Cycling nutrition: how to prevent a hunger attack

Cadel Evans

I felt empty suddenly

This is the cyclist's comment at the end of a dramatic stage during the Giro d' Italia 2002.
The Australian athlete was wearing the pink jersey and was in the group of the best at the beginning of the last of the 5 climbs in the route (222 km the total distance to be covered), when nine kilometers from the finish line he began to slow down markedly the pace.

The athlete was as if he were crumpled on the handlebar, his wheels almost did not flow, it seemed that the asphalt was swallowing him. He detached himself from several riders, ending the stage about 15 minutes from the winner and thus leaving the top ten final classification of the Giro.

What happened?

Cadel Evans was hit by the most classic "hunger crisis". In fact, the cyclist claimed that he had not eaten properly and found himself running out of energy at the foot of the last decisive climb.

This episode is a paradigm of the importance of a correct food strategy in cycling competitions. The hunger crisis does not only affect professional cyclists, but can happen to any amateur cyclist that underestimates the length of the route and the energy required to complete it.

Hunger crises are the moment when the body's glycogen reserves, especially muscular ones, are insufficient to support the athlete's physical effort.

Weaknesses, emptying legs, heavy head, nausea, cold.... the hunger crisis suddenly arrives and causes a general feeling of malaise. When you run into the notorious "hunger crisis", you find yourself literally "emptied" and unable to sustain efforts that would not be particularly challenging if you had fed properly.

What happens physiologically?

When we take carbohydrates, they are transformed into glucose, then insulin transports it into the liver and muscles, where it is converted into a complex carbohydrate, the glycogen, and there it settles waiting to be used.

Insulin transports glucose into the liver and muscles, where it is converted into a complex carbohydrate, the glycogen.

Together with fats, glycogen is the main source of energy.

It has been calculated that our body can contain about 300-400 g of glycogen, 70% of which is placed in the musculature, and this is what makes it possible to perform muscle work.

Intensive physical activity causes consumption of this "supply", which if not replenished with food leads to a hunger crisis.
Another important factor that determines the crisis during stress is the dehydration caused by intense sweating, which causes a significant reduction in resistance capacity among other effects.

Food strategy against hunger crises

First of all, it is essential to maximise muscle reserves of glycogen before competitions or cycling. For this reason, it is recommended to introduce 7-12 g carbohydrates per kg of body weight in the two days prior to performance.

From one to 4 hours before the start of the race, the cyclist should have a light meal containing between 1 and 4 g/kg carbohydrates. It is also advisable to reduce the amount of fibres (thus reducing the intake of fruit and vegetables) in the days before the ride, in order to avoid the onset of some gastrointestinal disorders.

During the race, cyclists should take up fast-absorption carbohydrates contained in sports drinks or special gels (e. g. maltodextrins) to quickly deliver new glucose to the muscles, thus saving muscle reserves of glycogen and maintaining adequate blood glucose.

The recommended amount of carbohydrates to be taken during exercise ranges from 60 to 90 g per hour. A lower amount would not provide enough energy, while a higher dose would not be absorbed at the intestinal level and could cause side effects.

Another important factor that can lead to hunger crises is the dehydration associated with sweating.

Drinking a lot of food allows us to maintain the right levels of body hydration: losing more than 2% of body weight due to perspiration would mean experiencing a significant drop in performance.

How much water do we need during the effort? It depends very much on how hot it is, of course, but the estimate of 1 litre per hour is quite realistic.
However, in order to calculate how many liquids must be introduced during the race, it is recommended to simulate the competition a few days before in environmental conditions that reproduce those of the race, in order to measure the loss of liquids given by the difference between body weight before and after the effort.

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