Riding Fuel: Should We Eat Energy Gels or Normal Food? - Total Women's Cycling

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Training & Nutrition

Riding Fuel: Should We Eat Energy Gels or Normal Food?

We compare the two head to head...

Over longer bike rides, you need to keep eating – you can burn around 500 calories an hour, so over a three hour bike ride you’re going to need to top up the energy stores.

Some riders down energy gels and bars or use an energy drink to gradually drip feed them with calories, whilst others prefer to munch on home-made sarnies and more ‘normal’ food. We asked Charlotte Kennedy, a sports nutritionist at Etixx, what she thought, and quizzed a couple of pro cyclists.

Here’s what we found… 

Real Food


Normal food is simple – it’s usually not too expensive, obviously pretty readily available, and most items can be easily wrapped up in foil or plastic to keep from ruining your jersey pockets. Charlotte said: “Normal food can be a great option for people that haven’t experimented much with taking on fuel during exercise. It allows you to tailor your consumption based on preferences, taste and what’s in your kitchen cupboard!

“Some good options of food include dates, ripe bananas and jam sandwiches (with peanut butter!). Real food is a great option when you’re out on very long rides as the sugary tastes of energy products can get sickening! This gives you the freedom to take savoury snacks as well.”

It’s not ideal for everyone – she explains: “However, some people find real food hard to digest and it can leave them experiencing GI distress and discomfort. Not only this, but carrying lots of real food options can be sometimes challenging. In these situations, energy products will come in very useful.”

Good options:

Energy Products

Broadly comprising of gels, bars, and drinks, energy products are designed specifically for eating on the go. Charlotte says: “Energy products are designed specifically for athletes to provide you with easily digestible fuel when you need it the most.

“They also don’t contain any added nutrients such as fat and fibre which can delay the absorption process and potentially cause GI distress. Real food can be great for providing sugar but also contains other nutrients which may be detrimental to providing energy.”

Energy products are convenient, too, and often easier to get down when you’re breathing hard. She said: “Energy products can be particularly useful to consume on really intense rides or when you’re out on a ride just before you reach a demanding climb. Furthermore, energy products last a long time and therefore you should keep a few stored in your car/with your bike so that when you’re on the go you can quickly grab some fuel when you need it.”

The Options:

  • Energy drinks – drip feed with calories as you sip, often contains more electrolytes to help fight cramp
  • Energy gels – really easy to knock back 100 calories and contain some electrolytes
  • Energy bars or chews – closer to ‘real food’, but can take a little more chewing and therefore harder to consume at high intensity

What do the pros do?

Admittedly – we’re not pro cyclists – and so we shouldn’t try to do everything exactly as they do (that could go horribly wrong!). However, we can certainly learn from them.

When we asked Olympic Champion and Wiggle-High5 rider Dani King, she told us: “I like brioche with jam in it or something quite sweet on the bike. I tend to use proper food during the winter, because through the race season you’re just living off gels and bars, but I think it’s nice to be able to use food and make rice cakes or flapjacks just to have in your pocket rather than having bars and gels all the time.”

Giving a similar answer, Canyon//SRAM’s former German Road Race Champion Trixi Worrack told us: “On the ride, I always take food from breakfast [at the hotel when on a training camp]! Like cheese and egg, whilst some other riders might have a banana or an apple. I don’t eat bars or anything in training, I just want something salty. When racing, I eat gels as bars are hard to chew.”

The conclusion…

The general consensus seems to be that the long rides of winter are best fueled by normal food – this is tastier, and less sugary – if you’re pounding out low intensity miles you just don’t need to be downing the quick release sugars in gels. However, come hard intense rides where breathing is erratic, and races, it’s all about gels which deliver a quick dose of energy.

You might also like… 

Ask The Expert: How Do We Avoid Cramp On The Bike?

Six Healthy Bites for the Bike 

Quick Nutrition Tips for Time Crunched Cyclists


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