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Marci Titus Hall

USA Cycling Elite Coach

Certified Strength & Conditioning Specialist

Pre-ride nutrition question

posted Jul 24, 2011, 10:54 AM by Marci Titus Hall   [ updated Jul 25, 2011, 5:50 AM ]

Can you give some good advice on Pre-formance drinks? Which ones are good, when to take them and how long before taking another? Another thing I struggle with is good food to eat before a ride. Whats the most bang for you buck? I try to take Cytomax before I ride to help with energy levels. There are others ACCELERADE and I believe Hammer makes one as well. They are listed as Pre-Formance, pre-workout drinks. Are these any good, do they work?

Many of us ride either first thing in the morning or late in the afternoon, long after consuming a meal.  For optimal performance, or even to make it to the trail head, you will need to get your blood sugar up before heading out on that ride; to do that you just need to consume calories. 

Sports or performance drinks are created to drink while riding to aid in absorption during exercise when the body is physically stressed.  While exercising your body shunts blood away from the gut and toward working muscles, for this reason eating a complex and heavy meal during a ride will likely cause serious abdominal cramping.  The meal will sit heavy in your stomach and very little actual digestion will occur.  Not good!  The more intense the exercise the more blood shunting will occur and you will be limited to absorption of simple carbohydrates (sugars) and electrolytes.  But again, this is during exercise. 

Before exercise your best bet is to ensure that throughout the day you are eating a balanced diet of 65% carbohydrates, 15-20% protein, and the remainder in healthy fats; divided roughly among 3 meals and 2 snacks per day.  Dividing your allotment of calories evenly throughout the day will ensure that your blood sugar never drops too low.  If and when it does drop you will crave sugar which is your body’s way of getting quick, easy to digest, calories into your system.  By not letting yourself get too hungry or depleted you will stay at an even keel throughout the day and typically find that you are more energetic.  But I digress: one of those snacks can and should be your pre-ride snack.  Should this snack be a performance drink?  Probably not.  In this situation it isn’t just about getting calories in but about sustainable calorie consumption.  The easily digestible sports drink won't give you lasting energy but a quick burst of energy (which is also why you need to keep drinking them throughout your ride – great for during your ride, not so hot for before your ride). 

For your pre-ride snack I suggest something rich in complex carbohydrates and low, but not devoid of protein and fats.  It is up to you and your constitution exactly what you consume but think whole grains as their slow digestibility will give you a longer lasting energy source.  Ideally you are getting ~100-200 calories about an hour before your ride; plenty of time to start but not end the digestion process.  A few examples are PB&J on whole grain bread, oatmeal with fruit and milk, or a granola bar.  Test out different foods to figure out what works best for you.  Now that you have consumed your snack you can start drinking your performance drink ~15min before your ride.  Of course you should be hydrating all day so this is just the topping off your energy and hydration stores. 

The next best thing you can do to get an edge is to consume calories post ride.  You have a 1-2 hour window of opportunity to replace the muscle glycogen that you used up during your ride.  Not only can you replace those stored calories but after a ride your muscles are ready to store even more glycogen, called super glycogen compensation.  This means that after each long ride you can replenish more so that you can work longer at a lower cost during your next ride.  This is the time when you can either use a slightly more concentrated sports drink, recovery drink, or a carbohydrate rich, low protein, low fat snack (same as during exercise you don’t want a heavy meal that will slow digestion/absorption).  Whichever is easiest for you, just make sure you consume something - anything.  If you miss this window it could take 24-48 hours to replenish those stores of glycogen.  Like I mentioned in the last answer you need to keep your blood sugar up to utilize your energy stores but once those stores are gone you will begin the fatigue cascade and your ride time will quickly become limited.

Remember this: energy in = energy out.  Eat well to perform well! 


Are Sports Drinks Really Better Than Water?

posted Jun 30, 2011, 11:00 AM by Scott Stathis   [ updated Jul 1, 2011, 10:16 AM by Marci Titus Hall ]

Scott Stathis asked, " Are the likes of Gatorade and related sports drinks, tablets, etc. really better for the replenishing the fluids, carbohydrates and electrolytes then plain old water?"



Great question and especially important now since here in New England we are experiencing hot and humid weather; a tough combination in the quest to prevent dehydration.  Yes sports drinks are better at replenishing carbohydrates, electrolytes and by extension fluids, while you are exercising.  The entire premise of sports drinks is the fact that at a cellular level water follows solutes.  This means that the solutes (the combination of salt, electrolytes and sugars or carbohydrates) will cross the cellular membrane first and then the fluid (or water) will follow.  It might sound a little complicated and scientific but the simple fact is that the right combination of solutes ensures that fluid will absorb and hydrate you faster than plain water.  The caveat is that too many solutes can slow absorption of fluids, just like too little solutes or plain water.  Have you ever experienced water shaking around in your stomach?   This can happen when you drink fluids too fast or when you are eating a meal and drinking fluids.  The fluid sits in your stomach and doesn’t absorb quickly – which is fine when you are not exercising.  But when you are exercising you want that fluid to absorb and hydrate you as quickly as possible to replenish fluids lost from sweating.


There are three additional benefits to the solutes in sports drinks:
1.  The salt in sports drinks increases your thirst drive so that you want to drink more.  This helps ensure you keep drinking to stay hydrated. 
2.  The carbohydrate in sports drinks keeps your blood sugar steady so that you can continue to exercise without a big drop in blood sugar that would cause fatigue.  Since blood is shunted from your gut and routed to your working muscles while exercising, you want to consume carbs in their simplest form (hence the sugar in sports drinks) to ensure absorption.  The constant source of drinking carbohydrates will actually help you to burn fat and other stored carbohydrates while you exercise since, metabolically speaking, fat burns in a carbohydrate flame.  Low blood sugar actually prevents you from burning your own storage fuels and causes you to burn protein – hello fatigue, bye-bye muscle.

3.  The solutes in sports drinks help to prevent hyponatremia, a condition of extremely low blood solutes.  Sweating during exercise not only reduces blood volume but blood solutes, both of which need to be replaced.  Hyponatremia is a dangerous condition that can happen either during extreme dehydration with low blood volume and low blood solutes, or with hydration when large amounts of blood solutes have been lost due to sweating and are not replaced with added electrolytes or eating.  Though rare among cyclists it does happen commonly to endurance runners who are unaccustomed to eating or drinking sports drinks while running. 



Sports drinks are fabulous, the endurance athletes best friend, and there are enough of them out there that you can find your perfect solution or you can even make your own.  When I was a struggling graduate student I often did long training rides drinking a dilution of a powdered iced tea mixture – I sometimes still do.  But keep in mind that sports drinks are for consumption during sports.   Drinking plain water is ideal for hydrating any time other than when you are exercising.  My rule of thumb is that as long as you are adequately hydrated and fed before hand, any ride lasting under an hour can be done with plain water.   If you are going to exercise for over an hour, or have any question as to where the trail might take you, grab a sports drink!
Coach Titus

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