Fueling differently for long rides vs. short, high intensity sessions

Long rides vs. shorter, high intensity interval sessions - do you fuel differently for the type of ride you’re doing?

Many years ago when I started working at CTS as a young coach, the Leadville MTB 100 was the big event to focus on for everyone. As I was sitting down with Chris Carmichael before the race on year, he was telling me about his pre-race meal - a huge burrito that totaled upwards of 1500 calories! That caught me off guard because I don’t think I’ve ever eaten a pre-race/ride meal that large to date.

However, after continuing to develop as an athlete and ultimately searching out similarly large or multi-day events, I did come to seek out larger meals to fuel those efforts. What I learned over the years was that that’s ok - it was a necessary evolution. The key was finding what sits well and gives me the best sensations when the race starts.

So now going into big rides or events, I generally don’t hold back on energy. I search out carbohydrate-rich fuels and pair them with textures and flavors that will allow me to eat an adequate amount. I’ve worked with many athletes over the years who go to something simple and small like a slice or two of toast with avocado. But they almost always run low on energy. It’s just not enough in many cases.

For shorter, high intensity intervals, I bring the energy intake way down and ensure I simply have something carb-rich before to support the energy production necessary (mostly carbohydrate oxidation) to optimize performance in that session.

Leave your thoughts, additions, or questions below!

Thank you, Ryan.

I would love to hear your thoughts on LSD rides and how to approach fueling for those. There’s a lot of talk these days on doing low intensity rides in a fasted state, but what about the 3-5 hour low intensity rides? Is there a target we should be reaching for in these types of ride?

Especially during winter LSD rides I try to stimulate fat burning early then transition to more carb heavy fueling later. One goal is to slow carb absorption (thru Ucan bars) or gastric emptying (with Protein/carb bars or Fat/carb bars) to prevent sugar spikes/roller coaster. (Approaching season when LSD rides are a bit harder and I want to be adapted to preface meal I will eat as much as I want before a ride.)

I eat ~ 250 cal every 30 minutes (Garmin reminds me to do this, but I’ve been doing it so long that I pretty much do it automatically at this point!) This calorie strategy pretty much matches my energy expenditure, 500cal/hr on the bike. This seems like a lot to absorb given the theory that the maximum sugar consumption is supposed to be 70-90g (280-360/hr) but this is for high intensity, I believe, and also the gut, like anything can adapt thru training!

I start the ride fasted (overnight, generally 10-14hr) For the first 2 hrs I eat Ucan bars (pretty cool product) a proprietary slow release carb. The middle 1-2hrs I use a protein/calorie bar (like Bonk Breaker protein) thinking that I want to replace or have available protein if my “fasted” start has lead to my body mobilizing some protein for fuel. Also the protein should slow stomach emptying The last 1-2hrs will be pretty much carbs, like Nut Butter Clif bars.

The last 10 minutes is my “reward.” I eat an apple. Couple of things here. First it is a clear signal that the ride is over (psychological reward.) Second it is sweet (a healthy sweet! a physical/)psychological reward.) Third I bet it cleans my teeth a little from all of the bars (health reward!)

I drink Gatorade or Powerade Zero so I get flavor, electrolytes without additional calories. Gatorade conditioned me 30-40 years ago with they’re “research (?avertising)” that athletes consume more fluids if they are flavored. As someone who sweats more that any human in history I think this is important. On that note, by daily supplements, taken pre exercise include calcium and zinc which is supposed to be lost in sweat. I don’t want to stimulate bone break down (calcium loss) or give my immunity more of a hit (zinc loss) that the exercise itself while I’m out doing something that I think is healthy for me!

I think Ucan is a really cool product. Developed as an “orphan drug” for rare genetic disorder where kids cannot keep their blood sugar up without a constant supply of sugars, commercialized for athletics/diabetics/ketogenic fans. I have no relationship to the company! If anyone is interested a podcast about its origin/development!

Shorter/Hi Intensity rides are even simpler. A bar and a piece of fruit before the ride. Simple sugars (maple syrup or Carbboom shots and Clif shot blocks during) Generally 1/2-2/3 of the hourly consumption that I do on LSD rides (250-350 cal/hr 6-9 blocks or 2-3 gels) which I what I do during racing because I don’t think I can absorb as much at higher intensities.

The above is all “based on science/theory,” and definitely seems to work for me from experience. It is interesting (and probably expected) that I do get hungrier during LSD rides (when I’m burning way fewer calories per hour,) than during high intensity rides!


Hi @jaredu34, and welcome to the forum!

Great question. For LSD rides, the goal is to ride in a state where the body is primarily oxidizing fat for fuel, so I certainly bring fuel with me, but do not overload myself either. I will usually take a gel approximately every hour to 90 minutes if I don’t have any hunger signals before that point. Otherwise, if I miss that signal, then I’ll see it first manifest in my mental state (e.g., I stop enjoying the ride) and that’s a big cue that I need to fuel a bit.

I’ve been working through some 3-4 hour LSD rides over the past few weeks and will usually carry about 2-3 gels with me +2 large bottles. The bottles are water mixed with Liquid IV (for the electrolytes and flavor) and some gatorade (because I have about 5 of those 10 pound bags left over and can’t let them go to waste). So I’ll get a regular hit of a little sugar + electrolytes, and have the gels on hand if I need a bit more. The overall goal is not to over-fuel and keep it steady. Seems to work pretty well. To put some numbers to it, probably looking at ~30-35 grams carbohydrate per hour roughly, + fluid. This is to limit the blunting of fat oxidation that occurs in a dose-dependent manner with increasing carbohydrate intake levels. As we increase carb intake at sub-maximal exercise, in addition to a reduction in fat oxidation, we see a greater reliance on the body’s use of exogenous glucose and a reduction in utilization of endogenous glucose. So going much beyond ~30-40 grams does not appear necessary for a couple hours of LSD.

Coach Ryan


@ryan , thank you for you response. This is very helpful! Appreciate it!

I generally do 2 types of long rides. Solo LSD where I start of fasted then between 1.5- 2hrs start eating. I make up some small peanut butter and jam sandwiches and a banana. I try to eat things in multiples of 100 cal chunks every 20 minutes or so (makes the maths easy). After those I go onto Veloforte energy bars followed by SIS gels f I feel I need them. The other long rides I do are faster group rides and the pace depends on who turns up. I still follow the same strategy but have a large breakfast beforehand and then eat more frequently on the bike. I also have a couple of bottles of tailwind (50g carbs in each) instead of my usual electrolytes. Most of my long rides finish up at about 2500 Kj’s.

@carytb, thanks for your reply! I like how you adjust based on the expected intensity of the rides and the fueling needs as the ride progresses. 2500 kJ rides are sizable efforts, so it’s great to see a nice mixture of real foods and simple, engineered fuels to keep you going. Breaking them up into small manageable energy bundles is an excellent strategy to keep the timing ideal and make sure you don’t miss out.
Coach Ryan

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@ryan , does consuming some fat during LSD rides have any stimulus to promote fat oxidation? I haven’t tried this. I typical follow what is discussed above (consuming less carbs than a higher intensity ride).

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@robertehall1, I have not seen anything suggesting an additive effect on fat oxidation by consuming fat during LSD rides. LSD rides already have a powerful effect on fat oxidation. I think the things you’re doing with the carb cycling on higher intensity rides is great.
Coach Ryan

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I second Ucan as a really cool product. The development of it is a really cool story. I used to use the powder in a pre-ride shake and during rides in a water bottle when I was following a ketogenic lifestyle for a while. I am convinced that it really does work as advertised as I had my fueling really dialed in while using it. I’ve since moved away from the powder (no longer on the keto bandwagon), but may consider going back to it for longer duration fueling. I have always thought that trying the bars would be a good experiment. I think I may just try them out now.

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So @ryan, here’s a question about things like Leadville. I think the start time for the 2021 edition is something like 6:30 in the morning.

Are people waking up at 3:30 to start eating, just accepting that they probably were going to get a cr$p night of sleep anyway due to the pre-race excitement?

or are people slamming 1500 calorie burritos closer to start time and just assuming that the intensity will be low enough at the gun to make that manageable?

@BikerBocker, welcome to the forum! To your question, “yes” is essentially the answer! :grin:

I’ve found it’s nearly all of the above, and it’s very individual to each racer. When I did it I was up at probably 3:30-4:00 to eat, as were the rest of my friends who were racing and staying in the same house in Leadville. In the case of waking up early after a poor sleep, I would focus heavily on quality sleep in the days leading up to the race, knowing that you’ll be ok on a few hours - essentially everyone is in the same boat at that point, but if you can bank some quality sleep leading up to the day before the race, that will certainly help.

In terms of fueling, yes, some people are putting down some serious energy pre-race. Some may actually get >1000 kcals in. I’m not sure that’s the majority of riders, but if you’ve trained yourself to handle that, then it’s more energy in the tank. The timing is critical too. If you’re doing a 1500 kcal burrito for example, that has to come in much earlier (~3:30-4:00am) to reduce the chances for GI distress. If you’re waking up closer to the start time (e.g., 5:00am) you might realistically only put down 600-800 kcal, knowing that something more in the range of ~150-200 grams of carbohydrate is appropriate for your stomach.

The thing with the intensity is that for Leadville, it’s not actually low intensity at the start. So I would go into that race with a good meal as early as is reasonable to eat (e.g., maybe 4am), and then transition to smaller, easily digestible fuels in the last 90 min (lower protein, low fat, primarily carb-based). Taper those kcals down as you get closer to the start. Once the gun goes off, it’s actually a pretty fast feeling - the nervous energy, the pack riding, and heading into the first climb over St. Kevin’s. It can be surprisingly hard to fuel over those first 90 mins to 2 hours and get into a bit of an energy deficit, so whatever you can to to “bank” some energy in your pre-race meal/snack can help manage the balance. The other hurdle is the cold. Even if your plan is to do a slower, more controlled start, sometimes the cold weather makes it hard to eat and drink as you planned, so banking a bit of energy pre-race can still be helpful in that scenario.

Great question!
Coach Ryan

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Thanks Ryan. I’m not doing Leadville but am hoping to do High Cascades 100 in July which has a 5:30 AM start time. I guess i will be getting up pretty early to get those pancakes down :slight_smile:

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With the goal of trying to maximize fat oxidation, has anyone tried using Ketone Esters during these 4 or 5 hour rides? You could take in carbs intermittently if needed, but remain in a ketotic state.

@BikerBocker, I have family in OR and the High Cascades 100 has always looked like a great event! Including that in a visit would be a great way to make it a race-cation!

@acjohnson99, you’ll likely get some different perspectives on this one, but here’s mine. We know the KE can help remain in that ketotic state, but I would look at the ride goals. If you’re doing all base-type of endurance, maybe it would be of additional benefit. However, you’re already going to get some good improvements in fat oxidation through training, so I have always struggled to see the benefit of adding other types of nutritional aids to enhance this as the % improvement is so small compared to training gains.
Coach Ryan

Thanks dawg, i’m pretty pumped to go check it out. I’ve got best numbers ever for this time of year and mostly built on endurance and tempo rides and mountain biking (i.e. no real high intensity yet other than test days) and i’m getting my position dialed in on my new Scalpel SE.

I think eating is the thing i need to work on the most. When food’s not accessible i find myself not eating nearly as much as i should. Maybe i should devote one day per week to practicing opening packages while riding (which to me is hard)

Nice! Is that the new 2021 Scalpel SE? I almost bought the carbon 2 SE version recently - it looked like an absolutely amazing bike! Ended up sticking with my Canyon habit and went to the full suspension Lux vs. my usual hardtail Exceed.

I think you nailed it regarding nutrition. If you already know eating is a limiter, then dedicating 1 day per week to doing that is going to help you progress very well. On the MTB in particular it’s very challenging and terrain dependent.

What’s your setup like as far as fuel accessibility on the bike, and what kind of events are you training for?

Coach Ryan

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Yeah, it’s the 2021 Scalpel. I looked at the Canyon (those are gorgeous bikes) but i like a little bit more active (less hardtail-like) suspension. Plus I thought I wanted the extra travel and more progressive geometry, although having now ridden the bike, I expect that those features have a more subtle impact on the performance envelope than you might expect. In other words, even with the 20% extra travel, it still rides like an XC race bike.

I think my plan is a top-tube bag (the kind with zipper facing me) that I can just fill with gummy bears and any bars that i can pre-open that won’t melt. I don’t mind reaching into pockets but for high cascades i might want a camelbak and that can make the pockets really hard to reach into. my main fun goal is High Cascades but there is an MTB series local to Seattle (the NW Epic Series) with 20, 30 and 50-60 mile distances every few weeks over the summer.

So assuming that runs as planned, I’m going to jump into as many of those as i can.

That’s great to know about the Scalpel. It seemed like a really fun bike with that extra travel. That’s pretty awesome that you’re still able to feel like it’s an XC bike with the 20% extra travel. I just swapped saddles on the Lux to get a better perch, and it completely changed the feel of that bike too. Riding this morning I could feel the XC bones in that one, but it still felt like it wanted to be pushed hard to use that suspension. Pretty amazing how far those designs have come!

The top tube bags are pretty helpful. I like those for long events. Easy access and less reaching behind you to get into pockets and fuss around back there.

Sounds like a great summer you have lined up!

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