From the Coaches: How to fuel your cycling

Be it a long endurance ride, a shorter more intense session (of course it is with the Sufferlandrians), a time trial, or a road race, ensuring that your fuelling is optimised is an important part of ensuring performance is the best it can be, as well making sure you don’t hit the dreaded Wall! But how can we ensure that our fuelling is optimal for different cycling events, distances, or other factors?

Long easy rides

For longer endurance rides over 90 minutes, although they are lower intensity and where you predominantly use fats as fuel, it is still essential to fuel these adequately for several important reasons.

Firstly, we do still use carbohydrates during Zone 2 intensity rides, and if we are doing a 3+ hour long ride, and we have training to do the next day, it is essential that we keep muscle glycogen stores nice and topped up so that we perform well in the sessions over the coming days.

Additionally, not consuming enough carbs during Zone 2 rides will affect the way we feel mood wise and also our head, as the brain predominantly uses carbs for fuel, so not enough carbs can lead to a sort of brain fog later in the day that can impact productivity. It is also important with these longer rides to ensure you drink enough fluids and, if it’s warmer or you are sweating more, salts. Not only is water needed for carbohydrate storage, but the salts are essential for maintaining muscle contractile function. Even if it is cold, you are likely wrapped up warm and still sweating and losing salts.

Finally, for long term health and performance it is essential that we maintain a good energy availability, which means as well as consuming enough calories to fuel the work and recovery, we also need to consume enough carbs. Risks of not meeting the energy and carb demands of our body is the possibility of slipping into RED-s (relative energy deficiency in sports) as well as impaired performance, recovery, and increased risk of moving into dysfunctional overreaching or overtraining. So pre-ride, during, and post-ride carbs are very important.

For ultra endurance events, or multi-day events such as LEJOG and the Trans-Continental, as there are no days to recover and any missed out energy intake is very difficult to catch back up on later in the event, it is even more essential to ensure you eat enough. For single day timed events, it will be fastest if you carb up well throughout. For the longer lower intensity events such as the Trans-Continental, it is more about overall energy intake as consuming the necessary carbs day in day out wood be very challenging on the gut and gastrointestinal system.

Short intense sessions

For shorter intense sessions under an hour, it isn’t essential to consume carbs during the training session, however it is important to ensure you are well fuelled before and top up after training. Ideally you want to eat a few hours before the training session to allow proper digestion of slower release carbs. If you are in a rush though it is important to consume faster release simple carbohydrates to fuel the training session.

If the session is between an hour and 90 minutes long, it may be necessary to consume some carbs during the sessions such as a gel, energy drink, or some sweets for sugars. After the session it is also important to consume carbs and protein, ideally in a 3:1 ratio as that improves muscle protein synthesis as well as topping up muscle glycogen stores.

Hydration wise, intense sessions often lead to a higher sweat rate, and if doing the session on the turbo then it will likely be even warmer. Ensuring you’ve got a drink with suitable electrolytes will be essential to maintain muscle contractile function if it is a longer effort session, and will also help with reducing RPE during a warm and intense session. Mixing this with a carb drink mix is a great way to top up the fuel gauge for a tough session between an hour and 90 minutes.

Time trials

For the sake of this we’re going to focus on shorter TTs, so 20 minutes to an hour. Firstly, same as with a short intense session, it is vital to consume a meal several hours before the event to ensure there is limited gastric distress. Secondly having faster release carbs just before the event. A few ideal ways of doing this are by sipping an energy drink in the hour leading up to the race, or an energy bar an hour or so before. Then, if a shorter TT, swilling and high carb concentration energy drink in your mouth to allow the carbs into the system quicker via the mouth and gums. If it’s a longer TT then consuming a gel 5min before along with caffeine gum is a good tactic, as well as taking a gel or high carb drink with you on the bike.

After the event it is again essential to refuel shortly after the event. A recovery drink is a good quick and easy way to do this, especially if you don’t feel hungry after intense sessions. Alternatively you can bring something simple like rice and a protein source (more protein if following a vegan/vegetarian diet).

Road races

Road races are of course a longer high intensity event where you will be using carbs at a higher rate for a longer period of time. For these is it again essential to fuel up properly in the morning before the event, but also to up the carbohydrates in the days preceding the event. Not the full on week of carb loading, but a couple of days of higher carb intake should be adequate.

During the race itself, the amount of carbs you will need will vary based on you as an individual. Depending on your gastrointestinal tolerance, then between 60-120g of carbs per hour will be needed. As the intensity will be high, the easiest way to consume these will likely be in more liquid forms such as high carb energy drinks and energy gels. It is important to trial these nutritional methods and strategies in training before an event so you can find out what work for you.

Also important is consuming enough fluids and salts so as to avoid dehydration and cramps, and maintain ideal muscle contractile function. Other elements to consider are caffeine intake, bicarbonate, and beta alanine, as this three supplements have been found to be beneficial for performance in several ways. Caffeine is good for reducing the RPE of a relative effort level, while bicarb and beta alanine having been found to be useful buffers for muscle acidity.

As with all intense exercise, it is important to consume carbs and protein shortly after the event, as well as drip feeding carbs throughout the rest of the day. This will optimise recovery and ensure that you are better prepared for any training or events in the coming days after this event. Rehydration will likely be necessary too as at higher intensities we can sweat up to 2.5 litres an hour! However we cannot replenish this lost fluid at this rate or we will not feel good and likely be sick. So it is important to rehydrate well after the event and hydrate as much as possible, and is optimal for performance, during.

Hot weather or altitude

When training or racing at either altitude or in warmer conditions, there are two important considerations. Firstly, for both of them, the amount of carbs that you use during exercise will increase so it becomes even more important to consume carbs during training as well as around training too. So if you are used to 60g/hour, then increasing to 70+g/hour will be beneficial.

For hot weather, it also becomes more important to consume more water as well as salts. Consuming just large quantities of water will actual be detrimental to performance! Overconsumption of water without adequate salts can lead to a dangerous issue called hyponatremia. This occurs when our sodium levels drop too low, as when we sweat the sodium is needed to transport the water to our skin to allow us to reduce body temperature. However this sodium is needed to maintain cellular function, blood pressure, and transmission of nerve signals between cells. When sodium levels are too low in the body and we consume excessive water, the water is retained in the cells and causes them to swell and in some cases break down. Side effects of this in their most severe are seizures, coma and death. Ways to avoid this are to consume enough salts with fluids, and to not consume excessive water without salts. The side effects of dehydration are less risky than hyponatremia, with that being the leading cause of mortality during marathons.

You can work out sweat rate simply by weighing yourself naked before a workout, then weighing yourself after a workout with any fluids weight consumed during exercise subtracted. So if you are 75kg before, and 74.5kg after 1 hour cycling having consumed 500ml, your water loss is around 1kg/litre. It’s not exact as other elements are lost during exercise, but gives a close estimate. As for salt loss, this requires proper testing to determine the sodium concentration of your sweat. You can eyeball it to an extend with if you develop salt patches on cycling kit after riding in warmer conditions, but this will be a ballpark figure.

Menstrual cycle

An area that has often been overlooked in the scientific literature, which is heavily male dominated when it comes to researchers and participants for studies, is female physiology and nutrition. Hormones have a great impact on the rate that we require energy, and also how our bodies prefer that energy demand to be met. For women who go through the menstrual cycle, their hormone profile changes throughout their cycle, and so too do their nutritional requirements.

During the Menstrual phase, the body is shedding the lining of the uterus and requiring more energy, and protein especially, to repair the tissue and because menstruation is an inflammatory process, increasing the amount of anti-inflammatory foods rich in antioxidants can be beneficial to recovery and performance in training.

For the Follicular phase, estrogen and progesterone levels are at their lowest (estrogen rises leading up to ovulation though) and the body relies more heavily on carbohydrates for fuel rather than fats. So if you consumed 60g/hour of carbs in training, you may need to up that as well as consuming more for pre ride and post ride meals.

Moving into the Luteal phase, progesterone and estrogen levels increase before dropping down before menstruation, and the body becomes more reliant on fat as a fuel source. Along with this, the body’s metabolism increases so overall energy demands increase as well. So although carbs during and around training are not needed in the same quantities, overall energy consumption and availability are important to maintain performance.


Hopefully you’ve found this information helpful and it will assist you in your aims to improve performance and optimise fuelling. If you want to find out more or have a specific questions, then you can always book a call with a coach to go through any questions/queries about nutrition and your training


I’d love to hear what other people do in this area, especially for longer-distance riding. I’ve sort of settled into a routine of going around 40-50 miles a shot, having a flapjack / energy bar half-way through that, and at the stop having a milkshake / protein shake if available, some ‘real food’ (sandwich, usually), and another energy bar.

However, after a while, I find that my ability to eat proper food diminishes - my mouth becomes too dry to chew & swallow, and I start running out of fuel. I’ve used gels at this point before, but they don’t react well with my stomach a few days in a row. Let’s just not go there…

This year, I’ve discovered Tailwind, which goes in your water (seems similar to Scratch, which I’ve seen mentioned on the forum before). I haven’t done anything long enough (no more than 150 miles) with it to know whether it really works for proper long distance, but it seems ok so far.

Anyone else have similar problems, with better solutions?

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I have had this problem, make sure you are properly hydrated…your digestive system needs a certain amount of water to function properly.

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This is so true. I was reading how if you aren’t hydrated, gels draw water from your body back into your gut. Leads to more dehydration and a bloated gut. Not what I’d describe as a good time.


If I’m being systematic and intentional about it, for rides 2+ hrs I’ll do 100 cal every 1/2 hr starting 1/2 hr into the ride. I usually go with 2 fig newtons, a banana, then to gels. Usually, on the road bike, I take one bottle of 2:1 diluted Gatorade-like drink (commonly ~100 cal of fruit juice with 1/8 level tsp table salt plus water to fill a ~20 oz bottle).

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The other thing to pay attention to is how you consume your carbs.

There are two transport mechanisms for sugars in the digestive system because even simple sugars are too large to simply pass through the digestive system/blood barrier (unlike the air molecules which can leak through your tire walls).

One transport mechanism is for glucose, the other is for fructose. Each can transport about 60 grams per hour. Consuming any more than that will just remain in your stomach, which as we all know is not a pleasant feeling.

Hence your stomach (with training) can supply about 120 grams per hour with the right combination of sugars.


They are sort of an aquired taste, but I like SiS gels for this reason, they are much more dilute and you don’t have to consume water at the same time (many others you must). As a result they are larger in size (and perhaps less calories, don’t recall). SiS has ridiculous sales too. I tend to order from them 2 or 3 times per year and sort my gel and hydration and recovery products for the season.

I also like the SiS BetaFuel product. It’s a concentrated calorie hydration product, I use this for the back half of long rides when it’s getting harder to eat. Comes in satchels (largish though) that you can bring along. Pricey though.


Yeah the Brta fuel is ace. Mot really any more expensive than a solid meal if one thinks about it.


I’ve found for longer rides so more than 100kms/62 miles I do better comsuming ‘real food’ and savory real food for as long as I can. For rides over say 200kms or more I get bored of eating and resort to gels. I use Huma gels as when I used to run long distances they caused the least upset to my stomach.
I also force myself to keep sipping at my water. As others have said Tailwind is also useful when you don’t feel like eating anymore.


Yeah the extra long distances get interesting. For extra long single day rides, I alternate real food with gels.
For multi day bikepacking, I literally eat non stop on real food only. Carbs, protein and fat otherwise I just can’t get the calories in. Typically I have a stem feed bag stuffed with MnMs, macadamia nuts, biltong, pretzels and sort of gummy sweets. And there’s usually a 1.5l chocolate milk strapped to the back of my saddle bag. Ocassionally when it is going to be an ultra rough day, I replace the chocolate milk with classic coca cola, to which I add some salt. I also have a solid breakfast and an 800cal dinner.


I do most of my training first thing in the morning before the rest of the family wakes up. What’s the best strategy to fuel these sessions (mostly short intense sessions)?
I tend to not eat anything before them but make sure to eat a large carb-heavy breakfast after, but it sounds like I should be eating some quick release carbs before I get started. Would a banana or a 20g gel be sufficient for a 30-60 min intense session, or should I be thinking bigger?


That’s a good point, as you carry on riding and fatigue sets in a bit, the blood supply is needed primarily at the working muscles, this means less blood to the gut and digestion is compromised and it’s tough to eat and process more real foods. Energy drinks are often better tolerated by the gut and through personal experience I’ve found them essential for 200+mile endurance rides as it takes up less volume than food and drink separately


Seconded, fluid/water is essential for carb storage and usage, salts too as this helps prevent the water just passing through and in extreme circumstances too much water without salt can be an issue


This is why isotonic gels with electrolytes are helpful, when the gels aren’t isotonic that can lead to digestive issues. An isotonic solution is one with a salt concentration that is exactly equal to that of blood cells, so water won’t be taken out or taken in to the cell. Removal of the water leads to leaky gut, absorption of the water in the cell leads to levels of disfunction. There are times when hypo and hypertonic can be beneficial too though, but that would require another thread


That should be about 40-50g an hour of carbs (carbs are ~4kcal per gram) so that’s a pretty good strategy there!


Exactly, this used to be seen as a 60g/hour limit on all carbs, then 2:1 glucose to fructose upping that to 90g/hour. Now a 1:1 tolerance is seen as the maximum so 60g/hour of each and 120g/hour total for the maximum. They are also used at different rates by the body with glucose been faster acting (hence glucogel for diabetics when hypo) so consuming the fructose is fuelling for the inevitability that glycogen stores will be depleted


There is evidence that consuming lower GI carbs at the start can spare glycogen stores and prioritise fat usage, however there is some carb contribution and when these start running low it is essential to go for more high GI carbs and keep those topped up. Running is an even tougher one as you essentially shake the gut more, so digestion is often more difficult and finding the right product is very individual

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Ultra endurance bike packing is a different beast! Friends of mine who do the Trans Continental spend most of the day eating whatever is in sight and still come back lighter!


This is a common issue as you can’t really eat a meal before a session that is hard or you feel sick. For this, something like fruit juice is good (cranberry or apple ideally as orange can lead to some phlegm in som people), but a banana or gel (for the gel swill it in your mouth to get the glucose into the blood stream faster) will be ample for 30-60min. Then having your carb heavy breakfast after with protein will be ideal recovery for the day ahead


Agreed - I certainly try and finish off two water bottles (so 1.5l) per 40/50 miles. Obviously this is temperature dependent, but I don’t think hydration is my main problem. I’ve certainly had issues with it on occasion, and I know what it feels like.