It’s difficult not to underestimate the importance of good nutrition and hydration when undertaking any exercise, but particularly if you’re undertaking a long cycle ride. Your body burns calories and dehydrates quickly with intensive exercise and just like a car, needs fuel and water to keeps its engine working effectively. Too little fuel and water and you’ll soon notice the difference in reduced energy levels.
Much has been written about cycling nutrition and hydration. It’s easy for this to be overcomplicated and confusing, but it needn’t be. Most people cycling end-to-end aren’t elite athletes, so sticking to a few key principles is sufficient.
- Keep hydrated. Drink little and often; by the time you feel thirsty you’re already dehydrated. For longer rides, specially-formulated energy or sports drinks are better than plain water since they replace the electrolytes and carbohydrates lost through exercise. They also include sodium which helps your body retain moisture. On my LEJOG I added flavoured ‘High 5 Zero’ tablets to my water bottles which were convenient and easy.
- Eat lots of carbohydrates for slow-burn energy. Carbohydrates are a great source of fuel for your body. They’re broken down and stored as glycogen in your muscles and then converted into glucose when the body needs added energy supplies. However, the body can only store a certain amount of glycogen at any one time and so you need to top this up every couple of hours. Best for slow energy release are complex, unprocessed carbohydrates (such as pasta, rice, fruit, vegetables, wholemeal bread, oatmeal) but simple, refined carbohydrates (including sweets, cakes, fizzy drinks and chocolate) can give a quick burst of energy right when you need it.
- Eat a balanced diet. While carbohydrates are good, they should be seen as only one part of a balanced diet. The food ‘pyramid’ above shows the rough proportions of different food groups you should eat. Carbohydrates, fruit and vegetables form the base of the pyramid and should be the foundation of your diet. But perhaps 10-15% of your food intake can be fats – with ‘good’ fats being oily fish, olives, nuts, seeds and avocados.
- Eat well but don’t overeat. Given the amount of exercise you will be getting on your end-to-end trip I can assure you that you’ll eat much more than you normally would sitting behind a desk. Respond by giving your body the amount of fuel it needs (don’t worry, you’ll lose weight rather than put it on !). However, I changed my initial approach of increasing the amount I was eating at ‘main’ meals (breakfast, lunch, dinner) since I found that my body wasn’t digesting the food properly. I then adopted a different strategy of eating less but more often, which worked well. Interestingly, I found I had an increased appetite for a good week after I finished cycling and was snacking all the time.
- Don’t eat or drink differently to how you’ve trained. There’s a tendency to think that once you’ve embarked on your long cycle ride that you need to adjust your eating and drinking habits to adapt to the new regime. Again, I found that this wasn’t an effective approach. I very soon got bored of porridge with fruit for breakfast since I wasn’t used to having it. Instead, I switched to my normal light breakfast of (lots of strong) coffee, together with caramel wafers. This was sufficient to get me through to mid-morning when we stopped for a second breakfast where I topped up with a bacon roll or fry-up (yes, I know … but I did say that 10-15% of your daily intake should be fats), all washed down with yet more coffee. Soup and sandwiches got me through to a mid-afternoon cafe stop (tea and cakes), followed by a pub meal (carbs, protein, vegetables and beer) in the evening. Occasionally I ate an energy bar or two as snacks in between but generally found that I was eating enough at our two-hourly stops not to need these often.
- Listen to your body. I discovered that my body gave my brain very strong signals about the foods I needed when I cycled end-to-end. I would crave particular foods – a sure sign that I was lacking in a particular food group (and not just plain greedy !). Fresh orange juice, wholemeal bread, soup and sweet things (usually cakes) were all foods I had a yearning for at various points on my journey.
- Eat and drink for your body’s recovery immediately after each day’s ride. It’s really important that you top up your body’s glycogen supplies soon after you stop each day to aid recovery – this ‘window’ is around 30 minutes after stopping. This should be a mix of carbohydrates and proteins, as well as the replacement of lost electrolytes through an energy or sports drink.
This article forms part of my Online Guide to Cycling End-to-End:
- Why cycle LEJOG ?
- Planning a LEJOG cycle ride
- Top 10 tips for planning an end-to-end cycle tour
- Route planning and route options
- What to take – Cycling gear
- What to take – Camping and other gear
- Accommodation options
- Getting into training
- Nutrition and hydration
- Getting to/from Land’s End and John O’Groats
My LEJOG cycle – 14 days in May 2015