Fuelling for long rides and sportives - getting ready for Cycletta

August 29, 2016

Here at THREO we have done a huge variety of sportives and long distance races, and we know one of the keys to success is getting your nutrition and hydration correct. We also know that this can be one of the most daunting subjects to tackle, as there are a lot of products and information out there. As we draw closer to the Cycletta events, at which we will be attending along with a number of you we thought nutrition and fuelling may be top of your priorities list.

The main thing to figure out over the course of your training is fuelling that works for you. Here we have some information which might help you understand why fuelling and hydrating is so important and some advice for working out your own strategy. 

And so you don’t just have to take our word for it, we spoke to Sophie Pelham (MMedSci, ANutr.) at Panoptic Performance for her expert views. The most important thing we learn is that, for any endurance event, do not fear the carbs!

Why is preparation key?

We always think about training our muscles, our cardiovascular systems and even our minds (hello, pain-cave) but we often forget about our gut. Actually, the gut is one of our most adaptable organs, and by practising refuelling on the bike not only will you be able to figure out what works best for you, your tummy will also become better at absorbing it. That means better fuel delivery to working muscle, and a higher sustainable intensity! 

Nutrition strategy

The key factors influencing how much carbohydrate you will need for an event like Cycletta are: 

  • duration of the event (the 20k, 40k or 80k);

  • intensity at which you are planning to ride; and 

  • amount of carbohydrate you have stored already.

Sophie informs us that any time our body is metabolising both fats and carbohydrate - the dominant source of energy is determined by the intensity of the exercise we are doing. At lower intensities (for example when you are pedalling along but can still have a chat as you go) your energy will mostly come from metabolising fats. As you ramp up the speed and stop chatting, the intensity increases and carbohydrate will start to take over. 

Why are carbs so important?

Usually, the fitter a person is the higher the exercise intensity they can sustain using predominantly fats. During a ride you will inevitably use a combination of both; you might start gently while you warm up, then when you start climbing a hill or up the pace your carbohydrates metabolism will take over.

We can store plenty of energy as fat; even a lean individual has enough energy stored as fat to keep going for a long time, but we don't store all that much carbohydrate, which is why we may need to top up during the ride. Carbohydrates are stored in muscles and the liver as glycogen, and it's always a good idea to top these stores up as much as possible in the days before the event. 

Don’t forget your hydration

As a nutritionist Sophie tells us that almost more important than fuel for an endurance event is hydration. 

So many people spend a lot of time and effort thinking about nutrition and haven’t figured out their hydration strategy, or they have a shaky one at best. 

Dehydration will slow you down much faster than lack of fuel, and with more serious consequences. 

There are lots of different guidelines out there as to how much to drink per hour but in practice there is so much variability between individuals that it's best to work it out for yourself over the course of your training - and Sophie has even given us some proper science to figure it out for you!

  • weigh yourself without clothes before you go for a ride, with your full water bottle(s) in your hand 

  • get dressed and ride for an hour, drinking as you normally would from the water bottle(s) you weighed yourself with

  • when you get off the bike take your clothes off and towel yourself dry

  • now weigh yourself again with your (hopefully empty) water bottles

  • subtract the weight at the end from the weight at the beginning

  • each gram that you have lost represents roughly 1 ml water

  • divide that number by 3 

The resulting figure will determine know how much fluid you need to go through every 20 minutes to stay hydrated. 

Of course, that may change based on temperature, wind, humidity and course conditions but it gives you a baseline guide from which you can adjust up or down. For any exercise where you expect to be sweating for more than 2 hours you should have electrolytes. The easiest ones to use are the effervescent tablets that dissolve in the water. The sodium concentration will also help stimulate your thirst to remind you to keep drinking.

Before the big event

Aim for 7g carbohydrate per kg of your bodyweight for 2 - 3 days before the event. 

If you are planning to go for a fairly short or gentle ride 3 days before the event an effective strategy, known as super-compensation, would be to ride in the morning before you eat anything, then have a carb heavy breakfast when you get back. Your liver glycogen stores will be low, having not eaten all night, and the exercise will deplete your muscle glycogen. Your muscles will then turn into carb sponges and store up even more glycogen that if you hadn't done the exercise! 

On the following days keep your exercise to a minimum and continue topping up the carbohydrates. Some people find it helps to prevent tummy trouble if they keep fibre low during the 24 hours before an event by having white bread, rice and pasta rather than wholegrain, and avoiding fibrous vegetables. 

When we store glycogen it holds onto 3 times it's own weight in water, so if you step onto the scales don't panic if you've put on weight; it's fuel and water, which will both be very helpful on race day. Better still, ignore the scales!

The big day is here!

On the morning of the Cycletta you will have used some of your liver glycogen overnight, so it's important to top up again with a good breakfast.  

If you don't eat you may start to feel weak, slightly dizzy and nauseous, and you'll probably feel like you're putting in a lot of effort for not much power coming out. That's a sign your blood sugar is low, so to prevent that from happening aim to have about 100g carbohydrate for breakfast. 

That's about 6 slices of toast and jam (bonus!), or a large bowl of porridge. Try to eat at least a couple of hours before the start so that you have time to digest properly.

During Cycletta

With your glycogen levels nicely topped up from breakfast you have about 90 minutes of fuel in your personal carbohydrate tank. 

If you're going to be on the bike for longer than 90 minutes you need to start fuelling as soon as you can. 

If it's your first long sportive or you are nervous wait a little bit to settle into your cadence, allow your heart rate to settle, then start taking on carbs. You're aiming for an intake of 30-60g carbs per hour, split into roughly 20 minute intervals.

You can choose:

  • an Isotonic Sports drink, 

  • gels

  • solid food and/or 

  • an electrolyte drink. 

If you choose gels that are not isotonic (it'll say on the packet if they are) you need to drink 350ml water or electrolytes straight after the gel to give you the right concentration of sugars to be absorbed properly. 
If you prefer solid food aim to keep fat, protein and fibre content to a minimum. They'll slow your absorption of the carbs and there is quite a high potential for tummy cramps. 

A lot of cycling nutrition comes down to what suits you, so there are no hard and fast rules except one: practice!! 

(c) Threo Limited (with thanks to Sophie Pelham of Panoptic Performance)

Photo credits: Angus Thomas

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