Fuel better, ride faster: three nutrition mistakes, and how to avoid them
We asked culinary cycling guru Alan Murchison how to fuel for a ride without making rookie mistakes
If there's a Pandora's Box in cycling, one that causes endless debate and where recommendations range from hyper-specific sports science to fad diets, it's nutrition. The result is that we’ve made, and probably continue to make, fuelling mistakes, whether it’s in a single training session or in your general diet.
That’s why we’ve turned to Michelin-starred chef, keen cyclist and the man known as the Performance Chef, Alan Murchison. The Scot delivers bespoke nutrition and food plans for cyclists, which is why he’s best placed to pinpoint three common fuelling problems before revealing how you can solve them.
Related: Rouleur Performance. Next level fuelling.
“Many cyclists are obsessed with weight management, of becoming leaner and growing stronger,” says Murchison. “It’s a badge of honour that they’ll go out and ride for hours without drinking or eating anything.”
This unrealistic calorie deficit is designed to lose weight and improve body composition. But it doesn’t work. You see, not only does it put you in a place where you're riding with no fuel in the tank, and so underperforming, it also leads to binge-eating or eating crap for the rest of the day – which has precisely the opposite effect on body weight and composition. It’s why Murchison, who’s worked with many professional riders including members of the Canyon-SRAM team, looks at the weekly training schedule as a whole.
Related: Rouleur Performance. Why a plant-based diet is no barrier to cycling performance.
"What did you do yesterday? And what are you doing tomorrow? A single ride, taken in isolation, might be fairly easy, but will feel harder if you're carrying fatigue over from another day, and you need to take into consideration what's coming out tomorrow," he says.
Only after you've considered the overall training load of the week (or of a three-day block) can you drill down to that specific session and prepare adequately for it. And once again, a two-hour ride can be super easy, and you can get away with a bottle of water and some electrolytes and now carbs. If you have a build-up and intervals at threshold within that session, the requirements are entirely different."What I tend to do is to look at the ride, the duration and the intensity. Then I think about what I need to get through the ride in one piece, and then secondly, how am I feeling it on myself?"
Just as you dress according to the weather conditions – keeping your limbs covered during the winter months – try to approach nutrition in the same way: fuel depending on the ride's requirements. If it’s a hard session, try to hit at least 60g of carbohydrates per hour, and experiment with different ways to get those in: it could be liquid carbs, bars, gels, homemade flapjacks, or a good old-fashioned banana.
Related: Rouleur Performance. Can I become a pro cyclist?
If the session is short and easy (1 hour), you can get away with plain water, but don’t forget to look at the overall picture of the week: have you got a hard ride the following day? Or maybe on the same day? Then, even if the session is an easy one, try to get in some carbs before, during and after to make sure you’re not starting your next session with your carbohydrate stores completely empty. That is even more important if the session is easy but longer than 60 minutes, like the standard 'recovery' ride.
And as you may know already, proteins are also crucial in endurance sports, so try to include them in your meals and maybe through a protein shake or protein snack at the end of your session.
Not practising for the demands of the race
The other common mistake cyclists of all levels make is not tailoring their needs for the event they're training for. One example is this year’s Cyclocross World Championships in the US, which was raced in 25°C, much warmer than the usual 'cross event (normally raced in northern Europe in the winter).
“If we look at the top 10 in the women’s race, who was the only rider that was drinking or hydrating or fuelling during the race? Marianne Vos [the winner]. Why was nobody else doing that? It makes absolutely no sense at all,” he says.
Related: Rouleur Performance. How UAE Team Emirates test their riders in just three minutes.
A similar scenario played out in the men’s race, where a hydrated and fuelled Tom Pidcock won his first cyclocross world title having taken gold in mountain biking at the Tokyo Olympics. “Why are they the best cyclists?” asks Murchison. “Because they look at the details. And they look at the demands of the event.”
So, even if you’re only planning to go out and ride the club ride, be prepared: how long is it? What is the intensity the others usually cycle at? Are you planning to tag along or ride hard? Look at the details and prepare for the event.If you’re preparing for long and challenging, sportives like l’Étape or the Dartmoor Classic, for example, first look at their length and elevation. How long, based on your training rides, will it take you to complete the event? Once you’ve got an idea of the hours you’ll be pedalling, you can calculate your carbohydrate and fuel intakes.
Ideally, 60-70g of carbs per hour, for these races, is the absolute minimum you should aim for, but you need to train your gut (the ability to ingest this amount of food) in training to be able to consume those in the race. Studies have shown that endurance athletes can get up to 90-100g per hour, but this is mostly professionals at the pinnacle of their sport, and who have tried the nutritional strategy beforehand.
Related: Rouleur Performance. Do I need insoles?
So start with 60-70g, see how you feel, and write down a post-ride feedback. Then you can implement if needed. And don’t forget that there are aid stations too, so you don’t need to stack dozens of gels in your pockets. Make sure you know which brand will be available at the sportive and practice with that one in training.
Following trends and noise without specificity
"Take all the information and all the noise that's out there, but then craft your own plan," says Hutchinson. Because despite the latest trends (like functional foods, mushroom madness and even super baby food), or the more precise grams of macronutrient per kg of bodyweight suggestions, we're all different, and there's no one-size-fits-all. What works for some does not work for others.
"You’ve got to look at yourself as an individual. For example, some people are hypersensitive to carbohydrates and some people don't get on with a particular nutritional product,” says Murchison.
Related: Rouleur Performance. What is cycling torque and how do you improve it?
A great way to find out what works for you and what doesn’t is to try different products and energy sources during your rides (bars, gels, jelly beans, Haribo bears) and write down how you felt after the ride. How was your stomach? How was your energy level? Did you feel good and were you targeting your power numbers with ease? Or did you have gastro-intestinal (GI) distress?
“I’m 50 years old and find I can only do two hard sessions a week because it takes me longer to recover,” explains Murchison. “I’ve found that on those days when I perform well, my overall carbohydrate intake is about 70%. On easier days, it's more likely to be 40 to 45%.”It's okay to look at what other people are doing, but mostly to learn and document it. Then you need to understand your training structure, its demands, the demands of the race and find out what works for you, even if you'll end up using the least-known sports nutrition product on the market or you have to bake your bars.
And don’t believe every marketing headline from nutrition brands, because as Murchison also jokes, “If I’d sell fish, I wouldn’t yell rotten fish!”