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Intelligent Cycling Training—Nutrition

Nutrition for Long Rides

We're each an experiment of one.

by John Hughes
commentary by Susan I. Barr, PhD, RDN, FACSM

© John Hughes, All Rights Reserved

John Hughes is the author of Anti-Aging: 12 Ways to You Can Slow the Aging Process and of the book Distance Cycling. He has written 40 articles on training, nutrition, psychology and medical issues for More about Coach Hughes.

Susan Barr, is a Professor of Nutrition, University of British Columbia. She is a veteran of the Rocky Mountain 1200, Paris-Brest-Paris, Team Furnace Creek 508, Pacific Crest and PAC Tours.

I was only 10 km into the 400 km brevet, the sun wasn’t even up yet, and I felt like I had a basketball in my stomach. What happened? What could I do?

Hypothesis #1: A Nervous Breakfast
I was feeling nervous and hadn’t slept well. I had skipped the 300 km brevet—too much work to do—and this was the first long ride of the season.

I had eaten breakfast at 3 a.m. in the car as I was driving to the start. Since it would be a long day, I’d put down lots of calories:

  • 16 oz of food drink (700 calories)
  • a large bagel (400 calories)
  • a banana (100 calories)
  • two 24 oz of coffee (I’m a caffeine-head)
  • 24 oz of water (to be sure I was well hydrated)

As I thought back on breakfast, I reconfirmed that all of the foods were ones that I regularly ate before and during rides—I knew better than to try anything different on an important ride.

Susan Barr: Although John said his breakfast foods were ones that he regularly ate before and during rides, the question is whether he usually eats this particular combination shortly before a ride. His breakfast contained about 1200 calories total and a whopping 88 oz (or about 2.5 litres) of fluid. Stomach emptying is in the range of 1 litre per hour (and can be less with exertion or nerves), so it’s likely that he started out with too much volume on board. His “basketball” wasn’t quite regulation-sized basketball, but 2.5 litres would translate to a ball with a 7” diameter.

My food plan for the brevet was pretty simple:

  • Mix a food bottle (300 calories) at each mini-mart control, to drink between controls
  • Eat about 200 calories of gel every hour
  • Sip plenty of water from my CamelBak
  • Eat whatever looked good in the mini-marts and buy some food to go

However, with an upset stomach, I needed to modify the plan.

I assumed that I’d probably just eaten too much, too fast. So I slowed way down to let things digest and I watched the other riders’ taillights disappear toward the sunrise. I pedaled very slowly for an hour and just took small sips of water. Then, knowing I’d need calories, I tried sipping on the food bottle. Blech! Sip more water. Eventually, I tried some gel. Seemed okay. More water. Then I tried a granola bar. That actually went down nicely.

After 2.5 hours I reached the first control at the mini-mart in Platteville just as the last riders were just leaving. They were surprised to see me so far back. I explained “just a bit of an upset stomach”.

I’d ridden slowly, so the blood would go to my digestive system instead of my legs, and I’d given my innards over two hours to process breakfast—but my stomach was still upset. Looking west, I could see the Rockies. In a couple of hours I’d be starting up Left Hand Canyon, which climbs 4,000 feet in 16 miles.

Hypothesis #2: Acid stomach
At the mini-mart I swallowed a couple of pills advertised to “soak up excess stomach acid”—that certainly described how I felt! Since the granola bar had gone down well, I bought several of different kinds of bars. In the first 2.5 hours, I’d only drunk one food bottle, but I dutifully mixed another, knowing I’d need the calories.

From Platteville it was 37 miles to Niwot, the last store before the long climb into the Rockies. As I pedaled west, I pulled out a fruity breakfast bar and ate it. It stayed down—a good sign—but when I sipped some water, I felt even fuller. After half an hour, I tried one of the crunchier granola bars. That seemed better—maybe I needed more dry food to soak up that acid. Occasionally I took a pull on the food bottle, my stomach would yell and me, and I’d reconsider whether to drink any more. Fortunately, the gel was also inoffensive.

When I got to Niwot, I got my card signed and thought “dry is good”. So I skipped the fruit bars and fig newtons, bought a box of crackers and stuffed the contents in a jersey pocket.

I’ve learned from experience that I need at least 300 calories every hour to keep from bonking. Leaving Niwot, I reviewed everything I’d eaten since the start of the ride and guessed I’d consumed about 1200 calories. I’d been out five hours, so I was behind, but not as much as I thought.

I climbed Left Hand slowly, trying to keep my heart rate down. Since I was behind on calories, every 10 minutes or so I munched a few crackers or sucked some gel, and I kept drinking water.

After two hours, I reached the top. I’d carried more granola bars and a food bottle up with me, so on the 30-mile, undulating descent I had “lunch”. Since I didn’t have to pedal very hard, I consumed the food bottle and three granola bars, and several handfuls of crackers.

At mile 120 I actually caught up to a few other riders. Of course, they’d stopped for a sit-down lunch of barbecued ribs, to fuel them for the afternoon. At the mere thought of all that food, my stomach knotted up.

Barr: It’s hard to know whether “excess acid” was contributing to John’s discomfort. Many riders, however, are bothered by this occasionally and find that antacids are helpful. Over-the-counter antacids are unlikely to contain anything that would make the problem worse. If someone has this problem repeatedly, there are prescription medications available that will increase the rate of stomach emptying.

Dry food doesn’t "soak up acid", but it’s possible that John’s stomach was still too full, and by consuming dry food rather than liquid food, he wasn’t compounding the problem. Although he was starting to fall behind on calories, he may have been doing even better than he thought, since he’s indicated that he was riding much more slowly than usual. And that translates to less need for calories.

Hypothesis #3: Salt
Leaving Lyons I described my problem to one of my friends and that I was subsisting on crackers, granola bars and lots of water. He suggested that after drinking lots of water all morning, perhaps I was low on sodium—upsetting the osmotic balance, so my stomach wasn’t emptying. He gave me a couple of salt tablets, which seemed to help.

By the time I got to the Carter Lake control 20 miles later, my stomach felt slightly less bloated. Maybe salt’s the trick? So I studied the nutrition labels on the all of the different crackers and chips, and bought the saltiest ones I could find. And, for good measure, drank a can of V-8. I mixed up another food bottle for the next leg and stocked up on crunchy granola bars.

Since I was feeling better, I picked up the pace. On the climb up Horsetooth I started working on the food bottle, and as we started descending into Ft. Collins I finished the food bottle and ate a couple of granola bars. All afternoon I mentally kept track of my nutrition, making sure I got at least 300 calories every hour.

Barr: This is one hypothesis I’d probably reject, at least as far as it relates to stomach emptying. One of the things that delays gastric emptying is a high osmotic load in the stomach, which can result from simple sugars and/or electrolytes, including salt (sodium chloride). A solution containing a high concentration of sodium will actually empty from the stomach more slowly than a solution with a low osmotic load. So taking in salt tablets would have delayed gastric emptying rather than speeding it up.

Hypothesis #4: Complex vs. simple carbs
By the time we got to Wellington, with 70 miles to go, my stomach was acting up again. I thought maybe I’d just ridden too hard on the climb. My friend suggested perhaps combining the food drink (complex carbs and protein) with the granola bars (simple carbs) was creating the problem. I was skeptical that was the cause; however, drinking the liquid nutrition and eating the convenience store food didn’t seem to be working.

When I just ate the crackers and bars from the mini-mart, I didn’t seem to be having any trouble. So, I dumped the rest of my liquid nutrition. At the mini-mart, I stocked up on solid food and, for good measure, drank a large, caffeinated soda.

With the help of the caffeine, sugar, friendly conversation, and a bit of a tailwind, the next 30 miles were the best of the brevet. So, when I got to the final checkpoint, I bought more soda, crackers and bars to eat on the way back to the finish.

Barr: Combining complex and simple carbohydrates is unlikely to have caused the problem. Many of the foods we eat contain a combination of different types of carbohydrate: for example, the granola bars would have had both. What may be important, though, is the total osmotic load in the stomach. Taking in a lot of simple carbohydrate and/or electrolytes all at once can contribute to problems with stomach emptying—again, this relates to the osmotic load in the stomach. Without further details on the contents of the energy drink, it’s contribution to osmotic load can’t be assessed accurately. However, assuming the drink included electrolytes in addition to some maltodextrin, sugar and protein, the osmotic load wouldn’t be insignificant.

I finished the 400 km because I kept experimenting, trying to find the foods that would work that particular day in June. As I experimented, I tried to pay attention to Dr. Barr’s Ten Nutrition Mantras. I don’t think that any specific food, e.g., the liquid nutrition, was the cause of the upset stomach. On the Rocky Mountain 1200 a month later I ate and drank all of the foods that I’d planned to eat on the 400 km.

Upset stomach is one of the most common problems on long rides and with patient experimentation, often the situation can be remedied. Each of us is an individual and we each need to learn by trial and error what works for our unique bodies.

Barr: This is definitely the take-home message! Although there are some basic principles that are important to recognize, “going with your gut“ and trying out what seems to appeal to you can often work wonders. And just as it’s important to recognize that what works for your friend may not work for you, it’s also the case that what works for you on one occasion may not be tolerated on another. So, as John did, keep on trying.

More Information

Nutrition Mantras for Endurance Cyclists

  • Nutrition for 100K and Beyond: Cycling nutrition, hydration and electrolytes — my 16-page eArticle for $4.99 from
  • Eating & Drinking Like the Pros: Expert advice on cycling nutrition and how to make your own healthy nutrition at lower cost — my 15-page eArticle for $4.99 from
  • Cycling in the Heat Bundle Parts 1 and 2 — 41 pages for $8.98, a 10% discount, from It includes:
    1. Cycling in the Heat Part 1: Ride Management — How to acclimate, how to ride in the heat, what to eat and heat-related problems. 19 page eArticle for just $4.99 from
    2. Cycling in the Heat Part 2: Hydration Management — Develop your personal hydration and electrolyte plan. 21 page eArticle for $4.99 from
  • Stop Cycling’s Showstoppers: How to deal with problems on the bike including upset stomach and other aches and pains.—my 65-page eBook available for $14.95 from
  • Other articles by Coach Hughes from

Originally published in UltraCycling