Simple Carbohydrates for On the Bike Fuel


By Breanne Nalder Harward, MS, RDN — 

Quality and Quantity do Matter

If you’ve read any of the articles I’ve written in the past, you’ll know that I often compare our bodies to engines. This is definitely the case with the principal source of fuel for our engines: carbs. As endurance athletes, you likely know that carbohydrates are the primary source of energy that our muscles use to work. So, it may seem too simple to state, but it is essential that we intake the appropriate amount and type of carbohydrates for optimal performance.

Let’s start with the math. The rule of thumb is to intake 30-60g of carbohydrate per hour for endurance exercise. That’s 120-240 calories coming from carbs. Depending on your size, gender, fitness level etc., you may need more or less, but consider those ranges your minimum needs. The higher the intensity and longer the duration of your ride, the more fuel you need. Makes so much sense, right?! Granted there may be some fat or a tiny pit of protein in the fuel you choose, which will add to the total calorie intake, but please remember that carbs are the energy source that make your muscles (and brain) go!

Now for the type of carbohydrates to intake. For everyday nutrition we talk about complex carbohydrates (whole grains, legumes, starchy vegetables), though around exercise we want simple carbohydrates (sport drinks, chews, gels, etc.). We want to take in calories via simple carb sources because they are easy to digest, absorbed directly into the bloodstream rather than having to go through the stomach, giving immediate energy to working muscles. The chart I’ve created here is a list of sport food and traditional, fresh food to give you ideas.

Of course, there are a multitude of options out there, the trick is finding what’s right for you and your body. The goal is to match the numbers to the intensity and duration of your ride. It may take some trial-and-error with various foods, drinks, and/or gels. Over time, you’ll learn what works best for you, and then it becomes a matter of habit. Remember to fuel your engine for training as you would for an event, so that you teach your body to always utilize the carbs!

If you need any guidance in determining your exact calorie and carbohydrate needs, please contact me. In my next few articles, I will focus on healing before and recovery from training and racing.

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  1. You forgot what I consider the best – PowerBar Energize. 39 g of easily digestible carbs. (I have to order them online from Amazon, but it’s well worth it.)


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