I’m no nutritionist but one thing I know is that lots of people get it wrong. And it’s just as easy to eat and drink too much as it is to take on too little.
Cyclefit have a great guide to the Etape which features some very informed stuff from Darren Barclay who is a nutrition expert and a pretty handy bike rider to boot. I thoroughly recommend you download the PDF.
Cyclefit’s Etape du Tour Guide 2010 (6Mb PDF)
To that I’ll add my not so expert advice.
Eat real food as far as possible
Energy gels and bars are all well and good but you can’t eat them for the whole ride. Real food tastes better and is easier on the stomach.
Team Sky nutritionist Nigel Mitchell has developed their strategy for Brad Wiggins and his gang:
“We developed a nutrition programme which was tested at the Giro d’Italia and it included high-carbohydrate foods such as paninis being consumed during the first half of every stage, followed by gels and energy drinks to keep the riders fuelled late on.” – Nutrition key for Tour test
So if you can, snaffle some pastries from the breakfast buffet, make yourself some sort of roll with a half baguette and crush it flat. They are fine sources of energy and much more bearable at six in the morning than high sugar bars.
Last time I stood in the start pens nibbling away a a ham and jam baguette which lasted me well into the first hour of the ride. Psychologically it was easier to eat that than start on the bars and gels which would be lunch.
At the feed stations run yourself up a sandwich from the bits available and grab the fresh fruit, jelly sweets and cereal bars to supplement what you’ve got in your pockets. There is loads of stuff on offer which will break up the monotony of flavours.
If you have a “favourite” energy bar, take a few different flavours that you can stomach because one thing is for sure: after five hours, you really aren’t going to want a sixth one of the same flavour.
Two other great options which I’ll be carrying are Bassett Jelly Babies and Marks and Spencer’s Percy Pigs. Both are a great way to get plenty of energy on board in nice flavoursome chunks rather than trying to fit an entire bar in our mouth in one go.
I worked out that a handful of about five jelly babies provides you with about half the carbohydrate intake you need in an hour. Now tell me you aren’t thinking about putting a bag of Bertie’s best in your pocket.
Drink but don’t drown
While eating is pretty easy to regulate and you can usually manage to scoff something, no matter how you are feeling, drinking can prove much more challenging.
There’s a point you’ll reach where you don’t feel like drinking any more fluid. At that point you must fight that feeling and keep on taking regular sips from your bottle.
Try no to binge on your bottle by necking it in one go, rather try to take regular mouthfuls every 10 minutes or so. You’ll disrupt your breathing less this way and avoid bloating your stomach with fluid.
I’ve tended to take a 750ml bottle with plain water and then two 500ml ones with energy drink in (one in a bottle cage, the other in the middle back pocket) to give a balance. There are times when you don’t need to take on more energy drink, just a bit of water, and I’ve found this helps stop the sugar overload and deadness of palate.
Sachets of energy drink powder are increasingly common and a much less messy way to carry refills than measuring out your own and bagging them up. They’re also much less likely to attracts the attentions of customs officers on your travels.
Remember: a 500ml bottle of energy drink plus a decent bar/snack in each hour is as much energy as your body can handle.
It’s easy to remember: one 500ml bottle an hour is roughly as much fluid as you need, any more is pushing you towards drowning your system with water which will inhibit performance. On a hot day, you may need more but that’s a good baseline to follow.
Carbohydrate, electrolyte, vitamin
Electrolyte is really important in distance events. Loss of salts leads to cramp and poor performance. So choose an energy drink that replenishes these effectively for you.
Get your carbohydrate from mixed sources, not just your bottles and not just your pockets.
The feast of the night before
Certainly you should eat well the night before the ride but don’t force-feed yourself like a Foie Gras Goose. Your body is not going to suddenly develop extra capacity for digestion.
Have that extra slice of cake you’ve been avoiding for the last few months. You’ve earned it and you’ll burn it off by the Marie Blanque.
Drink some tonic water (gin optional) as the quinine seems to help stop cramp. I usually have a bottle of Schweppes the night before a big event, without the commensurate gin intake.
I’ve not told you which gels, bars or drinks to take simply because there is no one “best” option. The one you use has to suit your needs and palate.