Pocket rockets

When you’re out for a long ride, sports drinks, bars and gels will give you added energy, but is it really the case that the more you consume, the fast you go?

At first glance the logic is simple: cyclists need energy; energy comes from food; cyclists need food – QED. However, scratch the surface and start asking questions about what food, how much, when and why and things get rather more complicated.

Thanks to the trend that started at the end of the 19th century when the Kellogg brothers designed cornflakes to sate the appetites of their sanatarium convalescents, food has been engineered to perform specific tasks. The result is that now myriad companies offer performance-enhancing nutrition, promising
to make you stronger, faster, sharper, even smarter, but deciding what’s going to work best for you both on and off the bike can be a daunting task.

How the body uses fuel

‘You can’t run a car on air or water. In the same way you won’t get far or have a great ride without fuelling your body,’ says For Goodness Shakes’s Alex Brooks. ‘You’ve got a finite store of energy – carbohydrates stored as glycogen – plus you have fat stores, but the utilisation of this is done best at low-intensity efforts, so to keep going at a performance intensity you need to fuel up.’

One of the key factors to understand when planning on-the-bike eating is where the energy that powers your body comes from. Broadly speaking, there are two groups, endogenous and exogenous, or, in layman’s terms, what’s already stored in your body prior to getting on your bike, and what you put into it once you’re pedalling. Of the endogenous stores, the primary energy for lower-intensity efforts comes from fat, but past a certain threshold your body will start to draw more on the glycogen stored in your muscles.

‘If you’re going to do anything remotely endurance based the primary fuel source is not actually going to be carbs or sugar – it’s actually going to be fat,’ explains Laurent Bannock from Guru Performance. ‘The fuel that you’re using in terms of carbs will be for higher-intensity situations, for example when
you’re catching breakaways or climbing.’

The precise level of this threshold will vary from person to person, with physiological and environmental factors coming in to play, but for a trained endurance cyclist the use of fat stores as a primary source of energy will begin to drop off around the 150-200 watt intensity mark, or at about 45% of maximal effort. After that, the body looks ever more towards its glycogen stores to fuel itself. The problem, however, is that while these stores are readily accessed and oxidise quickly (become energy), the effects are comparatively short-lived – think of how much faster and more intensely a piece of newspaper will burn in comparison to a log, but how much shorter that burn time will be.


Science in Sport’s founder, Tim Lawson, explains, ‘At higher levels of intensity your body starts to burn more carbs, but also less fat, so carbohydrates will not only have to make up for the extra energy you’ll want, but also account for the reduction in fat contribution. You get two to three times as much energy from a gram of fat than from a gram of carbs so you soon start to take exponential chunks out of your carbohydrate stores.’

So the solution is just to eat enough carbohydrates to replenish those lost, right? Well, that’s a nice idea in theory, but unfortunately the reality is that this particular war of attrition is a losing battle. ‘You’ll never stop your stores from running out,’ says Matt Hart of Torq Fitness. ‘But you can delay the time it takes for this to happen. When your glycogen stores run dry you’ll know about it, because it’s a horrible feeling. It’s called “bonking” and it’s one of the few times I’ve seen a grown man cry!’

Lawson agrees: ‘Studies have shown the upper limit of most people’s ability to absorb carbohydrates while cycling is around 102 grams per hour, and that’s in ideal conditions without the stress of a race or environmental factors such as temperature. In practice, for most people this is actually around 60-90 grams. The fact is that even at middling intensity effort you’ll be burning many
more grams per hour than you can take on board.’

The key, then, is not so much trying to nullify this deficit, but rather to employ a strategy to manage it. And that’s where specifically designed sports nutrition gels, energy bars and drink mixes can help out.

Plan to succeed

Over shorter distances, such as a 10km time-trial or a one-hour training session, it’s not normally necessary to consume anything on the bike (other than perhaps water or an electrolyte drink) as, providing you’ve eaten properly in the days leading up the ride, your glycogen stores will be topped up and will contain all the energy you need. However, on longer, high-intensity efforts a well thought-out fuelling strategy is essential.

‘We always calculate by the hour, but in terms of carbs not calories,’ explains Helge Riepenhof, head of sports medicine at pro team Omega Pharma-Quick-Step. ‘In a race a rider like Tom Boonen will need to eat around 75 grams per hour. This can come from a variety of sources, from sweet banana bread with brown sugar – which is very popular among Belgians – to performance bars
and gels from our partners at PowerBar. For important races such as the Classics riders will mostly just take the optimum performance foods: gels, drinks and bars.’

Of course it’s easy for Boonen. He’s got a specialist team behind him tailoring nutrition to his exact needs, but for the rest of us the question of how much and when is slightly more difficult to answer, as MultiPower’s resident sports scientist, Drew Price, attests.

‘There are all sorts of calculators online, but for those without cutting edge monitoring equipment, it’s really trial and error,’ he says. ‘There are so many variables – including how efficient someone’s technique is, how much glycogen their muscles can store – that dictate how much they’ll need to eat. I’d say shoot for around 30 to 60 grams of carbohydrate per hour to begin with and work up or down from there. If you feel you’re short of energy try more, but if you’ve kept everything else the same and your body composition’s changing [eg, gaining unwanted bulk] you might want to back off a bit. Likewise, listen
to your body and adjust the frequency to suit you. As a benchmark, try consuming something once every half an hour, but always eat before you’re hungry, not after.’

Serving up the menu

Just as important as how much to eat is what to eat, and again it can be a matter of finding out what suits you best. ‘All riders are different,’ says Riepenhof. ‘One of the most amazing riders for me was Michael Rogers. He was able to get all his race nutrition through very, very sweet carbohydrate drinks. It was incredible. So it’s important we have variety and can provide a solution for everyone.’

Over at Team Sky, they take a slightly different approach. There’s still plenty of variety in the food, but a more blanket approach to individual fuelling needs.

‘People think with a pro team that one rider is going to be doing one thing and another rider is going to be doing another, but that’s just not manageable,’ says Nigel Mitchell, head of nutrition at Team Sky. ‘You’ve got to have a system that’s simple. Although we’re a pro team our system actually translates very well to a club rider. We use a combination of what we call race food, which includes paninis, the team’s specially developed rice cakes, energy bars, gels and carb drinks. We try to work on a modular system, so each piece is about 20 grams of carbohydrates except the bars, which are 40 grams. That makes it incredibly easy for the guys to keep track of what they’re eating, as everything’s interchangeable.’

Bars, gels or powders?

Knowing when to eat and how much is one thing, but with a bewildering array of energy products crammed onto the shelves of your local supermarket or bike shop, it’s not always obvious what to choose.

‘Gels versus bars versus powders is a debate that often confuses people,’ explains Torq Fitness’s Hart. ‘But essentially they all do the same thing in terms of delivery. You’ll get just as much energy from a bar containing 20g of carbohydrates as you will from a 20g carb drink or a 20g carb gel. The crux is rather the speed of the delivery, and personal preference for texture and flavour.’

A gel is essentially a concentrated drink. Depending on the manufacturer, it might be more or less viscous and mixed with Xanthan gum, a common food-thickening agent found in things such as salad dressings. It will therefore be more ‘energy rich’ than its energy drink counterpart, but will be less hydrating and, more often than not, contain fewer electrolytes (see side panel). A bar goes one step further, providing a solid fuel mix and fibrous foods such as rice or oats that give it solidity.


Karl Bickley from sports supplement manufacturer USN explains, ‘All three methods of delivery offer benefits along with choice to the individual. A gel delivers a concentrated short hit of energy, whereas a bar offers a more sustained supply of energy to fuel performance for longer. Powder-based supplements deliver through liquid form and so can offer rapid delivery but with good sustainability.’ Again preferences come into play: it’s not uncommon to hear a fellow rider declare they can’t abide gels or that energy bars leave them feeling heavy, but for those who can stomach all three, the benefits can be great, affording a rider the ability to accurately control their intake of energy and peak with the faster-acting gels in time for climbs and finishes.

‘For a substantial climb, taking a gel on board five or ten minutes before you hit it will help,’ says Team Sky’s Mitchell. ‘It’s going to have both a physiological and a psychological effect. That’s where gels are brilliant. As soon as the sweetness hits your mouth it sends signals to the brain, making your body anticipate a new influx of carbs and improving your ability to ride harder even before it starts being absorbed into the blood. If you know you’re about to be hurting, just whack a gel in.’ Of course this needs to be put into the context of a sensible eating plan. Mitchell isn’t prescribing that you bosh a gel every time you think things are about to get tough – which for some people might be the whole race.

Recover fast

It’s all very well talking about fuelling during a training ride or race but, whether you’re a GC contender or a weekend warrior, it’s not much good pushing yourself to the limits if you can’t go back out and do it again the next day. ‘Muscles are made up of proteins, and when you’re cycling you send a signal to the muscle to increase protein synthesis. But it also increases protein degradation in the muscle. This is going on all the time – build up, break down, build up, break down,’ says Mitchell.

Riepenhof adds, ‘When you finish a hard ride or race your body will be in a catabolic state [where muscle proteins are being broken down], so the sooner you take on exogenous protein and switch to an anabolic state [repairing the broken muscle] the better. There’s this little window after a ride where you can most efficiently bring protein back into the muscle to help it recover, so it’s important to take on protein as soon as you finish.’

The primary goal in post-ride recovery is to get protein to the muscles quickly, and there’s no reason why this shouldn’t be from whole food such as lean chicken and sweet potato, for example. But the necessary digestion time in the gut and lack of post-race appetite often makes protein recovery drinks the preferred option.

‘We recommend a three-to-one carb-to-protein drink mix,’ says Brooks at For Goodness Shakes. ‘You should aim to drink one within 20 minutes of finishing, and either another and/or a decent meal within two hours. Recovery’s important for both tomorrow’s ride and longer term performance gains.’

Echoing this sentiment, Riepenhof adds, ‘I always say the guy who is going to win the Tour is not the best cyclist but the best at recovery.’

Practice makes perfect

There are plenty of different beliefs on what’s best to eat, when and why. Indeed, at Cyclist we insist on gathering our information from a range of expert sources so that you, the reader, can make informed decisions based on
a range of opinions, rather than trusting to a single source. But there is one area of sports nutrition that everyone Cyclist spoke to agreed upon: getting your nutrition right takes practice.

As Sigma Sport’s team coach, Ian Goodhew, says, ‘Cut through all the nonsense and work out what works for you. Don’t be afraid to try new things or mix modern and traditional methods. Practise what you eat and drink. Training time is the time to learn what suits you best.’

Plan your ride fuel

Whether you’re low-intensity training or looking to smash it on race day, here are some top pointers from Team Sky’s Nigel Mitchell

‘From the word go have a bottle of energy drink then look at eating either bars, energy drink or other whole foods for the first two-thirds of the race,’ says Mitchell. ‘Then at critical times as the race progresses, start using gels. But remember, it’s not just about having food in one lump, it’s about having a little nibble every now and again. If you’re out for around a couple of hours
at a level where you can comfortably hold a conversation you’d probably be needing around 40g per hour, but if you’re racing for three hours or more you’ll need more like 60-90g.’

150km race fuelling plan (water not included)


Low-fat with good quality carbohydrates and protein, for example a bowl of porridge and an egg white omlette


Bottle of 20g carbohydrate energy drink

Hours 1-3 

Combination of energy bars, low-fat whole foods and energy drink, totalling 60-90g carbohydrates per hour and consumed at regular intervals

Hour 4 

Start to replace energy bars and whole food items with gels and/or energy drink, totalling 60-90g carbohydrates, consumed at regular intervals

Hour 5

Gels and/or energy drink, 60-90g carbohydrates consumed at regular intervals

Within 20 minutes after finishing 

High-protein drink or whole food, approximately 3:1 carbohydrates to protein

Within two hours after finishing 

Quality meal – fish or chicken with brown rice or pasta

Cafe rider

praise be! Your espresso stop is a perfomance booster

Caffeine can increase fat oxidation, research shows, which means that during endurance sports more fat becomes available for fuel. It’s also been shown to work on the nervous system, lowering the perceived rate of exertion and therefore allowing you to push yourself harder. 

However, your body is very good at adapting, so to get the full benefits restrict your caffeine intake a week or two before a race. Coffee can be beneficial, but a logistical nightmare when riding. Instead, look out for caffeinated gels or electrolyte tabs infused with caffeine.

Fluid dynamics

The science of staying hydrated

‘Hydration is another key factor in performance,’ says MultiPower nutritionist Drew Price. ‘A good way to determine how much you need to drink is to weigh yourself before and after an hour’s ride. For every kilo lost you should drink 1.5 litres of fluid. So if I get off the bike and I’m half a kilo lighter then I’d know that for each hour on the bike I’d need to drink 750ml of fluid to maintain my original level of hydration. Urine is an excellent indictor too. You should aim to maintain a straw-like colour. But hydration isn’t just about water; you need salts to help your body hold on to it. Improve your hydration by mixing water with low dose electrolyte tabs that contain key salts such as potassium.’