How to beat the bonk.

So you've ridden a sportive or two and noticed "the bonk."  It's a feeling that can hit anywhere between less than 2 hours in or 90 miles done and you realise that your legs are pushing squares, your stomach is rumbling and that your fuel tank is getting near empty.  You think you can do the distance but start to think "how should I have eaten??  How do those Tour de France riders do this every day??"

I've been asked a few times to explain how I approach a sportive or long distance ride, and how I prepare.  I've been active on a couple other websites and made various comments in forums, but thought I would put some words here to explain how an ordinary bloke/bird can ride over 100 miles without too much trouble.  I'll break it down into different elements - training nutrition and "race day" nutrition.  As the sportive season is in full swing, I'll do the typical approach to a 100 mile sportive first, then training nutrition in another post some time in the future.

I'll throw in some useful links to the science and training blogs and add some personal experience.  It's all very well reading that you need to by XYZ product because this will give a million gains and so on, but in reality for most riders these products are for extending marginal gains whereas normal, supermarket available foods will make up the bulk of your nutrition.  Only after you've exhausted the basics is it worth moving to eeking out the extra fractions.


Sportive weekend.

First thing to think of from a nutrition point of view is that the sportive is not just the turn up, ride around for several hours and head home kind of event.  It's something that starts around 24 hours before and finishes around 12 hours after.  There are many tools and devices to help you judge and measure your approach if you want to be scientific about it and make the whole thing easier - most of which are free or you already have and I'll add a note about at the end.

The key ideas you need to remember are:

  • Foods release energy at different rates so the time of when you eat what is important.
  • An easy way of chunking your approach is; 
    • pre-event food
    • race food
    • recovery food.
  • Nutrition is biochemistry, food preferences are human.  Different approaches work for different people so you have to find what works for you and what you like to eat.  

For this example, the sportive is going to be on the Sunday and you're back in work on Monday.  So for nutrition, you start Saturday morning and finish by Monday morning.  If you're a fan of new exciting foods or several pints and a chicken vindabog on a Friday night, it may be worth skipping it or opting for a beer and a madras instead.  Any lingering poor nutrition from 48 hours before risk having an impact on Sunday morning - that drinking session as a student you threw off with a Guinness, bangers and mash the next day may now be stretching out into a two day hangover.  If you can start the sportive weekend with the mindset of "this is my chance to set a PB/increase my Veloviewer score/ace that Strava segment" there's no point giving yourself a handicap before you even start.  As most of us have lives (families, partners, parties, social lives, work commitments, nagging DIY and so on) it takes a little discipline but nothing out of the ordinary.

First step is to gloss over protein for muscle building (I'll mention this in the training section blog some other time).  You should be in some kind of form by now so I'll address energy which is going to be a higher priority for your weekend. Broadly speaking, energy is going to be coming from carbohydrates and you'll want to get them prioritised so we'll split them into three groups - slow release, intermediate release and instant release.

Instant release - we'll start with the fastest.  Your body runs on glucose.  Carbohydrates (simple and complex sugars) break down to the base constituents of which glucose is the most compatible with your biochemistry.  In aerobic exercise, 1 molecule of glucose breaks down to release 36 molecules of ATP.  And it's ATP which is used to make your muscles move.  If you're doing exercise then feeding glucose to the Krebs cycle is the most direct route.  If the glucose is dissolved in water, you can take it straight in, pass it quickly through the stomach and liver, into the blood and directly to the muscles.  Any excess glucose you'll store in the form of fat.  Glucose is top of the GI index.

Intermediate release - whereas glucose and fast release sources very rapidly give you energy to go directly into your blood, it's not always a good thing.  If you don't need the energy straight away but later on, by then it may already be on it's way to storage.  So intermediate release sources even this out by giving a time delay and drip feeding your energy stores - the extra stage in digesting the food slows down the passage from mouth to blood.   Fruits are a good source as the sugars are in a form which is fairly easy to break down making them neither immediate energy nor a slow release energy source.  By intermediate we are talking tens of minutes compared to either minutes for immediate energy or hours for slow release energy.

Slow release - these are the low GI grains, high energy, sustaining superfoods you hear talked about in Slimming World and in adverts for all day breakfast bars.  The idea behind them is that the energy contained within the food takes a longer time to extract so anything you eat now won't be exhausted until many hours later.  These are the rices, pastas, grains, wholemeal breads, porridge oats and so on.  On breakfast bars - I hate them as breakfast bars but they do have other uses which I touch on later.

So now we have time frames for foods, we can start to applying them to the weekend.

The objective in terms of nutrition is to prepare the body to burn a lot of energy fairly evenly throughout the day so by using different foods we can stage and stagger when energy is available.  In some cases we may want our energy stores to deplete at a steady rate to maintain a pace.  In other instances we may want readily available energy NOW to open up the legs and go full gas to conquer a specific climb or tough section.  A typical 100 mile sportive can be anything from 3,000 to 6,000 calories so the demand is going to be high.  Your body can usually store around 2,000 calories at any one time in the muscles ready for use, so the objective is to be on the start line with your stores maxed out, food to get you through while feeling comfortable and ending the ride in the best state.  So now time to plan your meals accordingly.

Saturday 

Breakfast:

If we start the weekend on Saturday morning, digestion usually takes around 24 hours to complete so anything from now on will pass through you sometime around sportive time.  Go for either your usual or something that'll mix intermediate and slow release carbohydrates.  The aim is to have a normal diet and prepare yourself for meals later in the day.  You bulk carbohydrate loading will be from lunch time onwards so there's no point maxing out on a double full English breakfast now which might scupper your diet plan at lunch time.  Weetabix, pancakes, cereals, eggs and toast.......  You want to enjoy your food and make sure you comfortable for lunch.....

Lunch

Now to start the carbohydrate loading.  The aim now is to start to build up the energy stores with slow release energy which you'll stockpile into the evening/night and only need topping up on Sunday morning.  In 24 hours you're going to be well into your ride or nearing the end so prep really gets going now.  Some people prefer to have a "Pasta party" the night before and make it a social event with the same objective.  However from personal experience, although I've always enjoyed these parties I've often found myself going to bed feeling bloated or over filled and as more sportives, marathons and half marathons have an early start time, sleep is precious.  To stop the uncomfortable bed belly, lying in your bunk and clock watching when you wish you were asleep I've found it easier to start the bulk of the loading from lunch time onwards.  This isn't a regimented pick up the fork at 1pm but start eating around 60-70% of the carbohydrate you want to load over the course of the afternoon.

My personal favourite here is macaroni cheese.  If you go for homemade, choose which cheeses you like and mix in vegetables and any extras you like - pine nuts, seasoning, seeds etc.  Add to your carbs a good selection of salad leaves and a good dressing - there is nothing harder than trying to eat your body weight in claggy pasta and cheese so make it enjoyable by adding a fresh salad, dressings and drink plenty of water.  You'll know what your tastes buds enjoy.  By the end of this meal you should feel stuffed.  But get it done now because you want to get that feeling out of the way.  Through the afternoon if you can face it, treat yourself to a snack or two (usually I'm stuffed and don't fancy them much but if there's home made flapjack on hand it'll get picked up and consumed).

Dinner/tea

Now time for another high carb meal but you can ease off the portion size.  Tagliatelle or tortellini or spaghetti bolognese, but make this a comfortable, enjoyable and satisfying meal.  Have a good dessert and nibble on oat based snacks while you play cards, chat with fellow riders and tell tall tales about your most epic rides.  Remember the lunch time mountain and how uncomfortable you felt?  If lunch was 70% of the carb load, make this 30%.  By now you should be fully stocked with energy and ready for a relaxing evening without feeling bloated in bed.  Drink plenty of water and hit the pillow early.

Sunday


Breakfast

You've now been asleep for several hours and that stored energy has slipped away a bit, so time to top it up.  Personal preferences will guide your choice, but spring/autumn/winter rides a good bowl of porridge does well and will slow release over the first 30-40 miles.  Add some intermediate release sugars (raisins, banana, apple chunks etc) and immediate release sugars (syrup) and you're covered all bases for a good start to the ride.  If it's summer or a warm start, muesli does the trick with plenty of milk and fresh fruit.

You'll know how much to eat by your own stomach, but my guide is that I want to feel full maybe 20 minutes into the ride (unless the first climb is straight off the start line).  To do this, slightly over fill at the breakfast table - have an extra scoop of porridge or one more Weetabix than you think you need.  By the time you've eaten, sorted your kit, rolled to the start line, waited around for your ride partner have one last trip to the portaloo, had a dignitary speak some muffled words on a PA system hidden behind a beehive and had the flag drop, that's when you want to be feeling full and not wishing you had one more bowl of Cheerios.

Race time

Now time to pack the back pockets and head for the start line.  My personal preference is to assume no food stops or support so I carry a combination or selection of; breakfast bars, gels, homemade chocolate and cherry brownies, flapjack, a stick of liquorice, soreen bread/fruit loaf, one or two bananas and on the bike either 2x500ml isotonic carbohydrate drink or 2x500ml iso-carb+protein drink.  I've ridden with riders who've sworn by roast potatoes, gummy bears, raw jelly (I used to do that one), Haribo, Jaffa cakes, marshmallows and all other kinds and varieties of foods but all with the same idea of fast, intermediate and slow release to even out energy release over the whole ride.  The aim is to have a selection of fast, intermediate and slow release energy sources for the next 4 - 8 hours.  And as you leave the house/hotel/hostel/camper van/tent/B&B/dustbin/bike shed, grab anything you fancy and can eat on the start line - spare banana does it for me.  This isn't food you'll carry so you only have to get it to the start line - zip tie it to the top tube if you need to but don't go for a full english on a plate.

T = zero hour and planning for the long game.


The celeb on the start line waffles some noise, the flag drops and it's time to get going.  You settle into your stride and think you can ride like this all day.  Your belly feels full and good to go and as you roll along everyone starts to sort themselves out to similar abilities and jokes are cracked, kit compared and legs start to warm up.  But you will outstrip your stored energy on a long ride and this feeling won't last.

The golden rules is that you eat before you get hungry.

If you feel hungry, it's too late.  Typically the 2,000 calorie mark is around 2 to 3 hours depending on course, speed, climbs etc, so be prepared.  Start the feeding early for energy later.  I hate pre-packed breakfast bars - to me they typify the worst of the convenience world where a bar is supposed to substitute for proper food, but they are calorifically dense in convenient little packages that you can open them with one hand and your teeth and they have enough preservatives to be in your store all season.  Before the race day go to the supermarket and look for the breakfast bars which (a) gives the highest energy value and (b) you'll eat.  Some are dry and horrible, some are soft and palatable so make your pick and try them on training rides.  Some are too dry which means you have to drink more and cough dry oats all over your stem but only trial and error finds them.  Start eating these maybe 20-30 miles in and you'll extend you "bonk" by quite some time.  Sustain your eating and you'll do the whole event without any hassle.

Tackling the monuments.


But endless breakfast bars are boring and sportives always have a headline draw - a specific climb, challenge, moorland pass, city to ride through or reputation for PB's. So you'll want to have more energy for specific sections.  This is where your planning comes in.  If you know you are 20 minutes from "the epic" section, start chewing the fruit.  Banana's typically take around 20 minutes to digest and release their energy so you aim to have that available at the bottom of the climb.  You should have been drinking well throughout the ride so you energy stores should be reducing but slowly and by keeping hydrated you should be cruising well to the start of "that section".  Other intermediate energy sources (chocolate brownies, liquorice, Jaffa cakes etc) will have other release periods so eat them according to when you need that energy.  If your getting to the foot of the climb or start of the sprint and you're trying to workout where to fling your banana peel, it's getting too late so.......

As the energy requirement starts to ramp quickly, now is the time to chug energy bottles and squeeze those gels.  The immediate energy sources will give you the boost you need but it won't hang around for long or last indefinitely so use them when you need them.  Squeezing gels on a cruising section is a wasted gel because the slows and intermediates should be keeping you going.  Caffeinated gels give an extra kick and will help you metabolise other sugars better but different people find them different ways - so test in training.  If you've timed it right, you should have the energy on tap and now be gripping the bars and climbing faster than Contador or out sprinting Cav.

DEATH OR GLORY!!!

If you've followed that advice so far, you should have a tool kit of sugars for different sections and with planning you should be getting closer to the end and hitting a good time.  Unless you're a skinflint or saving your energy because you think sex with your partner is more important than a good sportive finish, now is the time to chug that bottle, squeeze a gel and race to the finish line.  Any energy that's left in your pockets is weight that has been on a jolly day out and you could have left at home, so now is the time to use it.  The spare breakfast bars may not kick in until an hour or more after you've collected your finishing time, but the brownies, gummy bears, fruit chunks, Haribo, marshmallows or jelly cubes and whatever is left in your bottles will all give you a kick to do the last 10 to 20 miles as fast as you can.  Any energy left in your body after the finish line is energy you could have spent to get a faster time.  And anyway, who needs energy after the ride?

And BOOM! You've clocked up another Sportive PB.

So now to recover.  

Your muscles have worked hard, and you're euphoric from you effort and you want to collapse.  If you have no intention of following up, riding tomorrow or not bothered, you can stop now and stagger slowly around the workplace on Monday morning.  But you want to be able to saunter around the office, casually dropping into the coffee break conversation that you "did a 180km ride yesterday sub 7 hours and took on 3,000 meters of climbing.  No biggy.  Legs feel fine.  Bet your 3 mile ride to the shops I spotted on Stava hurt you more than the fatigue in my legs today" kind of comment.

If you want to recover quick, get back in training or simply want to walk comfortably the next day it's time to restock.  Straight after the finish line, the easiest way of starting the replenishment of muscle energy stores is to finish your drinks bottles.  If you've already drank your bottles (like I told you to), look for foods which are fast release/high GI - sweets etc which will stop that crashing feeling and keep your brain firing.  Next is to have something with protein in it to start rebuilding torn muscles - that's the ache you'll feel.  Either go for a protein recovery drink, or a simple chocolate milkshake will do the same trick.

Now that you've given your partner a hug, recounted the time you overtook the fat man on a Pinarello K8 or out sprinted the Cav-a-like, you'll smell like thermals that have festered at the bottom of the wash box for two weeks so hit the showers.  But you'll still be running a calorific deficit so once you've got yourself clean and the bike put away, you'll need something to restart normal life and ready for work on Monday morning for the big brag.  Go for slow and intermediate release foods - fish and/or meats for protein, vegetables and sweet potato mash, pasta, bulgar wheat or rice for carbohydrates which will stop you pecking at food, make you feel full and keep you going until Monday breakfast.  By Monday morning you should be back to where you were at the end of Friday, you'll have stories to tell and your body will be in full working order.

The analytical minds.

To track a lot of this and do "the science" there are a couple of very easy tricks and apps to use.  The more you use them, the easier it becomes to judge where you are and plan accordingly.  The chances are that you have a smartphone which is an always with you training tool and the easiest way to track what you're doing.  Although activity trackers, smartwatches, the latest offering from Garmin/Suuntu/Stages/Polar and Wahoo Kickr trainers are nice and will improve your performance, a simple smartphone with a couple of apps and your ability to add basic data will give you a far bigger advantage - and save you a lot of money that you don't have to spend.  The two key linked apps (others are available) are Strava and MyFitnessPal which interlink and auto sync.  If you food log in MyFitnessPal (MFP) you can keep track of what you are loading into your body.  Strava will auto sync daily calorific burn from activities to give you a net value for each day according to your mass, activity, age and gender.  If you are familiar with how it works, the aim would be to come out of Sunday with a net value of zero averaged from Saturday morning to maintain fitness/weight.  If you want to lose weight, that's a whole different blog.






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