You’ve been riding for days. In the last four hours, you’ve only eaten energy bars, sports drinks and the chip crumbs you found in your frame bag. You’re famished and dreaming of pizza, French fries, and chocolate milkshakes.
You’re nearing a town, and when you reach Main Street, you are sadly reminded of one of the most challenging aspects of bikepacking and ultra-cycling events: fueling. Your choices? A gas station on the left, McDonald’s on the right.
What to do?
There are countless articles about nutrition strategies for endurance events, which go into detail as to how many carbohydrates you should consume per hour under normal conditions, or what volume of hydration is necessary for optimal performance. Guess what? That doesn’t matter here.
“Any ultra-cycling endeavor is, to no small extent, an endeavor in eat-and-exercise and gut training,” says experienced ultra-cyclist Nick Legan, a veteran of three Tour Divide bikepacking races, among many other events.
“It’s about how much you can get in. Where am I going to get the next batch of calories that I need to keep moving forward? That’s the definition of the challenge. But that’s not the answer.”
The answer to the question of the best nutrition strategy for ultra-cycling events is one you’ve probably heard before: It depends. Everything from the weather, personal preference, the strength of your gut, food availability, and a host of other factors all contribute to how each individual fuels their engine.
Sometimes you’ll be able to get exactly what you need to properly fuel. At other times, you’ll get to choose between a Snickers and a Milky Way for “dinner.” (Always pick the Snickers, for no other reason than it satisfies you.)
How to fuel during ultra-races
To the unfamiliar, ultra-cycling may sound like culinary torture. Sure, you will be hungry sometimes. But with a bit of experience and veteran advice, small tweaks to your routine will allow you to focus on why you’ve taken on the challenge in the first place: to experience the thrill of the open road and the satisfaction of self-supported adventure.
Find foods that work
It’s one thing to know what you like—and what your stomach will tolerate—in moderate temperatures during an hours-long training ride. It’s another to know what you can tolerate three days into a weeklong race when it’s over 100°F.
“I encourage people to go out for training rides and to use that opportunity to experiment with different types of stuff and see what works when it’s cold, see what works when it’s hot,” says Jose Bermudez, an ultra-cycling coach and veteran of RAAM, Tour Divide, TransAm, and the Iditarod Trail Invitational.
Keep in mind, though, that many bikepacking races are in remote areas where choices are limited, or in other countries where you’re either unfamiliar with the products and their nutrition content, or the label is in a different language (which is when Google Translate can come in handy). Knowing what works for you and being able to get it during the event are two separate matters.
If you have a sensitive stomach and you know you’ll be in unfamiliar territory, try to find a certain food that works for you at home and do some research as to what might be available in the region or country where the race will be held to serve as a substitute. You’ll want to recreate the ingredient list and nutrition profile of that palatable food item as close as possible.
If you have an iron gut, you’re in luck. Eat a variety of foods on your training rides to mimic the experience of ingesting what you find wherever the race may be.
Make good choices at the gas station
What if your only choices are the items on the gas station or convenience store shelves? Many cyclists know their go-to food of choice from experience, after having done many long training rides. Of course, what you need or crave on a six-hour ride can be considerably different than what you need or crave after five days of racing.
At that point, you may feel empty. You may be sick of sugary foods entirely. You may be craving only salty things. Personal preference may ultimately dictate what you grab from the shelf, but a few guiding principles can help you make better choices.
“There are things people should gravitate towards and away from [in this situation],” Legan says. “Sometimes we see ultra-endurance cycling as an excuse to eat junk food. And sometimes that is all you have as an option. But the truth of it is, in most convenience stores, there are higher quality calories and lower quality calories. Because this isn’t just a calorie game—if it’s a really long activity, you need some level of nutrients as well.”
- Look for simple foods with few ingredients for improved digestibility.
- Avoid items like chocolate milk—it may have a reputation as a good recovery drink, but out on the road during a long, sustained effort, dairy often leads to bad outcomes.
- Generally avoid any foods that you know will lead to bloating and gas.
- Save the stimulating energy drinks for the toughest times, days into the event; resist any temptation to have a Red Bull seven hours in.
- Seek out real/whole foods as often as possible.
Feed your cravings
If you walk into the convenience store and you’re craving Fritos, go get a bag. Out there on the lonely road, it’s as much a psychological boost as anything to give your body what it wants.
“I have definitely learned that you do not know what you’re craving; your body knows better than you do,” says veteran ultra-cyclist and bikepacker Matt Roy. “I have a weak spot for the cheapest sour cream and onion chips. And the one that has MSG? Bring it on. It’s just what I crave on the ride. So, I’ve definitely learned to go with what I’m hungry for. But I try to eat as much real food as possible.”
When you’re fueling under stress, your nutrition strategy for ultra-cycling should be nourishing you physiologically as well as emotionally.
If you find yourself in a really bad spot, what you may need most is to sit still for a minute and eat real food. Back away from that last bag of Swedish Fish. Put away the Skittles for another time.
Combat palate fatigue
If you have too much of one thing—usually sugary foods—you may experience something called palate fatigue. This loss of desire to eat a particular food or drink is a common occurrence in ultra-endurance events, where the eating seemingly never stops.
Of course, being unable to consume calories because you have zero motivation to do so or, in some cases, the thought of another Snickers makes you nauseous, is not conducive to performance. You need a reset.
For most ultra-athletes, real food helps combat that fatigue better than most things. In order to push through, you may need to take a moment to seek out something that doesn’t come in a box or a wrapper, on a shelf, or in a vending machine. It might even be served on a plate.
“Sometimes you need to sit down and have a bacon, egg, and cheese croissant—that has saved a ride for me,” Legan says. “It will happen in the moment. You’ll say, ‘Well, this was certainly not part of my nutrition plan for this event, but it’s what I need right now.’”
When that time comes, go for it.
Is there a better way to fuel during ultra-races?
If you follow bikepacking at all, or have seen any of the documentaries about Tour Divide or other ultra-races, you’ve seen images of haggard ultra-athletes rummaging through the snack aisles of a roadside stop in search of sustenance.
In response to this, bikepacker and writer Taylor Doyle launched the Ultra Distance Plastic Resistance, a movement born out of what she calls “a humble questioning of the glorification of this gas station smash-and-grab style that’s become prevalent in long-distance cycling culture.”
Armfuls of single-use plastic and packaging are often generated when rocketing through the string of convenience stores lining an ultra-distance cycling event. The #plasticfreeultra pledge was borne out of a desire to encourage people to be less wasteful—not to mention eschew the unhealthy and performance-limiting attributes of all that junk food.
Kill two birds with one stone: Sit down for a real meal, reduce the amount of plastic waste you create, and feel better for it in more ways than one.
Bikepacking food gear
When it comes to carrying and preserving your precious food on the bike, there are several tricks that can bring some level of dignity to your meals.
- In my circumnavigation of Iceland, it was very rare that we would come across a store with bananas. But they did occasionally exist, and anytime we saw them, our eyes lit up. (Hooray, no more Snickers for a while!) It’s hard to pack six bananas in your bags without crushing them. Thanks to our cargo bib shorts, we could each walk away with three bananas per pocket and be set for another 12 hours.
- Carry reusable silicon pouches, Ziploc bags, aluminum foil, or beeswax wraps for storing food on the go. “When you get to a restaurant, you’re ordering two of certain things,” Legan says. “You’re eating one now and you’re taking one to go—so you have something to wrap up your tater tots in. That way you can carry it without it leaking all over your stuff and you smelling like hamburger all the time.”
- A musette bag—the thin cloth bag that pro roadies use in feeding zones—or a stashable, thin backpack is also handy for carrying extra items if, for example, you need to resupply late in the day but still have a ways to go to the campsite or that evening’s destination.
A clean mouth is a happy mouth
Finally, at the end of the day, or even multiple times per day, it can be incredibly helpful to clean your mouth after consuming so much sweet junk.
The solution, say Roy: Pack a toothbrush.
“This is a very non-palatable description, but your teeth feel hairy after a while from so much sugar,” he says. “And just being able to brush your teeth at some point is really nice.”
While it won’t physically improve performance, small pleasures like this can have an outsized psychological impact. End your day on a high note.