A simple guide to fueling and hydrating on every type of ride.
by Monique Ryan, MS, RDN, LDN, CSSD
Keeping up with carbohydrate, fluid, and electrolyte losses during long training rides, the bike leg of a triathlon, or in an organized ride such as a VELOTHON is no small task. Start now to develop or fine-tune an on-bike nutrition plan in preparation for both your training rides and races. If it seems overwhelming, remember that fueling and hydrating optimally on the bike can be mastered with planning and practice.
Developing a plan
You can start developing a cycling nutrition plan at anytime during your training season. For the bike it's best to develop a plan for each hour, which includes the amount of fluid, fuel, and electrolytes you consume.
Hydration: A fluid primer
- Know your sweat rate per hour on the bike.
- Determine if you can realistically minimize your sweat losses by consuming a planned amount of fluid per hour.
- Practice your planned fluid replacement on long rides.
Challenges and tips:
- Some athletes have a high sweat rate and replacing fluid loss can be difficult.
- Drinking on the bike is a skill and requires practice.
- Individual tolerance to fluid volumes vary from athlete to athlete, but you can train yourself to adjust to larger volumes.
- Sweat rates on the bike can vary in different temperatures so you need to monitor it throughout the season so that your plan matches race day temperatures.
- Athletes with low sweat rates should be aware of this so that they do not overhydrate.
First, test your sweat rate on the bike. This works best for a 60 to 90-minute ride. Weigh yourself before and after the ride, preferable in the buff or with minimal clothing. Every pound of weight you lose on the ride equals 16 ounces of fluid (sweat) loss that was not replaced during the ride. Keep track of any fluid that you consume during this ride so that you can factor it in.
For example, Julie went for a 60 minute spin and decided to check her sweat rate. She hydrated before the ride, went to the bathroom, and then stepped on the scale:
Pre-ride weight: 132 lb.
Post-ride weight: 130.5 lbs.
Total weight loss. 1.5 lbs.
1.5 lb X 16 ounces = 24 ounces sweat loss.
Julie also consumed 20 ounces of fluid on her ride.
Add 24 ounces sweat loss + 20 ounces fluid consumed for total 44 ounces sweat.
So Julie loses about 44 ounces of sweat per hour on the bike in the weather conditions of her test ride.
Reevaluate your sweat rate as you acclimate to warmer temperatures or as your training level increases closer to the race.
Fuel: A carbohydrate primer
- Aim to consume 60 to 90 grams of carbohydrates per hour. Higher amounts provide more fuel and support performance. These are absolute amounts that are not based on body weight or gender.
- Mix up your intake of carbohydrates. Go for products that contain glucose (or a product that breaks down to glucose such as maltose, maltodextrins, sucrose and amylopectin) and fructose. Ingesting only glucose limits your intestinal absorption rate to 60 grams of carbohydrate per hour. Adding in fructose increases absorptions rates. (The best absorption rates have been measured with a glucose: fructose ratio of 2:1.)
- Find your balance between the carbohydrate intake and fluid intake. Most sports drinks are a 6 to 8 percent concentration. Forty ounces of a sport drink consumed in one hour can provide an average of 75 g carbohydrate.
- Concentrated carbohydrate products don't empty from your stomach as quickly as water and sports drinks. Sports drinks are at 6-8 percent concentration, while in contrast customized mixes can reach over a 10 percent concentration, and gels are a 60-70 percent concentration. Too many carbohydrates in a concentrated form sit longer and can result in stomach bloat and wreak havoc with your gut during an event.
- Solid foods can cause gastrointestinal distress during a ride, but can help relieve hunger during a full-distance triathlon.
- Athletes must strive to find a mix of sports drinks, gels, and other semi-solid products that provide the right concentration and amount of carbohydrate with the proper balance of fluid that minimizes sweat loss on the bike and can be handled by their gastrointestinal system.
Start with a sports drink and determine a realistic fluid volume goal per hour based on your sweat rate. How many carbs will you need to fuel your body? If your plan falls short of your carbohydrate targets, ask what can you add to the mix?—I often recommend one gel per hour to top up the amount consumed from a sport drink. Take the gel with 8 ounces of water. Start with a structured plan and practice, adjust, and refine from there. The sports drink is the main course and gels, bars and other products are the side dishes.
Hydration part two: An electrolyte primer
- Sodium in your nutrition mix enhances fluid absorption through the small intestine.
- Replacing some sodium loss during the race maintains adequate and safe blood sodium levels. Sodium is the main electrolyte lost in sweat and you can lose a substantial amount of sodium in an endurance event.
- Aim for 600 to 1000 mg of sodium per hour, mainly through a high sodium sports drink.
- Sodium-enhanced sports drinks also contain potassium, calcium, and magnesium.
- Electrolyte mixes can be added to your bottles.
- Salty sweaters (as characterized by the salt streaks on their clothing after a workout or race) may need to supplement beyond a sports drink with electrolyte mixes or tablets.
Check that you are using a sports drink that contains a higher level of electrolytes. Your mix should provide at least 600 mg of sodium per hour and up to 1200 mg per hour if you are a salty sweater or are susceptible to muscle cramping.
Begin all your rides well hydrated and fueled, particularly if you're going long. This may require that you pre hydrate and fuel one to several hours beforehand, depending on the start time of your ride.
Pre-ride fluid and fuel
Jack plans on an evening ride at 6 p.m. in warm weather. At 2 p.m., he starts to prepare to pre-hydrate and pre-fuel for the 30 mile ride. Jack weighs 150 lb and consumes 15 ounces of water at 2 p.m. At 4 p.m. Jack consumes another 11 ounces of water. Jack can drink more if he is thirsty and check his hydration status at a bathroom break. Pale urine the color of lemonade indicates that he is well-hydrated.
- Drink ¾’s to 1 ounce of fluid per 10 pounds of weight 3 to 4 hours before your ride.
- Drink 1/2 to 3/4’s ounces fluid per 10 pounds of body weight 2 hour before your ride.
- Drink more if you are thirsty or if urine is darker than lemonade.
Jack also consumes a snack at 4 p.m. to top off his carbohydrate stores. With two hours' digestion time, he plans to consume 1 cup of granola, 6 ounces of yogurt, 2 tbsp. of raisin, and 8 ounces of juice (also hydrating) for about 125 g of carbohydrate.
- Aim for up to 1 gram of carbohydrate per pound of weight 2 hours before a ride.
- Choose familiar and well-tolerated carbohydrate foods.
Early morning rides don’t always allow for 2 hours' digestion time. Julie woke up at 6 a.m. for an early morning spin. She had 1 slice of toast, 1 tbsp. of jam, and 8 ounces of juice before her 7 a.m. ride to get a 60 g of a carbohydrate boost. She also consumed 12 ounces of water.
- In the hour before a ride consume 30 to 60 g of carbohydrate for a fuel boost.
- Consume very easily digested foods or use sports nutrition products.
Pre-fueling and pre-hydrating the morning before a long ride can be very helpful and is great practice for the day of the event. While you can fuel over the entire three hour period before starting the ride, start early with larger portions. The more time you have to digest, the more you can easily digest with no feedback on the ride.
Julie is excited about her first 75 mile ride. She plans to attend an organized ride sponsored by her a local cycling club and start at 9 a.m. At 6 a.m. she consumes a full breakfast:
Oatmeal, cooked, 1.5 cups
Honey, 2 tbsp.
Yogurt, 6 ounces
Banana, 1 large
Juice, 12 ounces
Total- 170 g carbohydrate
- Three hours before a long ride aim for up to 1.5 g of carbohydrate for every pound of weight.
- In the hour before the ride, chow down 30 to 60 g of very easily digested carbohydrates.
Monique Ryan, MS, RDN, CSSD, LDN is a sports dietitian who provides training and nutrition programs for athletes. She is also the author of Sports Nutrition for Endurance Athletes, 3rd edition.Contact her at moniqueryan.com.