Real-Food Eating On Two Wheels
The other day, I found something bright orange and crusty on the underside of one of my bike’s shifting cables. A sliver of dried sweet potato had survived 75 miles of cycling while being slowly baked in the sun.
Washing the bike frame and bento box, I discovered other little food gems that could have fed a hamster: a gummy grain of arborio rice, a smear of pure maple syrup, and a shred of what was once a fresh mint leaf, dehydrated over time.
In an age where many of us have raised our fists to the air and cried aloud, “Better living through technology!” the Sensible Celiac (that’s me!) along with Grumpy Tummy (my affectionate name for my guts, which are easily inflamed by processed foods and most grains) must avoid processed foods and commercially-made race products that have made long endurance races easier and more convenient to fuel for others.
Instead of embracing the highly engineered foods, I’ve pretty much rejected them, with the exception of electrolyte tablets and caffeinated real-sugar soda as a dosed food.
If you find that race gels leave you gassy and bloated, bars and blocks feel like an undigested brick, and corn-based liquid nutrition has you nauseated or causes diarrhea, you’ve come to the right blog post.
Let’s talk about real-food eating on the bike; that is, food that you can eat while biking short and long distances.
Considerations for Real-Food Options
If you are fairly new to cycling, or your biking experience has been limited to joy rides between food stops, fueling while biking for speed, power, and endurance add extra nuances to what kinds of options actually work for amateur to professional athletes:
- Fuel must be something you can easily carry, drink, and/or chew (and small enough to fit in pockets or a small carrying “bento” on the center stem)
- Fuel must be easily digestible, and not be too high in fiber.
- Fuel must embody texture, flavor, and taste that encourages the cyclist to ingest it, even for hours on end.
- Fuel must not require refrigeration or shielding from the sun for at least five hours or more before spoiling.*
On top of that, people with food allergies, intolerances, and sensitivities, as well as people with particularly sensitive digestive systems, may have additional needs:
- No gluten, corn, dairy, seed, nuts, grains, legumes (Autoimmune Protocol)
- Hydration may require more electrolytes added.
- Commercial race foods are likely limited or completely prohibitive, as they may cause GI distress during and after races.
- “Clean” commercially-made bars, such as, EPIC bars and “That’s It!”, may contain too much nutrient-dense calories for some guts to properly absorb.**
The Simple Truth: Customization Is The Answer
To find out what works for YOU, I’m going to assume that you have some idea of ingredients that don’t work for you. My simplest concoctions are the ones that work for me, and it’s possible they won’t work for you, especially if you are sensitive to certain types of sugars.
What the experts seem to agree on is that most people (not all!) want an easy to digest carbohydrate source in the form of a sugar that doesn’t irritate the tummy while it provides energy. But if it were that simple, we’d be all downing honey, and there would be no need for race gels.
Three types of food: 1) liquid nutrition or gel nutrition, 2) easy-to-digest solid, 3) a fat-burning option.
For #1: I encourage you to experiment with a couple of base carbohydrate ingredients, combine them with a simple sugar source, proportionately add sodium, and blend with water so that the final product slides in and out of a gel flask.
One large sweet potato, combined with my sugar source (I use 1 tablespoon of pure maple syrup per small sweet potato, or 4 tablespoons for a large one, and squeeze of fresh lemon to keep the concoction from solidifying), plus salt and water bit by bit in a blender, will yield approximately 3-4 gel flasks, depending on size. I consume a gel flask about every 75-90 minutes (see notes below).***
You can also consider something purely drinkable that you put in your water bottle, such as a light protein and sugar-based drink. To be honest, I have not found one that works for me that is ready made, so if I were to develop one, it would have to be made from a fruit, such as coconut water, berries, citrus, and blended with white rice for protein (brown rice may contain too much fiber for some systems).
If you like more solid food instead of homemade gels, you might try variations of Feedzone Portables, small foil packets filled with an easy-to-digest carbohydrate that has a protein mixed in it, and possibly a small amount of fat if your body prefers it.
One favorite combination for me is white rice, cacao nibs, and bacon bits mixed with a small amount of coconut milk (the solid kind you get out of a can). The packets are small enough to be two-bite sized, and I usually want something more solid like this after the first three hours of biking. My secret sauce: I toss a small leaf of fresh mint in the packet (or pouch, see below, which helps keep the tummy happy. BTW, some mint candies used by athletes for upset tummies have maltodextrin, gums and waxes, and other things that more sensitive people might like to avoid).
If you don’t like fumbling with packets, you can use resealable pouches, and place a small plastic spoon inside to help scoop out every bit of food. I like to have this solid food ready when I need to make a pitstop at a restroom or aid station on a race course. It usually helps break up the monotony of a single flavor.
Salty foods like jacket potatoes with salt, salty chips, and pretzel sticks — the things I see other people eating on long bike rides, typically cause my stomach problems, so I avoid these. My guess is that too much oil may be involved, and I don’t trust gluten-fee products enough to rely on a GF pretzel stick. You might want to find a GF salty cracker you do like, and combine it with a nut butter or a healthy fat spread to give you a slow burn. Some people like Earth Balance butters, but I have had little luck with these, as they added ingredients that are on my “no” list.
Why No Recipes?
I thought about trying to create measurements for each ingredient of a base food. You’ll notice that I simply gave you some ballpark measurements, above.
There are no recipes for these because I think that your bike food really does need to be customized to you, and that you are the only one you need to please (or the person you might be making it for!). My measurements are going to be different than yours, as my needs differ vastly from just about every amateur athlete I have encountered.
If you’ve read this far, and you’re feeling a bit lost as to where to start, try one of the above combinations on a short ride (two hours or less) and try to go into the ride slightly hungry. It’s an excellent way to test everything from flavor to energy delivery. Record your results, any challenges, and then hit me up by email with any questions. I promise I’ll respond, and I’ll even see if I can help you create your own customized option.
I hope this blog post helps you make food (and biking) fun again.
* Bananas are a good example of a food that some cyclists prefer, as it contains sugars and potassium that can assist with preventing cramping in the legs. However, bananas sitting in the hot sun all day on a race table? Well, it’s a moot issue for me, since I’m allergic to bananas.
** EPIC bars as a company was sold to General Mills in early 2016. As far as the public has been told, the production of EPIC bars has remained the same, though some have speculated that the bars could be cross-contaminated if production is switched to General Mill’s plants and machinery. That’s It fruit bars may contain too much fiber for long distance cycling, so limiting these a good idea if you don’t want to have to take a longer pitstop.
*** Since I wrote this blog, I have used Wee Sprout reusable baby food pouches for the sweet potato puree, added a little water so it’s easy to sip, and also blended in a touch of cinnamon. After becoming more metabolically efficient, I am averaging about 10-20 calories per hour during running events, which tends to keep my guts happier with all that joggling. A real-sugar cola (no corn!) waiting at an aid station can also be helpful, although you should consider training rides and runs to test how much is the right amount.