Former Brit pro Michael Hutchinson has said that it wasn’t until he retired and wrote and researched his excellent book Faster that he really began to understand sports nutrition (see a review here). Which makes me feel a bit better. Because I’ve recently learned a few things about this topic (some from Hutchinson’s book) that I’m somewhat embarrassed to say I didn’t know until now.
This includes the following kinda important facts about the human body and the way it produces and uses energy.
- The body can only store so much carbohydrate (sugars and starches), which it turns into valuable glycogen. This is unlike fat, which the body can store in unlimited quantities – to the chagrin of many.
- The faster you go and the harder you ride (or run, or ski, etc), the more your body relies on glycogen for energy. That’s in part because carbs can be turned into energy far more efficiently than fat or protein. Conversely, fat is the main source of energy when you’re pedalling along at an easy pace.
- So, the bottom line, as Michael Hutchinson says, is that “the faster you’re riding, the smaller the fuel tank.” He adds (sarcastically) that this is nature’s idea of a joke.
I don’t find it funny. Over the years, I’ve bonked many times. There have been some mild ones, where I’ve made it home with little trouble from a run or a ride, but felt pretty awful. And then there have been some pretty epic ones, where I’ve basically crawled home on my hands and knees in tears.
I now understand what the hell was going on with my body… and feel pretty dumb. I also now better understand all the fuss with carbo-loading before a major endurance event.
I’ve also read elsewhere that the body can only store enough glycogen to support about 90 minutes of moderate to intense exercise. Blimey, that’s not very long, especially when you consider that many rides last up to four hours.
This all takes me to a recipe for energy bars that I’ve been using for the past few weeks, and which has worked pretty well for me on the bike. On longer rides (3-5 hrs), I have eaten one or two small squares every hour or so to ensure I don’t deplete my stored glycogen levels.
These bars are pretty tasty and largely based on GCN’s “secret” recipe. The nice thing about them is that a main ingredient is oats. Among its many benefits, oats are a great source of slow-release carbs. That means they’ll drip-feed fuel to the muscles, forcing the body to use a greater proportion of fat for energy, which spares precious glycogen stores.
So it’s kind of win-win, as you’re burning fat in addition to staving off the dreaded bonk. I’ve been eating a bar in the hour or so before a long ride.
From beginning to end, it only takes maybe 30 minutes to make these bars, cooking time included. And they’re a lot cheaper than your store-bought variety.
First, melt and mix the following ingredients in a pan over a low heat:
- Sunflower oil – 120ml
- Brown sugar – 200g (about 1 cup)
- Golden syrup or honey – 2 tbsp
- Peanut butter – 1 tbsp
- Vanilla extract – 1/2 tsp
- Sesame seeds – 25g
- Sunflower seeds – 25g
- Flaked or finely chopped almonds – 50g
- Raisons – 50g
- Chopped dates or figs – 50g
Then gradually mix about 225 grams of thick cut porridge oats/oatmeal. At this point, you may have to resist the temptation to start digging into the gooey mess right there while hunched over your stove like an animal. Instead, transfer mixture to a baking tin lined with parchment paper. Don’t forget to press it down firmly with a fork.
Finally, bake it at 180 degrees celsius for 10-15 minutes. Once the mixture starts bubbling slightly, you’re done. Leave to cool in the tin before removing the parchment and cutting up bars for your cycling enjoyment!