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Row of colorful, sugary sports drinks and sodas lined up against a wall

Headed on a Long Bike Ride? Don’t Leave Your Sugary Drinks Behind

Like any prolonged-intensity sport, long-distance cycling requires a lot of energy.  

That means you need plenty of calories for a long ride. Before a big event, it might seem like the best thing to do is to eat a lot but keep those calories as healthy and filling as possible. None of those bad-for-you sugary foods and drinks, right? 

Not exactly. 

In fact, for long rides, sugary drinks are just what the doctor ordered. Or at least, just what Coach Darryl ordered. After decades of experience cycling and coaching others, he’s seen far too many riders run out of energy too soon because they cut out carbs from their diets. Read on to understand why sugar is a must-have for those big ride days.

Sugar Gets a Bad Name

Sugar — and carbohydrates, the broader category under which sugars fall — don’t exactly have a great reputation nowadays. After years of overdoing sugar intake with sweet, overly processed foods, many people have swung in the opposite direction, opting to cut out sugar entirely or stick to strict, low-carb diets. 

In many cases, this isn’t a bad thing. Overdoing sugars and carbs, especially if you’re not a very active person, just translates to more calories that can turn into fat. For cyclists and other athletes who expend a lot of energy over a long period, however, it’s a terrible idea. 

Why Sugar Matters for Cyclists

Carbohydrates are one of only three basic types of calories we consume. The other two are protein and fats.  

“Each one of these plays an entirely different role, and many cyclists just don’t know the difference,” explains Coach Darryl. 

In a nutshell, protein helps you build muscle, fat serves as your body’s backup energy stores, and carbs provide the fuel that your body uses for energy. Because carbs and fat have a bad rap, many cyclists may lean toward protein before their big rides. After all, they reason, protein aids in building and repairing muscle, and that’s what you most need for a ride.

But gorging on protein — a big steak the day before a ride, for instance — is a bad idea for distance riders. That steak will digest too slowly and interfere with your body’s ability to do what it most needs to do during a long ride — produce and burn fuel.

That fuel you need comes from carbs, and you should eat plenty of them in the days before a ride. Bagels are a great way to stock up. But you also need a lot of carbs that are easy to convert quickly into fuel for your ride. 

That’s where sugary drinks like Gatorade come in.

Never Leave for a Long Ride Without Plenty of Carbs

When you’re exercising, your body burns through carbs quickly. At any given moment on a ride, your body is burning the carbs you consumed about 90 minutes earlier. So, when you do a long-distance ride of more than 90 minutes, you need more carbs readily available. 

Sugary sports drinks like Gatorade, or even soda, provide that invaluable kick that you need for those long rides. These carbs are essential for maintaining your energy level, and you can easily carry along several bottles and stop to refill when needed. Even if you’re one who typically tries to limit sugar intake, this isn’t the time to do it. If you do, you risk bonking, a dangerous state of confusion that can overtake you if you don’t have enough energy for the ride.

“The higher the heart rate, the more we need carbs in order to get the proper energy,” Darryl says. “It can literally mean the difference between finishing the ride or needing a ride home.” 

Coach recommends a steady intake of sugary fluids during and even in the first 20 minutes after a ride. When your metabolism is still elevated right after a ride, your body will store those carbs up as energy for your muscles for the next ride.

When you understand the difference between different types of calories, you can maximize your energy and effectiveness on a long ride. At this point in his cycling career, Darryl has it down to a routine: he eats a big pasta meal the day before a ride, stocks up on sports drinks for the day of the event, and then cuts into a big steak when the ride is done to help his muscles recover. Oh, and there may be a big helping of ice cream in there right after the ride — after all, he’s earned it. Try it for your next big outing, and see how you feel!

 Drinking from your bottle while you pedal is an essential skill for staying energized and hydrated on long rides. Here’s how to do it safely.


Check out Coach Darryl’s website for more of his insights.

Photo by Shayna Douglas on Unsplash