Finding the Right Gran Fondo Nutrition Strategy for You
Events in the Gran Fondo National Series are significant tests of your cycling fitness. To keep your body running strong from start to finish you're going to need consume fuel during the ride, and it's important to figure out what gels, sports drinks or foods work well for you - and that you like - before you get to the start line.
Tastes and cravings change during long events like gran fondos. Foods that taste great and go down easy during the first hour may be unappealing or churn your stomach by hour four when you absolutely cannot afford not to take in fuel. That's why the food stations along the Gran Fondo National Series routes offer a wide variety of options, including products from Hammer Nutrition.
Your gran fondo nutrition strategy can go two ways: Carry foods you know have worked for you in the past. Or, start training with Hammer Nutrition sports drinks and gels so you're accustomed to them before your event. That way you don't have to carry a full day's fuel supply in your jersey pockets or mix drinks at each aid station.
How much to eat
When cyclists consume inadequate calories they run out of energy and bonk. When they consume too many calories they often feel sluggish or experience gastrointestinal distress (GI distress). If you ride with a power meter, your work in kilojoules (displayed on the head unit) is roughly equal to the calories burned to accomplish the work, so you can use it as a rough estimation of your hourly caloric expenditure. For reference, for those riding without a power meter, a moderately fit cyclist riding at an endurance pace is likely to burn around 500-600 calories per hour. Because you started your ride with muscles full of stored carbohydrate energy and you're burning a mixture of carbohydrate and fat as you ride, your goal should be to replenish around 25-30% of your hourly caloric expenditure through carbohydrate-rich foods and sports drinks. This means our moderately fit cyclist should aim for 125-180 calories per hour and adjust from there based on intensity level and performance.
When to eat and drink
During short rides that are fewer than 90 minutes long, cyclists rarely need to replenish calories during the ride. For rides longer than 90 minutes, however, you want to start consuming carbohydrate-rich foods and drinks within the first 45 minutes and continue consuming calories throughout the subsequent hours. Staying hydrated takes priority over consuming calories, particularly because you can start using carbohydrate energy within 10 minutes of eating a gel or piece of food, but it takes longer for the body to regain a good hydration status if you fall behind on fluid intake. This is also why many coaches, including the coaches from our coaching partner, Carmichael Training Systems, recommend focusing on hydration in your bottles and calories in your pockets. Carrying plain water and hydration-focused sports drinks enables riders to increase fluid intake in response to hot weather or high intensity, without overloading the gut with more calories than it can handle in a short period of time.
Where to eat and drink
Obviously, aid stations are great places to refuel, especially because they are outside the timed segments at Gran Fondo National Series events. For riders who are comfortable eating while you're riding, descents are a great place to grab a bite on the go. Even if a descent is pretty technical, get food from your pocket into your mouth as you go over the summit of the climb so you can chew/enjoy it with both hands back on the handlebars. Remember to consume water with gels to help with rapid absorption. Bad places to eat? The bottom of a long climb, during a period of high intensity, or in technical terrain where you really want both hands on the bars all the time.
What kind of energy is best?
People have a wide variety of nutrition strategies off the bike, from Ketogenic to Paleo, high-carb to high-protein, omnivore to vegan, and many more. On the bike during an endurance event, however, the science is pretty clear: consume carbohydrate-rich foods and drinks to sustain and improve performance. Think of carbohydrate and sodium - both of which some people try to restrict in their daily lives - as functional nutrients for athletic performance. For instance, the insulin response from consuming carbohydrate is blunted during exercise because your body uses a different mechanism to prioritize the transport of sugar from the blood into working muscles. Plus, Hammer Nutrition products use a complex carbohydrate source rather than simple sugar. Sports drinks and foods are often high in sodium, but they are meant to be consumed while you are losing significant amounts of sodium through sweat.
Whatever route you choose, just remember that you want to bring a proven nutrition strategy to your next gran fondo. The day of the event is not the time to experiment with your fueling strategy.