How to Eat and Drink for Multi-Day Cycling Events
Become A Stronger, Fitter Athlete In Less Time With Endurance Coaching
This week I am riding the 7-day Amgen Tour of California Race Experience, Coach Colin Izzard worked with riders at the 3-day Chef’s Cycle ride in Santa Rosa, CA, and on the East Coat coaches Matthew Busche, Reid Beloni, and Nina Laughlin are riding with CTS Athletes at a 3-day event in Asheville, North Carolina. One of the important roles we play as coaches during these events is helping athletes adapt their nutrition and hydration strategies to optimize their energy and recovery from day to day.
Here is how you should eat and drink to ride strong all the way through a multi-day cycling event (or training block).
Eat breakfast – but not too much
Many multiday events feature early start times. During the ATOC Race Experience, we have to be on the road by 7:00am – sometimes even earlier. That means you’re not going to wake up to eat 2-3 hours ahead of the start. To get more sleep you might eat an hour beforehand instead.
When eating sooner before a long day on the bike, it is wise to eat a lighter meal so you can digest it and avoid starting feeling full or bloated. Try a couple of eggs for protein and fat, and carbohydrates from cereal, a bagel or bread, or a bowl of rice or potatoes. If you eat dairy, a bowl of cereal and yogurt can be a good combination.
The big thing is not to stuff yourself. Yes, you have a long day on the bike ahead of you, and especially after the first day you’ll likely be hungry in the morning. However, for sustained energy and to feel good in the first hour (which is often a high pace), I recommend eating a smaller breakfast and starting to consume food on the bike sooner.
Start drinking early
When you are on the bike 4 to 6 hours per day for multiple days, keeping up with hydration can be a real challenge. In the mornings the weather is cool, so people don’t feel like drinking very much. But the afternoons get warm, and the hours start to add up. After the first day you can catch up on hydration if you get behind. But catching up gets harder with each passing day, and the result is that your morning hydration status gets progressively worse. This makes the first few hours on the bike more difficult, which means you push yourself harder to maintain your performance. Pretty soon you’ll pay for those harder efforts and have an energy or hydration crisis that sends you out the back.
Drinking early doesn’t mean guzzling fluids or drinking to a strict schedule. It means you should aim for a bottle per hour, even early in the day when the temperatures are cooler. The mistake people make is to ride for 60-90 minutes before even reaching for their bottle.
Adapt Hydration During the Day
We like to have riders start with one bottle of Fluid Performance sports drink and one bottle of water. Early in the day this helps start the consumption of fluid, carbohydrate, and electrolytes all together. As temperatures warm up, I like to see riders continue taking one bottle of each at feed stations/stops because the bottle of plain water helps them increase fluid intake without overloading the gut with carbohydrate. In hot weather, we shift the priority to water in the bottles and calories in the pockets so riders can ramp up fluid intake to account for increased water losses, while keeping energy consumption to 40-90 grams of carbohydrate per hour and electrolyte intake to 500-700mg per hour. This often means incorporating one bottle of Fluid Performance every other stop, in addition to calories and electrolytes from foods.
Eat a variety of foods on the bike
Maintaining interest in eating is one of the bigger nutritional challenges during multiday events, which is why it’s important to have lots of options, textures, and tastes available. There are a lot of ways to consume 40-90 grams of carbohydrate per hour, from sandwiches to fruit, potatoes to ProBars. Gels (CTS uses gels from Muir Energy) and chewables are great as well, particularly when athletes are either going hard and need something they can consume fast, or toward the end of the day when they benefit from rapidly available carbohydrate.
That range – 40 to 90 grams per hour – is very broad on purpose. The rule of thumb is that you can digest and absorb 1 gram of carbohydrate per minute, or 60 grams per hour. With mixed sugar sources (fructose and glucose instead of just glucose, for instance) and through training your gut to process greater volumes of food, you can increase absorption to about 90 grams/hour.
But you don’t always need to maximize carbohydrate intake. If you’re not riding hard, you may be just fine with 45-50 grams/hour. You want to be careful to adjust fueling based on how you feel, your intensity level, your hydration status, and the temperature. I encourage athletes to err on the side of slightly under-eating on the bike, because running low on calories is a problem you can fix in a few minutes (as long as you’re carrying food). Overeating causes more problems because digestion slows when you are dehydrated, hot, or working extremely hard. This means food stays undigested longer, which increases the chances for nausea and bloating.
For cyclists with power meters, I recommend consuming calories equal to 20-30% of their hourly kilojoule output. So, if you’re doing 600 kilojoules of work per hour, aim for 120-180 calories per hour, which is 30-45 grams of carbohydrate.
Eat in the final hour of the ride
It is critical for athletes to continue eating and drinking on the bike into the final hour before the finish. You don’t necessarily need the fuel to get to the finish, but you want to avoid digging a hole in terms of energy or hydration. You’re eating and drinking in the last hour to enhance recovery and to have a stronger tomorrow. At the ATOC this year, the stages are longer than they have been in previous years, which means our soigneurs and coaches have been encouraging riders even more to keep eating and drinking late in the stage. It makes a big difference when you finish at 2:00pm and have to get back on the bike at 7:00am the following morning!
I recommend post-ride recovery drinks when athletes do more than 1500Kj of work during a ride (which is almost always the case in multi-day events), and when riders are training or doing events on back-to-back days. A bottle of Fluid Recovery, for instance, has 30 grams of carbohydrate and 10 grams of protein, a ratio that helps promote glycogen replenishment and provides protein for muscle and immune system support. We provide athletes with a recovery drink as soon as they get off the bike and provide a post-ride meal within 30-60 minutes.
With early-morning starts, stages in multi-day events often finish in the early afternoon. A moderate-sized post-stage meal that’s rich in carbohydrate and protein is sufficient for promoting recovery, but even after a hard day riders don’t need to have a huge post-stage meal. You’ll often be tired, hot, and somewhat dehydrated, so a moderate meal will be satisfying without making you nauseated or overfull. Some simple favorites include a sandwich or burrito with fruit or chips.
Dinner is often more complex, and I think it’s important to remind athletes to eat some concentrated carbohydrates like rice, potatoes, or pasta in addition to green and colorful vegetables (and protein and fat). Many athletes have reduced their consumption of concentrated carbohydrate sources in their everyday lifestyles, but when you increase your daily workload and have big back-to-back days on the bike, you need lots of carbohydrate energy in a reasonable volume of food.
One final note: Save the wine and beer for the final day! I know it’s tempting to finish each day with a beer or have wine with dinner, but one too often leads to two or more, and alcohol does you no favors in terms of hydration, recovery, or quality sleep. Stay focused on having great days on the bike, then celebrate after the final stage!
By Chris Carmichael,
CEO/Head Coach of CTS