What to eat on the cycle?

It was 1953 when Sir Edmund Hillary conquered Mt Everest, 12 years before Gatorade (the very first nutrition company) started. Humans have clearly been performing feats of endurance long before gels were around to power us. This begs the question, what do we really need to eat when cycling? Can we conquer our Everest, the Hatepe Hill, on real food, or do we need special product to get us to the finish line? Hopefully this article will give you some insight into this issue.

We will look at the background scientific information so that you can make informed decisions, and we will then look at what questions you need to ask yourself in order to personalise your eating plan.

How much carbohydrate do you need per hour?

How much carbohydrate you need affects what type of food you can eat, and in turn will depend on your goals for the training session. This is a whole topic in itself, but briefly… 

The Science

Carbohydrate requirements:

  • If training is shorter (<90 minute) and not so intense - 30-60g of carbohydrates per hour (any type of carbohydrates).
  • If training is longer, and/or at a higher intensity - Up to 90g per hour of carbohydrates in a specific ratio (2:1 glucose to fructose)
What that means for you

Glucose and fructose are two types of carbohydrates (sugars), of which most carbohydrates contain varying ratios. The ratio of these two sugars is very important, if you don’t get this right, it can lead to stomach upset during exercise and everybody’s least favourite combination of letters: DNF. This ratio is not important if you take less than 60g of carbohydrates per hour, so for shorter rides you don’t need to factor this in, and most forms of carbohydrates will be suitable. Think bananas, gels, muesli bars, flapjacks.

For longer rides however, you want to be a bit more careful. You should start to incorporate gels/sports bars as these have been specifically designed with the right carbohydrate ratio. This means that you can consume greater rates of carbohydrate without the risk of gastro problems. Gels will also be low in fibre so that they are easily digested, and have other benefits that we will address shortly.

Train you guts out!

An odd concept, but ‘training your gut’ is a new idea in sports nutrition. We know how important food is, yet many of us don’t train our gut when we are training our legs. This concept (and learning the hard way) has given rise to the Trailblazer Golden Rule; “Never try something on race day that you have not already trialled in training.”

The Science

In the past, sports dietitians based the amount of carbohydrate an athlete needed on their body weight. But as smaller, often female, powerhouse endurance athletes ate their way to victory, the science caught up with the competitors and realised that it was not the size of the dog in the fight, but how much they had trained their guts to tolerate larger amounts of carbohydrates.   

What this means for you

Work out what you intend to do on race day in advance, and then practise it during training. Monitor your carbohydrate intake per hour, and slowly try to increase it. Remember to include the your fluid intake in your calculations.

Look at what the organisers will provide at the aid stations, and practise using it. The Lake Taupo Cycle Challenge is sponsored by Nuun (which does NOT cotain crbohydrates) and CLIF, so don’t let Event day be the first time you trial their product. 

Don’t Forget about Fluid

Most sports drinks contain carbohydrate, and your drink can be a very effective ‘vehicle’ for carbohydrate delivery.

The Science

Liquid carbs are well absorbed, and practically, its great to get fluid and fuel in one hit, especially when you are in the bowels of a bunch.

On the bottle, or tub of sports drink powder, the product will have a Nutrition Information Panel. This will give instructions on how to make it up if it is a powder, and also the grams of carbohydrate the drink provides per 100ml. This information, combined with how much fluid you drink per hour (which you should know), will allow you to work out how much carbohydrates you get from your fluid, and therefore how much carbohydrates you still need from your food.

What this means for you


- Your drink contains 7g of carbohydrate per 100mls.

- You drink to thirst, but you know this is 500mls per hour.

- You aim to consume 75g of carbohydrate per hour


- 7g of carbohydrate x 5 = 35g per 500ml.

- 75g (total carbs required per hour) – 35g (carbs from fluid) = 40g of carbs still required from food per hour.

Gels vs Real Food

Both have their advantages, and this is a personal decision. As mentioned above, gels can be taken in greater quantities, but real food is probably a little healthier, cheaper, and tastier.

Great options for real food include:

  • Rice/oat cakes, flapjacks etc
  • Bananas, grapes, a little dried fruit
  • Jam/honey sandwiches
  • Cakes, sweets, and slices
  • Wraps with refried beans, hummus, or peanut butter
  • Date loaf, bran muffins, and banana bread
  • Pancakes, pikelets, and waffles

There is the unknown with real food however. Just how much carbohydrate is in your pikelet? You could be taking on board far less carbs than you think.

Storage is important. Real food is not as calorie-dense as gels, this means you’ll carry more weight and use more room.

How will you package it? Tin-foil is popular as it is easy to rip open. Leave a handy flap.

What else do you need to think about?

There is certainly no shortage of options between food, gels and drinks. Even if you choose gels you have plenty of choice, and to be honest, most are of a similar quality, so you must choose one that suits your needs.

To summarise, the following are some questions you should ask yourself when choosing what you will eat on your next cycle:

  • How many carbohydrates per hour will I need and what intensity will I cycle at?
  • What do I plan on doing on race day?
  • How much will I drink and how much carbohydrate will that provide?
  • What packaging do I like? Tubes with screw top or click on lids? Sachets that are torn open? Mini bottles with sports caps?
  • Do I consider the environment and choose refillable gel bottles?
  • Do I want to use a New Zealand made supplement?
  • Do I want solid, semi-solid, or liquid carbohydrates? Or a mixture?
  • How easy is to carry?
  • Is it available? Do I need to make it, pick it up from the box, or go to the shop to buy it?