Eat right: nutrition tips for endurance events


Training for a multi-day endurance event or cycling holiday? Portia Rees-Jones, sports nutritionist, shares her expert advice for what to put on our plates (and in our jersey pockets) as the miles ramp up…

Whether you have a multi-day cycling holiday or a whopper sportive like LEJOG (the iconic Land's End to John O'Groats ride), it's important to eat properly to ensure you feel good as you go the distance. Here's some of the science stuff...

How should you alter what and how you eat as you up the training miles?
As your training increases you will usually need to increase the amount of carbohydrate and protein in your diet. Carbohydrates (bread, pasta, rice, potatoes) should provide the main portion of your daily intake at meals.

During rides you may need to top up by having simple sugary carbohydrates (in the form of cereal bars or sweets) as an instant source of energy. This will reduce the likelihood of your body having to break down muscle to fuel your rides.

Protein is required for muscle recovery and growth. That doesn’t mean having a protein shake with every meal, but it’s worth spreading good sources of protein (meat, eggs, beans, pulses and dairy) throughout your day and some around training sessions.

Our bodies are smart enough to adapt to exercise and match what nutrients we need from the foods we are eating! One size does not fit all, though, and requirements change depending on how old you are, training status and history, what you normally eat and the duration or intensity of your rides.

I often find myself waking up in the middle of the night hungry. I don't feel hungry when I go to bed, so what can I do to stop the midnight hunger pangs and fridge raiding? (Question from @EditorWelton)
You need to assess whether this is actually hunger. Sometimes our body mistakes thirst for hunger. Take a look at the colour of your urine and if it’s very pale yellow, you are probably ok. If not, you are probably not drinking enough.

If that’s not the case, then you may not be eating enough – maybe calories or a specific macronutrient – or you’re not eating to appropriately satiate yourself.
(This is probably a bit of a specific question to answer on a widescale basis!)

How can you carefully alter what you eat without making the mistake of over eating?
By eating smart! Training fluctuates and so should the amount you eat. This means eating more when needing the extra energy, but less when you don’t need to fuel up.

To make the most of your training, you should fuel up before and after so that you perform and recover better. But this has to be in line with your daily calorie requirements. If you train early in the morning, that does not mean the rest of the day you can eat what you like (note from Ed - dammit!).

Fuel that session with a pre workout/ride carbohydrate snack (eg. a bagel) and if it’s a long one (more than 90 mins), take some carbohydrate to eat (otherwise water will do). Afterwards, have a small snack such as a yoghurt with a banana. This way you have had breakfast while also fuelling your session.

If you train early in the morning, that does not mean the rest of the day you can eat what you like (note from Ed - dammit!)

Should I give up alcohol before the ride?
Alcohol may taste good, but it’s unlikely to help you achieve your riding goals. When drinking alcohol, your body will prefer to use that energy and ignore the nutritious dinner you had earlier. Because of this, ideally keep alcohol away from your rides to enable optimum recovery and fuel utilisation by your body.

If you do fancy a drink after riding, stick to lower alcohol drinks and try to make sure you have a post-ride snack and rehydrate before you start. That way you can replenish your muscle with carbohydrate and protein and help prevent the dehydration caused by alcohol.  

Alcohol is not going to help you, but you don’t have to give it up! Make sensible choices when drinking, like adding snacks, and don’t drink excessively before or after races.

How do you prepare a few days before the ride kicks off in terms of your eating regime? 
In the few days before the ride, your training usually tapers (trails off so that you do lots less and start with rested legs).

Training for a multi-day endurance event or cycling holiday?

This is when you want to make sure you’re eating a carb rich diet that your body can store for use on the ride. Porridge, muesli, rice, pasta, bread and potatoes are normally good foods for getting in the extra stores.

What would you say is the cyclist's breakfast of champions?
Anything carb based. You need carbohydrates as the mainstay of your energy supply to ride at your best, so include these in your breakfast. If you’re riding for the day, this is the easiest time to have a good dose. Porridge, muesli, toast, bagels, even pancakes are all good choices to have for breakfast before a ride.


What are the best snacks to take on 100+ rides?
It depends who you are. The best advice is to have tried out what you’re going to take on longer rides while doing your shorter ones to see how they effect you. Every cyclist has different preferences, often related to what their gut decides they can tolerate (in other words, what causes your gut to produce more gas, or make you feel like you need the toilet urgently). Different people are sensitive to different things, but bananas, granola bars, trail mix and the odd Haribo and Jelly Baby are great options for most people.

Sometimes on long rides I don't feel hungry but I know I should eat. What are your top tips for knowing when and what to take on board?
It depends on how long you are going on a ride for, what you have eaten previously and how hard you are riding. Anything above a 7/10 effort will more than likely need carbs, as at low intensities your body can start to use fat to fuel you.

A good rule of thumb is to make sure you eat on any rides longer than 90 minutes. If you’re not hungry, then sweets are great sources for getting the essential carbs in without filling you up. Don’t think that means you can munch your way through a family pack of Haribo though.

During long sessions, for every hour of exercise, four to six Jelly Babies would be the amount suggested to keep your energy stores topped up. If you find you get hungry, then a good slice of malt loaf or bread roll with a spread of jam is a similar amount of carb and more satiating.

You will know if you need to eat as your body will tell you. When your muscles are depleted of energy, you are actually carbohydrate depleted and will feel very fatigued and heavy legged. This is affectionately known as bonking or hitting the wall. 

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