Originally published in the Union Bulletin on March 15, 2013
Everyone who cycles has “bonked” at one time or another. You know the feeling. You’re riding along and then suddenly it takes everything you have to turn the pedals. It can happen in races, on training rides, and even recovery rides.
My first introduction to “bonking” was on one of my very first group rides. It was a beautiful spring day here in the Walla Walla valley. I had just purchased my new bike and was eager to get out and see what it could do. About an hour and half into the ride I felt a kind of growling in my stomach. My legs began to feel like wet noodles. I began to slowly fall back in the group until I was completely off the back and riding by myself. What was once a nice social group ride became a solo painful nightmare. I had one more steep hill to climb before descending back home. As I started up the hill several riders that had already climbed it once and possibly twice came along to encourage me as I struggled to turn the pedals over. I wondered to myself if it was acceptable to walk your bike to the top of the hill. I didn’t want to find out so I dug deep and eventually made it to the top. Once at the top of the hill a veteran cyclist asked me if I had a gel pack. I quickly realized that I didn’t have a gel pack or anything else to eat. I was relying solely on that peanut butter and jelly sandwich I’d eaten a few hours before to carry me through the ride. What a rookie mistake and valuable learning lesson! I later found out that I had experienced bonking.
For those of you lucky enough to have never experienced bonking, here’s a description courtesy of Bike Radar:
Deriving from the original meaning ‘to hit’, the bonk refers to that catastrophic moment when there’s suddenly nothing left in the tank; when the legs turn to jelly, and getting to the finish becomes an altogether supreme effort of will. The simple explanation for its occurrence is that long-endurance exercise depletes the body’s store of glycogen, which produces the energy required to maintain performance. When the glycogen depletes entirely, the body has no more fuel and instead burns fat, resulting in a surge of fatigue and a performance collapse.
After my experience bonking I figured if I was to continue cycling I needed to understand more about nutrition and learn how to keep my body performing during long or hard rides. There are a plethora of energy products out there on the market for athletes. One of the more popular products to keep your body from bonking are gels. They offer a quick energy boost to the body and will help replenish the glycogen and calories you are burning. Always take gels with water to help them absorb better into the blood stream. Avoid the risk of a sick stomach and wait at least 60 minutes between gels before taking another one. Don’t rely on gels as your only energy source. They should be used along with other food sources.
If I am planning at least a two hour ride I eat something about 1-2 hours before the ride. My go to meal is oatmeal with a scoop of peanut butter topped with blueberries and a pinch of brown sugar. I will also eat a side of eggs to add some extra protein. Depending on whether I am racing, doing a group ride or recovery ride I will adjust the portion size accordingly. Oatmeal is easy on my stomach; it’s a great source of slow burning carbohydrates. Peanut butter, blueberries, and brown sugar create a nice blend of simple & complex carbohydrates, fats, and proteins.
While you are cycling you need a snack at least every half-hour. Obviously a trip around the block probably won’t require snacks, but on longer cycling trips, snacks become necessary. Many riders focus on quick fix solutions during their ride. They grab the nearest candy bar or bag of chips—big mistake. High sugar foods make a rider feel satisfied, and may provide some energy, but those empty calories will burn off quickly. I pack a few things in my jersey pockets that are easy to eat on the go. My favorite energy bar to carry is the Bonk Breaker Energy Bar. It’s easy on my stomach, gluten free and tastes wonderful. Sometimes I will pack a banana and nuts mixed with raisins. I also make homemade rice cakes with ground chicken sausage, eggs, brown sugar and seasonings. I cut them into manageable squares and wrap them in tin foil for a delicious energy snack.
Hydrating before pedaling helps you avoid illness and drying out on the road. Here are some basic guidelines I follow for my rides:
Less than 1 hour, I drink at least 16oz. of plain water before the ride and carry and consume a 16-24oz. bottle of plain water or an energy drink.
1-2 hours, I drink at least 16oz. of plain water or a pre-ride energy drink before the ride. I carry and consume one 16-24oz. bottle of plain water, plus an extra 16-24oz. bottle of an energy drink. After the ride I drink at least 16oz. of water or a recovery drink.
Over 2 hours, I drink at least 16oz. of plain water or a pre-ride energy drink before the ride. I carry and consume one 16-24oz. bottle of plain water, plus one extra 16-24oz. bottle of an energy drink—one that contains electrolytes—for each hour on the bike. I plan my route so that I have options to stop for water along the way, and always carry a few dollars with me in case I need to purchase bottled water or energy snacks.
Once you’re done with your ride don’t think you can neglect proper nutrition. The first few hours after cycling are just as important as anything you do before, or after, your ride. Your body may feel dehydrated and weak, and you will need to replace any lost nutrients. One easy way to do this is to consume a meal reach in protein. Hard boiled eggs, grilled chicken, and low fat beef are all good options. If you’re in a hurry, or on the run, try drinking a quick protein shake.
Proper nutrition and hydration are essential to your enjoyment of cycling and your ability to challenge yourself to reach your fitness goals. Take the time to think about what your body needs; experiment with foods your stomach can tolerate on a ride; and plan your food and drink needs.
Patrick Buob is a member of the board of the Wheatland Wheelers Bicycle Club. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.