What to eat on your ride - A contrarian view
The coffee stop is a staple of many cyclists’ excursions, offering a chance to rest up, take in some fluids - and eat a large slice of cake. It’s great from a social angle, but - sorry to be a killjoy - probably not the best nutritionally to keep you going on a long ride.
I’m a bit of a contrarian when it comes to sports energy products. It’s a big industry, with loads of brands and one estimate putting the global value of the industry at over $50bn (although that does include products like Lucozade and Red Bull that you’re probably not slurping as you ride). That value drives a lot of promotional activity and a lot of hype over claimed benefits.
So this is my personal view. I’ve tried a lot of the products out there over the years, particularly since they’re often given out for free to cycling journos. Even without the crunch on my wallet, I’m not a big user of commercial energy products. They have their place, particularly if you’re after peak performance, but for joe average cyclists like me there are cheaper alternatives that are just as good.
Why do you need energy products?
It’s reckoned that your body stores enough sugar in the form of glycogen (which is a string of glucose molecules) for around 90 minutes of exercise.
Your body uses glucose as its primary energy currency, which is transported around the body by your blood and taken up by your muscles to power your cycling. Some carbohydrates are broken down to glucose more quickly than others, which is why you’ll often find a mix of sugars in energy drinks, with maltodextrin a common ingredient that’s a bit slower to assimilate and so fuels you for longer. You’ll sometimes find glucose in there too, for an immediate energy hit. Fructose, which is a building block of the sucrose found in common table sugar, is absorbed from your gut and metabolised by different mechanisms from glucose, so including it in a drink can increase the amount of energy available to your muscles.
If you don’t eat, your body will switch to stored fats as its primary energy source. That sounds great from a body composition perspective, but fats are not as readily available to turn into energy as sugars, so your body might not be able to get enough glucose to keep your blood sugar levels up and your muscles working effectively, resulting in “the bonk”, where your work rate and speed drop off a cliff.
There’s evidence that you can train your body to use fats more effectively, which is why fasted rides are a thing, although the recommendation is to make them short and light. That’s worth trying if you have the opportunity and might help improve your performance on longer rides.
Energy drinks and foods also usually contain electrolytes including sodium, potassium and magnesium to help replace those you lose in sweat. That’s particularly useful on long, hot rides.
So to help keep your energy and electrolyte levels up, if you’re going for more than 90 minutes or so you’ll need to eat or drink something.
The cyclist’s favourite is the energy drink. It’s an easy way to take in sugars as you ride and means that you can bring a good-sized portion of carbs with you while saving pocket space.
It’s worth checking the ingredients list on your favourite drink. Some have a decent mix of different sugars, designed to broaden your energy sources, while others can be mostly sucrose - that’s bog standard table sugar. They’ll have added electrolytes to keep up your salt levels. Some brands still include artificial sweeteners like aspartame.
I often find energy drinks can be hard on my stomach, particularly if made up to their recommended strength and can make me feel a bit sick. If I do use an energy drink I usually make it up at around half strength and just have water in a second bottle, so that I have an alternative.
My dentist isn’t a fan of energy drinks either, pointing out that slurping sugary, often acidic liquids for hours is a recipe for accelerated tooth decay. That’s not just his opinion either; there’s research from University College London that shows poor dental health among elite athletes, as reported by The Guardian.
Instead, he recommends drinking water, advice that I take on all but the longest, hottest rides. Electrolyte tabs are a useful addition if it’s hot. They contain little or no simple sugar but help to replace the salts you lose in sweat, although they are still slightly acidic and often include artificial sweeteners. I find them easier on my stomach than energy drinks too. It’s also easy to take a top-up tablet with you in your pocket to add to a water bottle refill.
Gels are another cyclist’s staple that I’m not a great fan of. Their advantage is that they’re easy to slurp when you’re going hard and will give you a quick energy hit when chewing a bar isn’t really an option. In theory you should be feeding yourself one every 20 minutes, so for a medium length ride you’d need ten gels, which would be bulky as well as expensive.
Some gels are better than others. I find more liquid gels easier to deal with than denser ones, although some of the really sticky ones do taste great. Often gels are awkward to open as you ride; I find some gels are so thick that they’re impossible to consume without stopping. Gels tend to give me an energy spike for around 10 miles, after which my energy levels slump again, so if I carry a gel I will save it for the final leg home, sticking to solid food earlier in my rides.
With any gel there’s the risk of slopping it over your hands, so you start to stick to your bars and you’re usually left with a sticky wrapper. The temptation, which too many cyclists succumb to, including the pros, is to dump the wrapper. Don’t. If you roll it up carefully, so that the opening is on the inside it’s easy enough to carry it home or to a bin without getting in a mess. Likewise try to stash the tab away rather than discarding it, although they can be tricky to avoid dropping.
Almost all gels are going to produce plastic waste, although you can buy reusable gel containers that you can top up from a bulk refill.
Rice cakes - a more natural alternative
If you want to ride like a pro, rice cakes are a good, cheaper alternative to commercial products. There’s a good recipe from British Cycling - I usually make half quantities and flavour them with raisins and/or cocoa powder.
There’s nothing in British Cycling’s recipe to bind the rice cakes, so they can turn out crumbly and difficult to eat. British Cycling suggests adding coconut oil to help make them more solid, but I usually add some vegetarian gelatin instead, as it’s a lot cheaper. If you want more ideas for add-ins, EF Pro Cycling has a similar recipe and recommends options like bananas, dried fruit and even bacon. It’s got other recipes you might like to try like its oat-based energy balls.
I’ve had mixed results: some batches stay intact well, so they’re easy to eat as you ride; others have ended up so crumbly that I’ve had to stop to avoid losing most of the rice on the tarmac. Wrapped in aluminium foil, it’s easy to stash the wrapping, and it’s recyclable once you get home.
As British Cycling notes, you can freeze the rice cakes. Taking them straight out of the freezer helps cool you a bit on hot days, although you’ll not be able to eat them for a couple of hours. Do make sure that they’re not right against your skin in your jersey pocket. On winter rides, they may never defrost!
One commercial product I do rate is a post-ride recovery drink, particularly after a longer or harder ride, when it does seem to help with delayed onset muscle soreness or DOMS. You’ll usually get a 4:1 ratio of carbohydrates to protein, which is reckoned to be the optimum to refuel and repair your muscles, plus electrolytes to help top those back up.
Mind you, there’s research that found that chocolate milk worked as well or better, something that I’ve found too.
Pearson’s energy product offerings
Here at Pearson we stock energy and recovery products from OTE and Veloforte. They’re both smaller UK-based companies with high quality ranges
OTE’s products are all calibrated to provide the same amount of energy, so you can eat one of its bars, slurp a gel or drink a portion of energy drink and be sure that you’re getting the same amount of carbs.
It’s got some clever products like its Duo Bars, that give you two rice-based pieces in one pack, so you can spread out your eating. They’ve recently been reformulated to cut down on palm oil content and help them cope better with life in a jersey pocket. There’s also the new Uno Bar that gives you the same product in one lump instead of two.
The oat-based Anytime Bars taste great, come in a range of flavours and I find them a great option for longer rides.
If you’re after something fancy, the Veloforte range is all-natural, tastes great and comes with an Italian edge, based on the traditional panforte recipe, with flavours like Di Bosco that’s packed with dried fruit and nuts as well as the Ciocco cocoa-based bar. There are gels, chews and recovery products too.