pure carbohydrate. Instead, aim to have something sweet and something savory on hand. If you’ve ever been hours into your ride and wanted to puke at just the thought of another gel, this is especially important for you. Season some sushi rice with parmesan cheese, olive oil and salt + pepper (get more inspo from Skratch Labs) and shape them into balls, or pick up a savory scone from your local bakery.
- Know that intensity and the duration of your effort will dictate a lot of what foods you can and cannot tolerate. The longer you’re riding, the more likely it is that your gut can tolerate small amounts of those slower digesting protein, fat and fibers (ex. Justin’s maple nut butter packet or cheese, ham + jelly on a baguette) because you’re likely going at a lower intensity. But, as your intensity increases, your ability to tolerate protein and fat and fiber decreases and you need to rely more on carbohydrates.
With that, I’m super excited to debut my new Better Than Blondies energy bar recipe!
These bars are meant to replace those hard, dry energy bars you throw in your pocket and never really want to eat anyway. They’re primarily carbohydrates with small amounts of fat and protein. You can modify the add-ins to your liking, so get creative. Consider them perfect for a day out in the mountains with friends. Everyone will be glad you came.
- 5 tbsp softened butter
- ½ cup applesauce, at room temp
- ½ cup brown sugar
- ⅓ cup cane sugar
- 1 egg, at room temp
- 1 tsp vanilla extract
- ½ cup all purpose flour
- ½ cup spelt flour (or more AP)
- ½ tsp salt
- 3.5oz dark chocolate bar, chopped
- ⅓ cup coconut flakes
- ⅓ cup banana chips
- ¼ cup pumpkin seeds
- 1 tsp flaky sea salt for topping
- Preheat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. Line a 8x8 pyrex (or similar) pan with parchment paper (dab the pan with butter to keep it in place, if needed) and set aside.
- Add the softened butter, applesauce, and sugars to a large bowl and beat until smooth. Beat in the egg and vanilla. On low speed, mix in the flours and salt until just blended. Fold in the chocolate chunks and add ins. Transfer the batter to the prepared pan, gently spread out and top with a sprinkle of flaky sea salt.
- Bake for 25 to 30 minutes, until the top is set and a knife inserted in the middle comes out clean. Store in an airtight container or freeze individually wrapped bars for your next ride.
Finally, I can’t talk about nutrition and training without talking about recovery. If you haven’t heard, recovery is when you get stronger.
For recovery from endurance exercise, know that your main focus is carbohydrates, specifically a ratio of 4 parts carbohydrate to 1 part protein.
Right after your workout is your time to get as much glucose (aka carbs) as possible back into your depleted muscles, because right after exercise is when your muscles are screaming at insulin to carry as much glucose as possible back to your muscles to store for your next workout. Insulin also, conveniently ignores your fat cells at this point, so take advantage of that.
One final thing to note is that, just because I talk about carbohydrates a lot doesn’t mean I’m talking about cake and milkshakes and candy. There are other sources of carbohydrates such as fruits, whole grains, homemade cookies and many other foods that fit perfectly into a cyclist’s diet.
To get that ideal 4:1 ratio after your next workout, try out my Super Fast Recovery Smoothie here or, if you’re in winter mode like I am, make a hot cocoa with Skratch Labs’ Chocolate Recovery mix and call your workout complete!
Uriell (aka Uri) is a registered dietitian and Juliana ambassador living in Breckenridge, Colorado. She is the founder of Inner Wild Nutrition, an online-based nutrition practice that helps cyclists, runners and skiers know what to eat. Follow along with Uri on Instagram @uri_carlson.