How to Cut Sugar Without Losing Performance – Fuelling Intensity

By Jiri Kaloc

Excess added sugar is bad for your teeth, weight, and overall health but what if you want to ride hard? Let’s take a look at the effects of sugar on your cycling performance.

Sugar causes problems mainly outside of exercise

We discussed the dangers of sugar in the previous article. It’s not a pretty picture when you see sugar associated with weight gain and a variety of illnesses. But it’s important to keep in mind that these problems are coming up when added sugar is consumed excessively at rest. Your body doesn’t have much need for quick and easily absorbed sugar normally, you mostly burn fat while sitting or walking around. Added sugar isn’t immediately needed in muscles or to replenish glycogen stores when resting. So, when you have a sugary snack or drink, it ends up accumulating in the bloodstream. This means your body has to produce extra insulin to deal with it, which can lead to problems over time. Thankfully, it’s a different story when you take in sugar while exercising.

Sugar allows you to push hard

When you start pedalling and increasing intensity, your body will gradually increase the proportion of glucose, a type of simple sugar, it burns for energy and decrease the proportion of fat. When you reach your aerobic threshold, your body relies almost exclusively on glucose for energy. It’s clear that when you want to really push yourself and go fast, you need sugar. In the first 60-90 minutes of exercise, this sugar can come solely from your own glycogen stores in the muscle but it can also be added by eating or drinking.

Sugar is necessary for cycling performance but it can also negatively impact your health. Is there a way to cut sugar while maintaining high performance?

Sugar can prevent bonking

After about 60-90 minutes of cycling at moderate to high intensity, the average person is likely to start experiencing what would be known as “bonking”. This is where your glycogen starts running out and your body can’t sustain the same level of power. You’re forced to slow down and your body has to switch back to a higher proportion of fat as a source of energy. If you want to push hard for longer, you have to deliver extra sugar in the form of energy gels and drinks. This time, the sugar goes straight to the muscle to be used as energy.

This is when being anti-sugar might become a problem. If you decide to cut sugar from your life completely, you put yourself at a high risk of bonking in races and you will be able to spend less time at high intensity in training.

Sugar helps you to recover faster for the next day’s ride

We also shouldn’t forget about the third use of sugar when it comes to exercise. When you spend several hours in the saddle riding hard, chances are you will deplete a lot of your sugar stores in the form of glycogen. Your body will start replenishing these energy reserves when the ride is over but if you give it some quick sugar, it will happen faster. This is exactly why you see Peter Sagan swallowing a handful of gummy bears at the end of a Tour de France stage.

When you need to perform at a high level two days in a row, helping your body replenish glycogen fast is important. This applies mainly to cyclists who compete in stage races, or during training camps or cycling holidays. If you have one or two rest days between your rides, you don’t need to worry so much about speeding up this process.

Exercise is the place for sugar

To summarize, sugar is important for intense exercise and it can be beneficial if you want to perform at a high level. There are three main scenarios where it makes sense to use added sugar.

  • Just before an intense ride to top off your glycogen stores
  • During a hard training session or a race that will last more than 60 minutes
  • Right after a hard training session or a race if you need to recover well for the next day

We shouldn’t forget that sugar can still cause cavities even when consumed on the bike. Also, even lifelong athletes can develop type 2 diabetes if they overdo it with sugar. In the last article of the series, we will take a look at how to get your sugar consumption as low as possible but still enjoy fast and long rides.