By Coach Renee Eastman,
MS, USAC Level 1 Coach, NASM Sports Nutrition Coach
Good eating and hydration practices on the bike are some of the simplest ways to get more out of your training rides and event performances. This topic has been covered on this blog before (like in this article: Nutrition for Rides of any Length), but we have a lot of newer readers and plenty of long-time readers who could use a refresher. Even if you’re relatively familiar with the numbers not always so straight-forward to put all the guidelines into practice because no one wants to pull out a calculator every time they plan what to eat on a ride! So, in this article I’ve included more pictures to make it easier to visualize.
Why do we need to eat and drink on longer rides?
The simple answer to why we need to eat and drink for longer rides is to maintain our effort level and increase chances of having a good performance. Can you ride with less fuel? Sure, just slower and at lower power outputs. During your rides you’re primarily burning through stored energy, a combination of fat and carbohydrates (in the form of muscle glycogen), and we’re also losing body fluid in the form of sweat. It’s important to replace both fluids and carbohydrates, especially as factors like temperature, sweat rate, intensity level, and duration affect how quickly you run low on fluids and carbohydrate energy.
An individual’s fluid needs may change depending on temperature and sweat rate, but a good place to starts is to drink 20-30 ounces of fluid every hour. That is a little over half a liter to a liter per hour for our friends in Canada and Europe, or simply the volume of 1-1.5 standard water bottles. A standard bottle is typically 20 ounces, and large bottles are around 24 ounces. So, you can stick with the 1-1.5 bottles rule when using the larger ones too. In hot conditions when sweat rates are high, fluid needs can go upwards of 40 ounces or 2 bottles per hour.
Replacing fluids should come from both plain water and sports drink. The main purpose behind drinking sports drink instead only water is to replace sodium. A person’s sodium needs will vary depending on sweat rate and temperature, but a good base recommendation is to consume 250-500 mg sodium per hour between food and sports drinks.
Many popular sports drinks will deliver 250-350 mg of sodium per typical serving. I say “typical serving” because many powdered mix servings are for 12-16 ounces of water. Most people will just dump that one scoop from the bag or one serving from a single-serve pack in to one 20-oz bottle. I’ve never seen anyone use one and a quarter single serve packets of drink mix to precisely measure for a standard size bottle.
Most sports drinks also contain carbohydrates (simple sugars) in the range of 20-30 grams per bottle which works out to 80-120 calories per 20-oz bottle. CTS Coaches use Fluid Performance sports drink and provide it to athletes during CTS Camps. Whichever sports drink you choose, you want to consider the calories from your hydration when you’re planning your food intake because it’s easy to over-consume calories if you don’t. This can cause GI distress from having too much sugar in the gut at once, and why it’s good to have plain water in addition to sports drink on your rides. Whenever you eat food or take a gel, you should drink a few big gulps of plain water with it. That will help dilute the calories you’re consuming and speed gastric emptying and avoid GI distress. This will also help maintain hydration status because too high a concentration of sugar in the gut pulls water out of your cells to lower the osmolality of the solution in your gut so it can then be absorbed into the body. This slows down the delivery of energy to working muscles, particularly if you are already slightly dehydrated or overheated.
Another option for sports drinks are electrolyte tabs that contain only electrolytes (mainly sodium) and very few calories. An advantage to using these kinds of tablets is that you can increase fluid intake in response to heat, increased sweat rate, or increased intensity without overloading your gut with more calories than it can handle.