Carbohydrates: Fuel for Your Cycling

Many cyclists consider sports bars and gels high in carbohydrates to be handy pre-ride snacks and a good source of calories during rides.

These energy sources help provide ample carbohydrates, with minimal amounts of fat and protein.

Many cyclists eat irregularly or skip meals due to the time constraints of work, social events and training. When you forgo meals, however, your blood glucose drops and you're more likely to get the "bonk" on a ride.

Eating a high-carbohydrate sports bar an hour or so before cycling will help to maintain your blood glucose levels so that you can perform optimally.

Researchers at Ohio State University found that performance was improved by 12.5 percent when carbohydrate was consumed an hour before exercise. Try to consume 40 to 75 grams of carbohydrate in the hour before your workout.

The energy boost you get from eating a sports bar or gel before or during exercise comes primarily from the carbohydrate in the bars (about 25 to 47 grams) and gels (about 20 grams to 25 grams), which elevates your blood glucose to provide energy to your cycling muscles.

There's also nothing special about the carbohydrate that sports bars and gels supply. You can get the same results from traditional high-carbohydrate snacks such as Fig Newtons and bananas. Low-fat granola bars or breakfast bars are also good, less expensive alternatives to sports bars or gels.

Sports bars and gels also are an accessible energy source during your time on the bike. Consuming carbohydrate during rides lasting an hour or longer enables you to ride longer and harder by providing glucose for your muscles when they begin to run out of glycogen (glycogen is stored carbohydrate in the muscle). Thus, energy production can continue at a high rate and endurance is enhanced.

Eddie Coyle, Ph.D. at the University of Texas in Austin, has shown that consuming carbohydrate during exercise at 70 percent of maximal effort can delay fatigue by 30 to 60 minutes. For the best results, try to take in 40 to 80 grams of carbohydrate (160 to 320 carbohydrate calories) every hour of cycling.

You can obtain this amount from either sports bars, gels, high-carbohydrate foods, or fluids that contain carbohydrate, such as sports drinks.

Filling Up

High-carbohydrate foods such as sports bars, Fig Newtons, and bananas provide a feeling of "fullness" that you won't get from drinking fluids or sucking down gels. Sports bars and gels purposely have a very low water content so that they can be compact and easily carried. By comparison, high-carbohydrate foods that have a high water content, such as bananas, take up more room.

For example, to get the amount of carbohydrate supplied by one Clif Bar (40 to 45 grams), you'd have to eat 1.5 bananas (45 grams). One gel packet supplies only slightly less carbohydrate (25 grams) than one banana (25 to 30 grams).

However, the low water content of sports bars and gels also has a disadvantage. You should consume about 6 to 8 ounces of water when you eat a sports bar or carbohydrate gel before or during exercise. Otherwise the product will settle poorly and you may feel nauseated because of the slow digestion.

In addition to aiding your digestion, drinking water after consuming the bar or gel encourages you to hydrate adequately.

The bottom line on sports bars and gels is that they're a convenient way to help meet your carbohydrate requirements before and during cycling.


Dr. Edmund R. Burke was among the pioneers in applying scientific principles to endurance sports training, especially cycling. As an exercise physiologist, he was responsible for several advances in sports drink formulation and almost single-handedly developed the subcategory of performance recovery drinks. A former director of the Center for Science, Medicine and Technology at the U.S. Cycling Federation in Colorado Springs, he worked with the U.S. Olympic cycling team during the 1980 and '84 Games. Dr. Burke is the author of 17 books on fitness, training and physiology, including the best-selling Optimal Muscle Recovery.

Related Articles:

      • Fueling Up for the Ride

      • Make Your Own Homemade Energy Gels

      • Twirlie Hot Dogs to the Refueling Rescue

      • Meals on Wheels

Discuss This Article

Follow your passions

Connect with ACTIVE.COM