Our muscles work incredibly hard when we exercise and require fuel to work. We utilize nutrients including carbohydrates, fats, and proteins to power our muscles.
Carbohydrates are the main source of energy for medium to high intensity exercise. Fat can supply energy for lower intensity exercise for a long time. Protein generally is not used as an energy source but rather to build and repair muscles. Our amazing bodies have several ways to convert nutrients and generate energy, or ATP, adenosine triphospate. These energy pathways vary depending on the intensity and duration of exercise.
Without getting too scientific, it is helpful to understand how your body makes and uses energy(ATPs). Without utilizing nutrients, your body can supply you with a small amount of ATPs, enough to power you for about 15 seconds. That will get you off the couch and commence your workout. After that little burst your body must make ATPs through two main energy pathways, anaerobic metabolism and aerobic metabolism.
Anaerobic metabolism does not involve oxygen. Your body uses glycogen stores (from carbohydrates) to make ATPs. This energy pathway provides fuel for high intensity activity lasting a few minutes. Lactic acid is the byproduct. Once we reach our lactate threshold, muscle pain and fatigue make it hard to continue. This type of energy source works for about 60 seconds. Through speed work training you can increase your threshold so you can run or bike faster for longer before lactic acid slows you down.
Aerobic metabolism provides twenty times more energy than anaerobic sources and can supply us for hours. Oxygen is utilized to convert carbohydrates, and fat nutrients to ATPs. This conversion is much slower than anaerobic because it relies on circulation to supply oxygen. Carbohydrate metabolism is much more efficient than fat metabolism. That is why it is good to refuel with easy to digest carbohydrates when going long. Fat can fuel us for many hours if needed but at a lower intensity as it is a complex process. Protein can even be utilized in extreme situations.
All of these energy systems come into play during your workouts. You first utilize existing ATP (15 seconds). As we get going, your anaerobic pathway leads you down the street (60 seconds), finally your aerobic pathway takes over (45 minutes or longer), until you sprint to the finish recruiting your anaerobic system to work again (60 seconds).
Training helps to develop these energy pathways, making you more efficient and able to work faster for longer periods of time. Good nutrition and appropriate refueling every 45 minutes, with easy to digest carbohydrates, will enable your energy pathways to work their best.
Carbohydrate gels, beans and blocks, like GU Energy Gel, GU Chomps or Clif Shot Bloks, provide a quick burst of energy and are popular with riders training hard. They act fast, usually in just 15 to 20 minutes. Unfortunately, they also last the shortest amount of time. To maintain performance, you’ll need to use these gels every 45 minutes to an hour or risk hitting the bonk.
If you’d prefer to eat “real food,” both Honey Stinger Bars and Pro Bars can easily be carried in your back pocket and provide the energy you need to keep going.
It’s critical to not overlook hydration. You’ll need a water bottle, perhaps two for longer rides. You shouldn’t fill it with a high-fructose corn syrup-laden energy drink. You need something, like GU Brew or Zym, that replaces the valuable electrolytes you sweat away during exercise, especially in the heat.
The right nutrition before, during and after a workout not only enhances performance, it makes your ride more enjoyable. At Higher Gear, we have the nutritional supplements you need for your next ride. Stop in today, and we’ll be happy to give you the 4-1-1.
For more information on cycling nutrition and products we carry at Higher Gear, check out:
- Higher Gear’s recommendations on how to properly fuel for your ride.
- More food for thought from Higher Gear.
- More from Higher Gear on how to fuel for your ride.
- Hydration tips from Skratch Labs.
- How Skratch Labs hydration mix is different.
- More about the Clif products we carry at Higher Gear.
- More on how and when to hydrate.
- Fueling strategies from Team Garmin-Sharp.
- How to calculate your sweat rate.
- The link for how to calculate your caloric expenditure for a given event.