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 wasnt 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 hadnt slept well. I had skipped the 300 km brevettoo much work to doand 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, Id 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 (Im 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 ridesI 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 its likely that he started out with too much volume on board. His basketball wasnt 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 Id 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 Id 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.
Id ridden slowly, so the blood would go to my digestive system instead of my legs, and Id given my innards over two hours to process breakfastbut my stomach was still upset. Looking west, I could see the Rockies. In a couple of hours Id 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 acidthat 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, Id only drunk one food bottle, but I dutifully mixed another, knowing Id 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 downa good signbut when I sipped some water, I felt even fuller. After half an hour, I tried one of the crunchier granola bars. That seemed bettermaybe 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 Id 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.
Ive learned from experience that I need at least 300 calories every hour to keep from bonking. Leaving Niwot, I reviewed everything Id eaten since the start of the ride and guessed Id consumed about 1200 calories. Id 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. Id carried more granola bars and a food bottle up with me, so on the 30-mile, undulating descent I had lunch. Since I didnt 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, theyd 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: Its hard to know whether excess acid was contributing to Johns 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 doesnt "soak up acid", but its possible that Johns stomach was still too full, and by consuming dry food rather than liquid food, he wasnt compounding the problem. Although he was starting to fall behind on calories, he may have been doing even better than he thought, since hes 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 sodiumupsetting the osmotic balance, so my stomach wasnt 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 salts 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 Id 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 Id 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 didnt seem to be working.
When I just ate the crackers and bars from the mini-mart, I didnt 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 emptyingagain, this relates to the osmotic load in the stomach. Without further details on the contents of the energy drink, its contribution to osmotic load cant be assessed accurately. However, assuming the drink included electrolytes in addition to some maltodextrin, sugar and protein, the osmotic load wouldnt 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. Barrs Ten Nutrition Mantras. I dont 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 Id 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 its important to recognize that what works for your friend may not work for you, its also the case that what works for you on one occasion may not be tolerated on another. So, as John did, keep on trying.
For more information see:
- Nutrition for 100K and Beyond: Detailed cycling nutrition, hydration and electrolyte guidance for successful distance cyclingmy 16-page eArticle available for $4.99 from RoadBikeRider.com.
- Eating & Drinking Like The Pros: Nutritional insights from pro teams, expert advice on cycling nutrition and how to make your own healthy nutrition at lower costmy 15-page eArticle available for $4.99 from RoadBikeRider.com.
- Stop Cyclings 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 RoadBikeRider.com.
- Other articles by Coach Hughes
Originally published in UltraCycling