photo credits @ Greig Leach
article by EVOQ.Bike’s Landry Bobo
Proper on-bike fueling is essential if you want to perform at your best. I speak from firsthand experience because I’ve felt the difference when I was underfueling.
To my detriment, I under fueled my rides for many years. At first, when I was a newbie cyclist, it was because I didn’t understand the link between nutrition and cycling performance. Then, after a few years I began to shoot for 60 grams of carbs per hour on rides. At the time I thought I was properly fueling because the current “scientific recommendations” said as much.
Turns out, a few years later they came out and said that 90 grams per hour was needed. Then, wouldn’t you know it, they came right back a few years later and said 120 grams is best for peak performance.
On my easier rides I now shoot for 90 grams per hour, and on the long or intense days I try to take in 120 grams. It has made a world of difference; almost every day I get on the bike motivated and feeling good. I don’t have any bonks or energy dips like I used to. My recovery has improved dramatically and of course, I’ve seen some big power increases as well.
Proper fueling is not as easy as it sounds. 120 grams of carbs per hour is A LOT and it can be a challenge to stay on top of fueling during your rides. It’s important to find ways that you can make fueling as easy as possible to make sure you have enough carbs.
See Also: What to Eat and Drink While Cycling
Make Your Own Sports Drinks
When I began to realize how important on bike fueling actually was, I knew I needed to find a solution to actually meet these high carb intakes. Previously, I only ever consumed solid food on the bike. However, hitting 90-120 grams per hour through solid food alone would prove quite difficult. I didn’t like the idea of eating an energy bar every 15 minutes!
I then began to look at liquid forms to get the Calories in, since this would be a lot easier than just eating solid food. After some browsing, I came to the conclusion that all the high carb cycling drink mixes were extremely overpriced. As someone who rides a lot, I wasn’t willing to spend a fortune on drink mix.
I knew there had to be a solution (no pun intended)…. Enter, SUGAR WATER!
I have often been asked how I am able to meet the recommended carb intakes on rides and when my response is “sugar water,” it often raises a few eyebrows. Hear me out on this one though: sugar water has been an absolute game changer for my cycling and many other athletes I have recommended it to would say the same because it provides you with the same fuel found in sports drinks without the high marketing cost.
See Also: The Complete Guide to Cycling Nutrition
The Most Effective Energy Drink For Cycling
What is the most effective energy drink for cycling? It almost seems too good to be true and a bit rogue, but can plain old sugar– something that’s been around for eons, truly fuel your cycling just as effectively as expensive cycling energy drinks?
For starters, what are we looking for when it comes to the ideal source of carbs for cycling? To absorb the maximum 120g target, not just any carbs will do.
It’s been demonstrated that we need a combination of both glucose and fructose to fully utilize the carbs we are taking in. Glucose and fructose are both sugar molecules known as monosaccharides, which are simplest forms of sugar.
When we combine glucose and fructose, it becomes a disaccharide called sucrose. Conveniently, table sugar just so happens to be pure sucrose! In other words, sugar contains the exact compounds we need for maximum carbohydrate absorption.
Wait a minute though… isn’t there supposed to be a 2:1 ratio of glucose to fructose?
Previously, this is what we thought (just as we thought 60 grams of carbs per hour was enough). However, more recently it has been demonstrated that a 1:0.8 ratio of glucose to fructose is optimal for maximum absorption. Sugar comes pretty darn close to this with an even 1:1 ratio. It’s not exact but probably close enough to get the job done.
It is quite interesting to me that simple cane sugar seems to be the ideal fuel for an exercising human. Sugar has been around a long time and it’s quite possible that our ancestors evolved to efficiently utilize sucrose as a fuel source.
Homemade Sports Drink Comparison
Surely an expensive drink mix is going to be a superior product than a bag of sugar you can get at your local supermarket, right? Afterall, these were formulated for endurance athletes so they must be worth the extra money. Let’s just compare to see the difference.
I won’t call out names here, but let’s take a quick look at the nutrition info for a popular drink mix.
As you can see here, this drink mix contains 57% maltodextrin (glucose) and 42% fructose, exactly the 1:0.8 ratio as recommended by the latest research. I have no issues with this and it’s the ideal source of fuel for your cycling.
My biggest issue comes with the price tag ($45 for 15 servings), and the fact that there are ZERO electrolytes in this drink. As someone who rides a lot, I wasn’t willing to spend a small fortune on drink mix. Let’s compare the pricing of this drink mix to sugar.
DRINK MIX COST:
A box of 15 servings of this cycling drink mix currently costs 45 US Dollars. There are 80 grams of carbs in each serving. If we do the math, this drink mix gives us 26 grams of carbs per dollar.
If you go to your local supermarket, a 4 pound bag of sugar costs around $3. When we do the calculations, we can get 582 grams of carbs per dollar.
WHAT?! Yes, sugar is FIVE PERCENT the cost of a drink mix. How much money could this save you per year?
Let’s say you ride 10 hours per week and fuel your training with 90 grams of liquid carbs per hour. Fair estimate I’d say. This means you’d be riding 520 hours for the year and consuming a grand total of 46,800 grams of carbs on the bike for an entire year.
Wow, that’s a lot of savings!! You could buy some pretty sweet bike upgrades with that money, or take a trip to the cycling destination of your dreams with that money.
Truly, the only difference between sugar and this drink mix is the 1:1 ratio of sugar vs the 1:0.8 ratio of the drink mix. Would this significantly impact your performance? It’s possible. Would it significantly impact your wallet? Definitely.
If you’re on the fence, you can always experiment and try out sugar to see if you feel any different on the bike compared to your normal cycling energy drink.
See Also: The Best Supplements For Cyclists
Is Sugar Water “Unhealthy?”
Sugar has been demonized in mainstream media as the cause of many health problems such as obesity, diabetes and even cancer. However, I would argue that in fact, the problem is not sugar itself but rather the combination of inactivity and high sugar consumption.
When you are exercising, the rules change. I don’t want to get too detailed with the hormonal changes that occur while exercising but to put it simply, simple sugars while exercising are essential. When you are exercising, your body needs a rapid source of energy that will digest quickly, like glucose or fructose. During exercise, these simple sugars are used immediately as fuel by the active muscles and do not cause a spike in blood sugar.
On the surface, many drink mixes might appear to be a “healthier” option because they are developed for athletes, but in reality there is no difference between these and table sugar. After the body breaks down the carbs into the simplest molecules, it doesn’t know the difference between a proprietary drink mix and plain old sugar.
To illustrate this point, do you know what the first ingredient is in Gatorade? Sugar! Yep, even back in 1965, Dr. Robert Cade, the inventor of Gatorade knew that sugar was the ideal fuel for athletes. The problem is that sedentary people began drinking Gatorade as a beverage instead of it’s intended use as a sports drink for athletes.
Don’t just take my word for it, Dr. Asker Jeukendrup, a nutritionist for Jumbo-Visma and renowned researcher has an awesome post that explains this further that you can read here.
Sugar Water – DIY Sports Drink
If you’re ready to give sugar water a try, you might have some questions as to how to go about making it. The good news is, this homemade energy drink recipe is quite simple and easy.
First off, make sure you buy the right kind of sugar. We need refined/granulated sugar as this is the only kind that will dissolve in your bottles. The “raw” cane sugar is too big and will not dissolve.
There are many ways to go about customizing your sugar water. Initially, I started with 60 grams in a 20 oz (600ml) bottle. Gradually, as I became more accustomed to it, I worked it up to 100g.
Then, I wanted to try a different strategy. I didn’t want to just drink sugar water on rides, but I also wanted a bottle of plain water to rinse out my mouth. I decided to try out a hyper-concentrated bottle of sugar with 200-250 grams of sugar inside.
My goal was to use this similar to an energy gel and only take small shots at a time since it would obviously be very sweet. Others might disagree, but I find the hyper-concentrated bottle to be far more palatable than an energy gel. This is my current preferred strategy, I like being able to also have a bottle of straight water to drink out of as well on my rides.
Now that you’ve got your dosage figured out, fill up the bottle about ¾ of the way with water. Then, using a kitchen scale, scoop the desired amount of sugar into your bottle. There’s one other important thing you also must add to your bottle: salt for electrolytes.
I tend to eyeball my salt, but anywhere between ¼ to ½ tsp is an appropriate amount of salt depending on how salty of a sweater you are (there is no need for other electrolytes such as potassium or magnesium since these levels are easily maintained even after heavy sweat loss).
Fill up the bottle the rest of the way, put on the cap and shake vigorously (I find it’s helpful to turn the bottle upside down and swirl it).
See Also – Cycling Weight Loss: The Ultimate Guide to Finding Your Race Weight
WARNING: Brush Your Teeth
One danger of using sugar water as a DIY sports drink is the increased potential tooth decay. No matter if you’re drinking sugar water or not, it’s always important to practice proper dental hygiene by brushing 3x per day and flossing, but make sure to be extra vigilant about brushing your teeth shortly after getting back from your ride.
I’ve always brushed within an hour after my rides and after a couple years of using sugar water, my teeth are still “beautiful,” (so my dentist says).
No Matter What, Carb UP!
I’m not here to talk you out of your current fueling strategy, but I wanted to share about something that has made a big difference for my cycling and also for many other athletes who have converted to sugar water. It’s made proper fueling easy and affordable.
However, there is no one size fits all and I know of others who have tried sugar water and found it didn’t work for them. Regardless of your preferred cycling fuel, make sure to stay carbed up and fuel your training properly.
If you want to dial in your cycling nutrition further, we have many resources available regarding cycling nutrition, training and many other topics on our cycling training blog, YouTube channel, and podcast.
If you would like to speak with a professional cycling coach on how we can help you take your cycling to the next level, contact us.
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