Nutrition Guide for Your First Ultra

This is the second in a three-part series preparing you for your first ultra-distance ride. Be sure to check out the first part, on preparing for your first ultra.

Can you finish a double century after cleansing your body by consuming only juice the week before and during the event? Yes, but it will be ugly! Can you finish the 1,200K (750-mile) Paris-Brest-Paris eating only bananas and French bread? Yes, but it will be ugly! I've learned from both of those and many other experiences that if you eat properly you can be successful and have fun at an endurance event!

Where Does Your Energy Come From?

When you are riding, your energy comes from a mix of glycogen (from carbohydrates) and fat (either dietary or body fat). Only 3 to 5 percent of your energy comes from protein. In the first article I recommended that you ride primarily at a conversational pace. At that pace about 50 percent of your energy comes from glycogen and 50 percent from fat.

As you ride harder, proportionally more comes from glycogen; however, fat always provides some of the energy.

More: Foods That Boost Energy

Glycogen Stores Are Limited

Even a lean, well-conditioned athlete has enough body fat to fuel a long ride; however, your body can only store a limited amount of glycogen. Through endurance training your body can store 20 to 50 percent more glycogen. Even after months of training, you can only store enough glycogen for several hours of moderately hard riding. When you run out of glycogen:

  • You hit the wall. Your legs feel dead. Fat burns in the flame of carbohydrate so even at a slow pace using primarily fat for fuel, you need some glycogen to provide the energy.
  • You bonk. Your brain feels like mush because your brain can only burn glycogen for energy.
  • You quit. Depressed, unable to think clearly and with tired legs, you're tempted to DNF.

Daily Nutrition

What does this mean for breakfast, lunch and dinner? Carbohydrates provide 4 calories of energy per gram of carbs while fat provides 9 calories per gram. Because carbs are such an important source of energy you need to eat a lot more carbs than fat—most athletes don't eat enough carbohydrates.

We tend to think of carbohydrates as starchy foods like pasta, rice, bread, potatoes, etc.; however, fruit and vegetables are also carbohydrates and provide important vitamins. You need some protein to repair and build muscles; however, most Americans eat too much protein. Fat is also a significant source of energy for cycling.

Your daily caloric intake should be comprised of the following:

  • 60 to 65 percent from carbohydrates
  • 10 to 15 percent from protein
  • 25 percent from fat

Not into counting calories? Cover your plate with carbohydrates with a serving of meat about the size of a deck of cards. Think of protein as a condiment; not a main dish.

Also drink plenty of fluid: one to two quarts a day, preferably water rather than soda, sports drinks or juice, which contain hidden calories.

When training for an ultra event, you'll be burning a lot of calories. Research has shown that you'll train better and feel better if you eat those calories six times a day rather than at three large meals. For example, you could eat breakfast, a mid-morning snack, lunch, a mid-afternoon snack, dinner and a snack before bed. If you go for a training ride first thing in the morning, eat something before hopping on the bike.

More: Nutrition Guide for Cyclists

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