Gas Station Nutrition, in a Pinch: Fueling Your Bike Ride

Photos: Bobby Brown

Proper nutrition is one of those things that can turn a good ride into a great ride. But proper isn’t always practical if you need to grab something quick and tasty on the way to your ride, or in the middle of a long ride in the middle of nowhere. In this article, we’ll explore some common convenience store finds that work in a pinch. They might even become your new go-to. 

Sports nutrition basic

Before we dive into some favorite foods, let’s review some basic terminology to understand the information you’ll see on a nutritional label.  

  • Serving size – Brands are required to note the amount of servings in multiple locations on the package. Do the math if you’re planning to eat several servings at a time. 
  • Calories – Calories are a measure of the stored energy in your food. 
  • Carbohydrates – Carbs are your body’s most preferred source of fuel and most easily digestible source. There are two types of carbs; simple carbs which are easily broken down, and complex carbs which take more time and energy to digest and burn slower. Nutritional facts will often display added sugars from the included carbs. These added sugars represent the simplest carbs in your snack. 
  • Fat – Fats keep you filled up, satiated, and can be a slower burning fuel source.
  • Protein – Protein is the least easily used fuel source by the body. It’s best to consider protein as recovery after a ride.
  • Sodium – This is your salt and electrolyte content and can prevent cramping.
  • Vitamins and minerals – Vitamins and minerals do a lot for your body but these are complex concepts that we won’t discuss here. 

Instant liquid fuel

This is your sports drink replacement, like the easy calories you chug out of your water bottle. If you’re interested in jump-starting your ride, sip on one of these drinks in the trailhead parking lot or over the 20-30 minutes before you arrive. These can also serve as a recovery drink to get blood sugar stabilized.

  • Gas station slushy: Nothing beats cooling down with a slushy on a hot summer ride. These are always high calorie with some tipping the scales at over 80g of sugar in a 20oz cup. That’s roughly the same amount of sugar as four Clif Bars, so be careful as too much sugar at once can cause a big spike to your blood sugar, followed by a crash in energy. 
  • Can of soda: A can of soda can really hit the spot on your way to the trailhead or halfway into a big day. Most sodas also have a little caffeine and a small amount of salt content so you’ll get a little more juice than the frozen sugar-water slushy. 
Skratch (left) Coke (right)

Instant solid fuel

Gummy blocks, syrups, and gels are the next type of sports snacks on our list, offering a quick-acting food source. Run out of gummy blocks or stroopwaffles? Grab one of these off the shelves.

  • Sour gummies: Commonly found as sour gummy worms or sour gummy bears. These snacks offer easily-digestible simple carbs and sugars coated in a citrusy, salty powder. Their sour flavor comes from electrolytes (salts) and increases your body’s ability to retain moisture. A bonus feature is that the sour powder also keeps the gummies from turning sticky in a hot pack or pocket. 
  • Dried fruit or trail mix: Dried fruit is the original sports snack and it pairs well with chocolate chips and salty nuts in trail mix. Dried fruit contains natural simple sugars that are a little slower to hit your body than refined sugars from gummies. Peanuts and cashews can give you some slow-burning fats and protein too.
Clif (left) Haribo (right)

It’s important to note that these simple carbs are very fast-acting. A good rule for hard rides is to ingest simple carbs every 20-30 minutes to keep your energy levels high. The mantra here is to eat before you are hungry and drink before you are thirsty. By the time your body is signaling that it needs fuel, you’re going to be close to bonking. This is why it’s important to get a steady stream of simple carbs along with some complex carbs, salts, and fats in your system as a longer-term energy supply. 

Long-lasting energy

Long rides call for long-lasting energy. Complex carbs and fats take longer to process, stabilizing your supply of time-release energy over a longer ride. These types of foods can be more savory, balancing the sweeter, fast-acting snacks mentioned earlier. When you’re reading the label, check for whole wheat and brown rice which provide complex carbs in comparison to the simpler carbs in normal crackers and potato chips. 

  • Whole-grain peanut butter crackers: The whole-grain crackers provide complex carbs with a touch of sweetness and the peanut butter provides salt and fat to keep you full and hydrated. 
  • Whole wheat chips: These typically include whole wheat and brown rice flours offering a double dose of complex carbs, plus frying oil as a fat and salt for flavor. Everything you need for long lasting energy. 

Putting it all together

Sometimes you want some simple snacks that contain a proper balance of everything you need on a ride. Below are a few favorites:

  • Oatmeal cream pies: First your body processes the frosting as a simple carb, then the oatmeal serves as a long-lasting complex carb. Finally, the fat in the cookies fills you up over the long haul. 
  • Fruit bars: Fruit-stuffed bars often contain a gummy jam surrounded by complex carbs. These don’t normally contain much salt so be sure to read the label and be aware of any additional electrolyte needs you may have. 

Exploring Your Own Needs

Every rider is different and it’s important to listen to your body on long rides and learn what works for you. Here are a few common things to watch out for.

  • Eating vs. drinking your calories: Some people prefer to keep their bottles and hydration bladders free from sugary drinks. Liquids are the fastest acting energy source but it’s nice to have solids that don’t slosh in your belly while you’re pedaling. Experiment with a mix of solid and liquid fuel to see what makes your digestive system happy. 
  • Be mindful of carbs and fats: Excessive simple carbs can cause a strong spike and crash. Taking in complex carbs and fats will slow this release and stave off the big energy crash. 
  • Manage your salt intake: We all lose salt at different rates through our sweat. If you’re seeing salt crust forming on your jersey, helmet, or gloves, that means you need to replenish the salt in your body. Salty potato chips can serve a double whammy as a simple carb with a ton of electrolytes to get you back in the game. 

We hope this helps you choose some appropriate ride snacks when dropping into the gas station or convenience market on a ride. The most important part of this is having fun with your food and listening to your body. What you eat on a ride can have an effect on your mental and physical state, so have fun with the comfort food if it checks the right nutritional boxes.

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