A cyclist is somewhat unique in that he/she is both the passenger and engine. Like any engine it runs on fuel and when the fuel runs out the engine stops.
The fuel in this case is oxygen and carbohydrates, (Carbs.) and the muscles burn these as the cyclist turns the pedals. Oxygen is taken in automatically, but carbs in the form of the food we eat have to be taken in consciously.
Anyone who has been a cyclist for any length of time probably will have experienced the dreaded “Bonk.” Just as your car engine will splutter and stop when the gas runs out, run out of carbs and you will begin to feel weak, light headed, and the best you can do is creep along at a snail’s pace.
If you are alone and miles from anywhere that has food, you are in big trouble. If you have never experienced the Bonk, believe me it is an experience you would be better off avoiding.
Many of us are riding bikes to lose, or at least maintain a certain weight. Most people talk about carbs when taking on food/fuel, and calories when they are burning it. 1 gram of carbohydrate = 4 calories.
If we burn more calories than we take in we will lose weight. We won't lose weight even if we put in a lot of miles on the bike, if we over compensate our food intake for the amount we are burning.
As we gain fitness our rides become longer; it is no use thinking because we have a “Spare Tire” around our waistline this will sustain us on a long ride, something like the camel’s hump. It doesn’t work that way.
According to this article, we have in our bodies about 300 – 400 grams of carbs that we can draw on as immediate fuel, and riding a bike you are burning at least 100g of carbs per hour.
So we are good for a ride of 3 to 4 hours in duration without eating. If you are planning a longer ride, you need to look on the 300 to 400 carbs that you start out with as a reserve.
This 3 to 4 hours of available energy is not a precise amount like the capacity of a gas tank; it will vary from one individual to another. Also a lot depends on the intensity of your ride; the faster you ride, the rate of calorie burn per mile increases because of greater wind resistance. (See the table on the left.)
This 3 to 4 hours of available energy is not a precise amount like the capacity of a gas tank; it will vary from one individual to another.
Also a lot depends on the intensity of your ride; the faster you ride, the rate of calorie burn per mile increases because of greater wind resistance. (See the table on the left.)
Not only are you burning more calories per mile, but you are covering more miles per hour, and therefore you could be burning a lot more than 100 calories per hour.
Let’s say you plan to do a 6 or 8 hour ride; you will need to start eating around the first hour, and each half hour after that. The average energy bar is around 40 – 50 carbs, and it is unlikely you will eat a whole one every half hour. (Maybe half a bar.)
You will always be running on a deficit; burning more carbs per hour that you are taking in. Which is why it is important to start eating early and leave the 300 – 400 carbs you start out with as a reserve.
My usual Sunday ride is around 50 miles. I ride a moderate 15 mph average which means I am on the road for 3 1 /2 hours. (Give or take.) Before the ride I eat a bowl of oatmeal with fruit. I usually carry an energy bar with me, just in case. I usually can do this ride without eating.
This bears out what is said it the above linked article, that we are good for 3 to 4 hours. By the end of the ride I am close to being “Bonked” out but not quite. On arriving home I immediately eat something like a Greek Yogurt, and maybe a banana.
Also I find if I get started on my ride early enough that I can be back around noon, I can ride without eating. However, if I get a later start, because possibly it is too cold to start early; I will eat half an energy bar, halfway through the ride. It seems my body is used to having some nourishment around mid-day no matter what.
Rule of thumb is, if the ride is an hour or so you should not need to eat while riding. If it’s over three hours, take an energy bar or a banana or something, just in case. Any ride longer than four hours, plan ahead.
Eat plenty of carbs and drink lots of water the night before and on the morning of the ride. And carry enough food to get you though the number of hours you plan to be on the road. Start eating an hour in, and continue a little at a time throughout the ride.