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Fueling The Ride: Calculating Carbs

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Summer means more time to ride. As you tackle more miles, fueling for how hard and how far you ride comes down to the right amount of carbs.

For a lot of endurance athletes, ‘carbo loading’ is as much of the sport as riding. That hefty meal of good, old fashion pasta or race before the event is sure to top you off and ensure all the energy you need…right? There certainly are advantages to upping you carbo intake, but there are some caveats. All that energy you’re taking on is in the form of glycogen, which is the form of sugar that your body stores. It’s also what your body can burn most efficiently during exercise. When you head out to ride, your body draws on a mix of digested and stored glycogen to power every pedal stroke.

If that’s the case, you’d think carboloading would be the way to go. The caveat is that we can only store so much before that glycogen turns to fat, which is even less efficient to burn and leads to weight gain. Think of your carbo-laden meal before a race as filling up your gas tank; you want to be topped up, but there’s no point in overfilling. There are plenty of useful calculators to help you determine your daily needs, making it easier to find the right balance.

Once you’ve nailed your daily intake, fueling on the bike comes down to numbers. Our bodies are capable of processing between 30 and 90 grams of carbs per hour. The longer your event, the more important it is to reach for that bar, banana, or gel to keep your energy levels topped off. It’s also worth noting that any extra calories, carbs or not, can often be an extra burden on your digestive system. Any athlete should dedicate some training rides or smaller events to fine-tuning their nutrition strategy to identify foods and timing that work best for you.

So when does carbo-loading make sense? Think BIG. The longer, more steady the effort, the more you’ll need to draw on glycogen stores. Especially during events like triathlons, marathons, Ironman events, or cycling races over three hours, having carbs from oats, rice, and pasta that sit on the low hypoglycemic index are a great way to make sure your ‘tank’ is full.

A few takeaways:

  • Try to shoot for 4 grams of carbs per pound of body weight before an event

  • Carbs should make up around 80-90% of your caloric intake 1-2 days before your event

  • Reduce fiber and protein in the final day or two before your event to keep your caloric intake close to normal, and to avoid stomach issues.