Nutrition and Hydration

Rwanda Ride 50 and 25:  Are you ready?

Randy Profeta

By Randy Profeta

Thanks for supporting the Project Rwanda ride!  I am sure that you will enjoy the day and find the ride to be a challenge.

One thing that can make a good day turn sour is not being prepared, whether it is your bike or your bike’s motor (you).  Hopefully your bike is in good condition and is all sorted out.  So, let’s take a moment to talk about hydration, nutrition, and electrolyte needs to make sure that you are up to the task of providing motive force. I am going to focus on the 50-mile ride, but this strategy will work equally well for the 25-mile event too.

50MR – Nutritional Know-How

The course is not very technical. Nonetheless it is no “gimme”, with about 5,300 feet of elevation gain over the 50 miles of mostly dirt. A reasonably fit rider who is well prepared should be able to complete the loop provided some basic guidelines are followed.

The 50-mile ride can take anywhere from four to eight hours to complete depending on course conditions, environmental factors (heat, weather), your navigation skills, mechanical issues or other unplanned delays, and your fitness and skill levels. My fuel for these types of events and for endurance races in general will consist of virtually 100% liquid nutrition and energy gel; no solid foods at all. Let me explain why.

You need to be ingesting fuels that are readily broken down and assimilated. Complex carbs provide an excellent source of long-lasting fuel for your muscles. And, as compared to simple sugars, you tend to avoid insulin spikes (highs followed by a crash shortly afterwards). Avoid anything that ends in “–ose” as in “High Fructose Corn Syrup”.

Basically, solid foods must be broken down in your stomach and digestive system. So, after a typical meal, blood is diverted to the digestive tract to help you break down the solids that you just ingested. If you remain very active while your stomach is working overtime, blood is then diverted away from the digestive system and to your muscles, so the food sits in your gut. This often results in stomach distress, cramps, and even nausea. It takes about three hours for your stomach to break down solid foods and empty its contents. It only takes minutes for a similar reaction to occur with a liquid carb replacement drink or an energy gel.

Fueling and Hydration

While there are a few checkpoints along the route where riders can grab a snack and some water, you should plan on being nutritionally self-contained and self-sufficient for the entire 50 miles. Water should be readily available at check points, but plan on having all of your nutritional supplies on board, either in a jersey pocket, or in a hydration pack compartment.  As an endurance Mountain Bike racer who also does road endurance events, I never rely on the checkpoints to have gels or snacks.  You may run into trouble if you are trying to ride for 50 miles or 8 hours and simply assume that the event promoter will have the carb replacement drink you like or your favorite gel flavor at the checkpoints.  This is also not a time to be experimenting with new products.

While you will be a calorie burning machine during events like this (600-900kcal/hour), there is no way that your body can assimilate that many calories if you try to replace what you are burning every hour.  If you try to replace all of those calories, the result will most likely be stomach distress and poor performance. I am 6’0″ and my race weight is somewhere around 185.  Experience has shown that I need to take in about 250 calories an hour, maximum. Even Clydesdale-class riders do not need to ingest more than 300 calories an hour.  Your body will consume all of your stored muscle glycogen (usually between 1,300 and 1,800 calories) in about 2 hours or so.  After that your primary on-board source of energy comes from your fat stores.  Even a trim athlete has over 100,000 stored fat calories that can be readily converted to energy.  The difference is that you have to train at longer intervals (over 2 hours) before your body gets efficient at converting fat stores to energy.  As you no doubt already know, once you go through your muscle glycogen and start to burn fat, you do not have ready stores of energy for sudden bursts of energy and for going anaerobic; you have to dial your pace back.

Hammer Nutrition’s Perpetuem, a carb-protein calorie replacement drink, is my first choice, either a multi-hour bottle made from unflavored Perpetuem mixed with Hammer Gel for flavor variety, or Sustained Energy mixed in a similar fashion. Since experience has shown that I need to ingest 250-260 calories an hour, I will do the math and work backwards to determine how much I will need to mix or have with me to last the entire event.  Take in some calories about every 15 minutes.  So if 250 calories is the goal, about 60-65 calories every 15 minutes is just about right.  That is slightly less than a single serving of energy gel (most packs are 100 calorie servings).

Gel packets are easy to use and are the choice of a lot of riders. One easy trick for having Hammer Gel ready to go while on the bike is to tape some one-serving packs to your top tube or stem with electrical tape.  Tape it across the “hammer head” tear-off so all you need to do is grab it and give the packet a good yank to open it.  If you did it properly, the small tear tab stays attached to your bike and the empty gel wrapper can be placed in a jersey pocket when you are finished (no littering!).

If I feel like something solid to munch on, Hammer makes energy bars in several flavors. I will break them into thirds and put them in a small recloseable poly bag. Like all of their products, Hammer Bars contain no simple sugars.

Adequate hydration is essential, but do not overdo it.  In general, I consume about 20-24 ounces of water an hour.  In really hot conditions, I may up it to 28 to 30 ounces/hour which I consider a maximum. Hyponatremia is the result of over-hydration. You basically dilute the electrolytes in your body. The results from hyponatremia are not good and can be fatal.

Preparation and Your Diet

One more thing about hydration: start drinking clear water NOW. Don’t think by upping water intake a few days before the event you will be properly hydrated. Most Americans are dehydrated. In general, consume about one ounce of clear water (no, beer does not count) for every two pounds of body weight, not just for the 50MR but EVERY DAY. For me, that is slightly less than 100 ounces a day. If you want to try some carbo-loading, consider the following dietary mix: about seven days before the event, your calories should be derived from about 60% protein and 40% carbohydrates. Midweek, it should be 50-50. On the two days before the race, take in about 60% carbs and 40% protein. The night before the race, consider an easily digested source of complex carbs and starches such as pasta. Wash it down with plenty of water.

The Morning of the Event

The 50 mile event starts at 7 AM and the 25 mile ride at 9 AM. For both events, I would avoid eating for at least three hours before the start. That means, 50-mile riders, no breakfast unless you plan on waking up at 3 AM. Rest is more important than eating a big pre-ride meal, so I would forego breakfast and sleep in a little longer. Sip some clear water or have a cup of coffee on the way to the event, but do not think that you can eat anything you want because you will burn up any calories in about an hour or two. If you are really hungry, have a gel pack 15 minutes or more before the start. Once you begin the event, you can start re-fueling in earnest from your bottles and maybe grabbing a Hammer Gel on the way out.

Cramps and Electrolytes

Cramping can ruin your whole day. Meds and supplements alone will not eliminate cramps in an athlete not well conditioned. Some athletes have had success warding off cramps by chewing on Tums antacid. Tums can help, but they are primarily calcium. You need a balance of sodium, magnesium, potassium, and calcium in your electrolyte. Salt tablets alone (Sodium Chloride) are also not the answer. I do not want to sound like a commercial, but I rely on Endurolytes by Hammer Nutrition. The nice thing about their electrolyte capsules is that you can vary your intake as needed. In general, I take two caps per hour for most races and up the dosage based on how I feel. During the Traverse in 2008 when temperatures on the Main Divide hovered around 120F, I was taking six Endurolytes every half hour at one point. This is still below the RDA for sodium intake. I never cramped or felt like I was going to cramp. If you want to use Endurolytes, take one or two capsules about 15 minutes before the start and then a similar dosage every hour. You can up the dosage if you feel a cramp developing. Consider 12 capsules per hour to be the maximum. Read and follow label instructions.

Taking it With You

Let’s put it all together.

We will assume that you need 250 calories an hour and you will be riding for six hours:

Endurolytes: 6 x 2 (minimum) + 2 pre- and 2 post-event = 16 (minimum)

Perpetuem: enough to provide 6 x 250 calories

Energy Gel: Five or six servings

Energy Bars: One or two

Without getting too technical, Hammer Carb replacement drinks can be mixed in any strength you desire. When I do Vision Quest, I typically mix one bottle to yield 2,000 calories (8 hours). That is about 14 scoops plus three servings of Hammer Gel for flavor. It has a consistency somewhere between pancake batter and oatmeal. But I do not need to stop to refill my bottle every hour or so. For a ride like 50MR, I will mix two, 2-hour bottles and have a zip-lock bag with powdered mix in my hydration pack so that I can mix more while I am doing the ride.

Start working on your fueling plan now. For more details, check out the Hammer Nutrition website. It’s a great resource for more detailed information. Hammer Nutrition

This fueling strategy has allowed me to finish five VQs (four on a singlespeed), one Traverse, and allowed me to podium four out of the last five years at the world 24 Hour Championships (first place 2x, second, third).

Conclusion

How far and how long you plan to ride is really up to you. If you feed the furnace and keep the motor in shape, the only deterrents will be your equipment and your fitness. Just remember to take care of your body first and make sure that you are putting in the best fuel in the right amounts. If you have not done a 50-mile mountain bike ride do not discount it. They can be a lot tougher than you think. But they are also very rewarding, especially when they are supporting such a great cause. Have fun! Enjoy! Never give up. And never unclip!

Article by Randy Profeta

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