Bicycle Network: Health Matters
Endurance and energy
Are fancy energy supplements better than bananas? Our dietician investigates how they work and whether they're worth the money
Maintaining energy levels during longer rides can be a major concern, so many cyclists turn to energy supplements for sustained performance. The use of energy supplements during training and events is common place, for both elite cyclists and recreational riders. But do supplements really improve endurance performance and help you go the distance? How do they work and are they any better than sticking to your favourite jam sandwich?
Carbs are key
For endurance rides, adequate carbohydrate intake before and during the event or training ride is essential for optimal energy levels. The most common types of energy supplements are:
- Carbohydrate gels
- Carbohydrate/electrolyte drinks (6–8% carbohydrate)
- Carbohydrate/protein bars
- Carbohydrate recovery supplement drinks (>10% carbohydrate)
These supplements all provide carbohydrates in a form that can be readily absorbed. Gels and bars are highly concentrated carbohydrates and a good choice for those who prefer to eat minimally on the bike. Sports drinks are a great choice as they provide carbohydrate, but also fluid and electrolytes to help maintain hydration.
Carbohydrate bars and drinks are often chosen as a convenient recovery food and there are some specially formulated high-carbohydrate recovery supplements that are best for after exercise, but too concentrated for during a ride (sports drinks are best while on the bike).
Do I need them?
The greatest benefit of supplements is convenience. Gels, bars and drinks are compact and easy to carry on the bike, and easy to consume. However, this does not mean that supplements are better sources of carbohydrate than foods such as a jam sandwich or banana.
For longer rides (more than 1.5 hours), carbohydrate should be consumed at a rate of 30–50g/hour, depending on the intensity of your activity. If you are doing a leisurely social ride you may not need quite this much, while elite cyclists may need more.
Whatever you choose to consume, it must be convenient and well-tolerated to avoid tummy upset
Some foods that contain 25–30g carbohydrate:
- Bread one thin slice
- Pita bread two small or half a large
- Pikelets three
- Fruit Scone one small
- Banana one medium
- Breakfast bar one
- Jelly lollies 30g
- Plain sweet biscuits four
- Sports drink 350ml
- Carbohydrate gel one
How do I use energy supplements?
Starting a long ride with adequate carbohydrate stores is essential – tuck into a meal of pasta, rice, bread, noodles or cereal a few hours before you set off.
Carbohydrate supplements or food should then be used throughout the ride to maintain blood sugar levels. Research shows that eating carbohydrate early, before you start to feel tired, is best.
What about protein?
Longer rides of more than three or four hours may result in significant muscle damage and protein intake becomes important. Stopping for a snack with protein, – a chicken and salad roll or a milk drink for instance – is ideal. But if a break is not on the agenda, a protein bar can be a good option.
Non-perishable, portable protein foods are limited to things like nuts/seeds or dried beef. Protein bars are more convenient and can be eaten every two to three hours in addition to carbohydrate snacks. Remember to drink plenty of fluid with these bars, however, as they may cause stomach upset in some people.
Energy supplements are a convenient and effective option for fuelling up during longer rides. But food options work just as well – it really depends on personal preference, ease of use and budget.
Whatever you do, make sure you practise using food and supplements in training, rather than trying things for the first time during an event.
Lisa Sutherland, is a sports dietician and fitness consultant who works for the Hawthorn Football Club and the Victorian Institute of Sport – 0414 574 678, www.lisasutherland.com.
This article first appeared in the August-September 2005 Issue of Ride On.
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