This is a question which is often asked and to be honest, there is no specific answer. To compound the vagueness of my post I have to put my hand up and declare that while I am fascinated by the topic I am not qualified beyond my curiosity. As a result this blog is designed to be a common sense overview as distinct from a nutritional guide for triathlon.
I will aim towards a simple conclusion today but will try to put a little sense in the middle of the article. To simplify for everybody I will focus on a new member building up their fitness on a Saturday cycle with the New to Tri group, exactly what should you be eating and drinking?
Let’s not get head over heels into the whole diet and nutrition thing but for the average adult, moderately active, we can normally rely on the magical “30 - 35” constant to get the conversation started. In terms of fluids, try multiplying 30 by your body weight, let’s say 70Kg and you will end up with 2,100. This is not a wildly bad rough estimate of how much water you should be consuming per day in millilitres. Similarly try the same thing but this time as a rough estimate of your energy requirements and you end up with 2,100kCal. In both cases this estimate is at the lower end of the scale of 30 - 35 and more than a few of us would like to weigh as little as 70kg so let’s consider these minimum amounts. While out on the bike, it is possible even at moderate levels of exertion to need up to or over 10 - 15 times our normal or average hourly energy spend to fuel our muscles. This then poses the questions: How and when and how much we need to eat and drink, what works and why?
Liquids are by far the more important of the two to be aware of. Without adequate hydration nothing else works. As an aside, I read once that all the benefits of a full aerodynamic setup on a TT bike, skin-suit, helmet, the works is worth about half the penalty of suffering 5% dehydration over 40km. That is a whole lot of speed for free or a heap of time to give away, whichever way you come at it! There is a lot of sense therefore in learning to hydrate and stay hydrated. I will echo these words with regard to energy but the most important time to take your water on is always. By this I mean the day before, the morning of and the remainder of the day after your cycle. Keep a focus on that 2 litres or even better 3 litres per day. When out on the bike you will perspire but also lose a massive amount of water as water vapour as you breath. As a rule of thumb everybody should be drinking 1-2 mouths full of water every fifteen minutes from fifteen minutes into the cycle. This should total at least 500ml of water per hour as a guide.
It is easy to know how your hydration is working out by doing a “sweat test”, it’s so easy in fact we should all try it. To do this just weigh yourself and then weigh your filled bottles as you leave home. Without drinking anything other than those bottles, weigh yourself and then the bottles/remaining water when you get home. You need to reduce your weight loss by the amount you drank from the bottles. If the answer to this calculation is for example 0.5kg lighter in total when you get home then simple maths (water has a specific gravity of 1000g/litre) suggests you have under hydrated yourself by 500ml on the spin. Like any cycling skill you will learn such as climbing hills or pacing yourself on longer spins, do remember that we are all different so practice and experimentation is going to be key. Be methodical and pay attention to what is working for you and what is not.
The next question is what to drink on the bike? Well the answer of course is water but does this fall short of the mark for a two hour cycle? This is a marginal one but there are possibly two additions to your drink bottle worthy of consideration and they are energy and electrolyte salts. For convenience on a head down olympic triathlon bike leg as you tear across the countryside on your TT bike, then there is nothing better than getting your calories in the water you sip from between your forearms on the go, just superb. For a New to Tri social cycle however a bite to eat as you sit on top of a hill you just conquered is far more pleasant and of course, sociable. Below we’ll look at top of the hill party food but back to the drink bottle, do we need an electrolyte? No harm I would suggest as it just allows your body to “fix” the hydration a bit better. I like to think of Austen Darragh’s story about swimming in the sea as a kid. Despite many reminders from his Mother, he never rinsed the sea water out of his togs and wondered why they were always soggy and wet when he went to put them back on. Only years later did he discover as a doctor the phenomenal power of salt for holding on to moisture, the riddle of his childhood resolved! An electrolyte tablet in each bottle will help your body to retain the water you drink within the cells of your body and will do you no harm at all.
So what to eat?
A healthy and balanced diet every day is really the key to nutrition if you exercise. Your body will like to get about 60:20:20 energy mix of carbohydrate, protein and fat or there abouts evenly administered each and every day. Unfortunately we go from periods of sleep to two and three hour cycles and everything in between so are seldom able to feed ourselves exactly as our energy requirements would demand. The fact that we are so successful as a species is partly due to our ability to buffer our energy supply through stores and deliver to our cells to fuel respiration as we need it.
The type of energy our body will use at any time will change but it is safe to assume on a two hour cycle as a first choice it will be glycogen stored in our muscle tissue and nice refined carbohydrates in the form of sugars from our blood. Taking the buffered energy out of storage is a complex and inefficient process for our metabolism so our aim on a cycle of up to two hours will be to lightly top-up these “faster” and “easier” energy supplies as needed. Get your nutrition all wrong and you will “bonk”. No, not a crude joke but a nick-name for that horrible feeling as your blood sugars hit zero and your body starts into that process of mining energy out of your other stores. Your head will spin, your legs will turn to rubber and you will probably feel sick with that “cold sweat” sensation. Conversely if you are chomping on jellies from the off, a fruit scone and two gels half way around and a couple of coffee stops, well you will end up feeling just as bad!
This need not be a right mine field, not at all in fact. The best advice regarding food is to simply prepare for the spin. Have a balanced meal the day before the spin, plenty of fluids and pay attention to include all food groups in your meal. Aim for that 60:20:20 mix if you can. On the day of the cycle a moderate sized breakfast about two hours before the cycle with a bit of focus on more pure sugars is good. Something like porridge with berries, a glass of juice and a glass of water is ideal. A fruit scone or bagel with jam would fit the bill if you are averse to the porridge!
Once out on the bike you shouldn’t actually need nutrition to sustain you on a New to Tri spin. You will for sure feel better if you keep your blood sugars balanced and your energy levels topped up so where is the compromise? Maybe a mouth full of food every 30-50 minutes after the first hour depending on the intensity of the spin would be a guide. The very best snacks are of course the simplest ones such as banana, dried fruit or nuts. Move this along the scale of processing and you get fig rolls, granola bars or jellies. Try and find a nice middle between the two and you need to get cooking. The two recipes below are favorites of mine and both are as tasty or in my opinion far superior to a clif bar or similar.
So that simple summary I spoke of at the beginning? I will sway from my verbose normal here and go very efficient with bullet points. Remember that we are all different, physically and physiologically so what I have here is based on my personal experience. It is not that long since I was red in the face trying to hang on to the back of the New to Tri spin and I have felt positively sick trying to settle on what works so try a few different plans and see how it works out. My favorites In summary:
Drink a minimum of two litres of water per day, closer to three if you can
Small sips of water every few minutes for an hour or two before you exercise
Dehydration will slow you more than the weight penalty of carrying enough water (you’ll feel awful too!)
Sip 1-2 mouths full of water per fifteen minutes or 500ml per hour at a minimum
After exercise keep sipping fluids for a couple of hours
Coffee/Tea is essential after a tough New to Tri cycle
Eat a balanced diet as evenly spread across every day especially in the evening before your cycle
Eat a modest but nutritious breakfast with a focus on some carbohydrates, fruits, juices etc.
Eat little and often on the bike, one fig roll or ⅓ of a banana every 40 mins after an hour maybe?
Experiment with different snacks as we all digest stuff differently
After exercise, have a balanced meal but try to include some lean protien like chicken or egg to help muscle recovery
Cake with coffee or tea is officially approved after a tough New to Tri cycle
The following user(s) said Thank You: Buzbyjnr, Paul Evans, JohnOC, Joe Mo
Well so far I have rattled on about quite an eclectic mix of subjects ranging from grub to take your mind off the hills, how to dress if you want to cut the mustard on a sunny Saturday, even touching on disaster recovery when you suffer your first puncture. These are all interesting subjects and hopefully the blogs answered some questions but like adequate insurance or pension provision, there are things we really should think about for our ultimate good.
Let's think of safety then and in particular, stuff you simply must do before or during every cycle. Already we discussed the etiquette required when cycling in a group and I don't just refer to properly aimed spitting and such like. So here is a non exhaustive list of safety related stuff to practice. Done consistently enough you will find it hard to behave any other way so perhaps start as you wish to continue.
There is absolutely no way to over stress the importance of your helmet and its proper function. You are simply not allowed to cycle in a club group without a helmet but it is up to you to be sure it is of adequate quality and fits correctly. I have put a video below regarding your helmet fit so please watch this and be sure it is the right size and properly adjusted. I have seen people rock up, strangely only to the new to tri group with the helmet on the crown of the cyclist's head in the style of a Papal skull cap. Aside from the cosmetic damage you are guaranteed in the case of an accident you may do yourself serious damage. Straps and retention systems are all adjustable and only take a couple of moments to set up correctly. Once done the helmet should fit neatly, feel comfortable and be safe should the worst happen. Click the link to see the GCN guide to helmet fit.
Your bike: Is it safe to cycle?
Regardless of your mechanical aptitude there is a certain awareness of bike safety you should be comfortable with. Before you cycle your bike you should always check a few items.
Check the quick release skewers on your bike, they should be snug but not so tight the levers won't move
Lift the bike and try and move the top of the wheel side to side, any rattle and your wheel bearings may need service.
Make sure no spokes are loose or damaged
Spin the wheel and check the wheel rim for buckles or impact damage on the braking surface.
Brake pads should engage the braking surface of the wheel rim with reasonably little movement of the brake lever.
Brake pads must NOT run off the edge of the wheel rim.
Force on the levers to lock the wheel should be moderate.
Tyres should be free from cuts, cracks, nicks, foreign objects or bald patches.
Tyres should be properly inflated, typically between 80-120psi depending on size and duty cycle
The head-set/steerer tube bearings should be free moving and properly adjusted
A quick scan of the tyres, front and rear followed by a brake test, pull the levers one at a time pulling the bike backwards and forwards. While testing the front brake, pay close attention to any rattle or slackness in the steering. If you are not 100% sure about any of the above, don't cycle. Get somebody to look at your bike. It may be a very simple issue or none at all but be safe.
Here is the “M” check on video:
It is incumbent on you to be the eyes and ears for everybody in your group so while exchanging conversation with others in the group you absolutely MUST pay close attention for any hazard on the road surface, approaching cars, pedestrians or even loose pets and don't be shy to warn the rest of the group. Remember how close you are to each other and the correspondingly short reaction time you have available.
We must all take on a group-think attitude on a club spin, being aware of not only our own but everybody’s safety. It doesn't matter if you are shy, new or simply not the type to get vocal, you must see and warn of hazards and possibly more importantly, you must encourage others in the group to behave similarly, especially if they are the shy or new person. We can cycle further and faster as a group and it is a fact that in a group we can be safer than an individual cyclist so make good use of this.
If you haven't seen this, worth a watch. GCN's how to ride in a group:
Clothes and weather:
There is no doubt that “The Garden County” is spectacularly beautiful and has some amazing roads and routes to cycle but has the ability to bite back. Heading in to the month of May we must remember that not long ago cyclists suffering hypothermia were rescued from all over the route of the Wicklow 200 in mid June so in boy scout style; be prepared!
Before you ever cycle you should know what the weather forecast predicts. At a minimum you should carry a lightweight waterproof gilet (sleeveless) or jacket if there is the slightest chance of rain. To go all science for a moment, a clever guy called Newton made the relationship between cooling and forced convection. He established that the stronger the breeze the cooler an object became. A little more science and we add the specific latent heat of evaporation; the cooling effect of evaporating a liquid off a surface and the reason we perspire through our skin, namely to cool us. So we potentially have a situation where we have perspired or received a drowning in a rain shower on a windy day and put simply the weather takes heat out of your body faster than your body can replace it. Welcome to the potentially very dangerous world of hypothermia. A lightweight jacket will roll up and fit in a back pocket or even in an old water bottle converted into a carry-all and kept in a spare bottle cage.
GCN's winter clothing video:
We are only gifted with one good summer in four according to MET Eireann but in my two year membership of Wicklow Tri Club have had statistic baffling fine weather on the majority of Saturday cycles. OK, the winter spins have often been very cold but generally the spins have been very dry and some have in fact found out my lack of water on the bike. Yes, this is Ireland but a hot day and a hill like Shay Elliott and you will evaporate a lot of water!
Tools and spares:
I intend to assemble a post specifically detailing what we should carry on the bike in the near future but for the moment, the list of must have and might like below should guide you. Essentials:
Inner tube x 2
Tyre lever x 2 (or 3)
Multi tool (like a bike specific pen-knife but filled with allen keys and screwdrivers)
Cash (enough to wave at a taxi is good!) Optional:
Chain breaker/repair tool
Chain “power link” to suit your bike
I have to admit I genuinely scratch my head every single Saturday wondering at the pile of gear I stuff into pockets and secrete about my bike but (as I touch wood) I have yet to strand myself on the side of a hill. As an absolute minimum you should go through a safety check list at least once but ideally you should have a regular kit you carry and a check you are in the habit of carrying out before every Saturday cycle. I might also point out that “A stitch in time saves nine”, or so they say. One would hope to spot a potential race ending mechanical issue or a safety check that will fail bike scrutiny on race day.
So after prattling away for seemingly months on here in an attempt to cover as many of the new to cycling questions as I could, I'm back with an embarrasing confession.
Only a couple of posts back I was waxing all lyrical about feeding well or at least sensibly for the two meals before you cycle and bringing more fluid than you possibly think you could drink. Yeah, you can probably see where this is going!
Last Saturday I decided I might try to hang on to Group 4 doing some TT bike training. The rest of the group were very obliging and waited around a lot, any time we hit the slightest gradient, told me how to short-cut the few km's at the turn around and even called my phone a half dozen times to make sure I hadn't collapsed into a ditch. Did I tell you how far off the back I ended up?
Well in amongst all the humble pie I was enjoying I managed to devour no less than 1.2 litres of water with electrolyte salts... over the course of 4 hours 15 minutes on a lovely hot humid Saturday. Doing the maths now the 300ml per hour while busting a gut to keep up was a plain simple fail! I stopped in Ashford for a nice (diuretic) coffee and then headed off on the 12km cycle home with only condensation in both drink bottles.
The next hour was spent sipping a further 750ml of water before anybody saw the state I was in! I'd love to say it was my first de-hydration blunder but no, similar stupidity being preoccupied with holding on to a group over Sally Gap for the first time on a glorious day!
Self-deprecation for the greater good perhaps but I genuinely am a bit of a stickler for drink bottles, almost always taking out two x 700mls (bike racing types look down the nose at anything over 500ml) but I was caught out last week. It was pretty rotten to be honest so given the chance of good weather this time of the year be even more aware of your fluids!
The following user(s) said Thank You: Buzbyjnr, Paul Evans, michaelp, LorcanB
Great advice Garry, i even had to stretch for a sip of Mr Bowe's water as my usual Camel like tendencies weren't enough for the 24 degree summer fest we had on Saturday.
i often wonder in awe at just how many water bottles you can fit on a TT bike... some people riding around like its a siogneur bike in the TDF. With just the 1 bottle mount on Mama Shiv i need to devise a second option that works... off to the drawing board.