Eat If It Looks Good? Not So Fast: Fueling on Brevets

This year, I began to be more deliberate about how I eat during brevets, especially the 400K and 600K distances.

I’m not the best eater nor am I a nutrition expert, but I have ridden a fair number of long rides up to 1200K distances employing both good and regrettable fueling strategies over the years. Experience has been a fine teacher.

When I first started on my randonneuring career path, I remember being told “If it looks good, you should eat it. Your body is craving it.” Simple advice that was easy to apply, I attempted that strategy for a few years, with really mixed results.

Essentially, I found this approach ultimately enabled a bad mentality of justifying poor food choices under the guise of “I’m exercising, it’s okay.” Oh, and I ended up with some pretty terrible stomach-aches, too.

Brevet bikes at the convenience store

I have taken a sharp turn away from the “If it looks good, you should eat it” method (unless you haven’t been able to eat anything at all that day for some reason, and then maybe). Instead, I strive for bland, easily digestible foods and drinks that won’t pay me a return visit in ways I dislike.

In addition, I have learned that my exertion level as well as time of day also determines my body’s digestion abilities. If I’m working really hard, my food is going to have a more difficult time going through the system. The window of 3 to 6 a.m. does not allow me to eat much. My body is completely confused, and eating and digesting is not at the top of its to-do list.

Hey, where is the actual food part of this post, you might be asking. It’s coming, I promise, but brevet riding is more complicated than regular daily fueling, You are often eating on the run, nibbling in-between and during big miles, and consuming around the clock during times when the body might typically be doing other things, like say, reading a book, or perhaps sleeping.

Nutrition isn’t something to think about only during a ride. Ride nutrition is, of course, a subset of one’s overall diet. However, I’m not going to talk about all that today, as the focus here is my on-the-bike fueling.

This year I learned that the more fuel Felkerino and I prepare in advance of a ride, in combination with our anticipation of what will be available at stops along a route, the more time we save and the better food choices we make.

Last brevet stop

A day’s temperatures combined with a ride’s duration drive what can readily be stored in a Carradice or in the back-pocket cafe. For that reason, I stay away from meat products.

Instead, I often make almond butter or hummus sandwiches for 300K, 400K, or 600K brevets. This year, I was all about the almond butter and honey on some kind of whole-grain bread. This gives me a nice combination of fairly bland carbs, natural sugar, and protein.

Adding honey to the sandwich means it is moist, but I can easily store in my rear pocket or the Carridice bag, and (unlike something like a turkey sandwich) it never becomes slimy or horrible to consider eating at any point. Almond butter and honey on whole-grain bread constitutes an inoffensive, easily digestible, on-the-go meal.

If a rides starts at 5 a.m. or earlier, my body has a tough time eating anything before-hand, and I fill my pockets for post-sunrise munching. Usually, I eat a banana and a couple of bites of an almond butter sandwich before a brevet, but that is all my stomach will handle at that hour.

Generally, my back-pocket food stash consists of the following:

  • 2-3 almond butter sandwiches, nibbled on throughout the day.
  • 2 bananas (and buy more on the route when needed, and if possible). Excellent sources of potassium that go through the system without a fuss.
  • 2 Lara bars, which I prefer for their taste and digestibility, or Clif Bars in a pinch (I generally find Clif Bars to be dry and not as easy to eat or digest)
  • 2 Clif Shot Block packages– one with caffeine, and one without  (for bonking prevention)
  • 2 liter Camelbak full of water

This is my food and drink foundation, and I add to it with what we eat along the way at controls or critical stops on the route. (Note: this food is not literally all in my pockets. Some of it is in the Carradice, too!)

Brevet food

Despite being a huge fan of sweets, during rides I usually crave salt and carbs, and some protein. For me, plain kettle-cooked chips (from Lays, Route 11, or Cape Cod. Sorry Utz, you don’t cut it) are just the additional kick for me at a 50-mile break.

Route 11 sweet potato chips are my absolute favorite. Felkerino developed a Frito’s affinity late last year– a rich oil, fat, and salt combination– but he didn’t seem to crave them as much this year. I generally avoid eating French fries because they are usually too greasy for my system to handle.

Tomato or V-8 juice is another way to curb my sodium craving. Generally, tomato juice goes down easy, and I believe it is also a source of calcium.

As I mentioned earlier this week, Felkerino and I stopped drinking Gatorade, deciding it was too sweet and unsatisfying. Felkerino started using Skratch on the bike (I generally prefer water on the bike), and we both switched to drinking a mix of sweet and unsweetened tea as alternatives to water when we make a store stop. Sometimes we split an apple juice, which offers some potassium as well as sugar (and carbs too, maybe?).

I drink a Coke now and then during a ride. Generally, I despise Coke, but sometimes the caffeine and sweet, along with who knows what other chemicals, hits the spot. The red ambulance, our friend Jerry says. I can’t generally drink an entire can of Coke, but 6-8 ounces on occasion are alright.

This year, we tended to stop for one real meal during a ride, and for me, that usually meant a basic turkey sandwich or a slice of cheese pizza. I don’t know why, but my body has no problems with cheese pizza, as long as I limit myself to a piece or two. It seems to have the ideal salt, fat, and grease combination I want on my rides.

Pizza stop on the brevet

I would like to eat healthier during rides most days, but find that the 400K and 600K rides don’t set up well for that. It takes up too much space and weight in the back-pocket cafe and Carradice bag.

Since most of our stops are at convenience stores, I have based my food choices around what is available there. On rare occasions where we can stop at a place with a fuller menu and healthier options, we will take advantage of it.

I used to prefer eating a substantial amount whenever we would stop at a control or store. By doing this I felt like I avoided the inconvenience of pulling food in and out of my rear pockets as we rode along.

However, I’ve found that eating small amounts as we ride works much better for my body. I don’t have as many issues with bonking, and my stomach doesn’t give me as much guff, either. I feel a better flow of energy.

Ice cream, Little Debbie snack cakes, beer, jelly beans, chocolate, and bacon are all among the foods that have ended up on my skull and crossbones brevet food list. Others may be able to eat them, but they are too high-risk for me.

Brevet food stop

Like many aspects of randonneuring, the food and drink system is highly subjective and requires regular evaluation, since what works one year may falter the next. For now, this is what’s doing the trick for me.

If you have any suggestions for additions to the back-pocket cafe, especially ones that are easy to prepare, please let me know. Just as it’s good to have regular and reliable choices, I’m always looking for new items to add to the brevet mix.

16 thoughts on “Eat If It Looks Good? Not So Fast: Fueling on Brevets

  1. my husband loves fig newtons and my home made raisin bar cookies [garibaldi biscuits] i like homemade banana raisin bread, oatmeal raisin cookies and pickles. yes, i DO bake a lot! when jeff raced, i’d bake trays of cookies or cake and bring them for his teammates, friends and the girls that did the paperwork at the races.
    we freeze grapes and put them in the water bottles. keeps the water cold and a sweet snack. we are experimenting with other frozen fruit bits.
    only thing that makes me sad is my nut allergy because i LOVE peanut butter chocolate chip cookies.

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  2. I’ve become a convert to the vaunted Allen Lim rice cakes in various forms (the basic recipe is here: http://cdn.velonews.competitor.com/files/2012/01/Feed-Zone-Cookbook-Allen-Lim-Rice-Cakes-copy.pdf). The sticky rice has enough moisture to prevent “gut rot,” and the other flavors mixed in – from soy sauce, to fried egg, to figs, to chocolate, to whatever (there are many variations out there) – make them most palatable. I, too, find the commercial energy bars too dry and too involving with the GI tract – much more so since my whole #projectfemur recovery. They also keep unrefrigerated for a while, so they’d work well on brevets. So the rice cakes are a winner.

    I also go for plain ‘ol maple syrup in a Gu flask: you know exactly what’s in it, it has a little bit of sodium and magnesium in it for cramp fighting, and it is thin enough to clear the mouth without having to rinse with water. I may have some Clif Shot Blocks or Honey Stinger gummies around for taste and texture variety, but maple syrup just plain works for me.

    I’m also a fan of your tea-in-a-bottle method, though I tend to go with lightly sweetened green tea, with lemon or without. I’m also a fan os Skratch Labs’ hydration mix, which is very simple (every ingredient is easily identified – gets rid of the whole “drinking a chemistry set” aspect of Gatorade, PowerAde, et al) and not overly sweet. Their raspberry and lemon-lime flavors are great, and I’ve recently liked their matcha (green tea powder) with lemons flavor. I’ll carry Skratch powder with me on long rides and at fondos, just so I can have it handy.

    Also: coconut water is the best on really hot days, especially if it’s cold. You can also get powdered coconut water and bring it along to mix fresh – convenience stores can be a tough environment for folks with picky systems (though I have a soft spot for Sheetz and Wawa locations, which offer a nicer selection than many 24-hour places).

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      1. I’ve figured out the somewhat origami-esque folding method that Lim describes in The Feed Zone, but I find that opening it the first time on the bike is a two-handed affair – not impossible, but I’m not a tandem rider so it means riding hands-free for a short spell. I’m also content to pack the cakes like a squeeze tube in plastic wrap, or like a granola bar in parchment or foil. The trick is to leave one side easy to open for easy, one-handed access. Additionally, the snack-sized ziploc baggies work well and are relatively easy to open on the bike.

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    1. Thanks for your thoughts on this, Rudi. I don’t really like the taste of coconut water, although maybe I need to try different brands or the powder you mention. Ed started using Scratch Labs this year, and has really liked it– although the matcha did not sit well with him. Several have suggested rice cakes so maybe I will see about making them. Maybe!

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  3. I’ve found packing a variety of flavors of items to be helpful on long days. Luna bars (lemon zest) and cereal bars are two other items we carry with us. Nekot or peanut butter and toast crackers are okay at a convenience store stop but a bit dry for during the ride. Current ‘chomp’ of choice is Power Bar Performance Energy chews in lemon or raspberry. Less sticky than some of these products, so easy to hand up to the pilot. Almond butter with Nutella on cinnamon raison bread sandwiches too.
    Coke now and then, preferably somewhat flattened…learned that the hard way on my first century!

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    1. Excellent point about the variety of flavors, and yes, Coke definitely better if flatter. ! Maybe I’ll try the energy chews you mention. Also, a friend recommended Kirkland Cashew Clusters with Almonds and Pumpkin Seeds, and I picked up some via Amazon and they worked well on our recent 600K. Easy to eat and bite-size.

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  4. great post..!
    excellent information for even the folks [like me] who do not “brevet” yet attempt to stay well-nourished and healthy when living everyday life.
    i am learning what my body needs. and i am learning to stay away from the junk [quite literal] that looks good but is hell on my body and brain.

    always good to visit you here, gypsybug….

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    1. Right? I am on the same path, trying to eat whole foods and not as much processed junk. That said, I did just buy some ice cream today so… it’s a journey!

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  5. Increasingly endurance athletes are looking to low carbohydrate fueling solutions as a way to utilize their body’s fat reserves during the event. There are marathoners and ultra-marathoners that don’t eat during a race due to their ability to use their fat reserves. Some supplement with only 100 calories per hour during 24 hour events. What’s that, one gu pack.
    I think everyone who has participated in endurance events knows the difficulty of digesting enough sugary drinks and foods to supply their entire energy requirements. Reducing the need to consume large quantities will certainly be easier on the gut.

    Another possibility is Super Starch. See
    http://eatingacademy.com/sports-and-nutrition/introduction-to-superstarch-part-i
    for more information.

    Experts in fat adaptation for endurance athlete:

    Peter Attia
    Stephen Phinney
    Jeff Volek
    Tim Noakes

    The all have books and Youtubes, so expert information is easy to find.

    Good luck!

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  6. rando fuel
    these are easy energy bars. easy to make, store, carry and digest. lots of room for customizing the recipe to your particular requirements too.
    Vegan Bars:
    about two pounds very ripe bananas, frozen
    1 teaspoon vanilla (optional)
    4 cups rolled oats, use the old fashioned. for a bit of a treat, cook up a batch of steel cut oats the day before and replace a cup or two of the rolled oats with the cooked steel cut oats. makes for a chewier texture.
    1/2 teaspoon salt (optional)
    1/4 teaspoon sodium free salt (optional, adds a bit more potassium for hot weather ride/hikes)
    1 cup pitted, chopped dried fruit, dates, figs, cherries, pineapple and mango work well, add some raisins for sweetness.
    1 cup chopped seeds, pumpkin or squash, sunflower, hemp seed, pine nuts or other nuts. (I avoid tree nuts or peanuts when making this for others, for allergy issues.)
    Grated fresh nutmeg, cinnamon, ginger and cardamon to taste (optional)
    about a cup, or a bit more of milled flax seeds. Red Mill is a good brand.
    Heat the oven to 300°F and prepare a baking pan. the pan should be around 13 by 18 inches. first rub the pan down with coconut oil, then line with parchment paper and rub the paper down with olive oil. this prep is important as the bars will stick otherwise.
    defrost the bananas in a microwave. this takes about ten minutes at 20% in mine, your mileage will vary. don’t let them get too hot, just warmer than room temp is perfect. Mash very thoroughly until no large chunks remain; the bananas should be essentially liquid. (You should have about three cups of banana.) Add all the rest of the ingredients and mix well by hand. The batter at this point should be fairly squishy. Keep mixing and add the flax seed a little at a time until the texture is like that of a stiff bread dough. if it gets too dry, add a little honey or more banana. add more oatmeal or flax seed if too wet. the texture is more important than the ratio of ingredients. there will be some variation in moisture content of the different dried fruits and the sugar content of the bananas, so just play this part by feel.
    Pat the thick mixture evenly into the baking pan. it should be at least an inch thick, but no more than about an inch and a half. bake for about an hour, and watch for the top to turn a nice golden brown color and the edges not too brown. again, there will be a lot of leeway in baking time depending on the moisture and sugar content of the fruits used.
    Let the bars cool for about twenty minutes in the pan, then invert the pan over a cutting board and thump it a couple of times before removing the pan. the paper should allow it to release very easily and cleanly. cut into bars and store in small sandwich bags. leftovers can be frozen and store well.

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  7. Loved the comments – I’m looking for an alternative to Cliff Bars which gave me pretty bad gas on a 300k. 2 imodium saved the day. Thanks for the info. Oh, I’ve used baby food in packets to good effects. Good water content, many flavors, easy on stomack and easy to handle. Somewhat low calorie content.
    T

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      1. Hi MG – Please let me know if it’s a benefit. I’ve used and liked them on a few rides now but fear I may be deluding myself as to their value vs weight vs space.
        Thanks for the interesting blog!
        T

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