Racing in blue (top), our Head of the Charles crew (left),
and me in the Single (right)
The first time I went for a "real" mountain bike ride, I rolled up to join the U of T Mountain Bike Team with no knowledge of athletic pursuits except what I'd learned on the U of T Varsity Rowing Team. Hydration in the boat consisted of sipping water from your Nalgene bottle while stopped for the coach's feedback. Snacks were safely stored in our packs back at the boat house, ready for devouring after our 2-2.5 hour workout. This all makes sense because while you've got your hands on a blade (rower speak for "oar"); you should definitely not remove them while your crew is cruising along at 30 strokes per minute ... that's a good way to "catch a crab" and probably knock out your teeth, or get knocked out the boat.
A few rides after that wake-up call, I line up for the
Ganaraska University Cup, 2004. Still no bottle cage.
So, considering myself fit and athletic thanks to all the rowing, I appeared for my first group ride on a brand new Rocky Mountain Fusion (with a Judy fork) which I thought was the most amazing bike ever. I splurged on it, spending almost $800, which I remember thinking was very expensive. But I didn't know to splurge on a water bottle cage. So I didn't have a water bottle, either. I also didn't have gloves, glasses or even a decent pair of cycling shorts -- I just threw on what I would wear in the boat: some spandex shorts and a crew top. I quickly found out that riding and rowing had very little in common, and I got my butt kicked in all kinds of news ways: it was hard physically, mentally, and I learned what "bonk" means.
My point is, you never know a thing until you know it. Now I know, but recently, a friend new to cycling was busy racking up miles and one day she asked, "Should I be eating on the bike? I rode all the way to San Clemente and on the way back, I was feeling really wobbly and nauseated."
The answer is yes. Our muscles need fuel, just like a car does. But instead of gasoline, we call it glycogen, and our bodies turn carbohydrates we eat into the glycogen we burn. Cycling is an endurance sport and since it's common to be at it for more than an hour at a time, you have to refill the tank or all kinds of uncomfortable things start to happen. So, having learned my lesson, here's what I do now.
In Your Bottle
I'm a sensitive sort when it comes to sports drinks so it took me a long time to find one that works for me, and even now, I tend to keep my bottles more diluted than other riders. Be open to the process for yourself as well. Try different options until you find one that works for you. If you're interested in becoming a racer, race day is not the right time to try something new. Use your training rides to experiment. For me, GU Energy products like the electrolyte brew or tablets (gluten free!) do the trick.
Although these drinks taste sweet (sugar = carbohydrate), they're actually salty. You're getting important sodium/electrolytes; as you sweat, these stores are depleted, and for proper functioning and hydration, you've got to get that back in. Take a sip every 15 minutes or so, or finish a bottle every hour. More if it's hot out.
Food: To Go
To keep going strong, I know I need to consume about 300 calories per hour while I'm on the bike, especially in a race. One Salted Caramel GU (my first pick) comes with 100 calories. So at least every 20-30 minutes I grab one of those. GU--or any other gel--is great because it is easy to grab from your jersey pocket, easy to open, and easy to eat with just one hand so there's no need to slow down or stop. Gels are also easy to digest. Fun fact: Digestion takes up to 60% of our body's energy! So by taking gels that are already highly processed and contain only what your body needs for the task at hand, you can keep your body's resources where you need them: your legs!
If the clock isn't running, like when I'm out training, then I like to add in more "complicated" treats, like gummies or energy bars, or my favorite guilty pleasure, Lay's potato chips. For those, it's nice to take a pause with a nice view, refuel, and then be on your way. Another great trick I use is to pick the treat I'd like to have -- for example, a dirty chai latte from my favorite coffee shop, Ellie's Table. It's 60 miles from home, but knowing that's waiting for me, with a fresh kale salad or some other delicious treat is a great way to keep me motivated.
When You're Done
Back to the rowing for a second: the reason we had snacks in our packs is because right after all that work, your body is looking for something to use to rebuild. You have about 30-45 minutes to get something in you that makes the most of the work you just did. So grab something with protein (tuna, nuts, a sandwich, a protein bar) and grab it quick. I also try to think about how many calories I've burned and replace that amount so that I don't end up in a deficit, not to mention tired, depleted, and hangry ... which leads to over training, not to mention strained relationships.
Remember, when you train, you're breaking your body down. Muscles are tearing, blood vessels expand, and tendons are stressed. If your body is a house under renovation, and every time you work out, it's like you knock down a wall, think about what you want used to build that back up again. Junk food is glorious, I know, but do you want a house made out of sand bags? Choose healthy, clean foods that would be akin to making your house out of sturdy bricks.
So in summary! Eat on the bike, about 300 calories an hour. Drink on the bike, water or electrolyte drink, to the tune of one bottle per hour. And when you get home, grab something high in protein to help turn you into a powerhouse. Here's a video Trek Factory Racing put together about their nutrition strategies. Check it out!