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It’s all about the fuel! (Guest post)


I ride a Rocky Mountain hybrid and my spouse and I enjoy biking every time we can. Our minimum ride (the “quicky”) is a 30 km ride. But we often go for longer rides and have done as much as 110km in a day. We are not as serious about biking as a lot of readers of this blog are but we take it seriously enough. We have some bags for our longer runs and take what we need with us: water, snacks, tools, a spare tube, sunscreen, long sleeved t-shirt, money and a credit card. I am also fully equipped to ride to the office with a wonderful clip-on sturdy bag that can carry my books and binders.

We just came back from a 77 km ride and are both seriously exhausted. Why? What happened?

Yes it is 39 degrees with humidex. We left early to beat the heat but that was tough because at 10 o’clock, it was already pretty hot and the sun was shining in all its glory. But that was not the problem. The problem was: we made a rookie mistake! We did not fuel properly!

It does not matter how hot it is. It does not matter how fit you are. It does not matter what bike you ride. It does not matter how fast or slow you go. It does not matter how old you are. It’s all about the fuel!

We had plenty of water. That was not the issue. But water is not the fuel needed for such rides. Water is some kind of fuel and sufficient for a “quicky” but one needs more than that for a prolonged ride.

First step to our rookie mistake: a light breakfast low on protein. It was hot early and who feels like a hearty breakfast on days like this? I had fruits and 1/3 cup yogourt with sunflower seeds. Eric had raisin bread and fruits with one Ensure (dental surgery aftermath). We both had lots of carbs but very little protein.

Second step to our rookie mistake: we took only water with us. We had 3 litres of water between the two of us. We did not have any energizing drink with salt/sugar and other nutrients (yes, I consider salt a nutrient).

Third step to our rookie mistake: we thought we were going out for only 50 km so we did not bring snacks. We usually carry nuts and dry fruit bars when going for longer than 30 km.

Fourth step to our rookie mistake (which is connected with the previous one): we thought that 50km would take us to lunch time in Fonthill at our favorite fry truck in the area which boasts the best poutine in Southwestern Ontario. The plan was to ride 40 km to the truck, have a poutine, and ride the 10 km left back home.

At about 30 km into the ride we had a choice of turning left or right. Right was taking us back to Fonthill too quick and left was a small detour that would make the ride 50 km, what we were aiming for. The small roads in that area are populated by farms and there are no cornerstores or garages where to buy fuel. We were on our own with our water. A series of other detours (caused by us not wanting to ride on gravel roads because it hurts my wrists too much) made the ride much longer.

At about 50 km, we hit our wall: Muscles burning, slight headache, slight nausea. We were drinking water like mad but still that was not enough. I was hungry and my body was screaming for fuel. At some point I thought: “Man! I am pushing like crazy and yet riding at only 9 km/h on a flat road!!!” You should know that my normal cruising speed is between 22 and 25 km/h. Eric asked: “Are we that out of shape?? Our tires seem to stick to the road!” He even checked the tire pressure! The pressure was fine but we were not.

The problem was we ran out of fuel. Badly. No energy left, whatsoever. Well, a little I guess since we made it back. But at some point, walking my bike up a hill, I did feel like I was going to collapse, right there on the spot. We made it back to Fonthill and the fry truck after riding 56 km. We did not run out of water before getting there. But water was not enough. We were lacking proper fuel. This was remedied partly by purchasing one litre of iced tea (probably not the best but I can’t stomach energy drinks and sports drinks) and more water for the remaining 11km.

And then we did ourselves in… we had our poutine (after all, we deserved it by then, right?). Yummy as ever (did I mention it is the best poutine in Southwestern Ontario?), but poutine is what it is: it feels like a brick in your stomach once you have feasted on it. And that it did. I did have some chicken breast alongside it and Eric had a burger. But this further improper fueling just made everything worst. The last 11 km were long and hard. I normally ride 11 km without even thinking about it. Earlier today, I was thinking about every push on the pedals… and about the brick in my stomach. Improper fueling is what caused all this.

One shower later and trying to recuperate (I think it will take until tomorrow morning) I muse about this experience. Lesson learned: if it is not a “quicky” we got out for, bring proper fueling. Because a planned 40 km can morph into a much longer ride. Nobody needs to hit a wall as we did. All we have to do is plan ahead and care enough for our bodies to feed it what it needs: nutrients that will fuel it with the energy we need to enjoy whatever it is we engage in. Exercise should be fun and will be fun if we fuel properly.

It’s all about the fuel!

Christine is a feminist continental philosopher who lives with spouse and cat in the Niagara Region. Biking and training are favorite activities as is gourmet cooking and reading gore thrillers when she travels to conferences, taking a break from writing her monograph on Nietzsche.

4 thoughts on “It’s all about the fuel! (Guest post)

  1. Fuel is KEY! Especially for those of us with little in the way of reserves, and completely non-functional gas gauges. I have bonked on long rides, on short rides, in hot weather, in cold weather, and while I am actually at work… eventually I figured out I needed to do something about that, so I started eating more sensibly and paid more attention to fueling my bike rides.

    My bike bags always contain at least one gel*, some fruit leather, and a tube of Nuun electrolyte tablets, plus whatever snacks I have planned for that day. The gel and fruit leather are purely backup. *(Gels are a bit gross, so sticky! – but as an emergency fuel source, they work well, and _because_ they’re kind of gross, I am not tempted to eat them when I don’t really need to! I like the ones with caffeine best because usually I need that extra zap by the time I get desperate enough for the gel).

    The Nuun tabs dissolve quickly in a water bottle, have sodium, potassium and magnesium, and they aren’t overly sweet. The sodium is partly in the form of sodium bicarbonate which is nice for a stressed tummy. Lots of different flavours available.

    On long rides or hikes, I really like Eat-More candy or Snickers bars – the peanuts are enough to offset the sugar spike, for me.

  2. Really helpful post , Christine. I myself have a hard time thinking in terms of food as fuel even though I know of course that it is. Maybe a few long bike rides where I don’t fully appreciate that will teach me the same lesson! Thanks for guest blogging. Happy riding!!

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