Just as important as eating before and after a ride is eating during a ride. You need to eat and drink during rides to make sure your body is hydrated and has a steady supply of energy. If not, you could bonk, and that’s no fun!
Here is what I would eat during a ride or race, depending on ride duration and intensity:
Here is what I eat during short rides of various intensities.
For a recovery ride:
My recovery rides are typically about 30 minutes. For these short rides, I don’t take food or water.
For a short, easy ride:
For easy rides of 45-60 minutes, I’ll usually take a 16oz bottle of water. If it’s early in the morning before breakfast, I may use a sports drink instead of water to make sure that I’m getting some much-needed sugar to get my brain and body moving.
If I’m not in the mood for plain water but don’t want sugar either, I’ll put a Nuun tablet in my bottle. That gives me some flavor, a few electrolytes, and virtually no calories. (I’m just looking for flavor because sometimes plain water doesn’t go well with an empty stomach.)
Note: I probably wouldn’t even drink the whole bottle unless it’s a hot day.
For a short, intense ride:
If the ride will be fairly short, say 60-90 minutes, but intense, I will do things slightly differently.
I would want to carry at least a 24oz bottle of sports drink, if not one bottle sports drink in addition to one bottle of water. It’s not that I’d need a ton of extra calories, but I do like the refreshing taste, at least for a mental pick-me-up. (Nuun tablets would also be alright in this case.)
To go along with that, I’ll carry an energy gel in case I need a boost between sets of intervals or if the ride goes longer than planned.
For a short, intense race:
For a short, intense race, things change once again. For something like a Short Track XC race or Cyclo-Cross (CX) race, you probably won’t eat anything. You might not even carry water. That’s partly because the race is short, but also because it’s not easy to eat while keeping a fast pace and dealing with obstacles.
All you really need for these 30-60 minute efforts is a quick drink when passing through the feed zone. Just be sure you are properly hydrated before the race.
Longer Rides and Races
Here is what I eat during longer rides and races of various intensities.
For a moderate ride:
For a moderately paced ride around two hours long, I switch from water to sports drink. I will take two bottles of sports drink if the ride will be a little over two hours; one bottle water and one bottle sports drink for rides a little under two hours.
In this case, I also carry an energy bar or gel. I might not eat it, but for any ride over an hour, I like to have some food on hand just in case.
If the ride is pushing over two hours, I’ll definitely eat the food. I could finish the ride without it, but then I am so ravished that I binge afterward (in which case I eat too much and get sick.)
For a mountain bike race:
Mountain bike races vary in length, anywhere from 1 to 24 hours (a typical XC race will last 1-3 hours,) but they have one thing in common – rough trails and intensity.
So the key difference here is that you’ll need to focus on high-calorie sports drinks and energy gels, because you’ll need to keep your hands on the bars the majority of the time.
Whether you do it with a bottle of Hammer Perpetuem or you take quick shots of GU gel, you want to ingest your calories quickly and easily so you can concentrate on the trail.
(That’s how I get my calories during a mountain bike race. As for the number of calories I consume, that depends on the length of the race and follows the same set of guidelines listed in the rest of this article. )
For a long endurance ride:
For an easy to moderate pace ride that is 3-6 hours in length, I will be pounding down the sports drinks and energy bars.
At three hours, I usually stick with Powerbar Endurance or Hammer Heed. Any longer and I definitely consume a higher-calorie drink like Accelerade or Hammer Perpetuem. I’ll drink at least one bottle per hour (depending on the heat) to make sure I’m hydrated the entire ride.
I’ll also fill my jersey pockets with energy bars and snacks.
Overall you want to consume about 250-300 calories per hour. You could get that with an energy bar plus sports drink, two gels plus sports drink, or maybe three gels plus water.
The key is to start eating early. Even though you might not eat at all on a two hour ride, if you’re riding four hours, you should start eating 30 minutes into the ride!
(Whereas I might not eat at all on a two hour ride, I’ll have consumed 400-500 calories of solid food within the first two hours of a six hour ride! It’s very important to make sure you constantly replenish your glycogen stores, because this food will fuel you at hour six.)
Continue drinking every 15 minutes and eating every 30 minutes for the duration of the ride. That is either half an energy bar or one gel every 30 minutes.
Last tip: This list was what I would eat during a ride. As for what to carry during a ride, always carry more food than you think you need. The weight of a spare energy gel is minimal, but it could save your life. (You never know if you’ll get hungry, face an unexpected headwind, take a wrong turn, or something similar that will extend your ride time.)