Tuesday, April 05, 2011

Facing the fuel

Since the White Mountains 100, I have been giving more thought to exercise nutrition. I realize this is a complex issue and I personally believe that everyone has different needs and inclinations that they largely must discover for themselves. The personal philosophy I have developed over years of trial and error is fairly simple: If I am out and about for the better part of a day, I need calories. Salt, too, but mostly calories. My method for getting those calories mainly involves listening to my body, and when that fails, cramming in whatever is available.

In my early days of cycling, I was constantly battling with low energy. I carried gels and energy bars because I believed those to be the "right" foods, but when it came time to stuff one of those smashed, waterlogged, half-frozen chunks of tar in my mouth, I decided I would rather pedal around in a daze than eat my food, so I didn't eat. Some suggested I try liquid nutrition, so I sampled all kinds of milky syrupy nutritional supplements: HEED, Gatorade, Perpetuem, Cytomax, the list goes on. These products all made me feel vaguely ill after a few sips, and since my water supply had been contaminated, I refrained from drinking as well. Yes, there was plenty of low-level bonking in my early days of cycling.

As the years went by, I found energy foods I vaguely enjoyed, but often they turned on me at inopportune times. These include Shot Blocks, Clif Bars, Luna Bars, Honey Stinger Bars, Odwalla Bars, etc. Tasty one mile, and foul the next. Because of increasing warnings about the importance of electrolytes, I continued to contaminate my water with products such as Nuun and CarboRocket. These were tolerable sources of electrolytes, but during long rides they revealed my weakness: I really don't like drinking flavored water when I am working out. It's not just the sugar, nutrients and calories; I don't like my water to taste like anything but water. To the point where I will avoid drinking it if I can.

While training for the Tour Divide, I made my first real breakthrough. I understood that three-plus weeks on the trail meant I would probably be running a calorie deficit no matter what I ate. I also understood that I would often have to carry two-plus days of food in my small pack, necessitating calorie-dense options. Finally, I understood that food availability would be limited to mainly convenience stores, and I'd have to learn to digest whatever I could get, whenever I could get it. In short, I would have to become an opportunivoure.

In all my years of cycling, I have found one thing that I have always been able to eat, enjoy, and process into energy, every time, without fail — Candy! Gummy snacks, peanut butter cups, Snickers bars, M&Ms, jelly beans, chocolate, various nuts and espresso beans covered in chocolate, and quite possibly my favorite, Sour Patch Kids (OK, these technically count as gummy snacks, but I felt they deserved a category of their own.) I'm willing to acknowledge that heavily processed sugar (or high fructose corn syrup) is a dubious source of energy, but it was energy all the same. I'm not exaggerating when I say that candy, brownies and other processed sweet foods probably supplied as many as 60 percent of the calories I consumed in 24 days of the Tour Divide. I didn't die. I lost 15 pounds, developed two cavities and became severely addicted to sugar, but I didn't die.

These days, I try to adhere to a happy medium. I continue to use natural energy bars, Shot Blocks, unsweetened dried fruit and occasionally gels, because these reportedly utilize a better combination of carbohydrates and nutrients for longer, cleaner-burning energy (high octane fuel). I also often bring candy bars on rides, just in case the natural energy bars morph into unappetizing bricks, as they often do in my mind. (Because any fuel is better than running on empty.) I do eat (mostly) healthy at home, with lots of fruits, vegetables, lean meats, low-fat dairy and grains (I prefer the old food pyramid diet. It seems to work well for me.) I supplement my lack of electrolyte-supplying liquids with Endurolytes, but in all honesty, I rarely take them. I acknowledge that I live in a warm climate now, and will probably need to start paying more attention to electrolytes. But they haven't been too much of an issue in the past, not in my typical exercise weather and moderate levels of intensity.

But now I'm back to questioning my nutrition strategies. The big bonk in the White Mountains 100, the fact I now live in a warmer climate, and my ambitions in trail running have left me wondering if I need to sample new sports nutrition strategies. I still buy into the "Calories in, calories out ... it really can be that simple" philosophy (note that my views are largely influenced by the fact I was able to continue turning pedals for 24 days of subsisting on absolute crap during the Tour Divide, therefore I believe many of our bodies aren't as choosey as we'd like to believe.) However, I acknowledge that there are levels of efficiency and effectiveness within the simple act of stuffing food in my face. I'm not necessarily looking to get X-percent faster. I'm just looking for new ideas. I'm going to spend some more time thinking about it. And yes, I am asking for advice. But if anyone tells me to try Hammer's new Perpetuem Solids, I am going to go out and buy a case of peanut butter cups.


  1. I haven't stopped experimenting with foods either... I liked licorice (~90% sugars) for calos and found the taste and chewiness quite entertaining. I could never think of a pleasant way of (dis-)solving the volume problem with gingernut biscuits; bread is often good (I just met a chap who cuts off the crust of his marmite [yeast spread] toast, and carries enough of them in his bum bag for 50+mile runs). Then there are all sorts of variations on the ol' PB&J, of course. I will soon trial mashed potatoes. I think they are a great idea, especially because you can add salts and flavors easily. I wonder what happened to pasta in blender, too. Pasta and pesto, liquid, from a flask, or bottle even...? Well, maybe the novelty factor can make it work ? I have a taste problem with fruit juices, and the sugars make me nauseous after a while. I tried baking my own oat-nut-chocolate-honey-dry fruit-bars, but fibre isn't my cup of tea. Homemade gels (using maltodextrin and/or glucose from the home-brew shop) upset my stomach. I thought honey in a gel flask was an ingenious idea, and works well on shorter-long-runs. I tried this as a 'bio-gel', and also because gels are a cost factor here in New Zealand. Although they do work really good for me, I'm still looking for real foods that work just as well. Real adventure needs real fuel. Best Wishes. NiK

  2. I am so with you on this. I am training for an Ironman and working on this right now.

    I want water to taste like water, and everyone says I need electrolytes. They taste like ass. I am sorry. The worst is when it warms up - I would rather drink warm water than warm sugary sweet crap. I have been trying putting half the dose in...still tastes crappy.

    And fuel. Gels suck. Unless they are chocolate, then I am OK with 1-2. Not 6-8 like some people do. UGH AND I say F Perpetum and sustained energy. Give me Fig Newtons. Cookies. Snickers. I know it isn't ideal I guess, but is all that hyper processed crap that "they" tell you is good liquid fuel all that much better really? I need to figure this out for sure.

  3. One word for you (both).


    Your muscles need protein to repair the damage that you are doing to them (ie. grow).

    Calories work to restore your energy reserves in whatever form you take them - be it gels, drinks, bars or chocolate. There is an argument that energy stored from good food is better than bad but... whatever you can take. Most meals will replenish your salt reserves.

    I have been trying a regular diet of tuna, chicken and almonds now and I have so much more "energy". By this I mean the will to do stuff - not just calories. A hard race will break me but with the right protein I can get on with life and back to training the next day.

    Particularly Ironman lady. I only do olympic distance but I drink some of a protein drink when I get out of the water. OK it makes me feel like puke on the bike but I can feel it soalking into my muscles and I'm off! Always get some protein down you 20 minutes after a hard workout.

    I first used Protein drink after the second of the three peaks last year and for the first time ever I was still able to concentrate on the descent of the third peak instead of randomly being thrown around and falling off lots.

    Of course there's probably loads of other things you can try but check out the labels on stuff. I think I read that athletes need around 7.6g of protein a day and there's not much in a lot of foods.

    Great news is, there's plenty in milk so yoghurt and white chocolate are also excellent sources.

    Trep. xx

  4. I just had a re-read of my 3 Peaks blog and realise just how impressed I was with food and drink!


  5. For biking, I've found that good old fashioned food works best for me - fruit, pretzels, nuts, jerky... But I wouldn't dream of eating that much solid food on a long run. As I train for a marathon this summer, I'll be exploring what my body is willing to digest on multi-hour runs. It may be as simple as a few gels, but I find them too sweet and would love to discover a better alternative.

    I look forward to seeing what works for you on some of your ultra-runs!

  6. I hear ya!
    Allen Lim had a bunch of tasty ideas for Garmin-Slipstream that he posted on youtube - paninis, rice cakes and potatoes (I bake and quarter mine rather than boiling them). For long (not super-intense) efforts, I really like them.
    For 24 hour solos, I've had really good luck with perogies too. Even cold pizza (just Margherita) is quite appealing at 4am.
    In-race nutrition is so personal. It really does take work to figure it out.

  7. This best, most common sense, understandable source I've found on this, is the book, "Paleo Diet for Athletes" It covers all aspects of eating both on/off bike and gives specific formulas for carb and hydration intake.
    In addition, the absolute best, easy hydration formula as an everyday ritual is, divide your body weight by 2 and that is the number of ounces of just water should drink every day. It seems like a lot, and you'll pee your brains out, but you'll start out hydrated, and it will be easier to stay that way during any workout, race, or even a very hot day.
    YMMV but it's a good baseline to work from.

  8. Great advice from z-man about hydration. I hardly feel qualified to give advice as my rides are only an hour or three long. My favorite is rice noodles. crunchy, delicious, easy to pack and go well with water. Also natural stuff like nuts and jerky, things that can be consumed easily a little at a time.

    My favorite book on sports nutrition is Chris Carmichael's "Food for Fitness Eat Right to Train Right". This book helped me to understand what goes on in the body without reading like a medical textbook.

  9. I'm not at your level of enduro-suffering, but I've tried many "products" for riding brevets and come to the conclusion that for me it's best to eat whatever I can handle so I carry a variety of the more yummy energy bars and shot blocks as well as real food like chocolate, nuts, sandwiches, pastries, etc..

    My one rule is that the moment I stop riding I stuff something in my mouth and swallow. My body can process more food more easily when I am not asking it to power my bike so even a short break is valuable to scarf stuff down.

    Since my rides pass through civilization I carry money to buy chocolate milk, potato chips, burgers, ice cream, etc. I let my gut guide what I eat as long as it will let me eat something.

    I can't handle those liquid foods or even gels most of the time. I ride my bike so I can eat yummy stuff - not to dine like an astronaut!

    safe riding,


  10. Yams. Sliced, baked and put in a snack baggie. Pearson's Salted Nut Rolls.

    I don't think there's one solution for anyone, let alone anyone. I've raced on bananas one day, and next race had them make me want to expel the contents of my stomach out both ends.

    I have found that 'better' calories make me feel better during a ride/ski, homemade energy bars, PB&J, but I always keep a Snickers bar around, just in case.

    I did the CTR on probably less than 1,500 calories a day, and survived...but that doesn't mean it was pretty.

  11. Jerky while riding. You tend to chew it slow and dont get sick. Very seldom use energy drinks but Generic Safeway "Gatorade" got me through a 24 hrs of heat exhaustion. Also start out most rides with ice tea in one bottle. brew a few bags of reg tea witha couple bags of green tea. Folks think you have whisky in the jar-o ;)

  12. Jill, I've never commented before but I think this is an apt moment: My food intake has varied over the years, but regardless the one thing I learned is that proper hydration -- loving water -- is the only way to get proper nutrition from what you eat. That said, I'd suggest you try chia seeds. Yes, I said chia seeds. I've been eating them regularly for two years, one of which was spent in Colorado doing rigorous daily exercise (biking and running). They allow for nutrition to be absorbed over a longer period and at smaller doses of sugar -- therefore on a big effort, you'll be getting slower but more consistent nutrition from your food. Seriously, give it a whirl. Try for a couple weeks -- they need some time to start noticing effect. Also, use them as a gel with water, don't take them with you on rides, but eat them before and then after with the food you have afterwards. They're also high in omegas (the right combination) and will keep you better hydrated... Ok, enough from me. - Paul

  13. I am constantly looking for new and better things to do, too...and I hate mixing things into my water, so I rely on solid food. When I look for new ideas, I search for backpacking foods on the internet. You'll find tons more information than searching for running or biking-specific fuels.

    Staples in my training fuel are granola bars and I alternate ShotBlocks with GU. GU is hard on my stomach, so I try to use that for races only. Have you tried drinking honey instead? Some people swear that it's better than GU, even though it's not caffeinated.

  14. When I first started biking and found I could not tolerate Gatorade, a more experienced friend advised that I cut it in half with water. Worked like a charm and I've been using it ever since. I also keep a full bottle of plain water available.

    I have a hypoglycemic friend who regularly does long distance ski races (50k & 60k). She cannot tolerate ANY sugar and very few carbs, so she takes in a constant supply of protein in the form of nuts, peanut butter, jerky.

    Opportunivore - seems like I heard a certain famous ultra-runner use that same phrase?

  15. It is not as complex as you might think. One podcast will explain it all.


    I think it comes down to suffering versus tolerance. You can eat ice cream and suffer the consequences or eat yukky and feel great. BUT you cant have your cake and exercise too.

  16. Alan Lim's sushi bars and potato snacks are hands down the best thing I have tried. These won't help you on something like the tour divide, but for century and double century efforts, they work great, and don't leave me feeling icky afterwords:


  17. Have your tried peanut butter cups?

    I like a wide variety and it depends at which point during the activity on what tastes good. Have you tried dried apples? I also like cinnamon bears. During hotter weather and longer (say 24 hour or more) events I find a crave salt and vinegar Pringles though I can't stand them otherwise.

  18. I can't speak to running, but thought about diet often during my two-month, cross-county road bike trip.

    I started off with Power Bars and Gu and Gatorade and ended with two daytime staples: Snickers bars or salt-rich Paydays along with peanut butter + honey + banana sandwiches OR cheese and summer sausage sandwiches. Occasionally added dried apples to the mix.

    I kept a large bag of peanut M&Ms or Fruit Loops in my Camelbak for emergency sugar energy between rest stops. We ate pounds of pasta and meatballs for most dinners. We drank lots of coffee. That's about it.

    It came down to recognizing what my body needed to get through a day and recover after (much more protein than usual), when it needed it (about every 10 miles), and how it needed it (NOT in a compressed dense bar - those were too hard to digest).

    Just keep listening to your body. You have a lot of experience putting it through the ringer, so just trust how it feels and functions when you eat a certain way.

    If I had thought too hard on the bike trip, I would have been paralyzed with indecision and probably weak and hungry.

  19. It certainly seems everyone has an opinion on nutrition. I'm definitely in the camp of finding what works for you as an individual. We may have evolved as a species mainly on certain foods, but we also evolved very flexible systems that needed to adapt to inconsistent sources and of nutrition.

    I think experimenting with food is one of the most exciting parts of participating in endurance sports. I've discovered some very odd combinations that seemed to work for the specific race at the specific time. I'm talking combos like beef-jerky-and-Jolly-Ranchers and my infamous (ask Beat) bacon-wrapped-Oreos.

    I do think that the constant up-and-down motion of running can put some stresses on the digestive process over very long distance and finding calories that you can "force down and keep down" in such situations is critical. Hammer products work for me, but I won't recommend you try the chalky solids yourself so you can put down the Reece's.

  20. Thanks for the suggestions. I've found I often feel the same way as Eszter — what works for me one day turns on me the next. And I've also limped through events on amazingly little calorie intake (my six-day Iditarod race was also in the 1,500-calorie-a-day range.) Survival mode certainly isn't fun, and I won't argue that I'm even close to my most effective in survival mode, but it has taught me that my body is much more resilient than I used to give it credit for. I've often suspected the full-out, race-ending bonks that I hear about are more mental than physical. Either that, or the early stages of actual organ failure.

    As for paleo, I believe this diet works really well for some people but it's not for me. Some of the foods it emphasizes are the same foods I often have issues with — meat, nuts and root vegetables primary among them. I've never been able to eat those foods in more than small quantities without gastrointestinal distress. If fact, the only reason I'm not a vegetarian is because I prefer not to limit my diet in any particular way. (Also, because of sushi and Alaskan Halibut.)

    And I do believe that the main issue with food and modern lifestyle is too many calories, not necessarily too many of any particular type of calories. It's a problem for obesity but it's also a problem for athletes (and I'm as guilty of putting too much down the hatch as anyone.) I think low-calorie diets are the key to the best health, but the difficulty is finding (and maintaining) that balance.

  21. Hi Jill
    Cheflandria blog She trains in Steven Canyon alot too.
    She writes about riding and eating


  22. I understand the desire to drink pure water on long efforts! As a endurance mtn biker I am experimenting with using water in one bottle, and a dilute mix of Sustained energy in another bottle for liquid nutrition complemented by GUs and small but consistent intake of real food (every 2 or 3 hours for the 'real food') including DIY bars full of dates, nuts, cardamon, clove, salt, etc. (yum). The long chain carbs in Sustained Energy seem to be working better than simple sugars. It doesn't taste sweet thank heavens and has a mild taste. Good luck with your nutrition 'trials.'

  23. This has been a great post to read (well, they always are), and also the comments are helpful. Nutrition is something I struggle with, too. On most days, when I'm riding to & from work, I try to eat balanced meals with small amounts. I've found it very difficult to change this behavior on long, multi-day rides. The result is bonking every couple of days. It sucks. I can really relate to avoiding the energy gels and Gatorade; they make my stomach hurt in the worst way. It doesn't matter what any other athlete says; if these upset your stomach, you shouldn't eat them. That's foolish. Lots of water and protein seem to be the key. Regarding the shot blocks, they also upset my stomach. But last summer we discovered they have the same nutritional content as Happy Colas (without the electrolytes) so we eat them instead. Also carry lots of nuts, and peanut butter sandwiches. Real food forever!

  24. A new idea I've been turned on to by my chiropractor is to supplement with extra minerals and B vitamins. He has me on some fancy supplements from Standard Process that really grossed me out as a former vegetarian (read the ingredients on Ligaplex, Cataplex or Cardio Plus and you will understand why). They seem to be working well! I've been taking them for almost two months and I've noticed that I'm recovering better and not getting as crazy hungry on rides. I've begun feeding them to my boyfriend to good result as well. According to the chiro, we deplete our essential minerals when we exercise, so it's always a good idea to add more in via diet.

    When I bike tour, I love cans of fish! Sardines are my pick since they are low in mercury. They aren't the most weight effective thing, I suppose, but they are easy to eat quickly and they fill you up, and they are a great source of calcium, omegas and protein. They saved me from a couple of major bonks.

    Agreed on a lot of the packaged foods - gross and hard to get down. I love a good pbj (or almond butter jelly) sandwich. They are just the right combo of carbs and protein to get me out of a bonk and on my way, it's always on hand and they are quick to prepare.

  25. Wow...some awesome info to process here. I can't even fathom how to eat for an extended event, cuz I almost never ride much over 5 to 7 hours. For the most part my cycling nutrition is centered on cost. Basicly I'm cheap. Shot blocks are great but spendy. Apparently I do just fine on High Fructose corn syrup (ACK!). So lately I just go to Costco and buy a big box of whatever looks tasty.

    Currently I'm into 2 diff things: the first is Kellogs Fruity Snacks. Little blobs of goodness, same consistency of cinnamon bears/etc. A big honkin' box of these is like $10! Road or Mt biking, I can stuff 5 or 6 of these in a pocket or 2 or my camelback (they are in 2.5oz packs, so you actually get some quantity in each pack) and gobble them down like candy! (cuz they are). I too like sour patch kids, but have a hard time finding them in bulk. I also discovered that Gummy Bears are delicious but their consistency is thicker making them harder to gobble down. Unless they are warm, then they melt like butter in your mouth.

    And my second latest craze (also from Costco) is Sun Rype brand FruitSource bars. 100% fruit bars in Strawberry, Wildberry, n Blueberry Pemegranite flavors. It's like a super-thick fruit roll in a candy-bar form. VERY tasty, they gobble down quick n easy, n each bar has 32g of carbs, 10mg sodium n 270mg potassium. I think you get like 30 bars in the box for around $12. And most likely these are probably kind'a good for me, unlike my beloved Fruity Snacks. Good luck on your quest for food.

  26. I'm with you. Can't stand most bars, gels etc. I have them in case of emergency. I stick by the tried and true: PB&J, PB&Honey. I still haven't found an answer to the electrolyte issue. Any sport drink is too sweet and full of sugar for me.

  27. My favorite endurance food is baked potato wedges with salt. The fastest recovery from a bonk (for me) is by drinking soda. And I carry ginger chews in case my stomach gets upset with some energy food I decide to try. They've been a lifesaver.

  28. Jeff Kerkove sucksApril 6, 2011 at 1:57 PM

    EH is the only one here I'd listen to, girl kicks it.

    Your eat-anything-you-want works for multi-day stuff.

    For shorter things, you really need to get products like Perp to work for you. Digestion of real food crowds out blood your muscles would like for O2. Use real food to settle stomach, not fill it.

    That along with eating correctly days before and just prior to the shorter event are mondo important. As is your post exercise eating of protein. But you already know all this.

  29. For what you do I would suggest my high density calories, and meals. Maybe double up on servings at the aid stations. Sandwiches, Cheese, Dry Sausage/meat and whole grains crackers.

    In all likely hood it was the intensity early on and lack of substantial calories early on that caught up to you.

  30. Hammer gels and powders give me heartburn (worse on the run than on the bike). Shot Bloks are great! They taste good and no heartburn. They are soft enough to still be edible in cold weather (like the Birkie this year was -3F at start, and they were fine. Some products get too hard in the cold to eat). Drinks are harder. I go old school gatorade (warm for ski races, cold for bike/run). I like Mountain Berry Shot Bloks. They have flavors with caffeine too and Margarita Shot Bloks have 3Xs the salt for really hot weather. I had to practice when to eat and how much and it has changed with age/training/weather/etc. Also, I keep dissolvable strips for heartburn (or Tums) with me in my seatbag or Camelpack. There gets to be a point when you consume so many carbs, that HB and sour stomach are inevitable. Good luck

  31. I had a lot more energy for bicycling after I became a vegetarian, which hasn't changed after becoming a vegan. It's easy to get enough protein in such a diet.

  32. http://candy.jellybelly.com/candy/Electrolytes

  33. Jill, have you considered seeing a sports nutritionist? It would be expensive, but you could probably get the info you need in one or two visits. The thing is, all of us here are basing our comments on magazine articles. A nutritionist can identify what you need in general terms (e.g., carbs, protein) and specifically when you need it. Once you have the building blocks, you can find the carbs or protein you like and plug it into your workout.

  34. getspoked speaks good sense. Even if it costs a bit for an evaluation, how much is it in the big scheme of things when you look at travel costs and race entry fees etc?

  35. Also some endurance riding nutrition suggestions on this thread:

  36. I'm no where near your endurance level but on long rides, I've found french fries are one of the few things that doesn't upset my stomach and is easy to find when riding in civilization (harder in your races). Also baked sweet potatoes are great. I've tried all the gels and bars but there is nothing like real food. Perpetuem was the worst. Around 8 hours into a ride with Perpetuem, any smell makes me so hungry.

    For electrolytes, I use Endurolytes too. The only "secret" I have is taking one before going to bed the night before and once you wake up. That's to make sure you're topped off before you start. The rest is dependent on how much I'm sweating (I live in So Cal so I've had my share of bonking).

  37. I forgot but I also have some kind of nuts for protein. I'm partial to almonds. At gas stations, the bbq kind too.

    Bananas are great too.

  38. I have similar issues once my workouts extend past 2.5 hrs in length. I found a tip that the Tour de France domestics use: Potatoes! I've found having them boiled, then cut them I put a small amount of spices (I like rosemary...), cut in quarters, wrap in foil for easy on the go eating. I can take small nibbles every 10-15 min. with water and it keeps me going for 8 hrs or more, no problem. Easy on the stomach too...


Feedback is always appreciated!