You have probably gone out on a bike ride at some point and pushed yourself a little too hard. You start to feel empty inside. Your body stops. You're miles from anywhere. Then nothing. You're in a sea of syrup, and your legs are cement. You can't go on, and everything seems lost. You sit beside the road and try and regroup. You now want to avoid this happening again, so to help you, we've compiled a guide to keeping your energy levels up as you ride.
What is bonking?
Bonking is sometimes referred to as "hitting the wall," as that is what it's like your body can go no further due to a barrier in front of you. This is not the muscular pain that you get or your body telling you to stop. Your body can't even tell you to stop; you've just stopped.
The reason you've stopped is that your body has depleted its glycogen stores. Glycogen is the stuff you need for endurance events. It's your internal battery, thankfully a rechargeable battery, and not a throwaway battery. Glycogen is what you're body uses as a primary fuel for your cells when you're running between 70 – 85% of your VO2 Max. You don't ruin your glycogen stores by making high-intensity short duration efforts. It is a long and steady ride that causes the stores to run down.
How to stop the bonk before you get on a bike
Your body needs carbohydrates to make glycogen. Make sure you then eat enough carbohydrates daily. You'll be wanting to eat around 40 – 65% carbohydrates with your meals.
Don't try and diet and eat too few calories every day.
Eat before your ride, especially if it's been a few hours since your last meal.
Make sure you top up your glycogen batteries when you get home. A recovery drink might be your easiest way to get topped up as you recover enough to be able to make a meal.
What are carbohydrates?
You might now be asking what are carbohydrates? To put it simply, carbohydrates are the starches, sugars, and fibers found in grains, fruits, vegetables, and dairy products. They are one of the three macronutrients that we need for a healthy life. The other two are fat and proteins.
There is a further way to break down carbohydrates, and that is thanks to their glycemic index (GI). The glycemic index tells you the effect the food has on your blood glucose levels over two hours. High glycemic index (over 70) foods cause your glucose levels to rise fast. Low glycemic index (under 55) foods will slowly release glucose into your bloodstream.
You want to eat low GI foods about 2-3 hours before a ride and about 2-3 hours after a ride. Following this rule is as important as making sure you have food when out on the bike. During a long ride, you'll want to consume high GI foods. You'll also want to consume some high GI food immediately after you finish your ride.
What are carbohydrates?
You can use gummy sweets, such as jelly babies, or even a jam sandwich to meet these high GI requirements when out on a ride, but the best way is through an energy drink. A good sports drink will contain the carbs you need and keep you hydrated. Making it much more likely that you keep your stores topped up and you keep on moving.
What to do when on the bike to stop bonking
Take it easy. The best rule to follow is not to sit on your bike and immediately start to rode as fast as you can. Conserve your strength, especially if you're riding a route you're not familiar with riding. Heading out fast will immediately start to deplete your glycogen stores, and you'll have difficulty keeping them topped up.
You'll then hit one climb too many and just hit the wall.
Learn you're pace. When you ride, learn to listen to your body. Over time you'll be able to work out a pace that you can stick to for hours and not have to worry about blowing up. Your pace here is not a speed but is a measurement of your heart rate. You'll want to stick to around about 70% of you're maximum heart rate. Eventually, riding at this effort level will become second nature if you pay attention to your body.
Over an hour, start to eat. We don't mean a buffet here but begin to make sure you keep your body topped up. If you eat too fast, then you'll get stomach problems, and that can be as bad as bonking. So, you want to snack and do so slowly. It'll keep you topped up and help you avoid other unintended consequences.
How to drink. You should be aiming to empty a 750 ml bottle every hour. If you don't stay hydrated, then you'll find that you're eating strategy was all for nothing. As you become dehydrated, your blood will thicken, which makes getting glucose around your body to where it is needed that much more challenging.
Coffee stops. Coffee stops are fun, but they can cause your legs to become heavy. Your legs becoming heavy is a response to standing up. Your blood will start to pool, and your legs will begin to cool. You may also find it becomes slightly more mentally hard to get back on your bike and carry on as well. Make every stop as short as possible.
Remember, you're not on a fixed gear. When you're out riding coast or draft behind others, yes, you'll not be pedaling, but you'll be giving your body a chance to recover. Your body will thank you for this, and if you watch pro cycling, you'll see that no one spends the entire race breaking the wind by themselves.
Remember and move. We're not talking about riding here but move your body around the bike every little while. Simply sliding forward or backward on your saddle can give you a new little burst of energy. Stand up for a little bit, change your hand position. Doing this will provide some muscles with a break and engage others for a little bit.
If you put your diet together and making sure you follow our simple list of on the bike rules, then you should never have to fear the dreaded bonk.