What to eat on long bike rides, runs, and hikes need not be complicated. Too often people venturing out for the first time into long distance events find the food choices and the food opinions, often backed by conflicting scientific evidence, to be far too confusing. The purpose of this article is to simplify what is often an unduly complicated necessity of long distance sports.
First and foremost, whatever you decide to eat, you must eat. Most runs, rides and hikes that last longer than a few hours will need to involve mid-event fueling. So, no matter what you choose to eat, if you are trying longer distances, you need to find something that works for you.
The second thing that you need to know is that what works for others may not work for you. Gels are convenient, but many people find their texture and taste suboptimal. Others can race all day on nothing but GU. What is most important for you is finding what works for you and your sport.
Runners, cyclists and hikers have different needs. Those needs are sometimes caloric sometimes convenient. If you are looking to join a bunch of casual mountain bikers for a long ride with cameras then your food needs will be different than riding with cyclists on country roads who stop only for stop signs and flats. Marathon runners who never want walk breaks will need easier to consume food than hikers looking for simple meals to enjoy in picturesque places.
Taste matters. If you don’t like it, you won’t eat it. It’s as simple as that. Tastes also change during long runs, so make sure you pack a variety. Salt and sugar are the two cravings you will need to satisfy. Your body can run on a combination of fats and carbohydrates forever, but your brain needs carbohydrates, it cannot function on fat reserves. Salty foods help make up for lost sodium (how much sodium you need to replace is also controversial.)
You do not need special, expensive and fancy foods, though for people looking for convenience above all else, they may be easier. Gels, chews and sports beans are all wonderfully convenient and easy to eat without stopping. Find out which ones you like by taking free samples at races or buying individual packages. They all claim to have this or that superior thing, but what really matters is do you like the taste and can you eat them during your competition.
Real food works! Ask any ultra runner or long distance cyclist what they eat and you will hear about various candies and things like pretzels. Long distance races will usually have pretzels, oranges, watermelon and M&Ms among others.
This brings up another important note: the more stuff you are able to eat during training, the easier fueling will be on race day. Race day is not the day to try new things, but it is also not ideal to carry everything you will be eating. Best case scenario is that you have learned through trial and error what your body can tolerate, and the list of tolerable items is long.
This also allows flexibility on long touring-type events, where convenience store food may be all there is.
Lastly, you need to learn what works for you. Some people can eat at Taco Bell midway through a Century and feel fine, others may regret even the slightest deviation from a small list of foods. The only way to learn this is to try different things and learn what works for you. Additionally, what works for a hike may not work for a run, and what works on the marathon of an Ironman may not work earlier on the bike.
Your stomach also has changing needs as your day gets longer and longer. A short 5 hour day may be satisfied with pretzels, M&Ms and Cliff Shots, but by hour 7, your body may reject all of those in favor of a sudden craving for pickles!
There is a lot of conflicting science out there about fat intake vs Carbohydrate intake, which carbs are superior to others, and is protein good or bad.The science is constantly shifting, and unless you’re next goal is a gold medal, it doesn’t really matter. The winner of the last Ultra may have eaten V8, Coke and Goldfish, while second place may have had scientifically formulated gels and chews.
So, don’t make it more complicated than it needs to be. What you choose to eat is far less important than how much you eat and whether you eat at all. So, eat what you like, eat enough to keep going without your stomach rebelling, and guaranteed you’ll be ahead of most of the rest of your fellow competitors.
Here is a sampling of the most popular foods eaten by cyclists and runners:
gels, Sports Beans, chews, pretzels, peanut butter and honey sandwiches, Goldfish, M&Ms, fruit, pickles, chicken soup, colas, and potato chips.
The best items can survive your ride/run/hike - so stick with the little pretzels, ChexMix, and non-melting or frozen chocolate candy.