What You Should Eat and How to Avoid Bonking on Your Cycling Holiday

what 2 eat and how to avoid bonking on cycling holiday


If you have toured before then you will know that it is one of the most enjoyable ways to spend your time off. But key to keeping it fun is not running out of energy.

This pyramid describes Maslow’s Hierarchy of needs.


maslows pryimid

As you can see food is the first thing mentioned on the foundation of the pyramid. If you have spent a bit of time outside in the cold you may well be aware that f1ood has a “thermic” effect. Digesting food releases heat and that helps maintain your core body temperature so food not only keeps your energy levels up but it also helps to keep you warm.

As warmth is another pillar of the hierarchy of needs, it makes food especially important when you are out on tour.

Now I know what my Dad would say: “Jesus, do you know how to stay warm and well fed? Go on holiday and stay in a hotel!” That is absolutely a great point. Going on holiday and staying in a hotel is undoubtedly one way of fulfilling all the requirements on the bottom of that pyramid. But that in itself isn’t what I would consider to be a good holiday.

I can stay fed, watered, warm and dry by staying at home. I can even remain, safe and feel loved by remaining at home. But what an adventure holiday lets me do is climb up the pyramid to the lofty heights of Achievement, Mastery, Recognition, and Respect. In fact if you find space in your bag for a camera, you might even be lucky enough to get some Creative Fulfilment as well.

Ultimately isn’t that the reason we go traveling? You want novelty. You want to expand your horizons, learn and be challenged.

Some people may say that what they want from their trip is relaxation, but let’s be honest if relaxation was the absolute priority then, none of us would get further than our own sofas. On some level we all want a bit of risk, we all want some novelty, and most of all, we all want a cool story to tell our friends.


So if like me, you are basically a sedentary office worker most of the time, then your energy requirement when you are out on tour will be totally different from your normal day to day energy requirement.

The reason I have written this blog is that I want to flag a few things that I have learned the hard way. In the hope that you are able to avoid some of the mistakes that Hayley and I have made while we have been out and about.

Whether you come on a Wine Ride with us or you are looking to plan your own unsupported cycling trip, if you haven’t been long distance cycling before you will almost certainly fall into the trap of cycling too fast and hard. Even people who do quite a lot of sport riding tend to set off like the clappers. That’s why we ride with our guests for the first day. So we can give them a sense of what a “normal” speed is.

Typically a group of guys that go on multi day rides instantly get competitive and find themselves riding so hard they run down their energy supplies. Or couples find the guy tends to naturally cover the ground faster than the girl. This can lead to the girl trying to keep up with the guy and she will start to deplete her energy levels.

On a single day ride it is very often possible to completely run down your batteries. You get the train home like a zombie, someone feeds you a carby meal and you sleep that fantastic deep sleep that can only be achieve when your muscles are processing lactic acid. But if you are out on tour, unsupported you won’t get that respite. The days will compound and eventually you will start “Bonking”.

In the UK we normally don’t say “Bonking”, we call it “hitting the wall” but in the context of a multi-day bike ride I think the US term “Bonking” is more appropriate. What is happening is that you have been riding too hard. As a result you have started using the glycogen in your liver to power your muscles. This is very bad. The trouble is that that glycogen is not meant for your muscles. It’s the jet fuel we use for our brains and on very special occasions, explosive muscular activity, like running away from a horde of Vikings. You’re “bonking” or bouncing because your liver is giving you energy in lumps.

It can no longer supply a steady stream of glucose for your brain. It is at this point in the trip, that you are most likely to have a real sense of humour crisis. I become obsessed with getting fed. I get Hangry (hungry and angry). I don’t want to talk, I just want to get where we are going, get the tent set up, without any major problems, and get myself in an establishment that serves bloody massive portions as quick as humanly possible. Even the slightest disruption in this path between me and food at that point can result in a full on hissy fit. Clearly this kind of “Bonking” is totally unacceptable when you are on holiday, particularly if you had hoped to do some British “bonking” while you were away.

It’s not easy to avoid, but what you want to do is ride slow enough that you stay aerobic. If you can’t chat while you are on the move then you are going too fast.

Obviously, there are hills and bends. This means that unavoidably you will go anaerobic many times during the day and start knocking lumps out of your liver’s glycogen supply. But it is really, really important to get back to a slow pace.

To give you an idea, If you are planning your first trip: Hayley and I always aim to do about 50miles per day on a trip and never more than 4000 ft of gain and never more than 80miles in a single day.

Even if you are quite fit, I would make sure your plans for your first trip don’t exceed those parameters. When we designed Wine Rides, we pretty much halved all of that, and our guests don’t carry their own kit, we do.

The other thing to look at is what you are eating. We don’t touch those high sugar energy drinks. They are completely wrong for cycle touring. If you are out for more than three hours you will start to deplete your liver glycogen stores, but the last thing you want to do is take on sugary drinks. You need to keep drinking water. When you replace sugars you have to do it with some slow release form of carbohydrate. Salted cashew nuts are great because they also enable you to replenish the sodium you will have lost in your sweat.

On Wine Rides we give all of our guests homemade flapjacks that have been made with oats and honey or maple syrup. Often the guests tell us “they were an absolute life saver”. On our personal holidays we sometimes carry chocolate with us and have half or a 3rd of a mars bar. But it is really worth noting that if you a breaking into the chocolate for energy then you are probably past the point of no return and you really need to be thinking about where you can stop for the night.

Definitely don’t try and power yourself on chocolates, sugar or energy drinks. If you start the day with that stuff you find yourself on the insulin roller coaster. You will take sugar on board, your insulin levels will spike, this will result in your blood glucose crashing, your liver will dump glucose into your blood to compensate and you will actually end up depleting your livers glycogen stores rather than topping them up.

If you normally have a good diet, which is low in sugar, high in vegetables, fruit and fat, and you ride slow then for the most part you will be able to use your body’s fat reserves as energy. If you have a typical crappy westernised diet that contains a normal amount of sweets, pudding, white bread, white pasta etc. then your metabolism will probably not be used to doing ketosis which is burning fat for energy. That’s no biggy, it just means that you will start depleting the glycogen sooner.

Here’s a graph:

fat burn

Where you want to stay is in the green bit. Using your body’s fat as fuel. Most of us are the guy on the left hand side of the graph. We eat the wrong food all the time ‘cos it tastes good and so our bodies love to burn sugar not fat: which incidentally is why many of us are fat despite doing lots of exercise.

(If you really want to dig into that then please check out this blog: http://bit.ly/RXrtzB very technical but good)

The main point is, before you ride and during the day think light meals and slow release carbohydrates: porridge, nuts, bananas and other fruit.

After you have finished for the day, think massive portions and fuelling up. While you are out on a tour there is really no reason not to have an evening meal that’s high in carbs or protein or fat and you should also have a desert. By the end of the day, you should just be looking to refill that liver glycogen. You will also be processing loads of lactic acid and replenishing your muscle glycogen supplies, so while you sleep your liver will already be working overtime. You may as well chuck some alcohol in there as well. The chances of you having a hang over the next day are remote.

In fact because you have been working all day as soon as you have a glass of wine you will start falling asleep. It’s a really powerful muscle relaxant and that’s why I enjoy drinking wine after a long day in the saddle. The exercise makes me a light weight, so one good glass of wine goes a long way.

Over eating in the day is a problem because your blood should be in your muscles working not tied up in your gut. But over eating at night is a good thing. The food will digest as you sleep and keep you warm in your tent.

If you find you are going faster than the person you are with, or you suspect that your cycling partner is about to “crack” (run out of energy) then try not to be a dick. Don’t speed off and then cycle back to them, or have a rest and then as soon as they catch up run off again. This is buzzing them. It is very irritating and not much fun for them. If you are slower than your partner don’t worry about it.

It might not mean you are less fit. It could just be that you are a smaller person and have smaller muscle glycogen stores or are less powerful, so have built up more lactic acid. Let them go ahead, if cycling at your speed is uncomfortably slow for them, you guys can catch up and chat when you stop for rests at the top of hills. Go at your own pace and enjoy it.

Hang on; “So why do the Pros use those sugar gels?” Well, they are professional cyclists and capable of incredibly intense levels of activity. As a result they have supressed insulin response when they are engaged in intense activity. They are not carting their kit with them and they are not trying to have a lovely holiday!

I have never used those gels, but people who do, report stomach cramps, vomiting or even diarrhoea. If you know what you are doing with those gels, or any of that sounds like something you want to be part of your holiday then sure go ahead use the sugar gels.

Personally I prefer to eat real food, and just shift the quantities around a bit to fit around the activity.

Oh one last tip. Caffeine is a performance enhancing substance. Pro athletes actually dose themselves with it before an event and most of those sugar gells have it. But when you are on holiday it is much more fun to consume it in the form of an espresso, or macchiato.

Hope that helps: If you have any comments or questions, please feel free to e-mail and ask using the contact widgety-bob right at the bottom of the page and we will try and find you answers.