Monday, October 26, 2009

What Long Distance Cyclists Really Eat

OK folks, I'm going to start with some disclaimers.

Although the various foodstuffs described here have worked well for me and my various high-mileage friends, I am not a nutritional role model. I'm pretty sure that holds true for my pals as well.

Despite all the glowing words I'm about to heap on the makers of Peanut M&Ms, PayDay candy bars and the various fine products made by the people at Reeses, I'm not sponsored by nor do I get any kickbacks from the folks who make those incredibly tasty, high-energy foods. This is not some example of blog-journalistic integrity on my part. This is, in fact, just a damn shame. If anyone reading these words has any pull with the makers of these wonderful products, tell them that Kent's Bike Blog is a great way to connect with hundreds of hungry cyclists and sponsoring me in the 2010 Tour Divide would certainly be a wise use of their marketing dollars.

I researched this article by riding a lot and eating a lot and also soliciting advice from randonneurs, ultra-distance mountain bikers and long distance bike tourists. For purposes of this discussion, Long Distance Riding refers to riding more than one hundred miles per day for days at a time. Most of these trips involve refueling at little gas stations and markets along the route, so much of the advice based around the items stocked in such establishments.

A decade ago, when I was first getting into randonneuring, my friend Mark Thomas explained the his method of fueling for a long ride. In this case, the ride was the Vancouver Island 1000K and Mark wrote:
You really can go and go on a long ride with powder for power. (I used about 12,000 calories worth of Twinlabs Gainers Fuel 2500). All you need are a scientifically chosen collection of supplements to the powder. Mine included a spanish omelette and bacon, bananas, a sausage and pepperoni pizza, ham and cheese sandwiches, chicken and cheese sandwiches, ice cream, mushroom soup, french fries, a salmon and bacon club sandwich, oatmeal, onion rings, grapes, a blueberry scone and other similar nutrients.
Mark is a Super Randonneur (yes, that's a real title) and I take his advice seriously. Mark is a rich source of rando-knowledge and knows many useful things like how many Starbucks DoubleShots can fit in a Zefal Magnum Water Bottle and how many miles those DoubleShots will take you. You don't learn those things from a book, you learn them late at night on the road.

Ken Bonner rides more than anyone I know. I say the odds are good that he rides more than anyone you know, unless you know Henry Berkenbos. Last year, for example, Ken rode 29,124 kilometers. When I asked Ken about what fuels his motor, he didn't tell me about wheat germ and yogurt. He did mention:
As a mental and physical energy booster on hot days, I recommend McDonald’s super-size chocolate milkshakes. Unfortunately, McDonald’s factory-made gourmet rando-food outlets are rarely placed on rando-brevet routes.
Another extremely accomplished randonneur, Jan Heine, offers up a great bit of wisdom when he advises "eat while riding, not stopped. That way there is plenty of time for eating." Jan also confesses that he's fond of "Dark chocolate. When no energy bars taste good anymore, and you happen to be near a half-way decent grocery store... I sometimes even take an 'emergency ration' in my handlebar bag."

When I posed my food question to rando-pal Mark Vande Kamp he responded:
I'm not at the "Great Divide" level but I have one "fake food" and one "real food" thing that each work for me. The fake food is straight maltodextrin. I bought a couple of 50 pound bags and split them up with some other randonneur types. I find the stuff bland enough to get it down almost any time and it is the best anti-bonk remedy I've used. It would be hard to take enough along for a multi-day adventure, but I've found that mixing up a concentrated gel in the blender, carrying that in a "food" bottle, and squirting/mixing that with water in a different bottle provides a steady source of calories in an easy to carry, easy to drink, and easy to digest form.

The real food is black kalamata olives. A small plastic jar of these is so much more tasty than salt capsules and it basically serves the same purpose. Little bits of super-salty, veggie-oil-saturated, tastiness -- what's not to love?
Mark brings up a key point, variety. Years ago, I heard John Stamstad talk at REI and he advised carrying foods with a range of tastes and textures. "Something salty, something sweet. Some crunchy stuff, some smooth stuff. If you have just one thing, you'll get so you can't stand to eat it." John, the man who basically invented ultra-distance mountain biking, also told me that he reads nutritional labels "backwards from the way most people do. I'm looking for the most calories per dollar." John's view of food is nicely described in this quote:
"Stamstad also believes in the restorative though as yet medically unexplained power of Mountain Dew and Krispy Kreme donuts. He argues in defense of Twinkies, Little Debbie snack cakes, and Pop-Tarts, noting that none of them freeze on the trail and all excel in calorie-to-cost benefit. (Little Debbie oatmeal-creme pie: 170 calories, at 11 cents.)" -- Outside Magazine profile of John Stamstad, That Which Does Not Kill Me Makes Me Stranger
Tough guy Moishe Lettvin confesses that "Ramen noodles, raw & straight from the package, have got me past a couple of fairly epic bonks." Elden "Fatty" Nelson probably doesn't strictly fit my "multiple hundred mile plus days" category, but he's raced Leadville at least a dozen times and one of his fuels is so good and so weird I had to include it here. He drinks Campbell's Chicken and Stars Soup cold, straight out of the can! I'd be proud to ride with Fatty any day.

If you are not racing against the clock or other people, you can actually take some time and cook food. Wayne Methner advises:
Buy a garlic and onion, a thing of dried salami and either a thing of couscous or Knorr brand Mexican rice dish... With a JetBoil or, in my case, a Colman Peak One, you saute the onion garlic and salami for about a minute, add the appropriate water and rice or couscous...meal-Dinner is ready in 10 - 15 minutes. Starter breakfast is Bread, avocado/tomato, left over onion and salami. Cost about $15, two people two meals including beer and wine. Ride 50-80 K and have a sit down breakfast...Milkshakes/lattes until you get to your overnight and dinner.
Jon Muellner offers up his favorite:
Mine is rice/beans/tortillas. Soak the beans and rice all day in a water bottle while riding. Pour them in a pan and cook them in camp that night and there you go. Make an extra for the next day.
Back at the convenience store, Jon claims that "nothing beats Coke and JoJos!" Tarik Saleh, like many of the folks who responded to my request for data, cites peanuts as being a great energy source:
My favorite convenience store food on long rides are 2 for a dollar salted nuts. The ones that come in the long plastic bag tubes. Usually one of salted peanuts and one of honey roasted peanuts. Occasionally almonds or others, but the old faithful is the peanuts. For planned mid ride lunch I usually have a peanut/almondbutter-honey and grapenut sandwich. It usually packs best if you make it the night before and the bread is slightly crusty and the nutbutter and honey have saturated the grapenuts and bread. Smear the nut butter on both sides of the bread, pile grapenuts on one side, cover grapenuts in honey, smash sammich together, place in one, or a double plastic bag.

Alas, I have found if I am too far gone on the bonk/effort, this is not a very good meal, but in the middle of a long ride it is great.

That and bananas.
Paul "Dr. Codfish" Johnson advises:

If a convenience store is at hand I find that those sandwiches of indeterminate age in the cold case suit me well for distance riding. You know the ones I mean: White bread, mystery meat, cheese-like food product and another slab of white bread. It’s the right ratio of carbs, fat, and protein for me (if you add the mayo and mustard-like food products). I found to my delight that there is a very similar rocket fuel in France when riding PBP: The Jambon et burre baguette (sometimes referred to as the ‘gagette’. Chew slowly lest you find yourself on the side of the road reaching frantically from the ditch for your water bottle).

If I plan ahead I‘ll put a zip loc baggie of salted nuts (almonds or cashews) and a baggie of dried apricots in my bag. These are usually tasty most anywhere along the time-distance continuum. They travel and keep pretty well.

Somewhere along the way in a multi-day event or with a sustained intensity level, I get a craving for a big glass of really cold milk. Otherwise milk is not on my list.

Back in my energy drink days I found I could make Sustained Energy palatable by adding a heaping tablespoonful of chocolate milk powder and another of Nestle’s malted milk powder. Instant chocolate malt on the go.

I also find that Ensure works well for me in almost any circumstance. Unfortunately you don’t get this in singles at the inconvenience store.

These ‘gummy sport’ bites seem pretty good to me. They give you something to occupy your attention on the long boring straight sections (or night sections) of rides.

That microwaved cup-o-noodles can bring a person back from the brink.

In the area of home brew stomach remedies, I have found that a cold 7-Up can often do wonders at quieting an upset stomach. It’s cheap easy to get and does not cost much.

Joel Metz, bike messenger, randonneur and organizer of the Raid Californie-Oregon makes sense when he says:
I - firmly in the category of "if I finish PBP in 89 hours, 59 minutes and 59 seconds, or less, I'm doing fine!" - live completely by two rules:

1. Eat early, eat often. (also works with drinking)

2. Drink water, eat food.

I generally don't touch any of the fancy-schmancy energy or recovery drinks, or much of anything in bar or goo form. I walk into an establishment that offers food, and get what my stomach says it wants.

If I'm packing in advance, I'm partial to the good ol PBJ; peanut butter/honey/banana sandwiches; dried and fresh fruit of various varieties; baguettes stuffed with a) tomato + avocado, b) brie or c) ham and butter; roasted/salted cashews; chocolate. If I could find a way to pack ice cream, I would. Seriously. I'll eat almost anything I can find along the way, and pretty much do. While I don't quite delve as deeply into the processed convenience store food as some do, I have a hard time passing up corn dogs, and again, if my stomach is demanding a certain item, far be it from me to question its judgment.

I'm "blessed" with a decade and a half of messengering, which means I have a greater than normal capacity to eat and run, or eat while riding. This helps with the whole "eating anything you encounter" thing.

Joel's "Eat what you encounter" philosophy mirrors my own, but a key part of this is having a sense of what you might encounter. I knew, from reading accounts of previous Great Divide racers, that there aren't a lot of Whole Foods Markets and fresh produce along the tiny trails that hug the spine of the Rockies. So for months before the race, I was eating lunches that I got from 7-11s and gas stations. I know what works for me.

Peanut M&Ms. God how I love Peanut M&Ms. Back in 1982, Peanut M&Ms got me across Wyoming. When it's hot, I need salt. Potato chips are good, Fritos are better. A great amount of calories for the weight.

Milk. Chocolate milk, regular milk, I don't care. The more fat the better. I don't carry it with me on the bike but washing a Hershey bar down with a pint of milk puts hundreds of calories into your system pretty darn quickly. And if you've practiced this a lot, like I have, you can do this in about a minute and be back on your bike.

The good folks at Clif will sell you Clif Shots and I know they work great but so do Gummi Bears. Or Gummi Fish. Or any other Gummi Creature.

Peanut Butter Cups. They are really good, but can get melty. Not an issue if you're doing something like the Iditarod or if you eat them fast. PayDay bars travel better in the heat, but lack the chocolatey goodness.

The common thread in all the responses I got and in the experiences we've all recounted is the importance of getting calories in, in finding a food you like that works for you.

As Chris Plesko, current Tour Divide single-speed record-holder wrote:
The Divide sure makes you eat weird food. I'm fond of all sorts of junk.

Reeses big cups and PB Twix are the best. Peanut M&Ms are a staple. Caramellos work awesome for before bed but not while riding. Same with Cheetos.

I also like any sort of little pastry item, lemon cake, cheese danish etc. Muffins work here too.

For savory, I'm fond of cheese sticks and peanuts and Pringles.

Starbucks DoubleShots are a gift to AM wake ups though I once hauled a king size GLASS Frapaccino because that's all there was.

Now I'm sure there is some favored cycling food that hasn't been mentioned here. And there might be one or two nutritionists who will have differing opinions as to what folks should be eating on long rides. That's what the comment section is for. What do you eat before, during and after long miles in the saddle? Let me know and keep on rolling,


photo courtesy of Brad Hawkins.
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