How to fuel for a long bike ride
In this month’s column, Irish professional cyclist and Škoda ambassador Imogen Cotter delves into her daily food diary, and gives us some top tips on how you can improve your own pre-cycle nutrition too!
Hi there and welcome back to my monthly column with We Love Cycling. One of the most common questions I get surrounds how to adequately fuel yourself for a bike ride. Or, to be more specific, what do I eat before a race, what do I eat before training, and how do I recover properly? Before I get started, it’s important to note that I am no expert on nutrition. In fact, I would consider it my let-down. I have a chocolate addiction, and there are many times that I make the wrong choice when it comes down to meals. In the past, I often hugely under-fuelled for training. I am learning more about myself as an athlete as I get older, and I am making better choices all the time. But, if you follow me on Instagram, you’ll know that I am hugely partial to coffee and cake, or biscuits and tea!
A typical ‘what I eat in a day’ goes a bit like this…
For my first meal of the day, I have approx 45-60g of porridge, made with water. My reasoning for using water is not to cut down on calories, but more so the fact that in Spain, it’s a bit harder to find fresh milk, and the UHT milk tastes awful when heated, in my opinion. I also add some frozen berries and peanut butter and sometimes I’ll add a big dollop of raspberry jam. My other go-to is scrambled eggs on a bagel.
I’ll then ride my bike for a few hours. I might have some intervals in there or I’ll just maintain pace as part of a steady endurance ride. I usually get those individually packaged cakes in the supermarket to bring on a ride, and then I always have emergency gels with me! If I’m doing efforts, I prefer to take 50g carb gels rather than eating food as it’s easier to digest, especially if it’s a long set. I take carb mix in my bottles from a brand called 226ers, so that means there is about 80g of carbohydrates in each 750ml bottle.
It’s nearly always a sandwich for lunch. I hate having a warm lunch like pasta, rice etc! I’ll generally stop at the bakery and pick up a fresh loaf of bread, and then get home and stuff it with lettuce, tomato, cucumber, relish, cheese and vegan chicken or eggs or avocado.
I’ll let you in on a little secret (which is probably the worst kept secret known to man if you follow me on Instagram!) – I absolutely HATE cooking. I don’t enjoy trying new recipes and I really don’t enjoy waiting for it to be ready. If it isn’t ready within 20 mins max, I don’t want it! My superpower is that I can eat the same meal for weeks and not get sick of it. As the saying goes, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it! Usually, my dinner will consist of something really simple. I’m a sucker for pesto pasta with a load of parmesan, lots of sauteed veg (onions, pepper, tomatoes) some vegan chicken (I’m not vegan or vegetarian but I always feel a bit heavier or sluggish if I eat meat), and then a load of salad with dressing and seeds on top. Healthy, filling and yummy enough to be eaten on repeat for days on end.
Throughout the day, I’ll probably have a few snacks here and there, like some fruit or crackers. Nothing fancy. At the end of the day, I always have a big mug of Barry’s Tea and something sweet. I can’t sit down and relax watching TV in the evening without a warm drink and some form of chocolate.
Race day isn’t too different. I’ll usually have the same breakfast, and about 3 hours before the race, I’ll have a big bowl of pasta, with tuna and some veg all chopped up and mixed in. It’s really easy to eat and totally delicious, and doesn’t feel too heavy on my stomach before racing. About an hour or so before the race, I’ll have something like a waffle or banana to keep my energy levels topped up!
With that in mind, I have some tips for you on preparing for a bike ride and fuelling throughout…
What to eat the night before
The night before your sportive, you don’t need to go overboard on carb-loading, but I’d still recommend eating more than you generally would, e.g. an extra helping of pasta, an extra baked potato. Try to avoid red meat, as it can be hard to digest, and instead opt for chicken or fish in your pre-race dinner. Avoiding spices is also recommended, as is too much fibre. The main thing to focus on is to avoid eating something that is out of the ordinary for you.
What to eat for breakfast
Try to eat your breakfast at least 90 minutes before the race start. Eating something with a low GI value that gives a slow release of carbs, like porridge, is perfect preparation for a long ride. Adding some toppings like dried fruit, banana, honey or jam can add some extra carbs to top up your muscle glycogen storage. However, eat what you are used to – if you usually have eggs and a bagel, don’t change your routine on the day of the event. Having a pre-ride coffee isn’t a bad thing but be sure to take on some water to keep hydrated with it.
Drink and eat at regular intervals
It’s important to drink and eat at regular intervals throughout a long bike ride. A good rule of thumb is to take a small drink every 20 minutes. Don’t make the mistake of forgetting to drink, and then guzzling all your drink in one go, as the damage (and the dehydration) will already be done by then. Begin eating after about 30 minutes on the bike and then make sure to regularly eat something small, again at regular intervals, every 20-30 minutes. Find a routine that works for you and stick to it. If it helps, some GPS computers allow you to set a small alarm at each 20 minute intervals to help remind you.
What to eat whilst you’re on the bike
During a ride of 3 hours or more, it’s important to make a good effort to replenish your carbohydrate stores. A good guideline to abide by is taking in at least 30-60g of carbs in an hour – which is generally the amount in a sports gel, or a banana. A banana is a good snack to take on your long ride as it gives a slow release of energy, but a gel can be easier to open if you are at your limit during a race. The carbs in these snacks will help to replenish the glycogen in your muscles, giving you the energy to keep going for longer. I also like to load up my bottles with carbs as I find it very easy to drink the carb heavy mix like Beta Fuel from SIS, or Race Day 9 from 226ers. Be careful though, as for some people this can really affect their stomach – it is always best to try out your nutrition strategy in training!
Don’t miss out on the next instalment of ‘Going the Distance with Imogen Cotter’. Until then, happy cycling!