I’ll begin this article with a disclaimer: Every person is different, especially regarding nutrition needs during physical activity. Trial and error is truly the only way to devise a plan for eating and drinking before, during, and after mountain biking that works perfectly for you. Fortunately, we are all the same species, so the general outline below should provide a solid baseline for consideration.
While I’m not a health professional, I’ve been riding and racing long enough to have scoured countless books and websites, and I even have a personal nutrition coach, which has given me a layman’s understanding of nutrition and body functions. During exercise, your body relies on carbohydrates to supply muscle glycogen stores that keep firing your muscles. The human body can store about an hour or two worth of carbohydrates, meaning re-fueling is essential during endurance-heavy activities such as mountain biking.
There is only one rule that holds up in cycling nutrition: Water is essential. This is the basis that regulates how nutrients interact and function within your body. Taking nutrients in without water will result in depleted performance and will likely lead to cramps and heightened body temperature. Sports drinks are fantastic, but I highly encourage an accompanying bottle of water if you bring the colorful drinks along. Too much sugar from gels, gummies, bars, and sports drink can do more harm than good.
Eating well two to three hours before heading out for a ride, whether it’s ten miles or fifty, is integral to both overall success and enjoyment. Your food choice will impact both your performance and the way you feel and interpret your body’s messages, which can make or break a race.
I usually choose a complex carbohydrate as the base for my morning meals, making oatmeal, whole wheat bread, and quinoa staples in my kitchen. Adding some protein, such as almond butter, to the carbohydrate is a good way to keep yourself feeling full, and offers an easy way to aid recovery.
While protein is optional during breakfast, adding some form of electrolytes such as potassium from bananas should be mandatory. It will regulate blood pressure, muscle contractions (cramps), and fluid balance.
During the ride
There are generally two choices for fueling during strenuous activity.
- Sport-specific options such as energy bars and gels
- “Natural” high-carb, low-fat foods like gummy bears, figs, salty pretzels, etc.
There really is no “correct” camp here, but whatever your preference is, stick to it. Personally, I’m a proponent of mixing the two methods to maintain a variety of tastes and keep myself excited about eating.
Let’s begin our hypothetical ride.
15 minutes before pedaling: One gel packet (Gu, Hammer Gel, Clif Shot, etc) or two energy chews (gummies from Clif, Gu, Hammer, Honey Stinger). This will top off your glycogen stores to make sure your body has enough fuel for the beginning of your ride. I usually accompany this gel with at least 250ml of water.
45 minutes into the ride: Depending on how hard you have been pedaling, this phase will vary. Assuming you have been giving greater than 60% effort you should be eating a second gel at this point as well as a bar (Clif, Honey Stinger, GoMacro, etc) if you intend to keep riding for at least another hour. Bars contain roughly 200 calories in the form of carbohydrates, fats, and protein, providing slow-releasing fuel that is great for long-distance adventures.
2 hours into the ride: You’re onto your third gel or another three energy chews by now. Hopefully, you have managed to drink at least two 500ml bottles of water to accompany the sugars and carbohydrates keeping you moving. If you’re one of the masochists who considers this the halfway point of a long weekend ride, mixing in some homemade food at this point can be incredibly beneficial. I’m personally partial to egg and sweet potato burritos from Skratch Labs cookbook, made fresh the morning of my ride.
Longer than 3 hours: From this point onward, you can assume a minimum of one gel every hour accompanied by 250ml of water and roughly 100 calories, depending on your body size. If you are out for a ride this long, it is likely you have brought some sports drink to accompany your water intake. These products are fantastic, but beware of testing out new drink mix during long rides or races as the flavor, strength, and sugar-to-carb ratio differences between brands can derail your nutrition plan.
Raisins, dates, and gummy bears are great alternatives or accompaniments to gels and chews. Fig bars, bananas, sweet potatoes, and peanut butter pretzels can add some variety to the often monotonous flavors of energy bars and drink mix.
Tired muscles are most sensitive to insulin immediately after exercise, which means the sooner you eat and drink post ride, the more nutrients will go directly to your needy muscles rather than fat cells or muscles that were relatively inactive during your workout.
Recovery drinks are a great choice if you don’t have time to prepare a post-ride meal before your workout. The best mixes contain ~4 grams of carbohydrates for every gram of protein, with ~300mg of sodium per 16 oz. These drinks will help you begin your recovery until a complete meal can be consumed.
I prefer to time my workouts so that they end before lunch or dinner for two reasons. Not only do I give my body the best combination of natural nutrients, but I stay satisfied longer than a recovery drink allows, avoiding excess carbohydrate and fat content common for many athletes.
Eat well before you exercise, consume water regularly, and never ignore your thirst. Eat often during exercise, and re-fuel properly post workout. Use this example ride as a guideline for creating a fueling system that works best for your body. If you intend to use this fueling plan during a race, you should be experimenting months ahead of time to personalize it and avoid gastrointestinal distress.
While I am not advocating for specific sport-science companies through example products in this article, I only reference those I have used personally and would recommend to friends. If you do decide to utilize pre-packaged sport specific energy on your rides, please don’t litter! Pack out your trash and consider sending in your wrappers to Gu for their recycling program!
Sufferfest Beer even makes beer for athletes if you prefer these complex carbs post ride! I would recommend accompanying a brew with vegetarian tacos. Photo: Maxwell Frank / Dillon Osleger