The demands of long distance cycling on your body are quite different to those of other sports, in so much as during a ride you are constantly engaged in exercise for six to eight hours a day – the same as most people’s day job.
Cycling is well known as a low impact fat burning exercise, which is true. It’s always been kind to my knees and joints and if you’re heart rate is between 140 and 150bpm you will burn fat as the heart rate for this is around 50/60% of your maximum heart rate.
If its weight loss you’re after, a long distance trip can take several kilos off depending on how long you go for and what you’re doing. On an average cycling day you can expect to burn between half a kilo and kilo depending on how hard you ride and the various fitness apps and calculators believe, which seem to slide between 500 and 900 calories per hour, whilst riding at 20kmh.
The basic principle is that the harder you work, the more you use anaerobic systems in your body that handle intense demands (ie sprinting) and uses the immediate glycogen stores in the muscles with a heart rate that’s upwards of 70/80% of your maximum heart rate. Push that up and you will work on you anaerobic system and risk burning carbohydrate then protein (muscle) instead of fat over a long duration.
This year I’d decided to get my shit together and set a personal fitness target, aiming for a total loss of 20 kilos over 12 months. If you do the math, a kilo is 8000 calories approximately, which meant 160,000 calories to burn. The average exercise will burn upwards of 500 calories per hour. That means anything between 160 and 320 hours of exercise is required to lose this weight – equivalent to one or two months full time work or at least one hour a day, most days, of decent exercise.
In my twenties and thirties, I'd always been gifted with great health, which meant I was always complacent, not bothering too much about what I ate or drank. Up to my forties, I played a lot of amateur ice hockey, practicing and competing three times a week with a lot of off-ice training to supplement so the food didn’t matter. In my forties, I enjoyed jobs and a lifestyle that consumed most of my energy but was remiss on the fitness front throughout the decade, except for the annual bike ride and occasional skating session or skiing.
After quitting hockey, I couldn’t find something that really caught my interest until Sam suggested the cycling. For my first trip in 2011, the only preparation was turning up on the day, which was foolish to say the least and I was managed to spectacularly faceplant a French kerb 2km outside out first stopover after cycling 136km in 36 degree heat. This time I’ve already put around 750km ahead of the trip with 40/50km rides two to three times a week.
Having done trips with no preparation and lots of preparation, for those who think it’s too tall a task to cycle 100km a day, you’d be surprised how easy it is and how much progress you make without realising. A general level of fitness should see you cycling up to 20km per hour, which divided by a morning and afternoon ride isn’t as challenging as you think.
Which brings me to my next point. Having done this a few times now, as much as physical fitness and wellbeing, I believe mental strength is key - knowing that you are going to have to face long periods of enduring discomfort and pain and pushing through anyway. When we are on a ride, Sam and I don’t discuss pain unless it was information that could impact the rest of the trip. At the times it hurts, it hurts for everyone – you just deal with it.
Overall, however, the biggest issues are around dehydration, fatigue, sun and pain management when it comes to wellbeing during such a trip.
There’s plenty online about how to eat for the athletic and less athletic, calorie counters and other tools to work out roughly what you will expend and roughly what you will intake. I’m not qualified to educate about what’s best but can only share my own learned truths but you should take it seriously as long distance cycling isn’t recommended as a crash diet tactic.
The body apparently loses over one liter of fluid and one gram of sodium per hour when cycling at 20kmh dependent upon your body composition, with each litre weighing approximately one kilo. Losing 4% of body weight will see your performance drops significantly and the effects lasting several hours after.
There is a risk of under-eating on trips like this and particularly not consuming enough carbohydrates, which are required to metabolize fat for those wanting to lose a few kilos as the benefit of such a trip. When you deplete glycogen, the body then metabolizes protein (ie your muscles) to provide glucose. When that runs out, you ‘bonk’. I vividly remember the effects of this unlearned truism at the end of my very first day of long distance cycling few years back. It was at the 130km mark after six hours of cycling in 30/35 degree heat when I stepped off my bike and face-planted a French kerb.
As a rule of thumbs the saying goes eat before you’re hungry and drink before you’re thirsty. It’s also said that through at 24 hour period you should try and eat 5g of carbohydrate for each kg of your weight and 0.3g of protein per kg bodyweight and eat the biggest meal at the end of the day in preparation for the next day. Also aim to drink at least one to two litres extra of water per day – again taking lots after you’ve finished riding and at least a litre one hour before you set out again.
Over the course of more than 2,500km long distance riding, I’ve tested all sorts of foods, supplements and times to eat (and not eat). This works for me:
Breakfast no.1 (at least one hour before riding). Protein, either in the form of a bar or boiled egg and tea or espresso coffee and a litre of water.
Breakfast no.2 (mid morning). Pastry, coffee & cold water.
Lunch: Plat du jour followed by one hour for digestion combined with a cheeky nap.
Afternoon snack: Usually an energy gel shot.
Dinner: Fat bowl of pasta
Liquid: This was pretty much 90% water during the ride. I tried a bunch of electrolyte and sugar based powders but nothing beats ice-cold water. I kept off the sugar drinks and fruit juice because of the vicious acid reflux.
For the last six months I’ve been using the Google Fit app on my phone? Why? Because it’s part of being focused on achieving results from any regime you undertake. Like many apps, it uses a combination of BPG to track where you’re moving and how fast (ie walking v cycling) and then lets you add exercise details based on a long list of options. You get a daily total of active time, steps/movement and calorie burn and can set daily targets for activity (ie one hour, two hours etc). Having used it religiously every day it does give you focus and I’ve even found myself going out for a walk to hit the daily target.
I’m now adding a Jawbone to this, which is a rubber wristband that measures your activity and directly links in with Strava. In addition I have the Wahoo Tckr which measures your heart rate throughout the journey. Why is that important? There are various heart rate zones that achieve different results and put different demands on your body. This ranges from resting to target to maximum heart rate zone. Search Heart Rate Zones and you’ll find plenty of calculators and sound medical advice.