This was one of those cycling things that I had to learn the hard way. As I was attempting one of my first long rides with my buddies – about 38 miles as I recall – I suddenly “bonked” on a long, uphill stretch. (“bonking” is an endurance athlete’s term that basically means you ran out of fuel) I had no idea what was going on – I suddenly lost all energy, and I was getting very angry with my friends for leaving me behind! Then I was depressed and simply wanted to give up!
After I caught up with them (they did wait for me), I realized that I had simply run out of fuel. For me this was roughly 1.5 hours into the ride. For them, their reserves were larger and their systems could go longer without refueling. Your mileage may vary, as they say, but I recommend having something to eat if you’re going to ride more than an hour. My rule of thumb is to eat something every 45 minutes. I typically will have an energy gel pack or two or three of the newer chewy block type of supplements at these 45-minute intervals and I’m fine (Cliff Shot Blocks are my favorites, but there are TONS of different types and flavors – buy several and see which ones you like). I also make sure I eat something immediately before a long ride – 15 to 30 minutes before. …I have found that my success and enjoyment on long rides is directly correlated to how well I keep up on my food. It’s easy to forget to eat – you’re often not really hungry – but you have to eat anyway!
Don’t think that you have to buy prepackaged energy supplements, either. My cycling buddy swears by good ol’ Fig Newtons for his long rides. And bananas are a mainstay around serious cyclists. (I unfortunately don’t care for bananas!) Many experts recommend “real” food vs. energy supplements for really long rides. The main things you want are high calorie content (you need energy, lots of carbs), portability (must fit in your jersey pocket) and eat-ability (must not take too long to chew and swallow).
Drinking, or hydrating is similar to nutrition, in that you have to constantly keep on top of it. On normal, average-temperature days, I’ll go through a 25 oz bottle of water an hour. Up to double that on hot days, and a little less than that on cold days. But, once again, I try to drink BEFORE I’m thirsty. If you feel dehydrated, it’s probably already too late! Keep ahead of it and you’ll be much better off!
You will also find, once you start riding long rides, you’ll also need to replenish your electrolytes. All that sweating while you ride (you don’t notice it since the moving air dries it quickly) simply removes the salts from your body. You need to put them back!Once again, I learned this the hard way. The painful cramps that woke me up in the night after my first long ride were later explained by my buddies as a sign of a lack of electrolytes in my body.
There are several ways you can prevent this, but most people either take electrolyte supplements (pills) during the ride, or add something to their water bottles. I don’t like taking pills and most of the water bottle mixes have a tad bit of flavor to them, which I don’t care for. So I use flavorless drops in my water. The brand I use is called Elete and I highly recommend it. It works great and doesn’t add much taste to the water at all – just makes it a tad bit salty. I also add a carbohydrate supplement to my water as a buffer in case I get behind in my eating. (Sometimes you don’t realize that 45 minutes have passed!) Again, most carbohydrate mixes have flavor to them, which I don’t care for, so I use a brand calle Carbo-Pro. It’s essentially a finely processed sugar that quickly dissolves in water. Like the Elete electrolyte supplement, it has very little taste to it. In this case, however, it’s a slightly sugary taste. So, the combination of the two kind of even themselves out and I have a fairly neutral-tasting bottle of water!
Since I have been using energy chews and gels, Elete and Carbo-Pro, I have not had any problems with cramping or bonking. The only problem with the water bottle electrolyte supplements is, however, that they’re only good for medium-length (i.e. up to around 4 hour) rides. For really long rides, I could really stand another “dose”, since I have consumed 4 or more bottles by then! …Maybe I’ll consider getting some of those pills after all!