Fuel and Fluids for Riding

By Dr. Kim Perry, Executive Director

Everyone’s body is different and there are as many nutritional lifestyles out there are bike brands. Taking time to figure out what works best for you is an important part of being a strong and happy cyclist. Here are some facts and “food for thought”.

Fluids Make it or Break It

Okay, we are mostly fluid. That fact is undeniable. And it takes water to keep our body working. Without it we will die. Period. And all the stages of dehydration before that can produce some pretty frightening experiences.

If you’ve seen me around the Bike Virginia tour you’ve probably seen me with a Camelback or a water bottle clipped on my belt and I’m not even on the bike! It’s the only way I can keep up with the demands of the job.

Putting demand on our body, like riding sixty miles or working around tent city for 16 hours equates to more fluid demands than a sedentary day. The higher the temperature the more the need for hydration increases. When you are out on the route riding long distances in the sun making all those climbs you’re going to need to make yourself drink. And don’t rely on thirst. It’s a late indicator of being dehydrated.

Dehydration is a vicious cycle. “Fluid loss as low as 2% of total body weight (three pounds in a 150 pound person) impairs temperature regulation and reduces endurance capacity and aerobic performance. Higher levels of dehydration impair mental concentration, alertness, muscular strength and endurance, physical work capacity, and increase risks for heat injury” and even death (University of Montana).

The American College of Sports medicine recommends 0.83 and 1.65L (28 to 55 ounces) of fluid consumption per hour of prolonged exercise.  Needs very based on many factors including base hydration, heat, exertion level, sweating, etc…

Avoiding dehydration on a multiple day tour like the Bike Virginia tour is a task that requires attention over the entire event (and even before and after the tour).  You can gradually lose fluids each day and that can result in a compounding effect.  Stay on top of hydration when on and off the bike. Make smart hydration a priority and you’ll feel less tired and have more fun.

A word of caution though, over-hydration is also a risk and a dangerous one. Too much water and not enough sodium in the blood can result in hyponatremia, a potentially fatal condition sometimes called Water Intoxication. Symptoms of hyponatremia include nausea, headache, cramps, confusion, seizures,   National Public Radio recently wrote about hyponatremia in the Boston Marathon and provided great tips for assessing your fluid intake. Consuming the right balance of water and electrolytes through food or drink will prevent this condition.


In addition to drinking water you will need electrolytes. That’s why we serve Gatorade at our rest stops. Electrolyte drinks are one choice for supplementing water as well as other electrolyte supplements. Some riders find that sugary drinks are difficult to digest and do better with pills such as Hammer Nutrition’s Endurolytes, gels such as E-gel , or chews such as Clif Bar Shot Blocks.

Test out drinks and supplements in advance of the tour. Not all products work for all riders. Don’t spend a day of the bike tour in a porta-john thanks to a new product!

Water in Foods

Hydration can also be aided by eating fluid rich foods. Did you know an apple is 84% water? Eating a diet rich in fruits and vegetables can help your hydration. Check out this water content chart by University of Kentucky.

Foods and the Fuel They Give Us

I’m one of those riders who can eat anything when I ride, but I choose not to, I have a very picky diet. My husband on the other hand can’t stand solid foods during an endurance event. He likes only liquid nutrition for cycling. It’s taken each of us years to figure out what works for performance and makes me happy at the same time. As we have such specific needs we often carry our own food.

Riders tell us about all kinds of dietary challenges when they ride. Some cannot digest fatty foods, spicy seasoning, or tomatoes when they are cycling. Some want pasta, others don’t. Some want sweets, others want fruit.

When it all boils down, you need to experiment with foods to see what works best for your needs and your preferences. Here are some basic points to consider:

Carbohydrates are a must. You will need carbohydrates to fuel your engine as you ride all day. Carbs can come from whole food sources such as fruits and vegetables or from processed foods such as grain products like breads and pasta, and even from more processed foods like candy bars and cookies. I’ve found that whole food carbs (like sweet potatoes) work best for me they give me long lasting energy.

Protein is another critical dietary component. Protein comes from both animal, legume, and vegetable/nut sources. Getting the right balance of protein for your individual needs and output can greatly improve athletic performance and overall energy.  Protein intake can affect hydration too so be sure to pay attention to this information. Visit this Georgetown University webpage  or the Colorado State’s site to learn more.

Fats are a secondary type of fuel. Colorado State University does a great job of talking about fat intake as well as a review of other key dietary components on their website.

Refueling at Night

At the end of a long day of riding on the tour you will want to eat a balanced nutritional dinner.  Recovery requires fluids, carbs, fats, proteins, and nutrients. To perform well multiple days in a row I like to remember the old sayings “You are What You Eat” and “Garbage In, Garbage Out.

If you’re not feeling well on day 2, 3, 4 or 5 of a multiple day event  look to your hydration and refueling strategies as a likely culprit.

Do the Test Yourself

If you’re not convinced about the difference diet makes in performance. Do a little experimentation, just not on your tour vacation. When you’re at home on a training day try different fueling options. I’m sure you’ll see a difference when you eat healthier (nutrient rich) more balanced diet of the right proteins, carbs, and fats. Have you watched the movie Super Size Me? If not it’s a great way to see what a diet of high-fat, processed food can do in a very short time.