Coach Hughes: Nutrition for Cycling Endurance
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Intelligent Cycling Training—Nutrition

Nutrition for Cycling Endurance

Mantras for Endurance Cycling

No matter how hard you train if you don’t fuel properly, finishing a long bike ride will be difficult. Follow these mantras for nutrition for endurance cycling.

John Hughes is the author of Distance Cycling and many articles on training, nutrition, psychology and medical issues for RoadBikeRider.com. He is a veteran of Paris-Brest-Paris ’79, ’87, ’91, ’95, ’99, Boston-Montreal-Boston ’92 (course record), Rocky Mountain 1200 ’04, Furnace Creek 508 ’89 (course record) and ’93 (first place) and the Race Across America ’96.

John Hughes, the former director of the UltraMarathon Cycling Association and editor of UltraCycling, has been certified by the National Strength and Conditioning Association as a personal trainer and by USA Cycling as a coach.

After training, nutrition is the key factor in finishing long rides. When Warren and I were training for Paris-Brest-Paris we realized that if one of us wasn’t having fun we hadn’t eaten recently. If you don’t eat enough and properly you bonk (your brain feels all fuzzy) and you hit the wall (your legs are dead). You are definitely not having fun! You get discouraged and consider using your cell phone to call for rescue. We are each an experiment of one. What works for one rider may not work for another rider. Use your training rides to experiment with ride nutrition and then use your tested nutrition on long rides.

  1. Eat carbs daily—We burn lots of carbs when cycling. To be sure that your fuel tank is full, carbs should make up 55 to 65 percent of your total daily calories. One gram of carbs contains four calories. A simple rule of thumb is to cover your plate primarily with carbs. Meat is a condiment.
  2. Eat hourly on the bike—Eat regularly on the bike to avoid swings in energy.
  3. Know your hourly burn rate—Figure out how many calories per hour you are burning cycling. See:
    • Eating For Events—Table on calories per hour for different size people cycling at different speeds.
    • Calorie Estimator—Download spreadsheet to calculate total calories burned while cycling based on distance, average speed, total climbing and rider weight.
  4. Eat your burn rate every hour on the bike—Once you know your burn rate, try to eat about half of those calories every hour on the bike.
  5. Eat primarily carbs on the bike—You’re burning both glycogen (from carbs) and fat for energy while cycling. We all have enough fat to fuel a long ride, but we can run out of glycogen within a few of hours. Your brain can only burn glycogen. Avoid the bonk by eating mostly carbs.
  6. Calories or convenience—While sports bars, gels and drinks may be more convenient while cycling, they provide no better nutrition than eating real food and they cost more.
  7. Drink when thirsty—Drink enough so that you aren’t thirsty, but don’t over drink, which can cause hyponatremia (low blood sodium), a potentially fatal condition.
  8. Eat salt—You can sweat out 1 liter (34 fl. oz.) per hour cycling in hot weather. A liter of sweat contains an average of 800 mg of sodium!
  9. Calories in = calories out—Over a 24-hour cycle on longer long rides, calories in should equal calories out. Eat your calories hourly on the bike and eat the rest at controls, especially before a sleep break.
  10. Eat for recovery—As soon as you finish cycling start eating several hundred calories of carbs / hour and drinking to satisfy your thirst.
  11. One-way principle—Finally, what goes down should stay down while cycling!

For more information see: