Sometimes the Answer is Yes!
Recently I helped out with a charity bike ride that had a range of distances and a range of rider experience. There was a short course of 15 miles, a longer challenge of 48 miles, and a metric century of 65 miles. We catered to a range of abilities from racers to young kids. Everybody had a great time, and many challenged themselves with a nice long ride. Most riders were out there for over two hours, and this is where refueling becomes important. Previous posts (1, 2) examined how most daily workouts do not need extra calories before, during, or after, since the average person has at least 90 minutes of glycogen on board. But a day like this is the exception.
On a long weekend effort over two hours, like a charity bike ride, a half marathon, skiing, or even a long hike, fuel becomes important. If you train regularly at fat burning, aerobic intensities, your body should be good at using fat and preserving its stored carbohydrate. But that storage is limited, so when you know you’ll be out longer than two hours, you’ll need to refuel, and you should start early. If you wait until the two hour mark and you’re outta gas, you might not recover until the next day! Since it takes about 30 minutes or so for those food calories to become available to your muscles, you might not be able to catch up.
If you need to refuel, the important questions are WHEN, WHAT, and HOW. (much)
Starting sometime within thirty minutes. This depends on how much you ate in the hours prior. If you start early in the morning with no breakfast, start eating earlier. If you had some breakfast a couple hours prior, then it’s not so urgent.
Commercial gels, sports drinks, and bars can all work, but individuals respond differently to varying ingredients, brands, and even flavors. The research shows that it doesn’t really matter whether those calories come in liquid, solid, or gel form. Whatever works for you is fine. But I want to encourage everyone to try real food fueling, and save the commercial fuel for emergencies, or times where convenience is the top priority.
Reasons to Use Real Food:
- Real food tastes better: You can customize it.
- It’s healthier: You get a range of nutrients in the proper form.
- It’s cheaper: You can make it in bulk.
- Better for the environment: Save on packaging and manufacturing.
Following the lead of Allen Lim, I have found that rice works best. Previously I used liquid and gel fueling thinking that it was easier to digest. I have found that white rice is easier to digest, tasty, and inexpensive. As for hydration, I was worried that solid food would interfere with hydration, and that a liquid fuel would be the best of both worlds. However, the opposite can happen:
“These high-calorie solutions, however, can be extremely difficult to tolerate because they can actually slow the transport of fluid, inhibit the movement of fluid across the small intestine, and directly irritate and overwhelm your gut, especially when you are dehydrated, stressed, or hot.” (Feed Zone Portables, p. 23)
Instead, with white rice, which has a higher water content compared to a sports bar, the water passes around the food. Brilliant! The food forms a bolus in your stomach and digests while water flows past it and into the gut:
“The emptying rate for a liquid is distinct from the emptying rate of a bolus… Ultimately of all the factors that affect the gastric emptying rate, the three most important are all related to hydration. A low water volume entering the stomach, high calorie density, and a body that is dehydrated will all slow gastric emptying…” (ibid, p. 24-25)
Note the mention of caloric density. This is why concentrated liquid fuel or gels without sufficient water intake can cause such gut trauma, and why sports bars never worked for me. The calorie density was was too high. But rice cakes and rice balls are much less dense due to the water content. If you make a batch, and weigh them, you can compare the volume to commercial sports nutrition and see the difference.
Of course this will vary widely between individuals, but the answer is probably less than you think. Based On Lim’s calculations (ibd, p. 14-15) for century bike riding and marathon running, most people will need to consume between 150-250 calories an hour. Less if you’re small, more if you’re bigger. Less if the duration is short, more as the duration increases. I found this to be accurate. In the old days of commercial fuel, I used one gel and one bottle of sports drink per hour for a total of 200 calories. Consuming more than you need won’t make you faster, believe me, I know! But it can shut down your gut in a hurry. Consuming less won’t hurt you, unless you’re out for a really long time. For real food, that translates into 1-2 rice cakes or rice balls, depending on how big you make them. Or a couple pieces of fruit. Or a handful of potatoes. I still like to use a light sports drink on occasion like Hammer HEED or Skratch Labs, and that contributes to some calories. The only trick to using real food, as Lim reminds us above, is to drink plenty of water or dilute sports drink to keep the gut happy.
While commercial products can work, real food and plain water works. Rice cakes, potatoes, or fruit plus water all work as well. Just as well as, or better than commercial stuff. It tastes better, because you can customize it. It’s healthier, cheaper, and better for the environment. It just takes a little investment in time to find the best recipes. Which of course you can find here or at the vegan training table blog!
Our charity riders did quite well on fresh fruit and rice cakes. You can too!
After my GI distress in last year’s LQS race, I have been a little more interested in finding real food to fuel my long training rides. I have become a little leery of the sweet taste and processed carbohydrates of sports drinks and gels. One reason I switched to Hammer products was because they aren’t as sweet, and I found the exclusive use of maltodextrin to work better for me. Until it didn’t.
Plus, real food such as natural fruits and starches will be far more nutrient dense than engineered food.
I have found that the Maffetone Method allows me to train on water alone up to 2 hours. Greater reliance on burning fat for energy means I no longer need carbs along the way. Also, following a starch based diet means my glycogen stores are always full. Part of base training will be trying to push that a little further out. Can I ride for 2 1/2 hrs? 3hrs?
But what about racing?
Higher intensity means more carbohydrate burned at faster rates and the need for refueling. Short races of two hours or less I think will be fine with some Hammer HEED or gel. But what about those marathon mountain bike races? It is for these longer events that I want to find some real food alternatives.
Here are some things I have tried with varying success:
- small potatoes
Most people have discovered that bananas don’t travel well. Dates travel really well, they’re like nature’s gel packets, and I know a guy who raced on figs, but fruits have a problem shared with sports nutrition: the sweet taste can get to you after a while. Manufacturers get around this by adding things like citric acid, but this can be irritating. Finally, I began to appreciate what Allen Lim and many pro cyclists call “gut rot.”
As far as potatoes and sweet potatoes go, they travel well, but I worry that the fiber could cause a problem over time. But after reading endlessly about Allen Lim’s rice cakes and reading a recipe for and explanation of Japanese rice balls I had a flash of insight: white rice! I have been a brown rice snob for so many years that I completely ignored that white rice is low fiber but high carbohydrate without being sweet. It just might solve my problems.
So I turned to Allen Lim and his book The Feed Zone Cookbook for some ideas. As a vegan athlete, I took a real chance ordering this from Amazon unseen, but it seems to have some good ideas and stories. Scott Jurek uses rice in the form of onigiri, or rice balls wrapped in seaweed. kinda like sushi. Brilliant! All I have to do is find a recipe I like and learn how to package it. This part worries me, as I am clumsy while trying to fuel during a ride. I also don’t want my jersey to turn into a glutinous mess. So far I like the rice cake while skiing, but the stop and go nature of skiing coupled with a chairlift ride makes eating real food easy. For cycling, I will have to practice on some long rides to see if it works.
Then what about Tarahumara foods like chia or the little bean burritos they use while racing?