cycling · eating · sports nutrition

Why riding fast and long requires lots of food


When you’re suffering on a long ride, slowing down and struggling to stay with the bunch, one of the first things people ask is whether you’ve had enough to eat.

The people riding with you start rifling through their jersey pocket and handing you snacks. Why?

Why is eating while riding so important? And why does not eating enough affect performance so dramatically?

This article on fueling for a sportive has some of the answers:


“Your body will use a combination of fat and carbohydrate to fuel your ride. The harder you work, the more carbohydrate you will use. The body’s carbohydrate stores are limited and can be rapidly depleted so it is very important to keep your carbohydrate stores topped up for the duration of the event. Without available carbohydrate your body will depend more on fat as a fuel. You may think that burning fat sounds great but to do this your body needs a lot more oxygen and in response to this your pace will slow. That’s not ideal if you want to achieve a fast time or a new PB.”

(You might be wondering what a “sportive” is. The Gran Fondo is one example. It’s a long, mass participation, endurance cycling event.)

Riding my bike is one time I struggle with intuitive eating. I don’t feel hungry but I know I need to eat. Sometimes food can even make me feel sick. I go for easy to eat, calorie dense food in those cases.

I blogged about my experiences in the post Hunger and Nutrition. I wrote,

I struggle a bit with this because I’m often not hungry when I know I need to eat–during long, intense bike rides is the most common example–and at other times I’m famished even when I know there’s no need for extra calories (after long bike rides when I’m often hungry for the rest of the day and into the next one even after I’ve refueled.)

I know from experience that if I don’t eat while riding my performance suffers. It’s not just that I struggle while riding, I’m also hungry for days afterwards. By the time I get off the bike I’m eating anything and everything in sight. Often I’m still hungry the next day.

But if I eat regularly, before I’m hungry, and keep eating throughout the ride, I’m fine.

If I get the balance right not only can I ride faster, for longer, there’s no big swing in hunger associated with a long hard ride. I can have dinner that night as usual.

So I do it because I know it works even if it means setting aside my usual “eat when hungry” mantra.

If I find it tough, I think, again based on experience, my smaller cycling friends have it tougher. Food management can hugely affect cycling performance. It’s worth experimenting to find what works.

Oh, and here’s some geeky cycling humour related to our theme.

Top 10 Things Not To Eat While Cycling:

6 thoughts on “Why riding fast and long requires lots of food

  1. What a great picture! Another thing about eating and riding is basic logistics. I find it tricky to eat and drink on the bike, though I am practicing all the time. Gels and shot blocks are fine and all, but you can’t live on those, and anything needing chewing is just that much more difficult to get down on the bike.

    But this is good food for thought (couldn’t resist) about the food/performance link.

    1. I’ve often wondered if the fear of eating too much, or the lure of weight loss, keeps women from eating enough while riding. But you’re right. Logistics are tough. I can eat bananas, and squishy peanut butter and jam sandwiches while riding. But other foods can be tricky. And I know men, some of the men we ride with, struggle with this too.

  2. That’s one heck of jersey back pocket meal! Over the years I’ve found the following helps:

    Eating a good breakfast….90 min. before riding. Need to um…go to washroom, etc. Body absorbs some good energy before starting on the bike.

    I don’t have an interest in trying gels, energy drinks. I just find water and natural fruit juice helpful Sure an ice cream cone is nice on a long bike trip over half the day long or longer.

    No deep fried food if possible. Some berries, a granola bar helps me. If desperate, chocolate milk is good.

    However some of these rules just don’t work on bike touring out in rural areas of North America: we’ve sustained ourselves at a donut shop. And the Maritime provinces….I was tired of having deep fried potatoes, and heavy breakfasts..etc. Supper….disappointed me…deep fried fish until we got to Halifax!!

    It’s always good to eat a small snack or even mini meal within half hr. just after finishing a 100 km.+ long bike ride for the day.

    On a long 5-6 hr. day ride, I must eat well. I’ve had some scary incidents where I nearly blacked out when it was very hot and I had not eaten enough before starting cycling.

  3. By the way, I don’t ride fast, meaning over 20 km./hr. For a long ride 100 km., I have to keep balanced on my pacing. Otherwise I can’t finish the ride.

  4. Too funny! That video cracked me up! I am fond of granola bars (chewy only…crunchy falls apart too easily while traveling), but have never been the one to lay the strips of power bar etc across the frame of my bike to gather random bits of dirt and bugs along the way. I too have a hard time eating while I’m training or competing and have suffered too many times from the lack of energy going into the home stretch due to lack of nutrients. Great post!

  5. I have NO fuel tank, or gauge, so I struggle with this a lot. (This year it’s actually been hydration and heat management that’s the worst)

    Food that works for me on the bike:
    – fruit leather or fruit bars like the Sun-Rype bars (sugar, but with a reasonable amount of fiber as well);
    – simple granola bars (i.e. not too much beyond oatmeal, rice crisps, some nuts, and honey);
    – cookies or cookie-ish cereal/breakfast bars like the “Nutri-grain” fruit bars (these squish badly in pockets, though) or the classic Fig Newton
    – small amounts of chocolate, especially chocolate with nuts – mini Snickers bars are great! Bounty coconut bars and Reese peanut butter cups are also good.

    If I’m out on a long but leisurely ride with a stop for lunch, I will eat a small sandwich or wrap, some fruit, and usually have hot coffee or tea.

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