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This is a post I wrote in 2012 for the now defunct Irish Triathlon website. I’ve decided to publish it here as it’s impossible to access. While my thinking has changed slightly over the years, this post could supply basic nutrition info. when preparing and recovering from a long cycle training bout.

Like most beginner cyclist, I made many mistakes at the start due to lack of knowledge. Early morning cycle without breakfast, straight to work and did not eat until lunch resulting in mid-afternoon fatigue. Or I went out on a long cycle, without refuelling properly from the previous day’s session. It would be a momentous struggle to complete the cycle, as tiredness kicked in and I had no food to take on board.

So as not to repeat these common mistakes, I have prepared a guide for your fuel intake for before, during and after your training session. This is based both on my painful personal experience and reinforced by my studies in Strength and Conditioning, Sports Nutrition and my personal experience with advising clients at metabolise

Firstly the some basic physiology; You need energy to fuel all activities and this fuel is provided by carbohydrate, fat and protein. We burn various combinations of carbohydrate, fat and protein, depending on the training intensity, training duration and fatigue level. In a relaxed state and low-medium intensity exercise, we normally burn fat more than carbohydrate. Fat is an abundant source of energy and we have enough fat on our bodies to fuel activity for days or even weeks. As the intensity of exercise increases, our fuel source switches from predominately fat to carbohydrate. Carbohydrate is an excellent fuel source, as it can release energy more quickly than fat. However, a major drawback of carbohydrate as a fuel source is that we have limited supplies in our bodies. At a decent cycling pace, we have enough carbohydrate to fuel 90 minutes of exercise, although this will vary with training status and diet.

If you are going on a 2 to 3 hour Cycle, then there is a real possibility that you might empty your body’s carbohydrate stores. At which point, the body switches to burning fat. The consequence of this is that you cannot maintain the same training intensity. It also leads to unpleasant physical consequences: marathon runners call it to “hitting the wall” and cyclists call it “the bonk”. Symptoms include tiredness, fatigue and lack of energy.

The good news is that all this can be easily avoided. By making the correct food choice , we can ensure that we start training with high carbohydrate stores, top them up while we cycle and refuel afterwards to prepare for our next training session.

Pre-Training

You need to ensure that our body’s carbohydrate stores are full, by eating foods such as potatoes, rice, pasta and bread. As a rule, we should eat brown coloured carbohydrates (brown bread, rice, whole grain noodles and pasta) as opposed to white. Brown coloured carbohydrates are healthier for us in the long term and give a more sustained release of energy. Preparing for your training session should begin the day before. Eat a mixture of carbohydrates for breakfast (e.g. weetabix), lunch (e.g. baked potato) and dinner (e.g. pasta). Also, eat carbohydrate containing snacks (e.g. low-fat yoghurt’s) throughout the day. This ensures that you’re giving your body the fuel it needs and the time it needs to process and store it.

If you’re training early in the morning, you might not have time to eat a proper breakfast. In which case, eat a light snack or carbohydrate containing food before training – something that’s not too heavy or rich. If you’re training later in the day, continue to consume carbohydrates throughout the day. Eat your last meal 2-3 hours before your session.

During Training

Follow the above to make sure that you are prepared for training. However, depending on your training intensity, after an hour and a half, you might begin to feel tired. This is because you’ve burned much of your body’s carbohydrate stores and they’re now running low. Your blood sugar levels may also be dropping as your liver carbohydrate is used up. To prevent this, we need to start consuming carbohydrates in order to keep supplying the body with energy. This is easily achieved, but needs some forward planning.

You may experiment with different foods, but the most popular choices are sports drinks and sports gels. These foods are generally designed to ensure quick absorption of sugar into your bloodstream, fuelling exercise. You should be consuming 60-90g carbohydrate per hour. Gels are generally well tolerated but may have some unpleasant side-effects like bloating. Experiment with different gels and drinks to see what’s suitable for you. There are many cheap alternatives to Gels and sports drinks. Raisins and figs are two natural foods which were used by cyclists in years past when sports gels didn’t exist.

Post Training

So, you’ve completed your cycle, maintained a good intensity and are feeling rather pleased with yourself. Well, you’re not finished yet! The last thing you need to do is to refuel and repair your body so that all the potential improvements in fitness from your cycle can be realised. Firstly, you have a 45-60 minute window after finishing exercise when your body is better able to take up sugar and refuel. What I normally do is drink chocolate milk immediately when I get home. Chocolate milk contains carbohydrate for refuelling, protein for rebuilding the muscles, fluid for rehydration and various electrolytes and nutrients which are important for your health and fitness.

One to two hours after you finish, you can cook and eat a healthy nutritious meal. Although many people prefer pasta, you can eat nearly any carbohydrate containing meal, once it’s low in fat. This will continue the refuelling and rebuilding process and ensures that your fitness will increase. If you trained in the morning, continue to refuel throughout the day by eating carbohydrate containing meals and snacks, every 3-4 hours. Make sure to include protein (e.g. milk, eggs, fish, chicken) in your meals to help repair and rebuild muscle.

I hope you enjoyed this article. Hopefully you will now be properly prepared for your next cycle.

D.I.Y. Energy Drinks for Triathlon

The two best ways to increase your carbohydrate intake are through fluids and food. Fluids have the advantage of hydrating you as well as providing energy. Many sports drinks and water soluble powders are commercially available which are ready off the shelf. However, I prefer to make my own drinks for the following reasons:

  • I can control the amount of carbohydrate, the taste and adjust to my preferences
  • It’s cheaper to make your own.

If you decide to make your own sports drink, you will need to buy maltodextrin or glucose powder and fructose powder. You can buy 1kg packets of maltodextrin (approx. €5) and fructose (approx. €8) online. This will be enough to last you several weeks.

To prepare your own sports drink, you will need the following ingredients:

  • 50g Maltodextrin
  • 25g Fructose
  • 1L water
  • 1g table salt
  • Flavouring – Miwadi/Robinsons

It is important to use the measurements outlined as this is the optimal blend. Too much maltodextrin/fructose may cause discomfort such as bloating, cramping and diarrhoea. Too little carbohydrate and you won’t be delivering the carbohydrate at the optimum rate. The combination of fructose and maltodextrin allows the maximal rate of absorption of carbohydrate compared to using either on its own. Another added benefit is that the addition of fructose allows greater water absorption, promoting greater hydration. Adding a small amount of salt is also important as the sodium in the salt allows greater absorption of water in the intestine.

Sports gels are another great way of increasing your carbohydrate intake during the cycle (and run leg) as they are small and easy to carry. As with sports drinks, you should be looking at the different types of carbohydrate contained in the gels. In general, fructose in combination with glucose, maltodextrin or galactose will allow the maximum rate of delivery of carbohydrate to your working muscles. The optimum ratio is two parts maltodextrin,glucose or galactose to one part fructose.

Not to be under-estimated is taste. When out on a long ride, I find that I look forward to eating my gels/bars as a treat. However, many gels are tasteless. I find that eating gels with a pleasant taste gives me an extra psychological lift! One brand that I can recommend is the TORQ brand of gels, which are very tasty and come in a variety of flavours. If sports drinks and gels are beyond your budget, foods such as ripe bananas, figs and raisins are also high in carbohydrate and might be a low cost alternative.

 

The maximal rate of which your body can absorb and use carbohydrates from drinks, gels and food is between 60-90g/hour. It is a good idea to experiment with different combinations of fluid, gels and foods during training and warm-up races to find the right combination for you. It is important to realise that we are all individuals and what works for your training partner might not work for you.

 

One common mistake by beginners is to eat too much on the bike leg. When completing the running leg, there is a lot of fluid and food sloshing around in the stomach. This can lead to gastro-intestinal discomfort, with feelings of bloating and nausea being common. Again, use your training to determine the optimal feeding strategy on the cycle leg, without compromising the run leg.

 

Because, there are many different types of triathlon events, and your training duration varies, the below table will help you to decide which is the best intake rate and type of carbohydrate to ingest.

Event Duration Carbohydrate Requirement Recommended Intake Carbohydrate Type Single Carbohydrate Multiple Types of Carbohydrate
< 30 min None None None None None
30-75 min Very Small Amounts Carbohydrate Mouth Rinse Most forms of carbohydrate OK OK
1 – 2 hr Small amounts Up to 30g/hr Most forms of carbohydrate OK OK
2 – 3 hr Moderate amounts Up to 60g/hr Ingestion of single carbohydrates (e.g. glucose, maltodextrin) OK, but not optimal OK
>2.5 hr Large amounts Up to 90g/hr Only multiple types of carbohydrates (e.g. maltodextrin and fructose) Not optimal OK

Taken from: Juenkendrup, A. (2011). Nutrition for Endurance Sports: Marathon, triathlon and Road Cycling. Journal of Sports Sciences, 29(S1), S91-S99.

 

Some interesting research that is just emerging is that your digestive system is trainable. By consuming carbohydrate during training, your body becomes better at absorbing and burning carbohydrate as you exercise. Therefore, train as you mean to compete and this includes incorporating race eating strategies into your training.