Eat Today, Ride Tomorrow

This is the fourth in a series of posts sharing lessons learned while bicycling more than 1,170 miles in preparation for the RAGBRAI bicycle ride across Iowa. You can see them all here.

It simply amazes me how much of a difference food and water make on a bike ride.

You can be struggling along, with barely the energy to push the pedal one more time, fighting against the wind and barely beating gravity on the hills. Then you stop for water and maybe a snack. Suddenly the pedals seem to push themselves, the wind is merely refreshing and you realize that the mountain you were fighting was merely a molehill.

Food Is Fuel

Pedaling is a lot of work, especially over long distances. The energy to do that work has to come from somewhere. The human body is amazing in its capability to turn food and water into energy and produce work. You have to do your part, though. Your body can’t provide energy if you don’t give it enough fuel to burn. (I’m sure this same principle works with physical labor, backpacking, hiking, and generally going about daily life.)

While preparing for the RAGBRAI and reading about long-distance bicycle rides, a commonly heard phrase has been “eat today for tomorrow’s ride.” After finishing a long ride Ashley and I have found ourselves famished and happy to devour everything in sight. Even though we snacked during the ride we still depleted our energy reserves and need more food. Those huge meals after riding help our bodies to recover from the day’s activity and let it rest. If we didn’t eat, the next day we had no energy available.

Eat As You Go

Even with a solid breakfast before riding and a huge meal after we still have to eat more during the ride. We have to stop and snack every 15-20 miles otherwise we find ourself out of energy even though we aren’t tired. Sometimes this means that we eat when we aren’t hungry.

One of the tenants of long-distance bike riding is to eat before you’re hungry and drink before you’re thirsty. If you have allowed yourself to get hungry and/or thirsty, it is too late. You have to drink and eat frequently.

I have looked at a couple of different estimates on calories burnt on a long (50+ mile) bike ride. For my age, height, and weight the estimates vary widely, anywhere from 4-7,000 calories. No matter what the real number, a regular day’s worth of food just won’t cut it. I feel like a teenager again, a bottomless pit that just vacuums in food. But when I can get through a ride without being exhausted at the end it’s all worth it.

Really, Drink More Water

Just like food, water makes a huge difference in performance. Without it, energy dips and it feels like you’re pedaling through molasses. Stopping for a quick break and a few sips from my water bottle have me feeling refreshed and ready to go again in no time.

I’m not sure that I can drink too much water while bike riding. Too little leaves me slogging away without any energy. Drinking too much just means that I get to tour a few extra bathrooms along the route. And a bathroom break is still a break, so it’s win-win!

The amount of work that the human body can do is amazing, as long as it receives the proper amount of food and water to keep it going. Food may be fuel and I might have to eat and drink when I’m not hungry or thirsty, but the sense of accomplishment that they provide me is well worth it. None of those miles would be possible otherwise!