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!
So my experiment using real food to fuel training has been a success. But what about racing? When I’m training in my MAF range below 145 BPM, I digest the rice balls, rice cakes, and potatoes with no problem. I look forward to the snack instead of reminding myself to eat. But what about race intensity? Is a rice ball going to stay down when I’m charging at 165-185 BPM? Or will I see it again, flying through the air as I vomit? Can I manipulate these snacks while mountain biking on a rough course? Or will I wrap my rice cake and myself around a tree?
Therein lies the conundrum:
Never try anything in a race you haven’t tried in training
Racing feels totally different than training
What to do?
One way would be to try new things in high intensity workouts or race simulations. But I prefer to keep my training strictly aerobic.
Another way is to designate a race as a “practice race” to try new strategies without getting overly concerned about the results. So if it all goes down in flames, just practice recovering as much as possible and learn from it.
I will try the second approach in this weekend’s Lake Tahoe Mountain Bike Race, 4 hour solo event. Last year I went nuts and did the 8 hr solo event, but this year I will go shorter so I will be well recovered for the following weekend’s XTERRA. This year I will go shorter and test out my real food fueling strategy and see how it feels to fuel on rice, potatoes and dates while riding hard. Since it is a multi-lap format, I can set up a pit area with a cooler for food and drinks. I will fuel with real food, and hydrate with plain water in my hydration pack. I will bring a bottle of Sustained Energy and some gels, just in case the solid food doesn’t work. I will hydrate on the course, and refuel with rice and potatoes between each lap. I’ll carry dates in my pocket if needed on the course. Due to the length of this event, I think the real food will work great. In any case, it will give me valuable information for next month’s Leadville Qualifier at Northstar.
My goal is to ride 5 laps within the 4 hour time limit. If I miss it, I think I will just go out and ride another lap anyway to make it a good long day.
One of the benefits of the Maffetone Method, is that I need fewer calories on the bike. I can remember when I started out, any ride of two hours needed sports drinks and gels. I generally drank one hundred calorie bottle per hour along with a gel. And boy, did I need them! I can remember a couple of memorable bonks and near bonks when I finished later than expected, dragging my sorry carcass to the fridge. Building a steadily bigger aerobic engine means better utilization of fat for fuel, and staying at aerobic intensity means I don’t feel hungry, or desperately needing calories. When I do feel hungry, it’s because it’s lunch time! I would be hungry anyway, even without the bike.
But once I get into the three plus hour range for training rides I have to fuel. Going longer than about 90-120 minutes means that storage glucose will run out, and even the best Maffetone-built fat burning aerobic engine still needs some carbohydrate to keep it all in gear. So calories count. But I grew a little tired of fruity, sweet, expensive gels and drinks, so I experimented with real food and found great success! I found real food digests more slowly, gradually keeping up your energy. I really noticed this mentally. I didn’t realize that there was a “flash and crash” from gels and drinks until I tried real food. It is more of a mental experience where the sugar would make me feel energetic, then later my brain would get a little foggy and fatigued. It wasn’t dramatic, and I thought it was normal. But real food digests slowly and my mental energy is much steadier. What really worried me was my gut. How would it tolerate solid, savory food while still pedaling along for hours? Much better than I thought. But I found that smaller portions more frequently are important. Just a few bites, otherwise you get that “brick” feeling. And that could signal an impending disaster!
Another part of the experiment was real food’s effect on recovery. I’ve found that I really need very little fuel for long aerobic rides. But I wondered if taking in calories along the way would allow me to recover faster, since I would not be digging myself in as deep a hole. The result seems to be that I recover faster and feel better the rest of the day. It used to be that a weekend long ride before lunch would leave me trashed for the rest of the day. I would eat lunch, take a long nap, get up, eat another lunch and be pretty tired. Partly because of the aerobic training and partly by refueling, I finish these long rides tired, but not exhausted and not famished. I eat lunch, take a nap, just like usual, but the nap is shorter, and I’m not as hungry. I still have energy to do other things. Sometimes I add in walks just because I feel like it!
Three consecutive long weekend road rides went like this:
Same route, about 3 1/2 hours
Went over tem minutes faster after three weeks
Fueled with two bottles of Hammer HEED sports drink
Ate six small onigiri (about a cup and a half of rice)
Ate three dates
Everything went down smooth and felt great. Everything was divided up equally into three snack size bags, one for each jersey pocket. With a little practice, I could eat and ride without too much fumbling.
Another alternative is small Yukon gold potatoes, cooked and cut in quarters tossed with salt and nutritional yeast. Very savory and very tasty! Disadvantage: they get gooey and are a little tricky to eat while riding.
Perfect the wrapping of Allen Lim style rice cakes for cycling. They taste great, but I can’t yet wrap them in such a way that they stay together and be smoothly eaten while pedaling by a klutz like me!
While fueling for training is dialed in what about racing? How does intensity affect fueling? Racing and that conundrum next time.
Race day nutrition is very tricky and requires a lot of experimentation. Everyone is unique and some real trial and error is needed to find the ideal pre-race dinner the night before. Breakfast is even harder to figure out, since it might not be needed or even desirable. I failed miserably last summer at Northstar by not eating and drinking in small, frequent amounts. Instead I got behind, tried to catch up which forced my gut to rebel and shut down.
But my recent two races went off very well from pre-race dinner to post-race lunch. I am very excited about what I discovered.
I used to love a big bowl of whole wheat pasta with a thick, chunky sauce jammed with vegetables for dinner the night before. For breakfast, I loved my usual oatmeal, or a lentil spread on toast. I don’t these things anymore. Can you figure out why?
For any other meal, fiber rich foods are the goal. It slows down digestion and keeps your blood sugar and energy on an even keel. But that’s not what you want before or during a race. That pasta dish? Had me seeking bathrooms as desperately as the Oakland Raiders for a head coach. Lentils for breakfast? Awesome on a regular day, but not so nice when charging hard on the race course, trying to get fuel out of the gut and into the muscles and the brain.
THE LOW FIBER WAY TO A GREAT RACE
My pre-race dinner is now white rice with a few veggies for color and texture. Or potatoes, baked, steamed or mashed with a little seasoning or sauce. I eat dinner early because I want all of that food out of my system before the gun goes off.
TO BREAK THE FAST OR NOT?
Steve Born of Hammer nutrition recommends no breakfast. He would rather sleep. His reasoning is that food consumed too close to the race will slow down in digestion and interfere with fat burning. Muscle glycogen is already full if you train and eat properly, so that breakfast won’t really help. Instead he suggests at most taking a gel right before the start, get into your pace, and just start fueling the way you usually do. This sounds weird, but it works. If the race is under two hours you probably don’t need anything. Longer events will need fueling, but that can be handled during the race itself.
I like breakfast. So I like to eat a little before races. I only do this if I can have three hours before the start to make sure that food is metabolized. Since my muscles are already stocked with glycogen, all the breakfast needs to do is top off the stored glycogen in the liver that was burned overnight. This amounts to only a couple hundred calories. Both of my recent races required a couple hours of driving, so I ate two smallish baked potatoes or sweet potatoes. They took the edge off my hunger, but did not bog me down.
I stuck with what I’ve used in the past, but I surprised myself by needing less. For a 2 1/2 hour XTERRA, I drank one bottle of Perpetuem, about 250 calories on the bike, which lasted about 90 minutes. I sipped on HEED during the transitions, and I had plenty of energy. In the past I was sucking down gels as well, but I did not feel I needed that much energy. Also important was not overdoing the calories thinking that I needed them and forcing my gut to fight back. Been there before, lesson learned!
Immediately after finishing, I kept moving, walking to my transition bag, getting my bottle and refilling it with water. I mixed two servings of Brendan Brazier’s Vega Recovery Accelerator which gave me about 160 calories, 35 g carbohydrate and 8 g protein. I kept sipping and walking until I felt my heart rate come down.
The XTERRA race was a bit longer and ended close to lunchtime, but I didn’t feel very hungry until after the awards. I had packed a nice soba noodle salad which made an awesome lunch. After the sprint tri, I was even less hungry, since the race was an hour shorter. Knowing that I wanted to get on the road right away, I packed onigiri rice balls for lunch since I could easily eat them while driving. Very tasty, but I may have been lacking a little in protein.
Make that Green Tea and Potatoes
Dietician Jeff Novick advises us not to drink our calories. They don’t satisfy, and can easily lead to over consumption over the course of a day. While a carbohydrate drink can help during workouts, especially longer or harder ones, I find that training below Maximum Aerobic Function encourages fat burning enough that I do not really need calories during workouts. With the goal of ever increasing the amount of work my body can do burning mostly fat, I’m leaving the sport drink at home for now while I just keep plodding along. Then I looked at my tea cup and got an idea:
Yes, green tea in my water bottle. Famous for its antioxidants, but with no calories it could only benefit right? I heard one person say that the nutritional power of green tea is so great, we should consider it a leafy green vegetable! So I brewed a cup of green tea, poured it into my water bottle and filled the rest with water. It’s water, but with special powers. And a little bit of flavor. Even better, if I had one available, would be to add a squeeze of lemon or lime which adds both flavor and improves the absorption of those special antioxidants.
For my real food calories on this week’s long ride I went with:
I cooked up a pound , let them cool a bit, sliced them in half and tossed them with a squeeze of lemon juice, salt, pepper, and sprinkle of parsley. Next time I’ll add a little garlic powder. I poured the potatoes into a plastic tumbler and stuffed that in my jersey pocket. This arrangement kept the potatoes easily accessible and kept my jersey clean.
Because they’re awesome! They always taste great, and can be made to be savory to counter the often sweet fruit based fuels. Potatoes are an easily digested carbohydrate that should easily fuel long training sessions. They’re a little less calorie dense than the white rice or prepared fuels, so you have to be a little more precise in measuring to be sure you have the right number of calories for your workout. I took probably half a pound, filling up the tumbler which worked for my 2.5 hour road ride, but I was definitely hungry by the end. Which was fine, because the other half was in the fridge ready to go as a post ride snack.
So I pedaled through the dormant vineyards of Sonoma county enjoying the spring like weather nibbling on my potatoes and enjoying the day. Real food fueling works so far. I am enjoying real food better than sports drinks and gels of the past, and strongly urge everyone to try savory real foods for long sessions.
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?