VELOSOPHY x Gran Fondo Nutrition

Posted by Cycolo Solutions Inc. on

Gran Fondos aren’t some niche event anymore. Saying they’ve taken the cycling world by storm in the last few years is an understatement. Fondos have developed into an official UCI event culminating in the World Fondo Championships. In 2020 the Championships will be the RBC Whistler Gran Fondo from Vancouver to Whistler! It’s not surprising the Whistler Fondo attracts thousands of cyclists every year to make the pilgrimage up one of the most beautiful (closed off) highways in the world.

With the Fondo being such a strong presence in the Vancouver cycling mindset, Paul Moffat’s cycling coaching company Velosophy offers classes for both Fondo Development and Performance oriented goals. His classes are great for athletes new to Gran Fondo events or those looking to drop their previous year’s finishing times. Velosophy takes on a holistic approach to their classes: Covering skills and fitness, Paul's also no stranger to advising clients on the nutritional demands of riding Gran Fondos.

Paul shared his in-ride fuelling advice he gives clients preparing for Gran Fondos. Read on to make sure you’re hitting the right marks to ride your best time.

There are three main components to ride nutrition. 

    • Pre Ride 
    • During Ride 
    • Post Ride 

In this article we'll focus on the component I field the most questions for, 'During Ride Nutrition'. 

When a client asks me what to eat and drink for their Fondo event I start with a few questions. The first two are related:

    1. How much experience do you have?
    2. Have you ridden this Fondo before?
    3. What time are you aiming to finish your event in?

If your answer to the first two is "not much" or "this is my first Fondo" then my advice is slightly different than if a client is aiming to beat their previous time with several seasons under their belt. BUT all the basic principles are the same. 

For the first, new rider scenario here are some basic considerations:

    • When to eat.
    • How much to eat. 
    • What to eat.

Before we get stuck into these topics let me share some of the barriers new riders run into. The first can definitely be a sign of under-fueling:

"I go great for the first hour or two and then I hit the wall and I'm cramping or bonking"

When I hear this I usually ask them if they started eating or drinking in the first hour of their ride, their answer is usually the cause of the cramps and bonks:

"I just wasn't hungry or thirsty"


"I was trying to save my food for the hard part"

These all sound reasonable at first until we consider what's going on in the body. First of all there is only so much blood in your body and a massive amount of that blood goes to your gastric system for the digestion of food and distribution of resources to other systems. Exercise causes your muscles to need all the blood they can get, diverting blood resources from your gastric system to the legs or other exercising muscles.  Messaging is also slowed to and from the gastric system: not only has digestion slowed down, your sensations of hunger and thirst are also delayed. That means if you wait until you feel thirsty to drink, you actually may have needed fluids 10-20mins ago. Similarly with food, except this delay is amplified by the slowing of the digestion process - it can take 20mins to properly digest something as easy as a gel, more time is needed as the food becomes more solid. It should be clear where bonking can stem from if you don't eat and drink preemptively. Preemptive feeding is a principle I try to ingrain in my athletes, "get it before you need it"

So, this brings us to an important topic - nutrition timing. This can be broken into: 

  1. When to start eating/drinking. 
  2. How frequently to eat/drink.

Irrespective of ability or experience I try to keep certain simple standards for most of my clients. 

Basic principles:

  1. Start eating within the first 20-30mins of your event. Nutrition should be preemptive in order to preserve precious muscle glycogen (think of this as hill climbing gold, save it until you need it). 
  2. Start drinking fluids within the first 10-20 mins of your event (again hydration should be a little preemptive, after all you’re sweating as soon as you start pedalling!)

After that my timing recipe and basic conditions for both is simple:

    • drink/sip every 10mins
    • eat every 20mins (this could be just a bite or third of a bar
    • finish 1 small bottle (~500ml) per hour or for a large one (~750ml) every 1.5 hours 
    • try to eat the equivalent of half a bar and a gel per hour of exercise (a bit more if you're a big person, a bit less if you are a small person)
    • If you only have water in your bottles as opposed to drink mix then you will need a bit more food per hour. 
    • Eat more solids like bars in the first half of your event and transition into softer foods, gels and liquids in the second half and especially in the last hour. 

Now for the more in depth analysis, if you're trying to beat your previous time for an event then this will help. Most of the basic principles are the same except your nutrition per hour is going to be a bit more calculated. The biggest step is to figure out your estimated event completion time. If you've done the same event before then your job is easy, usually you will ride faster than the previous year. From there you can figure how much food and fluid you'll need to complete your event. Let's say you did a 5 hr Whistler Fondo, now you are looking to finish around 4hrs 30mins so let's look at how much food and drink you'll need to stay as fuelled as possible. Here are some things to consider:

    • The average rider needs around 500ml (a standard bottle) per hour of exercise, a large bottle gets you 1.5 hrs. I don't like to stop at water stations myself so I would take two large bottles on my bike and one more in my idle back pocket - that should take me the 4.5 hrs without having to stop. If your target time is greater, then save the extra weight and only take two bottles as you will need to stop anyway.
    • NB if it is hot you will need more than this!
    • For food, think in carbs (CHO) not calories. When you pedal hard and your intensity rises, your body is searching for glycogen (the simple form of carbs in the body). So, although you need calories, you want them to come from carbs as this is what your body processes best when working hard.
    • Depending on the rider size and intensity of your ride, most folk can process about 60-90g of CHO per hour. My simple calculation rounds up my body weight in kg's and convert it straight to grams I.e. 80kg =80g of CHO per hour. Therefore if I want to  do a 4.5hr Fondo time I will need 360g of CHO (4.5hr x 80g). 
    • If use a carbohydrate drink mix in my bottles I need to know how much CHO that is and subtract that from my CHO total, then the remainder is made up of solids and gels. 

Considering the point above, fats and proteins aren’t going to fuel your ride properly, especially when the rides are long and intense. This doesn't mean you shouldn't have proteins or fats, I ride with a home-made almond bar (which is high in both protein and fat). I ride with it for two reasons: first because it's my favourite, it has me looking forward to eating on my ride which is big for new riders who just don't feel like eating, that becomes their undoing! The second reason: it settles my stomach, the fat, protein and fibre help to settle my stomach from all the sugary carbs I'm ingesting. The exception is when I'm doing a pure race! These are so intense and my performance is so critical I just suck it up, taking mostly gels and racing specific foods to fill the gaps. 

The last topic I'll touch on briefly is food type. There are lots of trends out there like Keto diets, intermittent fasting, gluten free, paleo, vegan, etc. I'll be diplomatic here and say each has merits in the right situation. BUT there is NO magic pill, everyone has individual needs. Certain things work great for some folks and not so well for others. So without pouring gasoline on the fire here are some of my sure-fire tips and considerations that work for almost everyone:

    • Liquid gels > Gooey gels: hate that toothpaste-y texture? Then go for liquid gels. My absolute favourite is BORN Super Liquid Gels (no joke, this is not a plug). Also consider that digestion rate is a factor: the closer to liquid your food is the faster you will get that energy. 
    • Eat foods you like! This is the best tip I ever got from an old pro. Even if it isn't scientifically curated in the lab for optimal performance, if you're looking forward to eating it, you'll be thinking about food when you start your ride with a better chance that not only will you eat, but you'll remember to eat at appropriate times (I love cookies personally).
    • Natural foods: if you suffer from gastric problems when using too many gels and sugary drinks then try splitting them up, mixing in natural foods. 
      • Gel substitutes: My best natural food gel hack is baby gels! Sure they're not as high in calories as a cycling gel but they're not far off, they're usually in a convenient gel type package, cheaper by a bit, have a HUGE range of flavours and you usually get double the volume of a standard sports gel.  
      • Natural ride food: Dates, figs and soft dried fruits are good substitutes for blocks and gels. Not as easy to carry though. 
      • Bar substitutes: Again can't beat Pinterest - oatmeal cookies, almond bars and the famous Team Sky rice cakes recipe!

Ultimately whatever you start to try new products, I highly recommend trying new routines in training to see how your body responds and make tweaks as necessary. Don't make these changes on event day as you cannot guarantee how you will respond which could spell disappointment for your goals. Plan an event simulation ride for the same length as you intend to ride and try to hit your nutrition targets - take notes afterwards for tweaks and try again a few weeks out before your event. 

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