If you’re heading out on the bicycle for more than an hour ride, you need to eat in order to perform and feel your best. But what, when, and how much should you be eating?
Eating the wrong things (like gels) or eating too much can cause major GI distress. On the other hand, if you don’t eat enough or at all–something I see women trying to lose weight do all the time–you’re performance on the bike is going to suffer.
Another issue that women have with on the bike nutrition is that we’ve been following advice tailored to men! But women have different needs.
In this article, I’ll share 9 tips for fueling on the bike so that you can feel and perform at your best!
Eat (Don’t Drink) Your Calories.
Many cyclists, get all their calories thru their bottle. When I first started endurance racing, everybody told me I should be drinking Heed. And what happened? I was always sick to my stomach.
The truth is, that for most women, drinking calories will lead to GI distress. It can also actually cause dehydration because your body pulls water away from other parts of your body in order to lower the omsolality in your belly.
That doesn’t necessarily mean you should never use a drink mix. In fact, drink mixes can be super important for longer or hotter rides where you need to replenish electrolytes. And a little glucose is okay too. But drink mixes shouldn’t be your calorie source.
For more info, check out our article on the best drink mixes.
Eat Real Food.
You all: we’ve been duped! There’s a massive marketing machine out there that’s been telling us for years that we’ll good faster and feel better on the bike if we buy and eat their products.
The truth is, gels and bars and energy drinks, are not optimal on the bike nutrition.
Real food is so much better for your body and for your belly. If you feel sick on the bike, switch to real food for a while, and notice the massive difference.
So what kind of real food should you be eating? Bananas. Sandwhiches cut up into bites. Cookies. I’m a big fan of putting leftover dinner and/or dessert in a zip lock bag.
If you want more ideas, I highly recommend Allan Lim’s Food Zone Portables*. He has great recipes for baked eggs, rice balls, rice cakes, and more.
Eat Between 1 and 1.5 Calories Per Pound Per Hour
That means a 130 pound woman should be eating around 130 to 195 calories per hour. Yes, you are likely burning more calories than that, but there’s simply no way for your body to digest that many calories per hour during exercise.
Set A Timer And Eat Small Amounts
Some people are great about eating on the bike. I am not one of them. If you’re not either, than set a timer on your phone or Garmin to remind you to eat. I like to take a few bites of something every 30 minutes.
It’s also much easier for your belly to digest food if you eat small amounts at any time. Aim to eat a couple of times per hour, as opposed to once every couple of hours.
Don’t Confuse Dehydration With Hunger.
We’ve all experienced the dreaded bonk. When we hit that wall, we usually think we need food.
And yes, it’s never a bad choice to take some bites of food when you’re feeling low. But you also need to make sure your drinking.
When we bonk it’s more often that we’re dehydrated than that we’re low on calories. For more info, read our guide to cycling hydration.
Aim For A Mix Of Macronutrients.
We usually focus on carbs on the bike. And yes, carbs are super important. But the longer you ride, the more you need to make sure you’re getting a mix of macronutrients–fats and proteins as well as carbs.
Because most cycling foods (gels and bars) are heavy in carbs and low in protein or fat, this is where eating real food can help a lot. A turkey and cheese sandwhich cut up into bites, for instance, provides carbs, fat, and protein.
Pay Attention To Sugars–They’re Not All Created Equal!
Simple sugars can be helpful on the bike, especially if you’re feeling like your blood sugar is a little low and you need a quick boost. But not all sugars will have the same effect so make sure to read labels!
We want to focus on eating a blend of glucose, dextrose, and sucrose. These are found in candies with good ol’ cane sugar, as well as in sports blocks and chews.
You want to avoid fructose (which is found in fruit based bars) and in high fructose corn syrup. You also want to avoid stevia, agave nectar, and sucralose. These can all cause GI distress, and are not easily absorbable.
Experiment With What Works Best For You
Now that I’ve given you an idea of what, when, and how much to eat, it’s time to experiment! Try some new foods on the bike and see what is palatable to you. How does your stomach feel at the end of a ride?
If you’ve struggled in the past, I highly recommend keeping a journal. When you get home from a ride, jot down what you ate and how you feel. You’ll start to see patterns.
Experimenting during training is especially important if you’re training for a long endurance event. That might be a century ride or even a multi day bikepacking race.
You want to dial in what your stomach can handle on hour 4 of a ride BEFORE hour 4 of a big event. It’s a massive bummer to drop out or struggle to finish because you didn’t fuel in a way that worked for YOUR body.
Eat For Recovery After Your Ride
Proper fueling doesn’t end once you step off the bike. In fact, what you eat in the 30 minutes after your ride can have a HUGE impact on your recovery.
For hard rides and/or those over two hours, make sure to eat a recovery snack with both protein and carbohydrates. I highly recommend a smoothie with greek yogurt and whey protein.
For more information, read our article on how to recover after a ride.
What To Eat
- Real Food! Sandwiches, bananas, cookies, jerkey, potatoes, etc.
- Blocks and chews. Gummy candy.
- Get more ideas form Food Zone portables
What Not To Eat
- Liquid calories (Gatorade, Heed, etc)
- Fructose, high fructose corn syrup, stevia, agave nectar, sucralose.
Additional Resources/Recommended Reading
- ROAR: How To Match Your Food And Fitness To Your Female Physiology For Optimum Performance, Great Health, and A Strong Lean Body For Life*, by Stacy T. Sims
- Feed Zone Portables: A Cookbook of On-the-Go Food for Athletes (The Feed Zone Series)*, by Allen Lim
Prefer to listen? Here’s our podcast episode on this topic.