Eat food, not too much, mostly plants. (Michael Pollan, summarizing a lifetime spent studying nutrition)
I ride so I can eat. (Susan DeMattei)
It’s not about the bike, as Lance Armstrong famously said. Cycling, like any sport, is about the body. Any performance gain you can make by upgrading wheels or buying an aero frame are dwarfed by the gains you can get by losing weight or eating more healthily. So caring for our body should be our primary concern. And the primary ways you care for your body are by fueling wisely, caring for yourself when you’re sick or injured, and training. We’ll talk about each one in its own chapter.
What do the following things have in common?: milk, cheese, butter, coffee, pasta, wheat, potatoes, bread, sugar, calcium supplements, red meat, vegetarian diets, cholesterol, saturated fat, low-fat diets, fish, soy, tea, fruit, and chocolate. Answer: they’re all terrible for you. Or wonderful. Depending on which article you read and what day it is. A recent newspaper contained an article saying that 5 cups of coffee a day will help prevent Parkinson’s disease, depression, and Alzheimer’s. Next week there will be an article saying that coffee is lethal. So it goes. The media is now saying that lard, 2010’s ultimate poison, is the latest wonder food.
Let’s screen out the crazy-making media hype and stick to what we know about healthy eating:
Eat real, whole, unprocessed food.
Eat mostly vegetables, the darker the better.
Eat fruit, but in moderation (it’s high in sugar).
Eat lean meat in moderation (chicken and turkey, not beef and pork).
Eat legumes, seeds, and nuts (nuts in moderation—they’re fatty).
Minimize sugar intake in all its forms (including honey, agave nectar, and brown sugar—they all act on your body in the same way).
Avoid HFCS—high fructose corn syrup. Think of it as super-sugar.
Avoid dairy (you are not a cow).
Avoid fruit juice—it’s all the bad part of fruit with all the good part taken out.
Minimize your salt intake. Even on hard rides, we have a salt reserve so vast that we never need to go out of our way to eat salt.
Spice your food freely—herbs and spices are full of good phytochemicals (chemicals that come from food) and they’re savory, which the brain accepts as an alternative to sweet.
Avoid saturated fat. There are some supposedly healthy saturated fats (like avocados), but it’s impossible to pick them out on an ingredients label, so just avoid any processed food with significant amounts of sat/fat listed.
If we can do this short list of things, you will have done the vast bulk of the heavy lifting and be healthier than 99% of the American population.
Cyclists Have Special Nutritional Needs
If you’re a cyclist, you need exorbitant amounts of a) food, b) protein, and c) carbohydrates (“carbs,” aka “starch”—pasta, rice, bread).
When you work hard, you burn food (calories), and you must replace what you burn or you’ll wither and die. So don’t equate eating healthily with eating less, if you’re exercising—there’s a reason to eat less, but it’s not about health. Your need for additional food will be most intense during the ride (if it’s a long one) and in the hour after the ride. Don’t deny these natural and healthy appetites. One of the real rewards to exercising and eating healthily is that you can eat large quantities of food without guilt.
A cyclist needs more protein and more carbs than sedentary people. Protein is the stuff the body uses to build and repair muscle, so you need it when you’re well into a long ride and your muscles are getting well used, and you especially need a lot right after the ride when your muscles are repairing themselves. Carbs are what you burn for fuel. The current media frenzy is that “carbs are bad,” but the media don’t ride a bike. You’ll need carbs during the ride, to replenish as much fuel as you can (it’s impossible to replace carbs as fast as you burn them), and after the ride, to fully replenish. Try to eat “good carbs,” healthy carbs like maltodextrin, whole wheat bread, and brown rice. If possible, do the bulk of this post-ride replenishing within an hour (ideally, within 30 minutes) of the end of the ride—the cyclist’s “window.”
Don’t try to carbo load before a big ride—if you’re eating a normal diet, your carbs are always topped up and you can’t add water to a full pitcher.
The Substitution Diet
The main fear stopping people from eating healthily is the notion that you won’t be able to eat anything you like ever again (what I call the 3 K’s Diet: Kale, Quinoa, and cardboard). One way of quieting that fear is to think, not about avoiding unhealthy, pleasurable food, but about making one-for-one substitutions in your food preparation, eating the same stuff but replacing one unhealthy ingredient with another one that’s healthy and similarly tasteful. Sometimes the taste is a bit unusual at first, but you get used to it:
1. Replace butter with olive oil. If you don’t like the taste of olive oil, buy better olive oil.
2. Replace mayonnaise with any heart-healthy spread: salsa, Vegenaise (not all that bad), oil-and-vinegar salad dressing with olive oil, meatless spaghetti sauce, yogurt, tzatziki, hummus, mustard, ketchup in moderation.
3. Replace sugar with stevia, a calorie-free, completely natural plant leaf. Takes some getting used to.
4. Replace beef with chicken
5. Replace creamy salad dressings with vinaigrette (with olive oil). If it looks “creamy,” it’s probably high in saturated fat.
If you can do just these five substitutions, you’ll have made a huge inroad into your unhealthy food consumption. But you’re just getting started:
6. Replace milk with soy milk, rice milk, or almond milk. Takes some getting used to.
7. Replace processed-flour bread with whole-grain.
8. Replace salt with herbs and spices.
9. Replace ice cream with fat-free frozen yogurt (still high in sugar, but better).
10. Replace white rice with brown rice.
11. Replace sodas with tea or lemonade (with stevia, not sugar)
12. Replace whole eggs with egg whites. If you’re eating eggs straight, add a smidge of yolk for flavor and color.
13. There is no substitute for cheese, unless you go Vegan and use cashew fake cheese spread. Short of that, all you can do is load up the sandwich or pizza with olive slices, artichoke hearts, pickles, onions, sautéed mushrooms, and a good sauce—anything to make it flavorful and interesting to your taste buds.
Get creative. Crave a sweet? Instead of eating a brownie (solid sugar and fat), make cinnamon toast using whole-grain bread, olive oil, cinnamon, and stevia—totally satisfying, and totally healthy.
Avoiding Fat and Sugar
The “bad” part of a bad diet is mostly saturated fat and sugar, and they’re everywhere, so controlling them requires special attention.
Fat is the hardest element of a diet to control, because when you’re out in the world you can’t tell what you’re eating. A salad prepared with quality extra-virgin olive oil is wonderful for you; the same salad prepared with palm oil is lethal. You can’t ask the restaurant what kind of oil they’re using in their fish fry, because they simply don’t know, so just assume that any oil used in standard restaurant cooking is unhealthy, because unhealthy oil is cheap. Given that truth, all you can do is
- 1. Prepare your food yourself.
- 2. Eat in health-conscious restaurants.
- 3. Become a compulsive reader of labels: saturated fat = bad, polyunsaturated fat = bad, monounsaturated fat = good.
Recently we all caught a break. Our government finally got around to declaring hydrogenated fat, the most lethal form of fat, illegal, though at present it’s still permitted in small amounts in foods like peanut butter and cake frosting.
Most of the saturated fats we consume in restaurants, once we avoid beef and pork, are in the form of spreads and sauces. Almost all the condiment spreads in American fun food—mayonnaise, aioli, hollandaise, bernaise, blue cheese dressing, ranch, sour cream, thousand island, “special sauce”—are very high in saturated fat. Fast food items like Big Macs aren’t so bad for you once you take the sauces and cheese off. So learn to eat food without sauce or substitute the healthy ones (see the #2 substitution above).
Sugar is in almost everything we eat. To cut your intake, you must begin by accepting two truths. 1) Sugar is addictive—the more you eat of it, the more you want, and the less you eat, the easier it is to eat even less. You literally lose your taste for it after it’s gone for a while. 2) The current recommended daily intake of sugar is none. Sugar is simply bad for you—perhaps the leading cause of diabetes and obesity in America. Don’t tell yourself you need sugar for energy—yes, sugar is energy, but it’s an unhealthy form of it, and you can easily and more healthily get your energy from carbs.
Now that our resolve is firm, minimize sugar in food five ways:
1. Sugar lurks in all prepared foods, so become a compulsive reader of ingredients lists. Many whole-grain, “organic” cereals contain 18 grams of sugar a serving. If you read around, you can find healthy cereals that contain 5 grams or less, thus cutting your morning sugar intake by more than 2/3.
2. If you love baked sweets (cookies, banana bread), learn to bake so you can cut the recipe’s sugar dose. Begin by cutting it in half. You’ll hardly notice the difference. When the sugar addiction begins to wear off, you can go further, to 1/3, then 1/4.
3. Substitute Stevia for sugar in your cooking and cut your calories to 0. Stevia’s flavor is a mite less delightful, but you get used to it. Don’t try to accomplish the same thing with Splenda and other fake sugars—you’re just substituting one source of harm for another.
4. “Don’t drink your calories.” Find alternatives to high-caloric drinks. This is hard, because healthy options are few, but it’s crucial, because liquids are such a big part of one’s food intake. We may eat 3 times a day, but we drink 10 or 20 times. And you want to push fluids when you diet, because it’s a psychological replacement for eating and because it fills your stomach and lets you eat less. If that drinking consists of sugary drinks, your diet is doomed—one serving of Pepsi can contain 38 grams of sugar, which is more than the rest of a normal meal.
All popular liquids are lethal. Sodas, bottled iced tea, and fruit juice are very high in sugar, and beer, sweetened coffee, and wine are lower but still high. The ideal solution is water, if you can stand the monotony. Otherwise, we’re left with 3 options: tea, flavored water—highly diluted no-sugar-added fruit juice sweetened with Stevia (berry, pomegranate, and lemon seem to work best), and those over-priced bottles of water with flavor additives. Artificially sweetened drinks are not a solution—years of research shows that the more one drinks “sugar-free” drinks, the more calories one takes in elsewhere and the fatter one gets. It’s counter-intuitive, but it’s true. Black coffee solves one problem and adds others—caffeine addiction and the energy yo-yo. And it’s hard to drink enough coffee to meet a healthy diet’s recommended liquid intake.
5. Get to know the two kinds of sugar. On any processed food package there are two ways to measure sugar content. The first is in the list of ingredients, the one that looks like “Ingredients: sugar, water, whole-wheat flour, almonds, xanthan gum, artificial color, artificial flavor…” That sugar is added white sugar, and it’s all bad. Remember, the ingredients are in order of volume, the most abundant ingredient first, so the nearer the front of the list sugar is the more dangerous the food is. The other is in the Nutrition Facts label, and it looks like “Total sugar 3 g.” That includes the sugar that’s naturally occurring in the other ingredients (fruit, e.g.), so it may be quite healthy. Thus trail bars, which are often full of dried fruit, can be scarily high in total grams of sugar but pose little threat.
If you cut way back on fat and sugar, you’re stripping your diet of its two main sources of pleasure, so you’ll need to find flavorsome alternatives. The easiest way to add flavor to a dish is via a sauce. Luckily there are many healthy ones: meatless spaghetti sauce, hummus, baba ganoush, tzatziki, sweet and sour sauce, salsa, soy sauce, a thousand hot sauces—even ketchup (in moderation—it’s high in sugar) and mustard. Most of these are ethnic, since non-American cuisines have always done with herbs and spices what American cuisine does with fat and sugar, but they’re available, if not in Safeway then in Trader Joe’s or ethnic food shops.
The “I’ve Earned It” Fallacy
Don’t tell yourself that you’ve earned a splurge after a big ride or that you’ll burn it off on the next ride. The argument goes like this: you’ve ridden hard and cleaned out your system, so now you’ve earned that pizza and Big Gulp, and anyway you’re going to go out tomorrow and burn it off so it won’t hurt. Indeed, you have depleted your stores, so go replenish them—your stores of carbs and protein, that is. Gorge on that meatless spaghetti and skinless roasted chicken. But there is no way to “clean out” the results of unhealthy eating, so whatever unhealthy stuff you put in there is staying, however hard you ride.
Eating healthily and losing weight are two different things, and as a cyclist you’ll want to do both—eat healthy to be strong, and lose weight to have a high power-to-weight ratio.
Don’t Try to Lose Weight by Cycling. Or by any other exercise. Every cyclist has had this experience: you weigh yourself, then go out and do a hard century, then weigh yourself…and you’ve gained 2 pounds. That’s because, in the short run, exercise increases appetite, and in the long run, exercise builds muscle mass. That muscle mass has weight, and it has to be fed, so your food intake goes up.
And there’s a third problem: exercise draws energy from glycogen stores for the first 60-90 minutes—only after that does it start to use fat stores. So the only way you can lose weight by riding is by doing long rides while refusing to eat, which is dangerously unhealthy and also misery-making, thus a classic case of setting yourself up for failure.
All diets work—vegetarian, low-fat, high-fat, Paleo, whatever. Clinicians have been doing controlled studies comparing the efficacy of various diets for decades, and the inevitable finding is, any diet causes weight loss, because a diet makes you mindful of what you’re eating. The more you think critically about your food intake, the more you can control it. Hence one of the basic principles of dieting: weigh yourself every morning. That way you’ll know you’ll have to face the music every 24 hours.
All diets fail—vegetarian, low-fat, high-fat, Paleo, whatever. Almost everyone who goes on a diet falls off the wagon and regains the lost weight. That’s because diets are almost always draconian and based in self-denial and self-loathing. For your diet to work, it will have to be tolerant and flexible, so you can live with it without going mad, and it will have to be based in positivity—diet to get something that’s good for you, not to escape some loathed self-image. Which leads us to our next two principles:
Set Human Standards for Yourself. Almost all New Year’s Resolutions and other good intentions fail because they ask too much. Don’t promise you will never eat sugar again. Don’t promise you will never touch ice cream. Doing so is preparing to fail, and when you fail, your self-loathing will increase and you will eat more to make yourself feel better. Instead, promise to cut back on sugar and ice cream, admit you will have little lapses, praise yourself for your victories, and give yourself little rewards now and then. It’s the difference between “I’ll never have ice cream again,” which sounds like a death sentence, and “I’ll give myself a little ice cream treat after the week’s training,” which sounds like success and a present—whee!
Value relative successes. If you go from a pizza a week to a pizza a month, you’ve cut down the cheese you’re eating by 75%, a gigantic triumph. If you try to cut out pizza forever, you’ll crash and burn. Which outcome is better? Many people have success with a diet that asks them to eat healthily but normally on even days and restrict food intact on odd days. That way you always know there’s a reprieve just a day away.
There are two schools of thought on shedding bad habits. There is the cold turkey approach, famously advocated by Alcoholics Anonymous: You will never have a drink again. And there is the approach I’m recommending. Which one works for you depends on how your psychology works. If you like living under a system of totalitarian law, go cold turkey, and never touch ice cream. I think most of us thrive under a more tolerant regime.
Don’t Try to Hate Yourself into Reform. Millions have tried to lose weight by concentrating on how much they loathe their fat selves. It doesn’t work. Find motivating messages that sound positive:
- I’m going to lose five pounds and absolutely rip that century next month.
- I’ll skip that brownie and fly up the hill tomorrow.
- After this week’s training, I’ll treat myself to a cookie.
Don’t Rely on “Fat-Free” or “Sugar-Free” Processed Foods. It doesn’t work. Processed fat-free foods compensate by adding tons of sugar. Processed sugar-free foods compensate by adding artificial sweeteners, which increase your brain’s desire for the sweet sensation and end up making you eat more sweets.
Eat Less. Everybody knows how to lose weight: exercise more and eat less. But, as we’ve discussed, the first half of that is a myth—unless we’re obese, exercise adds weight. So losing weight comes down to eating less, and we need to do that carefully, because starving our new, bigger muscles is counter-productive. Here’s how:
1. Decide if you’re a grazer or a stuffer. You can eat a full meal, infrequently, or eat a little, all the time. If you’re a grazer, you can avoid ever eating large meals. Eat half your lunch and save the other half for mid-afternoon. Some people find that grazing drives them mad because they never feel full. If you’re one of them, you’ll eat less if you eat full meals and control snacking in between.
2. Get comfortable with the to-go box. Almost all American restaurant meals are much more than you should eat at one sitting. But wasting food is a mortal sin for most of us. So the solution is to get in the habit of eating half the meal and taking the other half home for tonight’s dinner or tomorrow’s lunch. If you know you’re going to get to eat the rest of it, just not now, stopping halfway through is a lot easier.
3. Realize that eating sweets doesn’t make you happier—in ten minutes you’ll feel the same or worse than you did before.
4. Eating small portions is easier than total abstinence. A bite of a brownie is 80% as satisfying as a whole brownie; no brownie at all sucks.
5. Stay active. Idleness promotes snacking. So go ride your bike.
6. Stay happy. Unhappiness drives us to eat, to cheer ourselves up. So go ride your bike.
Take a pill. I never thought I’d say this, but there is a pill you can take to help you lose weight. It’s called Phytolean, by Hammer Nutrition. It’s not a fat-burner or speed or any of those other health-imperiling scams. It’s a carb-uptake blocker. You take it before carb-heavy meals to prevent the body from absorbing the carbs. You don’t want to take it when you’re training hard or after a hard ride, because you want the carbs then, but any other time it’s an all-natural, risk-free, effortless way to “eat less” without actually eating less. It works—I take it before all three meals when I’m preparing for bike vacations, and I lose up to 1/2 lb a day.
Fueling on the Bike
The two times you must not deny yourself food are during a long ride and in the sixty minutes after the ride, when there is a “window” when your body can best take up the materials it needs to repair and recover. In fact, if you’re working hard on the bike, you want to force yourself to eat at these times even if you don’t feel like it. Eat mostly carbs and a little protein during the ride, and a lot of carbs and a slug of protein after. Eat often—nibbling constantly is better than infrequent gorging. Some riders set their watch alarms to go off every fifteen minutes to remind them to nibble.
You have four choices concerning eating on the bike: real food, energy bars, gels, and powders.
Real food: The only advantage to real food is that it tastes good and your brain registers it as food so you feel satisfied. Its disadvantages are many: it’s heavy, bulky, and easily smashed in a pocket; it’s messy and relatively hard to digest; and, while it’s easy to guarantee that it’s healthy, it’s almost impossible to guarantee that it contains everything your body needs to keep riding hard—sure it’s got carbs and protein, but does it have enough magnesium, glutathione, or leucine? Most riders only carry real food for lunch, so that lunch feels more substantial than the mid-ride snacking.
The traditional “real food” for cycling is a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, and it’s hard to beat. It’s got carbs, protein, and healthy oils. It’s just messy. Nuts and gorp are healthy but hard to digest. Bananas have a long and colorful history in cycling, because they’re full of potassium, which keeps away the bonk, but they’re heavy and there’s that peel left over and they mark you as a Fred.
Bars: Energy bars are cheap (usually about $1 on sale), dense (thus light), sturdy, dry (thus tidy in the pocket), and easy to dispose of. They have many names: power bars, snack bars, fruit bars, nut bars, energy bars, trail bars, and so on. The names mean nothing. Just look at the ingredients. You want to see 1) lots of carbs—at least 20 g.; 2) some protein—3-5 g., but no more (avoid the “protein bar” with its 20 g. of protein); 3) almost zero saturated fat (I can live with 0.5 to 1.5 g.), and zero polyunsaturated fats, trans fats, or hydrogenated anything. Surprisingly, bars with all these virtues are easy to find—most bar makers take their nutrition seriously. Some people say the cheap grain bars taste like cardboard. I don’t mind them. But if you do, pay more. There are gourmet bars out there now that taste like items from a 3-star Michelin menu. My favorites are Pro Bar and Picky Bar.
One bar isn’t enough to get you through a long ride, and most riders don’t want to eat more than one bar a ride, so the norm is to supplement the bar with the next two.
Gels: Gel is a thick ooze of carbs. It’s the purest, densest form of energy there is, denser than powders (see below) because you can down a lot of it without having to drink a pint of water. It usually has no protein, which can be a problem on long rides. But its main problems are, the brain doesn’t register it as food, and it’s monotonous, so (for both reasons) you feel unsatisfied.
Gels come in individual packets and in multi-serve jugs you dispense into little squeeze bottles. The packets are dumb—they’re much more expensive than the bulk jugs, they force you to eat too much gel at once (since once you open it you can’t pack it around half-full without getting it all over everything), and they leave you with a messy packet to carry around afterwards. Racers like them, but racers get to throw their garbage on the ground. You don’t. So get the jugs and the squeeze bottle.
Gel tasted like snot when it was new, but those days are gone. Now they have flavors like peanut butter and cappuccino, and they can be delicious.
Power drinks: The most practical food source is the power drink, a carb-and-protein powder you add to your water bottle. It has many advantages: a) it adds no weight—you’re going to carry the water anyway; 2) it’s absolutely convenient—it can’t get crushed, and it’s always at hand; and 3) it’s (in theory) everything your body needs, a full program of carbs, protein, minerals, vitamins, amino acids—what the companies like to call “a meal in a bottle.” It really works—you could live off it, and forget about the real food, the bars, and the gels. The only drawbacks are 1) it’s liquid, so your brain craves something solid; 2) it’s in your water, so when you drink your water it’s gone—which on a hot day can happen in an hour—so you have to carry back-up powder, or (and this gets a little esoteric) mix up several hours’ worth with a little water to make a paste and carry it in a squeeze bottle; 3) protein mixed with water has a short shelf life—like four hours—after which it starts to go rancid; and 4) since it’s in your water, you have to drink water to get at it, which means if you get hungry you have to chug vast amounts of water to get at your food. For this last reason alone, you don’t want power drink to be your only food source. If you dedicate one water bottle to power drink, you need another bottle for water-only. Otherwise, you’ll have to eat every time you drink, which is a bad idea.
There are dozens of companies making powders just for cyclists. The most popular among cyclists is Cytomax. Each maker will tell you they have the magic formula that will make you ride like a god, but in fact all the power drinks are pretty much the same—maltodextrin carbs with soy protein—and there’s little reason to think one is much better than the others. Unless it’s full of sugar, which many of them are.
Not all power drinks are good for cyclists. The most heavily advertised power drinks are designed for body builders. Avoid them. They’re designed to help you add bulk (usually by way of Creatine), which is exactly what you don’t want, and they’re vastly more protein than you need.
Which of the four kinds of food should you carry? All of them. On an all-day ride I carry “real food,” for the psychological satisfaction, bars, for the convenience, gel, for the unadulterated fuel shot, and power drink, because it really is “a meal in a bottle.” On a short ride, I carry gel and a bar.
Use a Recovery Drink. The most important time to eat in a cyclist’s day is during the 60-minute “window” after a hard ride. During this window your body is craving carbs (for refueling), protein (for repairing muscle tissue), and more esoteric stuff like querticin, and your body is uniquely open to these things, so the uptake is greater. It’s hard to have a full-course meal waiting when you get back to the car, or to get to a restaurant, order, and eat in 60 minutes, so the only efficient solution is the recovery drink, another powder you mix in your water bottle. As with mid-ride powders, recovery drinks have been developed by lab rats to give you everything your body needs at that moment. There isn’t a huge difference between the mid-ride formula and the recovery formula, so you could substitute one for the other, but there are differences enough to make it worth your while to have both and use them according to the directions—recovery powders are higher in protein and usually include BCAA’s (branched chain amino acids), both thought to be important for recovery, and mid-ride powders get their carbs from soy, whereas recovery powders get their carbs from whey, for reasons that are compelling but hard to explain. By the way, there are two kinds of whey powder, whey concentrate and whey isolate, and isolate is better—don’t ask me why.
The supplements Americans know about are vitamins. Whether or not vitamins work is the subject of an endless media war, and you can find opinions in print ranging from “You’ll die without them” to “You’ll die if you take them.” Again, finding a safe middle ground is tough, but we can safely say:
- Taking a multi-vitamin a day is a good idea.
- Vitamins D, E, and Omega 3 are good for you.
- Active athletes need more vitamins than sedentary people.
There are a few other supplements that are probably good for you: certain amino acids and CO-Q10, for example.
It’s always better to get your vitamins in real food instead of a pill; if you can’t eat real food, it’s always better to take a capsule of something organic, like turmeric, instead of a pure chemical.
In addition to drugstore supplements, there is an enormous industry selling cycling-specific supplements (think, vitamins on crack). These products invariably bring up jokes about “doping” from cyclists and non-cyclists alike, but we’re talking about legal products that promise to boost your energy, endurance, or recovery rate. Whether they work or not is something you’ll have to find out. The placebo effect plays a major role here—if you believe the supplements help, they do. Any cycling-specific gel, power drink, or recovery drink will have a laundry list of such supplements included in them.
There is one supplement you must use, however anti-supplement you are: an electrolyte replacement. Your body needs electrolytes to keep your muscles working, and you lose them in your sweat, so you need to replace them or you’ll bonk and probably cramp as well. The more you sweat, the more electrolytes you need to take. I take electrolytes on all rides over an hour, and I have never cramped, and have bonked twice, in 20 years.
Electrolytes come as capsules or powders (to be added to your water bottle). I strongly recommend capsules, because if you put your electrolytes in your water you have linked your supplementation with your water intake and then you can’t do one without the other. Thus when you suddenly realize you’re close to bonking you need to drink a ton of water right now to get replenished. Also, when you finish your water bottle you’re out of electrolytes. In pill form, you can easily carry electrolytes sufficient for a century in a little pop-top canister.
Many people equate electrolytes with salt, and some riders actually take salt tablets and think they’re replenishing their electrolytes. Not so. Electrolytes are mostly salt, potassium, and magnesium, but of the three salt is the least necessary, even though you’d die without it, simply because your American body is carrying around vastly more salt than it needs, even after you’ve sweated for hours. So make sure your electrolyte replacement is heavy on potassium and magnesium, and if it’s light on salt that’s probably a good thing.
And what about 5-Hour Energy and the other energy boosters? They work, in a way. They’re designed to kickstart a sluggish metabolism—someone sitting at a desk for 8 hours—and when you’re cycling your metabolism isn’t sluggish. More likely it’s hyperactive. The last thing you need is something that makes your heart run faster. So 5-Hour Energy isn’t meant for you. It will give you a kick in the butt on a long, hard ride when you feel yourself flagging, but at a price. Since it’s making your system dig unnaturally deep, it has the same effect as all other chemical stimulants: the next hour or day you feel rung out. If you take it, realize you’re in essence using up tomorrow’s energy along with today’s. It might make sense in the last 10 miles of a century, to get you to the finish line.
I’ve tried a lot of supplements, because I need all the help I can get, and my opinion on them comes down to this: use Hammer Nutrition products. Hammer is one of those companies that make you feel good about capitalism: they live and breathe endurance sports, they back their products with copious science which they like to share with you, they all ride longer and faster than me, and their customer service is peerless. They make all the food and supplementation products I use: my gel (Hammergel), my mid-ride powder (Perpetuem), my recovery drink (Recoverite), my electrolyte capsules (Endurolytes), and a few others.
Somewhat analogous to supplements you swallow are ointments you smear on your skin before or after riding to enhance performance or recovery. Most of these products are useless. Use them if they feel good. Of the “sore muscle” salves, Biofreeze is the only one I know that may actually do anything. But there is one salve that really works—PR Lotion by Amp Human. It’s basically baking soda, and it curbs lactic acid burn (seems preposterous, I know). It won’t make you stronger, but it will let you ride longer without that burning sensation that makes you back off the effort level.