A Primer on Sports Nutrition & Hydration

Dirt biking can be a very physically demanding sport - and we have the studies to prove it. Being aware of how to fuel your body and how to properly hydrate, particularly for demanding rides (or if you are competing) is a must.

The following article originally appeared in Traction Magazineis by "Flanny" (Bryan Flanigan), the BMA's nutrition and hydration knowledge guru. The article was originally written a few years ago to help prepare a group of BMA members who were going to ride the Corduroy Enduro for the first time.

"With only a few simple rules, you can maintain mental sharpness and avoid over-taxing your body ..." Flanny

I have built-up some nutrition and hydration knowledge through my years of mountain bike racing. Getting nutrition right can make the difference between finishing well or bonking hard and having a terrible day.

To research nutrition and hydration on your own, I can suggest Googling "recovery drinks", "sports hydration", "carb loading", "electrolyte replacement", and "maltodextrin for sports nutrition". You could also look up some of the specific products such as Cytomax, Hammer Nutrition, Carboom, Whey Protein, and Soy Protein.

Sports nutrition is very person-specific, but basically, what I have learned over the years is summarized here.

In the days before your big ride

  1. Be hydrated. That usually means hydrating all day before the ride. Drink-up! The best thing is to carry a bottle of water everywhere you go on the day before a big ride. You will not be able to catch-up if you start your ride dehydrated.
  2. You should have your muscle-glycogen stores full. That means eat a little less protein and fat in your diet in the two days before the ride, and have more carbohydrate (think pasta, rice, corn, potatoes etc.).

The morning of the big ride

  1. A breakfast that will provide a slow-burn of calories is best, and should be eaten 2-3 hours before the ride starts so that your stomach is not full, and you have a chance to clear your bowel. Oatmeal is probably the best food, but bagels, french toast, and fruit are pretty good too. Bacon and eggs are not great, because right before the ride, your body needs carbs, not fat/protein (also, they are harder to digest).
  2. Half-an-hour before the ride, you need to top-up your liver glycogen, and be sure you are fully hydrated. That means eating a Cliff bar before well before you hit the trails, and downing more water/Gatorade. Having some caffeine is also good to sharpen your focus/attention, and has apparently been shown to improve physical performance. Coke, Red-Bull, Coffee/Tea, Espresso etc. are great.

On the big ride, especially for a 5 hour plus day

  1. You need to consume about 0.7 - 1 litre of fluid for every hour depending on temperature and intensity - the hotter and more intense, the more you need. If you are not drinking that much fluid, you are probably dehydrating and your brain and body will turn to mush (it's actually dangerous in terms of being able to read lines and react well). You will also have a higher likelihood of muscle cramping. To put things in perspective, on a typical full day ride, I probably drink about 10 litres of fluid (I have a 3 litre and a 2 litre bladder in my pack for 5, plus I drank 3 or 4 1-litres bottles of water, plus my 1 litre of recovery drink). Beer and coffee do not count, as they have a diuretic effect which negates the fluid intake.
  2. You need calories. You will burn about 800 calories per hour during hard riding, so in a 5 hour ride, you will burn about 4500 calories give or take. Your muscles can store 2000 calories which you have at the start, this means that during the ride, you need to consume about 4500-2000 = 2500 extra calories, otherwise your body will need to metabolizing fat stores which it can only do very slowly, and your performance will suffer. This means you need about 500 extra calories per hour of riding.
  3. To get those extra calories, you should probably be eating about the equivalent of one and a half, to two cliff bars per hour (about 250 calories each). That means stuffing your face with a piece of Cliff bar pretty much any time there is a stop in the action. To get even more calories (or to get them easier/quicker), products such as Carboom gel can be consumed, or Cytomax can be put in your camelback bladder. This will make it easier for you to get 400-500 calories per hour if you drink your 0.7L of water every hour. This is where the Maltodextrin comes in. You can supplement your Gatorade with a few scoops of Maltodextrin to increase the caloric value without having to spend a fortune on Cytomax, which is basically just Maltodextrin powder with added soy lethecin to make it more granular and clump less.
  4. You should have your trail snack somewhere where you can get to them quickly and easily, like a leg pocket, or a bar-pack. Otherwise, if it is in your day-pack, you won't eat anything until a bigger stop, which is not enough.
  5. You need salt. Gatorade has some salt (sodium), but not enough. I usually add about two teaspoons to 3 litres of Gatorade to keep electrolytes up. Do this to taste. Note that other products such as Cytomax have more salt than Gatorade.

Just as important, after your big ride

  1. You need to continue hydrating. Keep a water bottle handy.
  2. You need to replenish muscle glycogen as soon as possible after the ride so that you charge-up for day two. Your body needs about 0.8 to 1.1 gram of carbohydrate per kilogram of your body weight in recovery mode. You can get this from any source, but you should avoid simple sugars (glucose/fructose), since they can cause an insulin spike, which apparently messes with your immune system possibly opening you up for a cold or flu. Again Cytomax or Carboom are good since they contain complex sugars (maltodextrin or brown rice syrup basically) as opposed to simple sugars that your body can absorb more slowly. In a pinch, chocolate milk is great. There is a concept in physiology called the "glycogen window" where your muscles reabsorb glycogen 30 times faster right after an effort - so it's important to refill as soon as possible after your ride. After 3 hours, the glycogen window is closed. If you don't get your muscles the sugar they need, they will get it by catabolizing muscle tissue, which makes you even more achy and sore the next day!!!
  3. Alcohol actually inhibits glycogen re-absorption, so it's really, really bad right after a ride. Try to tell that to your buddies when they pass you a beer at the end of the big day! Sipping a protein shake takes mental fortitude to ward off the peer pressure to drink beer for sure!.
  4. You need about 0.4 g of protein per kilogram of body weight to help you to re-build torn muscle tissue for the next day. Whey protein is best for recovery. It is available in many grocery stores. (Editor's note: Whey protein isolate is the best, and is available in bulk at Bulk Barn, if you wish to try it out before buying a 2 kg $45+ tub.)
  5. So the best thing after a ride is a protein/carbohydrate smoothy or shake. This gives you fluids, carbs and protein.

Some closing thoughts...

  1. I am NOT an expert or a doctor, and you should beware that this could all be a bunch of complete nonsense from a purely medical perspective (even though it isn't). What I do know is that many Internet resources seem to corroborate this, as does my own personal experience over the years. Your results may and will vary to be sure.
  2. Most of this is not so important for a one-day ride, but is super important for a two-day event when you have to do it all over again on day two. But, even for a one day ride, it helps, since you probably will not be a waste case for the evening of ride-day.
  3. If you have a heart rate monitor, you can get an accurate tally of the calories you burn while riding to get a better handle on your nutritional needs.
  4. It's VERY important to experiment with this stuff, since everyone is different and will digest/react to the various products differently. But – experiment when it is NOT race day. You DON'T want to try ANYTHING new on race day at all, since some approaches/products can upset your digestion. It would really suck to be sick on Race Day due to bad digestion of a new product, which definitely happens!
  5. It is also important to try the product during hard effort, since many are engineered to taste good when you are panting and dying of thirst, not when you are standing in your kitchen sipping it. This is especially true of saltier drinks.
  6. Note that you can get all of the benefits of the above with regular food if you pay attention. Cliff bars can be replaced with trail-mix with dried fruit, dates, raisins etc., protein can be replaced with nuts and chicken/fish etc. Carbohydrate products can be replaced with Rice Syrup, Maltodextrin, molasses, honey etc. The key is to experiment with what works for you and what fits your budget.
  7. Remember, the sports-nutrition industry is a multi-billion dollar racket, and a lot of the products are totally overpriced, and way over-hyped. Are they worth it? Probably not given that you can get all of the benefits just by eating the right stuff. The advantage with the powers/potions is that they are really convenient. Just two scoops of whey protein powder is more convenient to me after a ride than having some cooked chicken breast available for example.

Anyway - there you have it.That is my view at sports nutrition in a nutshell, all to be taken with a grain of salt (and 0.8g/kg of whey isolate)!

Learn more about sport nutrition

Virtual Trainer: Pre-race nutrition

Arnie Baker Cycling: Maltodextrin Nutrition

Livestong: Fructose vs. Maltodextrin

Hammer Nutrition Canada


  Thanks Bryan "Flanny" Flanigan

Bryan 'flanny' flaniganCurrent bikes: KTM 450 EXC-Rally, KTM 950 Adventure, Ducati Monster 696

Favourite riding area: Calabogie – because it doesn't get any better for local riding! & Moab Utah – because you owe it to yourself to go ride in the desert.

Most memorable ride: Moab Utah – when I destroyed my knee, but was able to keep riding with a brace and some help from my buds, and then two days later on the same trip, broke my hand. By the end of the trip, I was like some lame dude all full of bandages and ice packs…but I kept riding!

Favourite event: Calabogie Boogie – well organized, unbelievable trails, and you'd never be able to put together loops like those on your own without expert knowledge of the riding area.