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Road cycling - Hydration and nutrition advice for beginners

If you're in a rush and want to skip to my recommended road cycling food and drink products for hydration and nutrition, then hit one of the links below. For those who want the whole enchilada then please continue after the dotted divider, under the links:

 

"Whoooaaa man. It feels like I'm riding on marshmallows... Ooooo - I may have a puncture.

Let me check... Well that's like super-weird, duuuude - Tyres look waaaay-normal to me... Oh look, brooos., there's the ground... And it's coming towards my face like quite quickly..." THUD!


Nope. This isn't me recollecting an 'experimental' weekend of mine from the late 90's rave scene (Don't judge me! we were all young and stupid once!). This was the result of me bonking for the first time (see HERE for cycling's definition of 'bonking').


It was during the earlier days of my riding and I'd been going for approximately 50-ish miles. At that point it must have only been the second or third time I'd been that distance.


My preparation of champions had included a Chinese takeaway the prior evening and a cereal bar in the morning, before I set off. The meal-choice the night before, although delicious at the time, had dehydrated my insides as if a raisin that had been sunbathing in the Sahara for several hours. And the cereal bar had probably been burnt up in the third climb of the route.


My system was completely empty and I was tired. Although I didn't realise quite how tired I was until having to take that involuntary lie down on a random grass verge somewhere in Hertfordshire.


It's safe to say that it was after this face-to-pavement encounter when I realised how important eating and drinking before, during and after a ride was.


To help others avoid a similar, horrible experience I'll share my go-to products to ensure I get enough food and drink into my system before I hop on my road bike; whilst I'm out on the road; and my routine for when I get back.


I'm definitely not a doctor or nutritional therapist. I've read a lot on the subject (especially when experimenting with keto) but I warn you that I probably know enough to be dangerous. What I do know is that everyone and their body is different and will react uniquely to different things. What works for me may not work for you and you'll need to experiment with different brands, products and quantities. Some will be fine, others may have adverse effects on sensitive stomachs. Some will prefer certain tastes and textures over others etc.


What I share here is based on several years of personal trial and error and it works perfectly for me in terms of: how my body reacts to the brands I've highlighted; how much I like the taste and texture of the products listed; and in the quantities I take before, during and after a ride - depending on how long I'm in the saddle for.


Some basic science stuff before getting started (because, let's face it, I only know the basic stuff!).


Your body burns two things as sources of fuel. Glucose and /or fat. Protein isn't for energy, it's for muscle bulk and repair so eating chicken in the lead up to a big ride won't give you energy but it will help your muscles last longer and repair quicker.


Glucose comes from carbs and sugars and is the quickest source of fuel your body will burn. Basically, if you had a potato in one hand and a bowl of sugar in the other they would both turn into the same thing when in your system - glucose. Obviously, some sources of carbs and sugars are healthier than others. Refined sugar in things like sweets and shitty breakfast cereals = bad. Fructose from apples, bananas and strawberries (in moderation) = good. Carbs from pizza and chips = bad (even though they're bloody delicious!). Complex carbs from things such as Broccoli and other leafy, green vegetables = Good.


Fat is another source of fuel. It's actually slower burning and better for some endurance athletes. In my days of experimenting with Keto /LCHF (low carb, high fat) I could literally ride for 80 + miles at a decent pace on just water and not need any of the products below. However, what I lost was the more explosive bursts of power for sprinting (ark at me! "explosive bursts power..." Who am I trying to kid?!) I missed the ability to put the pedal to the metal for a sustained period of time. Not that this will happen to others on Keto but I definitely noticed a difference in this area, relative to my usual ability to get out the saddle and hammer it.


If you're interested in Keto /LCHF then I highly recommend The Diet Doctor as a great place to start. Unfortunately, it doesn't mean you can chow down on greasy fast food all the time. It teaches you about healthy fats - grass-fed butters, avocados, macadamia and brazil nuts, full-fat Greek yoghurts, high quality bacon, lamb, beef etc., and low-fructose fruits such as blackberries.


To put it simply, if you were to eat a succulent cheese steak burger, sandwiched between a fluffy brioche bun then your body would break down the bun first, as this is it's path of least resistance to getting energy into your system. Once all the glucose from this, and anything else in your body was depleted, the body would look around for more fuel to burn. This is when it would tap into your fat reserves (usually stored around waists, bums and thighs) and start using energy from the harder to breakdown beef fat and cheese. For your body to switch from consistently burning glucose as a primary source of fuel to burning fat is called becoming, 'fat adapted'. Check out the Diet Doctor link above to learn more.


Before getting into the details like the below I always share a full disclosure. This is not a sponsored post and I'm not being paid by any of the brands listed below to mention their products. Everything I recommend is based purely on my own experience and opinion. However, if you click a link and go on to buy something I will receive a tiny bit of commission (I'm talking mere pennies!). It definitely won't be enough for me to retire on but it will help us keep the lights on at m2M Cycling for a little while longer. In some cases I've provided links to a couple of suppliers as one may sell an item cheaper than the other on any given day.


Before heading out:


If I'm doing under 20 miles and am going early in the morning I tend to do these fasted. I.e., I don't eat anything. All I do is have a coffee, some water and go. All recommendations from this point forward are for rides of 25 - 30 miles and more.


With work and family commitments, longer rides, where food and drink need to be considered, usually take place early on weekend mornings.


To avoid feeling uncomfortable and bloated I always aim to ensure I take my last mouthful of food 60 - 90 mins before heading out. For me, even a slightly full gut can lead to all sorts of issues. Apart from the obvious feelings of nausea and sickness, I also find that my heart rate can spike if I'm too full when riding. I put this down to the fact my body is trying to work as my engine whilst simultaneously trying to digest a whole food baby! This could be utter nonsense though. It's just my hunch as to what is happening to my body. If any experts could validate or correct my assumption please do so in the comments. It would be appreciated.


For longer rides, my go-to pre-ride meals are usually one of the following (in no particular order):


  • Porridge (add a banana if going above 40 miles).

    • Goes down very easily and is gentle /easy for the body to digest.

  • Two slices of wholemeal toast with peanut butter, jam and sliced banana on top.

    • Tends to keep me fuller for a bit longer. Adding a banana on top, even more so.

  • Two slices of wholemeal toast with 2 eggs - either scrambled or poached

    • I can suffer from cramp so I add a bit of salt to boost the sodium levels in my system.

    • I add a bit of grated cheese. The fat keeps me fuller for longer but I only do this if I'm sure I've at least a good hour before I start riding. Any sooner and the stuffed feeling can give me indigestion for the first few miles.


Something for the road:


For hydration I find one 710ml bottle is good for up to approximately 30 miles. Any more distance and I always carry two bottles of the same capacity. Although I may only fill one halfway if not going much further. At this point it's worth talking about bottles before detailing what to put in them.


Having tried and tested more bottles than any normal guy should have to do in their lifetime I can say with some degree of confidence that the bottle below is, for me at least, the best:

Tap /click any of the below to buy your preferred on Wiggle or Amazon



"Why?" You may ask. Good question. Allow me to explain. Things I never thought I'd even care about when first riding are (and signs that I probably need to get out more!):


  1. How supple a bottle's plastic is. Riding along whilst reaching down for a bottle can take a bit of practice and a good amount of hand /eye coordination. The last thing you want to be doing once you've plucked your bottle out of its cage is to realise you need a vice-like grip to be able to squeeze its contents into your mouth. The bottles shared here are lovely and soft, and super-easy to squeeze whilst trying to keep your bike going in a straight line.

  2. The valves are an excellent design and don't leak. If you zoom in, you'll notice a groove towards the top of the valve - the bit you place in your mouth. Again, you'd never think of this when starting out, but this is very useful to grip with your teeth - especially if trying to catch your breath between gulps of fluid or you quickly need to put both your hands back on your handle bars for any reason.

What to put in your bottles:


If riding for less than 30 miles then simple H2O will do. For 30 - 50 miles I take two bottles. (not 'into the shower' - that's a different product all together - And, if you've seen my profile pic, one you know I don't need!).


One of them will have just water. The other will include a carbs /electrolytes powder mix. I've tried various brands but always end up coming back to the Science in Sport (SiS) range. Across the board, I find their products to have a lovely flavour, aren't too sweet, have a great texture, are gentle on my stomach and don't give me any adverse side effects.


If it's going to be a physically demanding ride then I'll plan to put more carbs in my system. two and half scoops of the SiS Go range in one of my 710ml bottles and off I go....


Tap /click any of the below to buy your preferred on Wiggle or Amazon


If it's warmer outside and I know I'm going to sweat more than usual then I'll go for more electrolytes over carbs and will ensure one of my bottles is mixed with this:


Tap /click any of the below to buy your preferred on Wiggle or Amazon



If it's going to be a hard ride and it's hot outside then I'll have one of each mix in each bottle. Otherwise I take one bottle with a mix and the other as just water. I'll use up the mix-bottle first. This will get the energy in my system for the duration of the ride. I then use the water up, second.


Gels

I've found gels to be a funny one. Some people I ride with swear by them. Others aren't fans as they report feeling like crap after they've taken a couple.


When starting out I used to need one gel every eighteen - twenty miles. Now, it's a case of popping one every 30 - 35 miles or so. Again, I prefer SiS and am a fan of two varieties they sell. Normal and caffeine - for when I need that extra kick to get me over the last 10-ish miles of a long ride.


Tap /click any of the below to buy your preferred on Wiggle or Amazon



Bars

I've learnt to be quite careful over the years when it comes to bars. Too moist and they stick to the roof of your mouth like a stubborn slug fighting against a strong current towards your gullet. Too dry and you'll choke on a flaky bit as you inhale it towards the back of your throat. Neither experience is pleasant. Especially if you're eating them whilst trying to catch your breath at the top of a climb. After years of scraping sludge off of the roof of my mouth or almost choking to death on a rogue grain of oat, I've landed on these bad-boys. The banana one is nice but the strawberry?!... God-damn. Delicious. SiS really have nailed the texture and flavour with these. I don't leave home without them now if I know I'm riding 40 - 50+ miles.


A handy tip is to ensure you open the pack neatly, before setting off. That way it'll be easier to grab one out of your jersey pocket and push it up the wrapping, into your mouth, whilst you're riding along. So much easier when needing to take the small, regular nibbles I suggest you take to ensure you avoid a horrible, empty stomach feeling, which can really zap you of energy and make everything you want to do in the saddle that much harder.


Tap /click any of the below to buy your preferred on Wiggle or Amazon



Moving away from products made specifically for 'athletes' you can also pop some of the following things in your back pocket for that extra kick of energy when you need it:

  • Jelly beans /babies

  • Haribo (avoid the fizzy type as they can cause acid when riding - go with a good ol' Star Mix)

  • Bananas - probably a case of saving the best 'til last. Natural and the healthiest option for you out of everything listed here (if you like bananas that is?) The riper the better. The softer the banana the more fructose it will contain and the quicker your body will be able to process and absorb it.


Getting back home:


So you've come to the end of your long, challenging ride. You rest your bike against your hallway wall, you kick off your cycling shoes and every fibre of your being is begging your next stop to be the fridge.


I've been told that, whatever you eat or drink after a hard physical workout, you've got a window of approximately 30 minutes where your body is in the optimal state to absorb the benefits of whatever you shove inside your mush. As requested earlier, if any experts can either validate or correct this in the comments section it would be appreciated.


If it's been a particularly difficult ride and I'm starting to feel a bit ropey as soon as I walk through the door then I tend to reach for a bottle of SiS Rego. I quite like either the banana, strawberry or vanilla options. For me, they're not too sweet and 3 scoops of either in 500ml of water tends to take the edge off of what could otherwise be quite a rough-feeling recovery period.


Tap /click any of the below to buy your preferred on Wiggle or Amazon


If my body is crying our for food I'll aim for something that mixes the carbs, proteins and sugars I spoke about earlier. My go-to snacks or meals straight after a ride are usually either:

  • Eggs (protein for muscle recovery) on wholemeal toast (carbs for energy) with a sprinkle of salt (sodium to stop the cramps I can be prone to) and smidge of ketchup (sugar).

  • Tuna (protein) and mayo bagel (carbs) again, with a dash of salt to help get my sodium levels back up.

  • Fruit smoothie made up of frozen raspberries, strawberries, blueberries, a dash of honey, a tablespoon of natural peanut butter and half a cup of granola (put in after the blending process)

Either of the above are then usually washed down with an ice-cream 'chaser'. It may have no nutritional benefit whatsoever but I've just worked my arse off god-damn it. I've earned it, so there! 😉


Finally, a bottle of water accompanies either of the above post-ride snacks /meals as it's crucial to rehydrate your body as quickly and comfortably as possible after any intense form of exercise.


And that completes my list of basic food and drink you'll need to ensure your body gets the nutrition and hydration it needs so you continue to feel good when on the saddle, and when you get back home again.


I hope you found it useful and that it's save you time researching so you can spend more time on your bike.


If you found it helpful and would like to know when more guides like this are posted you can sign up to the blog below.


Cheers and, as always, ride safe! 🚴‍♂️ 👍


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This bite-sized beginner's guide doesn't take itself too seriously and, whilst written in an amusing way, includes excellent advice that provides everything you need to know, to get the most enjoyment out of your new road cycling hobby from day one.

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