Avoiding The Bonk

By Peg Labiuk | 04/19/11


We’ve teamed up with Marilyn Trout, certified USA Cycling Elite Coach to answer Voler Newsletter List members’ training questions. You can view her coach profile at http://www.linkedin.com/in/mountainpedalscoaching80903 Send your cycling inquiries to Marilyn, and for a limited time, if yours is selected to be answered in our Training column, Voler will send you a $20 gift certificate that can be used towards any purchase from the Voler Store at http://www.voler.com. To submit your inquiry, e-mail her at trout_mic@msn.com, and type “Voler Training Question” in the subject line of the e-mail.

The following tip is a reprint of a March 2009 question submitted by from Voler E-Mail List member Mike Jarvis – still an excellent subject at any time! His training question that follows was answered by Peg Labiuk (nee Peggy Maass), a colleague of Marilyn Trout, and a certified NCCP level 3 coach with a career in international road and track racing. She is a World Championship medalist, World Record holder, U.S. Olympic Team member, former British national team coach and Kreb's Cycle co-founder (British Columbia, Canada).

Avoiding the Bonk

I am a 22 year old cyclist who recently discovered the sport. I found I have a problem hitting the "wall" on some of the rides I join in on (40+ miles). I found a calorie calculator online and it says I burn around 3000 calories for a 50-mile ride. Do you have any nutrition tips to keep me from dying in rides over 40 miles? Usually I eat some cereal beforehand, take a Clif bar and a carb powder mix in one of my drinks.

Hi Mike,

This is another question that appears simple, at first.  I'd love to tell you that all you have to do is eat more on your ride to avoid hitting the wall.  While there is some truth to that, it involves more than just caloric intake. 

The simple part is that, yes, you could eat a better breakfast than processed cereal.  Would you eat cake for breakfast?  Essentially a processed cereal breaks down into simple sugars like that.  Eat something more substantial, like a poached egg, bagel with protein (peanut butter, cheese), yogurt, even a hearty soup would be better than simple sugars.  I'm a fan of oatmeal (preferably made from whole grain like steel-cut oats) with nuts and dried fruit.  It is also important to eat and drink regularly during the ride, not when the "idiot light" goes on and you are hungry or thirsty.  It's too late to replenish then.  Use the rule of thumb of consuming 1 bottle over each hour and eating every hour.  You'll have to experiment with drinks and pocket foods to find what works for you. 

Now the not so easy part is that it will take more training to not "hit the wall" in a 40 mile ride.  Often "weekend warrior" athletes go out and ride harder and longer than any other training ride of the week.  Your muscles and muscle glycogen stores are not trained to sustain that effort, so you run out of gas before the end of the ride.  Therefore, you need to cover those bases with two rides:  one longer, and one harder.  The longer one should cover the distance and then some, but at an easy pace to adapt your muscles and aerobic energy system to the distance.  The second ride could be at the harder group ride pace, but shorter distance.  Usually referred to as a "tempo" or race-pace ride, it's helpful to have a tool like a heart rate monitor or power meter to regulate the effort.  That can also be accomplished by timing the same route each week, making note of weather conditions and gearing used.  Most people find it more interesting to train in shorter intervals at an elevated effort to improve conditioning.  Whatever you choose, at the beginning keep your effort slightly below that of the group.  That will give your body a chance to improve without burying yourself each time out. 

In addition, it's not enough to just look at nutrition and training.  In cycling, drafting is a huge advantage.  Honestly, do you draft well in the group?  What cadence and gearing do you choose compared to more seasoned riders?  The more effective you are at positioning yourself in the pack and riding efficiently, the more energy you will conserve and reserve for the crucial efforts like climbs.  I would certainly also recommend a bike-fitting to ensure that you are in a beneficial riding position.  It's hard to ride efficiently and have good skills if your set-up isn't conducive to that. 

So, to recap, you can take the following steps to work towards completing the ride with good energy: 

  • Eat a substantial breakfast 
  • Drink 1 bottle/hr and eat each hour 
  • Train at least one over-distance ride (@ easy pace)/week 
  • Train at least one tempo or interval ride/week 
  • Check bike position 
  • Work on drafting and bike handling skills 

Take heart that this combination of factors isn't easy to perfect.  If it were, Alberto Contador would have just won the Paris-Nice race.  He didn't lose because he didn't eat enough.  He lost because he didn't pace his effort and tried to do too much.  His glycogen stores were depleted, he made emotional decisions, and burned himself out.  See, it happens to the Pros, let alone to riders new to the sport.  Good for you for asking the question and seeking to avoid "the bonk".   

Best spinning for your upcoming 100,


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