Mountain biking is one of our favorite pastimes because it’s an exhilarating way to be in nature and get an intense workout at the same time. Because mountain biking burns so many calories, it’s important to regularly fuel your body, depending on the length of your ride.
Carbo-Load the Day Before
Because you’re going to be burning so much energy on a ride, you need to increase your energy stores to maintain your endurance. Carbo-loading is a technique used by mountain bikers, marathoners, and other endurance athletes. The uptake in carbs increases your glycogen stores, which are your source of energy derived from carbohydrates. Glycogen is stored in your muscles and liver, and your body naturally has glycogen reserves that give you energy for light exercise. High-intensity activities, especially those that last a few hours like mountain biking, burn through your glycogen, which is why you need to boost your stores by eating lots of carbs the day before. You don’t need to go overboard with the carbs, but consider adding pasta or bagels to your meal plan for the day.
Should You Eat Breakfast Before an Intense Ride?
If you have a really early ride scheduled or are not much of a breakfast person, it might seem inconvenient to eat breakfast. Even though you may have carbo-loaded the day before, breakfast (or a pre-ride meal) is “a vital opportunity to top up glycogen stores (especially in the liver) and optimise hydration status”, according to Sports Dietitians Australia. Just make sure to eat at least two hours before a ride, if possible, to ensure proper digestion.
A low protein, high carb breakfast is best. As told to LiveAbout.com, exercise physiologist Aimee Layton advises, “It is important not to have too much protein prior to a long workout because protein requires a large amount of water to digest, which can lead to dehydration and muscle cramping”. Our favorite breakfast before a long ride is oatmeal, because it’s high in slow-burning carbohydrates that will sustain and energize you until it’s time to snack during your ride.
During the Ride
Snacking during your ride is key to avoid “bonking”. This isn’t a technical term, but it’s one that is used within the cycling and mountain biking communities to describe a sudden drop in energy resulting in an all-encompassing fatigue. It’s every mountain biker’s worst nightmare, especially if they’re with friends (who have been properly fueling throughout the ride, and haven’t “bonked”) or in the middle of a long ride. This unfortunate phenomenon occurs when you’ve burned through all your glycogen reserves and your body starts to burn through fat, instead. The body does not efficiently burn fat into energy, which is why you feel so fatigued when a “bonk” occurs.
Carbo-loading definitely helps prevent bonking, but regular snacking during the ride is the real key. For extended rides, make sure you’re eating approximately 30 to 60 grams of carbs per hour on your bike. The American College of Sports Medicine recommends this amount as it will help “maintain oxidation of carbohydrates and delay fatigue”. But why not eat more carbs than that, if you’re burning through so much glycogen, which comes from carbs? This is because your body can only process about one gram of carbohydrates per minute. If you’re eating more carbs than you need to during a race, you’re more likely to end up with an upset stomach. Vegan energy bars are a great snack option because they tell you on the wrapper exactly how many carbs you’re eating.
Like regular snacking, drinking water regularly during a ride is key to your success during and after the ride. It’s easy to forget to hydrate, so some mountain bikers set 15 minute timers as reminders to drink water. When it comes to fueling up and hydrating, preemptively quench your hunger and thirst before they take over. Always drink water before you get thirsty, advises staff at the Mayo Clinic.
What Should I Eat While Mountain Biking?
On a bike ride, we recommend eating easily digestible foods as most of your energy is going towards powering your bike, not digesting. Here are some of our favorite foods to pack for a ride:
- Energy bars
- Sports gels
- Peanut butter sandwiches
- Trail mix
- Jelly beans
You can also supplement your electrolyte intake with a sports drink, and alternate drinking that with water.
Recovering After the Ride
After a long mountain bike ride, your top three priorities should be restoring your glycogen levels (by eating carbs), hydration, and eating protein for muscle recovery. Immediately after a ride, or within 30 to 60 minutes after you finish, aim to eat about 20 grams of protein to speed up the recovery process. From then on, try to maintain a 4:1 ratio of carbs to protein in your diet that evening and the next day.
Rehydration is also key to recovery after you’ve put your body through such an intense workout. Although you may have been hydrating regularly throughout your ride, continue to do so during the recovery period. Try to replace 150% of the fluid you lost during your ride for the next four to 6 hours. The amount of fluid depends on many variables, such as the intensity of your ride, the temperature and humidity of your environment, and how much you sweated. A good way to gauge how hydrated you are is by the color of your urine. The lighter it is, the more hydrated you are.
As you may have figured out by now, the answer to the question, “What should I eat while mountain biking?” is pretty broad, and includes fueling up before and after a ride. If you are intentional about stocking up your energy reserves before a ride and regularly hydrating and fueling during it, you’ll have enough energy to keep you going and make you feel good.
Proper hydration and nutrition will make your life so much easier so you can enjoy doing what you love. If you're interested in fueling up for running, you can take a look at this post on energy bars for runners.