Mountain Biking

Don’t crash and burn! Tips for fueling your mountain bike ride – St George News

Jay Bartlett riding in the Red Cliffs Desert Reserve, Utah, date not specified | Photo courtesy of Jay Bartlett, St. George News


FEATURE — Bonk: a condition which manifests itself by sudden fatigue and loss of energy. Bonking is caused by the depletion of glycogen that is stored in the liver and muscles. In other words, bonking is running out of fuel.

Jay Bartlett descends a singletrack trail near St. George, Utah, date not specified | Photo courtesy of Jay Bartlett, St. George News

You might start out a ride raring to have fun with your friends on some sweet, sweet singletrack, but after a few miles, you start to lag. It soon feels like your tires are full of lead, and you have…how many miles to go?

Most of the time, when I ask a bonk victim what they ate pre-ride (i.e. breakfast), the answer is “nothing.” When I ask them what they have eaten during the ride, the answer is usually the same.

Even if you’re trying to lose weight, starving yourself during a ride is going to make what would have been a fun way to get some exercise (fun exercise is the best exercise) into a sort of death march that seems to go on and on. No one wants that. Besides, what you are really trying to do is stoke the furnace so that it burns fat for a long period of time.

Fat is relatively slow-burning and inefficient for the demands of a multi-hour mountain bike ride. What you are really going to need in order to throw some gas into the furnace is carbohydrates (gasp). Yes, the evil carbs that so many dieters avoid like the plague are actually the main fuel your body needs to climb those lovely switchbacks on Barrel Roll or bomb down the funhouse ride that is Sidewinder.

I include a downhill because it is not just on the climbs where a fatigued body is a handicap, although it is the place you’ll notice it the most. Your brain is also affected by the bonk, and the combination of a tired body and a befuddled brain can lead to crashing at speed on the downs. And crashing sucks!

Jay Bartlett riding in the Green Valley area near St. George, Utah, date not specified | Photo courtesy of Jay Bartlett, St. George News

The nutrition supplement industry is worth billions, so finding fuel is as easy as going to your local bike shop. Gels, cubes, bars and drinks are scientifically built to deliver quick energy in small doses. Do you need all this fancy product? Well, if you’re racing, yes. The few seconds it takes to squish a gel down your throat is probably all you can spare.

As far as heading out for a more relaxed ride, you can take along “real” food. Beef jerky, string cheese or a sandwich (peanut butter and jelly has a good mix of carbs and protein) are great. Of course, if your friends aren’t the type to sit under a tree and have a picnic, cubes or bars are good for breaks in the action when everyone is gathering back up and swapping stories of glorious bicycle feats before tackling the next section.

Everybody is different. Finding what works for you can take some experimenting. There are different ideas, but right around 300 calories an hour during hard exercise is pretty common.

Again, eat mostly carbs, but I find that on long rides, I need some protein or “real” food to keep my blood sugar from spiking too much. Also, don’t experiment with new fuels during a race or an important ride. Sometimes certain foods don’t sit well when you are pushing hard.

Few activities that benefit the mind, body and soul are as fun as mountain biking. Don’t let your day in the desert become drudgery. Fuel your body, fuel your mind, fuel your ride!

Written by JAY BARTLETT, Bicycles Unlimited. 

This article was originally published in the Nov/Dec. 2021 issue of St. George Health and Wellness magazine.

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