Gas Station Nutrition for Cycling

We’ve all been there before…out on a long bike ride, low on water, out of food, but you’ve still got at least an hour left to ride and on the verge of bonking. A couple miles ahead there’s a gas station that has some options, and just about anything solid sounds good. Whereas many people are going to pick the food choice that gives them immediate satisfaction, perhaps you can enter the doors of the local fill station with some foresight into what will be the best choice to keep you from bonking and potentially optimizing your post ride recovery. In order to help with the decision making process of what to get at a gas station, there are some basic rules to abide by.

Rule #1: Only bring eat as much you can absorb on an hourly basis.  

For most people, this is is ~200-250 Kilocalories. If you are planning on riding for several more hours, feel free to buy what you might need, but be weary to consume more than ~200 KCALS/ hour to avoid gastric distress. If you’ve already bonked, you may be tempted to do take on more than your gut can actually handle and we all know what a grave mistake that is.

Rule #2. Regardless of whether or not you are fueling for only another hour or several more, aim for a balance of carbohydrates, protein, and even some fat.

Even though your predominant fuel source will be carbohydrates and you need to keep your blood sugar up, supplementing with protein will not only aid your effort but will also aid recovery. A great source of protein and carbs could be any type of protein drink. The off the beaten path gas station may not have your most favorite protein drink, however it likely has something that works.

Rule #3. Consider your hydration needs as well.

If you have the need to consume calories but also have hydration needs, the process can be simplified by purchasing an energy drink that is water based and has a fair amount of calories and hopefully some electrolytes as well. If you prefer the solid food option, you can always buy a large water or fill your water bottle with tap water in combination with your food choice(s)
Now that we have some guidelines, I have some personal favorites that I will go to for quick and lasting energy.
For a more relaxed pace ride with a bit of time to spend, grab a carbohydrate and protein source in a yogurt and/or a protein drink.  A 14 oz. Muscle Milk-chocolate flavor (pictured below) will provide 20 g of protein and 7 grams of carbohydrates.
Looking closer at the Muscle Milk label, there’s not only a fair amount of carbohydrates, but there’s a good electrolyte (sodium and potassium) balance as well. The yogurt, very similar to the protein drink, actually has a fair amount of carbohydrates in it and also provides electrolytes you may be needing.

Muscle Milk (L) versus Chobani (R)

Another very good source of nutrient dense calories may be in a juice blend. The Naked juice pictured below has about enough calories to sustain a person for a couple hours, has a fair amount of protein as well as carbohydrates and electrolytes. The recommendation here would be to drink half of it now and the other half about 45-60 minutes down the road.  

Another Viable source of clean energy could be in combining fresh fruits and nuts if they are available. The almonds in the photo are more than adequate in supplying protein (~45 KCals) and adequate in carbohydrates (~25 KCals) as well. The total Caloric value for the package of almonds is 240 KCALS with fat being the major contributor. Not to worry, these are healthy fats and these fats go a long way in sustaining your energy levels. In addition, fats help with your feeling of satiety, so you are less likely to overeat other things and create the aforementioned gastric distress. Paring half of the almonds with a banana makes for a pretty good combination that’s easy to eat, and tasty as well. Add a bottle of water of the next hour and you’ll likely be feeling somewhat normal.

With a plethora of granola/energy/protein bars out there, you really can’t go wrong with any of these. Some are going to be better than others in having more natural ingredients which is always a preference, but for the most part, you’ll see roughly 200 KCals  per package, being mostly carbs, but some protein, a little fat and usually some sodium.

When worst comes to worst, and you just need something, go for a snickers bar and whatever piece of natural fruit you can find. Often times there are “fresh” pastry and or donut options, which actually may be just what you need. Each glazed donut pictured below Is 230 KCals of energy, about 100 of which is from fat and the other ~120 from carbohydrate. Although there is a very little in terms of protein, this should be enough to get you through the next hour.

All tolled there are many choices at the fill station to get you through the next hour or more, but next time you make a stop for food on a ride, pick something that will settle well and provide some sustained energy (think protein and complex carbs). In addition, you may be famished, but don’t try to cram it all down right away. Best case scenario, eat a snack now, and take one for the road.
About the Author: Grant Harrison grew up competing in a variety of sports including college football, competitive soccer and hockey. Since then things have switched all things cycling- in multiple disciplines to boot. His extensive Master’s education in Human Performance gives him a solid background in all things athlete-related. He’s focused on the delicate balance between pyschological skills, coaching, nutrition, and athlete performance. In addition to coaching services, he also offers one-on-one nutrition consultations. Learn more about Grant or sign up for a nutrition consultation with him.