Rethinking Fuelling

After my first attempt at the LEJOG record abruptly came to a halt due to uncontrollable puking, it was obvious I had to go back to the drawing board for an overhaul of my nutrition strategy. After a few months of re-jigging and testing, I think we have found the answer. Nutrition is of course very personal – and needs to be tailored to your goals, physiology, taste and the conditions – but I hope this blog may be of interest to other endurance athletes (or those with a general interest in nutrition) too. 

Previous mistakes

So, what caused the stomach issues during the first Land’s End to John o’Groats record attempt?

Germs? We had lots of spare clean bottles and the crew took great care with hygiene (hand gels etc). There is a very small chance that I picked up something nasty from a bottle covered in road spray, but I strongly doubt that as it was mostly dry during the ride.

Stress? As explained in my last blog post, I was experiencing high levels of stress in the build-up to the record attempt. Stress certainly messes with gut function and will have played a role.

Over-fuelling? The advice given by the nutritionist I had consulted with was to consume 60-90g of carbs per hour. In principle there is nothing wrong with this advice. It is a common advice for sports nutrition. The problem was that I made the mistake not to train myself for this amount of carbs per hour. In longer training rides and even 12-hour or 24-hour races, I would hardly ever consume more than 45g per hour. Suddenly consuming nearly twice as much – and doing so whilst bend up over in the TT position – wasn’t a wise move… After the first puking incident, the crew was concerned, and a decision was made to top up my drinks with a carb booster to try to replace some of the lost nutrition and get my strength back again. This didn’t go down well… in fact it went back up…

Too much fluid? One of the support vehicles was leapfrogging me with the crew handing me up a new bottle every 10-25 miles.  They wanted to make sure I was never without a bottle. Especially just before town centres where the car could get struck into traffic, they were keen for me to take a new bottle, even if the old one was still full. Crew chief Shu had scanned the lay-bys the length of the country, but not knowing which suitable ones they would find that wouldn’t have a lorry parked up etc, I took a new bottle each time and even quickly gulped down the remains of the previous bottle. This meant that after a few hours I already had to stop for the biggest pee ever, whereas I normally don’t need a toilet break until at least 12-16 hours into a long race. Later on, when the temperature dropped more than anticipated and I was sweating less, this became even more of an issue.

The wrong fuel? Possibly… Without immediately judging what was “wrong” and what was “right”, and without focusing on quantities and timings, these are the sort of foods and drinks I consumed during the last record attempt:

  • Ambrosia rice pudding (full fat) whizzed up and diluted with water
  • OTE Sports vanilla energy drink (40g carbs per serving – maltodextrin/ fructose/ electrolytes mix)
  • OTE Carbo Booster (maltodextrin only, adding 20g of carbs to drinks)
  • Precision Hydration electrolytes (1500 for loading, 1000 during)
  • Bananas
  • Mixed nuts
  • Cheddar cheese blocks (once)
  • Chicken on a stick (once)
  • Clif Bar Shot Bloks (energy chews)
  • ZipVit energy bars
  • Dried mango
  • Flat, diluted coke (after 12 hours)
  • Yoghurt covered raisins
  • Ella’s Kitchen baby food (bananas, apricots and baby rice)

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Fuelling for the challenge: 1000 miles non-stop

In his  book Eat & Run,  Scott Jurek explains how ultra-marathon running [or cycling for that matter] is in fact an eating competition. It isn’t our physical endurance that limits how long we can keep going for, but rather how we fuel ourselves – there is an important third dimension which is our minds, but that is for another blog post some day.

Stomach problems are quite common for long distance cyclists and other endurance athletes. It is estimated that up to 50% of endurance athletes are negatively affected by gastrointestinal issues during performance; some studies found even higher percentages.

The harder and longer you keep going for, the more likely it is that your stomach might revolt. The challenge with such a long effort, is that you need to stay on top of your fuelling right from the start. You’ll be caught out in the later stages if you under-fuel early on and as time goes on, eating becomes more and more of a struggle.

In John Taylor’s End to End Story, which covers over a century of End to End and 1000 mile record attempts, severe stomach problems are frequently mentioned. Some of the nutrition listed in the book that was used by previous record holders makes for interesting reading; not too dissimilar to an Audax diet with perhaps a stronger emphasis on fluids:

  • Thick soups
  • Barley broth
  • Bovril
  • Peppermint water/tea (for digestion)
  • Bananas
  • Coffee
  • Rice and tinned fruit
  • Rice and raisin mix
  • Complan (a powdered milk energy drink)
  • Oranges
  • Seedless grapes
  • Poached eggs
  • Pieces of chicken with sliced banana
  • Jam sandwiches
  • Honey and peanut butter sandwiches
  • Porridge
  • Rice pudding
  • Cold boiled potatoes
  • Baked beans on toast
  • Tea cakes
  • Sports energy bars
  • Maxim carbo (maltodextrin)
  • Brandy (?!)

The good news is that you can train your stomach, but that needs time and careful consideration and practice of using the right combination of nutrition in the appropriate form at the right time.

Through repeated testing over winter I have discovered that when riding at record attempt pace, which will be mostly in zone 2 (i.e. endurance), I can function on as little as 25g of carbs per hour (with the caveat that I don’t know how that would pan out if I kept it that low for the whole of LEJOG…) Despite trying, I cannot comfortably consume more than 65g of mixed carbs or 300 calories per hour.

If only the nutrition plan was as straight forward as ‘consume x amount of carbs/calories per hour’ and off you go …

I have read up a little on nutrition. One of the most eye-opening books I have read lately is ROAR by Stacy Sims. The book describes how to match food and fitness to the female physiology. Most training and nutrition plans are designed for men, including the general guideline to consume 60-90g of carbohydrates per hour.

Dr. Sim’s key argument in this book is that women are not small men. Not only is women’s physiology different, it changes over time, throughout the course of the monthly cycle as well as through pregnancy and menopause.

I take some comfort from her saying that, although results from laboratory studies tend to conclude that the more calories and carbs you can consume the better your performance will be and the longer you will be able to keep going, she doesn’t know many women who can perform well on more than 300 calories per hour and that for women (and possibly men too) all those calories shouldn’t be in the form of carbs, but a mix of macronutrients to avoid overloading any one receptor at one time. Instead of the 60-90g of carbs per hour rule, she recommends 1.3 to 1.6 calories per pound (or 2.9 to 3.6 calories per kilo) per hour while cycling. And, contrary to the ‘more = better’ studies, to err towards the lesser amount and to avoid consuming more than your gut can absorb.

Women are also more likely to sweat out excess amounts of sodium, struggle with heat (due to delayed sweating compared to men) and are more likely to have issues with Raynaud’s syndrome. Studies have shown that during the ‘high-hormone’ phase of the monthly cycle blood sugar levels, breathing rates and thermoregulation are negatively impacted. I am yet to monitor the difference in performance during longer races to assess how my hormonal cycle affects me, but high progesterone levels may well have contributed to my heat struggles at the 2016 World 24-hour time trial championships. I am digressing a little here, but all of these issues have affected me at some stage during past races and I found it fascinating to read more about it all.

Below, I have asked my husband Chris – who is not a qualified nutritionist, but a medicinal chemist by background and home chef with a keen interest in nutrition – to expand a little bit on how we can avoid and/or overcome some of the challenges experienced during last year’s LEJOG record attempt with an adapted nutrition plan.

“I’m also not a cyclist and although I enjoy adventure and being active, my exertions are generally either low-level or short. So for me fuelling needs are seldom beyond a few sandwiches. Or perhaps a proper sit down meal with something alcoholic.

But I have supported Jas in a number of 24 and 12 hour events so I’ve seen first-hand the terrible state cyclists and their guts can end up in. Visit the Mersey Roads 24 Hours course somewhere around dawn and you shouldn’t be too surprised to find a time trial bike worth thousands of pounds lying at the side of the road and not far away a lycra all-in-one clad cyclist puking.

Given the amount of ultra-processed food used in endurance exercise, a very logical starting point for improvement is with the advice we are all recommended to take – less processed and more real food.

Energy drink powders and gels are convenient, easy to carry and calorie-dense, all attributes which mean they can play a useful role in short and long distance nutrition. But as with our everyday diets, balance is important. Many people would feel sick if all they ate all day was chocolate, so it shouldn’t surprise anyone that after 12 hours of maltodextrin-based drinks and gels some don’t feel their best.

Perhaps the focus on calorie dense foods as first priority might be part of the problem. It seems counter intuitive, but as the required effort becomes longer it could be that hydration is more important.

Dr Sims argues that the solution to staying strong and delaying fatigue is taking care of hydration first and foremost – reducing the loss of blood volume – and topping off stores with small amounts of carbohydrates from real food when possible, and simple sugar treats when it’s hard to eat on the fly.

There is a possibility that the LEJOG record attempt failure last year was caused by a combination of focus on carbohydrate and calorie density, combined with not wanting to leave Jas without hydration at any point.

It’s all about osmosis, which in very simple terms is a like a pub with a bar and a lounge area. If too many people are in the bar and it’s getting uncomfortable then some will move to the lounge until both rooms are equally comfortable. Osmosis is not quite as simple as a pub with two areas because in osmosis water molecules move from the less concentrated side to the more concentrated side until the concentration levels are the same, or they are isotonic.

If you drink a highly concentrated solution full of electrolytes & carbohydrates, water can rush from your blood into your stomach and intestine until the concentrations are the same. Cells in the gut lining will actively transport across electrolytes, carbohydrates and amino acids. This makes the blood more concentrated and means that water will start to return. The ability of gut cells to transport nutrients is the factor which can be improved through training and conditioning.

In theory, because maltodextrin is a more complex carbohydrate made up of lots of glucose molecules, it can deliver a much higher energy density without increasing concentration. But as Allen Lim argues in the excellent Feed Zone Portables: A Cookbook of On-the-Go Food for Athletes  before absorption, maltodextrin molecules will be broken down by gastric enzymes to yield simple glucose, potentially further increasing an already concentrated solution and drawing even more water into the intestine.

In Jas’ case because she had been slightly hypothermic the crew were focused on increasing her carbohydrate intake, adding (suggested by Jas in her hazy state) OTE Carb Booster to rice pudding and OTE Sports bottles. The process described above reduces gastric and intestinal emptying, but so do dehydration, stress, cold and other factors which may have affected her. The end result was something like the gastric equivalent of lots of people rushing from the busy lounge to the bar, just as a big rowdy group entered the pub through the front door…

Although the new LEJOG nutrition plan will include energy drinks containing maltodextrin, they will be mixed weakly and alternated with drinks consisted of simple sugars and electrolytes. Precision Hydration 1000 sachets mixed up to 750ml with water deliver 15g of simple sugars and the right balance of sodium and potassium to aid fast hydration.

Fructose and glucose are absorbed through separate channels and can actually be absorbed more quickly together than separately. This means it is best to make sure both sugars are present in drinks, either in 2:1 maltodextrin to fructose solution or as sucrose. But if fructose levels are too high it can accumulate faster than the body can absorb it, potentially leading to the complications described earlier. Therefore it might be a good idea to avoid consuming too much fruit alongside fructose containing drinks.

The body also absorbs and burns fat and protein through different channels, so it makes sense to use these potential energy pathways by including them in small amounts. During the record attempt Jas will be handed bottles with a small piece of solid food attached. By considering the combinations of liquid and solid we will aim to deliver a steady balance of macro nutrients.

This could mean a carbohydrate energy drink with a rice cake or a homemade baby food sachet containing complex carbs, fat, protein and fibre. Or an oat and rice milk drink (recipe below) which doesn’t contain fructose so is perfect to combine with a banana.

It’s possible that the soluble fibre contained in oats might add another energy marginal gain, as it can be digested by bacteria in the large intestine. The process produces butyrate, a favourite food of cells lining the intestine. This prebiotic effect could be one of the reasons oats are renowned as a slow release energy food. Again balance is all important as too much fibre could lead to uncomfortable bloating.

That takes us to the topic of everyday gut health. It’s clear that an effort of this magnitude will place an incredible strain on Jas’ whole digestive system, so it makes sense to try and ensure her overall gut is as healthy as possible. This means a diet high in plant-based foods and fibre, as well as regular consumption of probiotic foods such as yoghurt, kefir, kombucha, kimchi and sauerkraut.

Armed with a car boot full of Precision Hydration sachets, Stealth Energy and Training drink mixes, oat & rice milk, rice cakes sweet potato baby food sachets, brioche, bananas and vegan RawVelo bars, this is probably a good point to hand the narrative back to Jas for some road testing!”

Contains 244 calories and 37g of carbs but has a really good mix of sugars from rice milk, complex carbs, protein and fibre from oats, medium-chain triglycerides from coconut and avocado oils. Plus cinnamon can help the body regulate insulin.

A bottle will probably be included in the LEJOG nutrition plan every 6-7 hours.

Putting the new strategy to the test  

It is often only when you are in challenging circumstances that you find the flaws in your plan. So, I opted to test the new nutrition strategy during a back-to-back 300km and 200km Audax on consecutive days in March when the weather can still be variable… Not only were both routes very hilly and the weather testing, the 1st Audax started at 2am on Saturday morning, which meant a very short night after arriving in Poole around 8:30pm after work on the Friday night.

For anyone not familiar with Audax/brevet/randonneur type events, basically you navigate around a route of a set length (either by GPS or with good old fashioned route sheets) and collect stamps or receipts at checkpoints. On some rides you also need to find answers to questions to proof that you really followed the route (e.g. colour of a house, year on a statue or distance on a marker). Unlike a sportive, there are no arrows to follow, no follow car and no road side support. You are expected to be self-sufficient, although fellow riders will often help you out if you are really stuck.

The first event was the 300km-long Hard Boiled Audax. If your mantra is ‘Be The Egg’, the Hard Boiled is a must. Because of the types of food we wanted to test, my husband Chris came along for the weekend. Although a follow car is not allowed in these events, it is permitted for a car to meet you at the checkpoints. So while I left the AirBnB at 1:30am, Chris slept for a few more hours and then drove up to Amesbury to meet me at the first checkpoint at 4:33am to give me new bottles and some of the solid food to test. His cousin Nick, who lives not too far away, joined him there for a day of driving from checkpoint to checkpoint, drinking lots of coffee whilst waiting there for me and plenty of hours to catch up socially.

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I rode the first 7-10 miles from Poole with the rest of the riders on the Audax and then upped to pace a bit to be a nearer reflection to the LEJOG record pace. It also meant I would get to the narrow dark lanes with poor surface before everyone else and could negotiate the best line on the descends with full view of what was ahead. I didn’t see any of the other riders anymore during the rest of my ride. It was a success in terms of the main goal (nutrition testing), but I am sure other riders had a more sociable day out! The first 9 hours were wet and cold. But after that, and once day light had returned, it actually wasn’t a bad cycling day. The climbs were testing, but not as testing as those on the Porkers 400km Audax in this series. The scenery would have been stunning on a good day, but even on a shitty day it was a beautiful ride. After a loop of Wessex (via Amesbury, Ashcott, Axminster and Cattistock) I rolled back into Poole and finished at the pub at 16:30. Not as tired as I thought I would be and very happy with how all the food and drink options had gone down.

I didn’t stop to take any photos en route, but here is a pretty cool set of photos and even video taken by one of the other riders.

Summary stats for Hard Boiled 300km:

  • 195 miles (314 km) with 13,671 ft (4,167m) of climbing
  • Moving time: 13hr47min. Total elapsed time: 14hr27min
  • Av speed: 14.1mph (I know that sounds very slow but anyone who rode this event and roads will know how to judge it)
  • Av temp: 5 degrees C (but a lot closer to 0 in the night!)
  • Food & drink: Breakfast (1am): porridge + coffee. Start snack (2am): small brioche with chocolate bits. 1st leg to Amesbury: 1x750ml Stealth energy mix (40gr) + 1x500ml Precision Hydration 1000. Amesbury checkpoint (4:30am): 1 small apple rice cake. 2nd leg to Ashcott: 1×750 ml Oat & rice milk drink + RawVelo energy bar + 500ml chicken stock. Ashcott checkpoint (8:10am): sweet potato home-made baby food sachet (96 cal, 22 gr of carbs). 3rd leg to Axminster: 1x 500ml Precision Hydration 1000 + 1×750 Stealth Training mix (40gr) + 1 small Biscoff rice cake. Axminster checkpoint (11am): 30gr of mixed grain baby food (needs better blending). 4th leg to Cattistock: 300ml of Oat & rice milk drink + 450ml of miso soup + 1 tube (6 pieces) of Clif Shot Blok chews (strawberry flavour). Cattistock checkpoint (13:40): banana. final leg back to Poole: 400ml of Precision Hydration 1000 + 400ml of Stealth Training mix + 1 small biscoff rice cake. Finish at Poole (16:25): hot chocolate and plain water.
  • Toilet stops: 1 (at Cattistock Tea Rooms)

Because all the food testing had gone so well the previous day (and Chris only landed back from a business trip to Taiwan on the Friday morning at 5am and would need to fly back out to Germany again on Monday morning), I decided to “give him the day off” and ride the Dorset 200km Audax on the Sunday in the ‘normal’ way, carrying my own food and drink and topping up with what I would find at the checkpoints if needed. Although what we did during the Hard Boiled 300 (Chris meeting me at the checkpoint) is permitted within the rules and the organiser had been informed, riding in the “usual” Audax style on the Sunday made me feel a little bit less of a fraud than the previous day.

About half the field of riders on the Dorset 200km already had the Hard Boiled 300km in their legs and you could see a noticeable difference between them and the ‘fresh’ riders, particularly as the ride got more and more hilly. My legs were screaming at me early on, but the steep but stunning climbs somehow got less painful as the day went on (probably because I went into “touring” mode taking it all a bit easier). The sun was shining and life was good. I absolutely love these rides in the Wessex Audax series. All that fails me now is the 600km event in this series, so I will need to come back another day to check that one out. I have no doubt it will be very hilly, very “lanesy” (if such a word exists) but also very beautiful and rewarding.

The photos in the slide show below are not mine, but are taken by other riders on the Dorset 200. Photo credit in the captions. The Kingston Wheeler rider is not me, but Sarah Perkins, one of the most active female Audax riders in the country and co-organiser of the Kingston Wheelers Audax series.

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Summary of stats for Dorset Coast 200km:

  • 130 miles (209 km) with 9,239 ft (2,816m) of climbing
  • Moving time: 9hr08min. Total elapsed time: 10hr08min
  • Av speed: 14.2 mph
  • Av temp: 10 degrees C
  • Food & drink: 2x750ml of Precision Hydration 1500, 2x 500ml of Precision Hydration 100, 1x750ml of Stealth Energy mix, 1x 500ml of Stealth Training mix, 1x banana, 1x small rice cake (sweet), 1x Clif Shot Bloks (strawberry), 1x half a can of coke diluted with water, 1x egg & cress white sandwich, 1x small chicken soup, 1x slice of coffee & walnut cake

The testing and fine-tuning of the LEJOG nutrition plan will continue over the next few months, but I am confident  last year’s issues can be avoided or at least overcome when we try again in early July 2018. Stay tuned…


10 Comments Add yours

  1. adultmale says:

    Great post! I bumped into you at Axminster on the DC. I wish I’d known more about your diet then – I’d have quizzed you about it ! I’ve tried pre-packaged baby food before on longer rides but didn’t like it & it didn’t have high enough calorific content. I think I’ll follow your lead and look at something like it again. Thanks!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Home-made baby food is definitely the way fw. I will ask Chris for the link for the packaging. He just freezes them and then defrost when needed. We started with potato based ones, which I felt were a bit too grainy. I really like the sweet potato based ones and we have now almost fine-tuned the barley one. It is about the right taste and consistency to get easily through opening. Nice to have savoury options alongside drinks which are often sweeter. That is also why I like soups or broths. Keeps you warm at night too. The Axminster stop during the DC couldn’t come soon enough! That was a tough long lumpy run in but great food upon arrival 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  2. jim says:

    Very interesting, and well written. Good luck with the training and testing!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Shawn says:

    Good to read the follow up after the Wessex Weekend test. Best wishes for your ride

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you Shawn. Your rides really are the best. I look forward to more Wessex events in future.


  4. Ade says:

    Very interesting read – thanks

    Liked by 1 person

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