NRG = No Relying on Gel ….

It doesn’t really mean that at all of course, at least anywhere outside my weird imagination. Reading the letters aloud does sound like the word “Energy” though, which is the real subject of this article, and something the above mnemonic helps me keep in mind.

Before that though, let me say I have nothing against any brand of energy gel, from Gu through Hammer and all the many other options. I’ve used them a lot, perhaps almost too much, in the past and my reliance on them may have obscured other factors I should have been paying attention too in my riding. But they can definitely have a place a riding energy plan, as long as you understand that place and have the rest in balance.

If you’ve been reading this blog from the start, then you’ll know about my first great bonk when trying to ride on water alone. After that I entered my “second phase” of training and riding, where I understood the need to supplement my energy before, during and after riding.  During this phase, I tried a number of different drinks and sachets, but the overall approach on a race day was always the same:

  • ~500ml of energy drink in car on way to a race
  • Gu at the start (later on I swapped this for a Hammer Gel)
  • Energy drink in 1 bottle on ride, sometimes in both
  • More gel’s spaced out during ride
  • Occasional snack bar, banana if I felt like it

During training days, I just usually took one energy drink bottle, and one plain water – and a snack or two.

By now, experienced cyclists and nutritionist are probably laughing their backsides off, or cringing silently. You see there is a one vital elements their missing – Real Food. If you ride long enough even stubborn headed mules like me eventually learn this, or someone tells you. Unless you have an iron constitution, no amount of supplements can make up for a lack of real food and eventually your body ceases to be impressed by all the liquid carbs being thrown at it and starts to complain in painful ways. Anything from stomach cramps to things indescribably worse to deal with on a bike ride, with chemical toilets once every 30km or so if you’re lucky.

In fact, the real food approach isn’t really something new to me either – I took new potatoes on my first Argus, and they were one of the nicest things I ate on the day. But in amongst the training I’ve had a tendency to look for solutions in energy drinks, or tinker with extra bars or gels rather and overlook carrying plain and simple stuff to eat.

A few weeks ago though I was forced to step back and re-assess. I bonked badly on a couple of training rides leading into the One Toner, struggled over the last 50km of the race itself, and then had my worst bonk ever at the end of the following DC training ride. I’d had a slight suspicion of suffering a bug, but nothing ever really surfaced. So rather than blaming a mystery illness, or falling back on the all too easy “over training” explanation, I put the spotlight on my nutrition. A number of people, including Penny and Andri had suggested it as a possible cause, so it definitely seemed worth a look.

Almost as soon as I started to focus on this, one glaringly obvious thing jumped out at me. Since June I’ve increased my normal training level massively, tripling and more my training kilometres from previous years, not to mention the gym sessions. But I was eating exactly the same during the week. The nett effect, I suspected, was that although the 10kg I’d dropped was definitely weight I could afford to lose, it also seemed that my training was burning calories I wasn’t putting back, leading to fatigue at the end of longer rides

With not many weeks to correct things before the DC, I attacked the problem on multiple fronts. The first part being to eat a lot more during the week – big bowl of ProNutro or muesli before I hit the coffee, and then both mid morning and mid afternoon feeds in between normal meals. The second part of the attack was packing twice as much food on rides, the extra food being potatoes bananas, and low GI health bars. And not just taking this along, but making sure I actually ate them rather than coming home with them untouched in my jersey. In addition to what was packed, I also bought and ate snack bars, and chocolate milks at our midway stops too. The last change was to stuff my face at the end of a ride too, making sure to put in plenty of fuel to replace what the ride had burnt up.

The bizarre thing is that despite eating a lot more, I’m also now perpetually hungry – I just seem to have become an eating machine. Yoli has started calling me her ‘ruspe‘ (Afrikaans for caterpillar). But at least so far, the results have been good – no more bonks, and finishing training rides with something left in the tank. The DC this weekend will be the real proof though. I have to confess to being nervous as hell at the prospect of my first 200km ride, even with better training and eating of recent weeks, I am all too aware that the last 50km will be completely unknown territory for me. Here’s hoping I’ll have the energy on the day.

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