When you are planning a century or a double, your nutrition is as important as your training. Being nutritionally prepared, however, means more than just carbo-loading the night before. During the months leading up to your ride you must eat wisely and learn what, when, and how to eat to fuel the distance.

by Jenny Hegmann, MS, RD

Jenny Hegmann, MS, RD, is co-author of The Cyclist’s Food Guide: Fueling for Distance (© 2005 Sports Nutrition Publishers) with Nancy Clark, MS, RD. Hegmann is a sports nutritionist and long-distance cyclist. She lives and works in the greater Boston area.

Your Daily Training Diet

You should carbo-load not just the day before the century, double century or brevet, but also every day during your training. This allows you to:

  • prevent chronic glycogen depletion
  • train better (because muscles are better fueled), and then ride better on event day,
  • continue eating your usual foods pre-event, so there are no unwanted surprises.

A cyclist’s daily carbo-loading menu should derive 55 to 65 percent of the calories from carbohydrates. Achieve this by choosing wholesome grains, fruits, vegetables, and legumes the foundation of your daily meals. Eat lesser amounts of lean meat, seafood, or poultry, and low-fat milk products. Here is a healthful daily carbo-loading menu for a 150-pound cyclist. It supplies 3,300 calories evenly distributed over the day, optimal carbohydrates, adequate protein for muscle repair, and limited fat:

Breakfast Snack
1 cup orange juice 1 apple
1 1/2 cups cooked oatmeal 12 almonds
1 cup low-fat milk (or soy)
1 banana Dinner
1 slice whole-wheat toast 2 cups cooked pasta (preferably whole wheat)
1 tbsp. peanut butter 1 cup tomato sauce
1 tbsp. brown sugar (for oatmeal) 2 oz. cooked beef, chicken, or seafood
coffee or tea 1 cup lettuce
1 tsp. oil and 1 tsp. vinegar (for salad)
Snack 1 cup fruit sorbet
1 mini-box raisins
1/2 bagel Snack
1 cup low-fat milk (or soy)
Lunch 6 FigNewtons
2 slices whole-wheat bread
3 oz. of tuna (1/2 can) or turkey Day’s Total
1 tbsp. mayonnaise 3,300 calories:
lettuce and tomato 65% carbs
6 oz. flavored, fat-free yogurt 15% protein
6 baby carrots 20% fat
1 oz. pretzels
1 1/2 cup (12 oz.) grape juice

Months Before

You have three tasks during your months of training for your century, brevet or double:

1. Learn your carbohydrate targets

Before riding: Replenish your morning-low liver glycogen levels by consuming 0.5 gram of carbohydrate per pound of body weight one hour before riding. This is 75 grams (300 calories) of carbohydrates for a 150-pound cyclist, roughly a bowl of cereal and a banana. If you can’t tolerate solid food in the morning, consider liquid carbohydrates-juice, sports drink, or low-fat chocolate milk. If your stomach prefers no fuel the hour before riding, then consume a good meal-a bagel, peanut butter, fruit, and yogurt-three to four hours before the ride to give yourself time to digest (you may need to get up at 3 a.m., eat, then go back to bed).

During riding: Maintain blood sugar levels and help spare muscle glycogen by targeting 0.3 to 0.5 grams of carbohydrate per pound of body weight per hour. For a 150-pound cyclist, that’s 45 to 75 grams (200 to 300 calories) of carbohydrates each hour while riding. Learn during training how much you tolerate and if you do better with liquids only or in combination with solid food.

2. Learn your sweat rate and fluid targets

Every cyclist should know his or her sweat rate, the rate at which you lose body water. For optimal hydration you should replace fluid as you lose it. To find your sweat rate, weigh yourself naked before and after a ride. Each pound you have lost represents two cups (16 ounces) of fluid. To this amount, add the amount of fluid you drank during the ride. Divide this total amount by the hours you rode. This is your hourly sweat rate and is the amount of fluid you should drink per hour while riding. For example, let’s say you rode for two hours and drank two cups of water. If you lost three pounds (six cups of fluid) your sweat rate is eight cups for two hours of cycling, or two cups per half hour. You therefore should plan to drink one cup of fluid every 15 minutes while riding.

3. Practice during training to reduce unwanted surprises on event day.

Thus you can avoid the stress of wondering if you have fueled appropriately, or if what you have eaten or plan to eat and drink will settle well. Experiment during training to:

  • Learn what and how much food/fluid work best for you, and when. Do you feel best eating one hour before a ride, or three? Should you consume just a banana, or a banana plus a bagel?
  • Develop a schedule to meet your carbohydrate and fluid targets during the ride. For example, mark your bottles in 8-ounce increments and drink eight ounces of water every 20 minutes. Divide your food into stashes to be consumed each hour: raisins and pretzels tossed into a baggie, an energy bar, or a few oatmeal cookies, etc.
  • Learn what to carry and where to keep it. How will you carry your fuel? In which pocket will you always carry your raisins and nuts, sandwich, spare tube? Will your new CamelBak® be comfortable for the duration?
  • Practice consuming the foods/drinks that will be available during the event. If you plan to eat event food, contact ride organizers to learn what will be served.
  • Train at the time your event will occur. If your ride begins at dawn (or lasts all night), make sure you have ridden (and eaten) at this time.

The Week Before

Taper your training and maintain your usual, carbohydrate-based diet during the week before a big ride. This allows your body to become saturated with glycogen. Don’t worry that you will “get fat”-by tapering, the extra carbohydrates that you eat (or rather that you do not expend) will be stored as glycogen in your liver and muscles. Yes, you will gain weight, up to three to four pounds by the end of your taper. This is water: for every ounce of carbohydrate stored in your body, you store about three ounces of water.

Be sure to carbo-load, not fat-load. Cheesy pastas and French-fried potatoes fill the stomach with fat and leave you eating fewer carbohydrates. The result is poorly fueled muscles (and bigger fat cells!). Trade extra fat calories for extra carbohydrates: On toast, use honey instead of butter; instead of creamy pasta, enjoy spaghetti and tomato sauce.

Plan your event-day menu and buy the foods you need. If you will be traveling, plan to bring all your foods and drinks with you in a cooler.

The Day Before

Today is the day to maintain glycogen stores by enjoying your usual carbohydrate-based meals. Try nothing new. Drink extra fluids to ensure you are fully hydrated. Your urine should be pale and of significant quantity. Abstain from excess wine or beer as they can be dehydrating (and do not contribute significant carbohydrates). Prepare your food supplies so that you won’t have to think about this tomorrow morning (when you are already stressed).

The Morning of Your Ride

Novice riders tend to either eat too little before a big ride, fearing an upset stomach, or else eat too much, fearing that they will bonk. Today is not the day to figure out what to eat before riding! You should experiment in training, and on event day have a tried-and-true plan of familiar foods and fluids. Some cyclists prefer a light breakfast the hour before a century or brevet; some prefer food at the starting line; others have learned to wake up at 4 a.m., eat a bowl of oatmeal, and then go back to bed.

Drink plenty of familiar fluids up to two hours before the ride so you have time to absorb the water and urinate the excess. Drink one more glass 5 to 15 minutes before you start riding. If you are used to having coffee or tea in the morning, do so today as well.

Don’t forget to bring your foods and fluids that you prepared the night before.

During Your Ride

Do nothing new, special, or different during a century or double. Your goals are to meet your fluid and carbohydrate targets, just as you did during your training rides. In doing so, you can be confident that you will be adequately fueled and hydrated. You will be able to sit back, pedal strongly, and enjoy the distance with energy to spare.

Jenny Hegmann, MS, RD, is co-author of The Cyclist’s Food Guide: Fueling for Distance ((c) 2005 Sports Nutrition Publishers) with Nancy Clark, MS, RD. Hegmann is a sports nutritionist and long-distance cyclist. She lives and works in the greater Boston area. For more information about the book, visit nancyclarkrd.com