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Nutrition Tips for Cyclists: Bars, Gels and Drinks for On-the-Go

The right nutrition during sports can make the difference between victory and defeat. Learn more about the essentials of cycling nutrition here.

If you enjoy riding your bike in a competitive atmosphere, such as races or longer tours, then you have probably already noticed that your nutrition has a big impact on your performance immediately before and during activity. You may also be familiar with the dreaded hunger pangs that occur when you have eaten too little, and your body has used up all its carbohydrate reserves. The consequences are usually a lack of strength, dizziness, trembling or sweating, and continuing your journey suddenly becomes a mammoth task. We’ll explain which nutrients your body needs for endurance activities like cycling and give you an overview of products that are particularly suited for competitions and extended tours. There is one thing you shouldn’t forget: energy bars, gels and the like are intended exclusively as food supplements. The best foundation for sports activities is to provide your body with a healthy, balanced diet and regular training.

A biker descends a steep mountain on his mountain bike.
A biker descends a steep mountain on his mountain bike.

Apart from training...

A man flexes his muscles. Behind him, another man is holding various nutritional supplements up to the camera.
A man flexes his muscles. Behind him, another man is holding various nutritional supplements up to the camera.

...a balanced diet is the foundation for any sporting activity. You can further improve your performance with nutritional supplements.

The Basics: Glycogen Stores and Energy Consumption

Your body stores carbohydrates in the form of glycogen. These glycogen stores are located in the cells of various organs – about one third in the liver and two thirds in the muscles. The glycogen in the liver is responsible for regulating blood sugar levels and thus supplying the brain, red blood cells and nerve cells with glucose. When you work your muscles, their glycogen stores are spent. Your body’s fat stores can supply you with energy for several weeks – your glycogen stores, on the other hand, are only designed to supply you with energy for about one day under normal stress. If you exercise, your glycogen reserves will only last for about 90 minutes. If you have not adequately prepared your body, for example by ingesting carbohydrates during activity or eating a high-carbohydrate diet before competition, you will quickly become tired and less able to perform. There are various options that you can take while you’re on-the-go, such as during a race, to replenish your stores without putting too much strain on your body.

A man mixes a sports drink with a powder from Maurten.
A man mixes a sports drink with a powder from Maurten.

With drink powders, you can easily mix a drink in your water bottle while riding. Maurten offers versions with and without caffeine.

Drinks: Electrolytes vs. Carbs

Drinks that you make by mixing water with effervescent tablets or powder for your drink bottle can be quickly and easily consumed during your bike ride. This way you stay hydrated, and the drinks are usually well-tolerated. In addition, you can measure out finer doses of the powder and thus adjust the drink to your taste, your needs and your level of intensity. Speaking of intensity, when you’re doing shorter intense workouts, it's not essential to replenish your glycogen stores with carbohydrates. During activities that clock in at an hour or less, the glycogen in your muscles does not decrease as much. For such sessions, you can choose powders that contain no carbohydrates. These are designed to balance your electrolyte levels. Electrolytes, which consist of minerals such as potassium, sodium, calcium or magnesium, regulate nerve and muscle function as well as acid, water and alkaline balance in the body. The body cannot produce electrolytes itself; rather, they are absorbed through various foods. When you’re moving a lot and really working up a sweat, your body loses these minerals. Electrolyte- or mineral-rich drinks supply them to your body again. For longer periods of exertion, you can choose blends or powders which contain both electrolytes and carbohydrates. In general, it is important that you drink a little on a regular basis to compensate for the loss of fluids and thus prevent a drop in performance. This can also be normal water if you take in enough carbohydrates and electrolytes by way of gels and bars.

A man opens a Vegan Energy bar from Power Bar.
A man opens a Vegan Energy bar from Power Bar.

Bars provide you with long-lasting energy. Many are free from animal-based ingredients and thus suitable for vegans. A wide variety of flavours leaves hardly anything to be desired.

Energy Bars: Long-Lasting Power

If you’re riding a mountain bike, you may find it uncomfortable to handle powders in your hydration bladder. This makes energy bars a good option. Bars can fit in every jersey pocket and saddle bag and have the advantage of being more appealing to your tastebuds than powder-based drinks or gels. A general rule: try everything until you find a bar that suits your taste. Some manufacturers such as CLIF Bar also offer variety packs with different flavours. More and more suppliers such as Chimpanzee are making a point of using natural ingredients and no preservatives in their energy bars. There are also bars in different flavours that are completely free of animal products and therefore suitable for vegans. However, it’s not only the taste, but also the consistency that plays a role in finding your preferred bar. If the bar is too dry, you need to wash it down with water. Its grains or cereals may literally get stuck in your throat and lead to coughing on dry crumbs, distracting you from achieving a new personal best. Bars that are too greasy are also not great, especially if they stick to the roof of your mouth and may be heavy on the stomach. Unlike gels or a sip of cola, which give you energy immediately (but only for a short time), bars take a little longer for your body to convert into energy. However, the energy you end up generating has a more lasting effect. This makes bars very suitable for longer and low-to-medium intensity activities.

Energy Gels and Liquid Gels: The Classics for Competition

During periods of medium and high exertion, such as competitions, gels can be a constant source of energy for your body. If you need an extra dose of power for the last few kilometres, gels containing caffeine are a good option. Gels have a much higher energy density than bars or drinks, and thus a high concentration of carbohydrates. This means that the stomach needs water to absorb the carbohydrates. In other words: you should always drink something before ingesting gels, because otherwise your body will draw fluid from your muscle tissue in order to break them down. This can make you feel ill or dizzy. The case is different with liquid gels or hydro gels, which have a much thinner consistency. How much gel and / or fluid you should ingest depends on the duration and intensity of your activity as well as your physical condition: if you are on the smaller and lighter side, you will probably need less gel than a taller, heavier person. As a rule of thumb: trained athletes can utilise about 90 grams of carbohydrates per hour during exercise; gel packs contain on average up to 30 grams of carbohydrates each. Guidelines for the recommended intake can be found on every pack. It is important that you figure out for yourself – and especially before a competition – which of the numerous flavours you like, as well as whether and how you tolerate gels. This is often a matter of personal taste.

A man holds various energy gels up to the camera.
A man holds various energy gels up to the camera.

During periods of high exertion, you can quickly supply your body with energy by means of gels. They are available in many different flavours.

Fruit Gummies: Small Energy Bombs to Chew On

If you need an energy boost but can’t process gels so well, energy chews can be a good alternative, which are, so to speak, energy gels with a solid consistency. Such energy gummies provide you with a readily available source of energy, are convenient to store in a bag or pocket and easy to chew or suck on. They come in many different fruit varieties and provide you with carbohydrates, vitamins and minerals. They are particularly good at giving you a boost in the final stretches – especially if the shots contain cola or caffeine.

A biker opens a bag of fruit gummies while riding.
A biker opens a bag of fruit gummies while riding.

Fruit gummies let you push yourself on the last few metres, as they provide you with quickly available energy.

Recovery: Replenish Your Stores

Take gels and bars before and during activity. After a strenuous workout or race, you can help your body replenish its stores and repair your muscles with recovery drinks or bars. In addition to carbohydrates, minerals and vitamins, they also contain proteins that support the building and rebuilding process in the muscle cells, so that your muscles become fit again more quickly. The most effective time to replenish stores is immediately or within the first hour after exercise. In addition to carbohydrates and nutrients, recovery phases are also important for good regeneration. Make sure to give your body an adequate amount of time to rest before getting back on your bike.

A biker takes a big gulp from a drink bottle.
A biker takes a big gulp from a drink bottle.

Recovery drinks are great for replenishing your stores after a tough race and for repairing muscles. You should take them soon after strenuous activity.