Cycling 101 – avoid ‘hitting the wall’!

Cycling 101 – avoid ‘hitting the wall’!

There is a terrible place that many a cyclist have been, it’s called ‘hitting the wall’ or ‘bonking’. On this episode of 32Gi Sports Nutrition, Mark Wolff tells us how one gets to this point; but more importantly, how one avoids getting to this point.




Welcome to 32Gi Sports Nutrition, I’m Mr Active, David Katz, Mark Wolff back with us on the podcast. Mark Wolff, a fantastic topic today because, look, it applies to all athletes, but especially guys who tend to go long; and it’s something that cyclists hit more often than others. It’s the phrase of ‘hitting the wall’ or ‘bonking.’ Just briefly for people out there, what does that terminology mean?

Mark Wolff: Well in short David, you’ve depleted your glycogen stores, and the body needs to now transition to a different energy source, and it’s just a terrible, terrible feeling where you’re completely depleted of energy. In actual fact if you’re a cyclist you know, you can’t even feel your pedals, your legs don’t want to move.

For most people that feels like they’re in a world of hurt and pain, and they’ve just got no energy to continue. Depending on an athlete, it could range from 20 minutes to, some people just give up. It’s a terrible feeling, but bonking is basically energy stores that are depleted.

What can lead you to “Bonk”

DK: For someone to reach that point, how do they get there?

MW: Well, there’s a couple of ways. First of all, they might be performing at too high an intensity than they used to in training. If that does happen, you know, intensity determines fuel tanks that are utilised. So a person’s glycogen stores will feed him anywhere from, let’s say 60-90 minutes at a very high intensity. A well-trained athlete quite a bit longer.

If you push yourself into that, what I call more your zone, it’s probably four or five effort, but definitely zone three upwards, into four or five; your glycogen stores are going to deplete quite rapidly. You need to know how to pace yourself correctly, because if you overextend yourself, yes, you can spare it as nutrition. But if you overextend yourself and you’re going to be out there for a couple of hours, you are going to land up in a heap of trouble.

DK: Mark, anyone who has been out on a bike has been with people who have bonked. I was with a friend of mine one day and also, like you say; did they not have breakfast, did they maybe have a little bit less on the ride? But when you hit that point, you cannot carry on, you need to do something to get back into your body. He probably didn’t take the best approach but at the time it was just pump sugars which was a chocolate and a soda. What do you do when you reach that point?

Keep your brain fuelled – fuel your body right

MW: Well, you definitely need to put sugar into your system, if you can get a glucose drip, that would be phenomenal! Yes, you need to stabilise your blood sugar, because the reason that you get that terrible feeling when you actually hit the wall, when you bonk, the fact is that the brain goes into what is called a defensive mode.

The brain is one of the most important, if not THE most important organ in the body and it basically says to the body: I’m shutting you down because I need to survive, I need to feed. It goes into that stress, so it actually shuts the muscle system down.

It doesn’t do it to cause havoc, it does it in order to slow you down so you can get more oxygen back into the system, because that’s what you need to break down fat to convert to fuel. So the brain is very much also a fat fuelled organ. The thing is that it’s really a defensive mechanism.

It’s quite interesting though because you can train yourself to be far more fat efficient. For people who are very fat efficient, hitting the wall is something that virtually never happens to them. They don’t go through that transition of pain, they just, like I explain it to people, it’s like shifting from one gear to the next.

You’re going at a very high speed, suddenly you’ve just got to shift downwards and go into a different speed, but you know that you’re actually burning more fat off at that particular moment in time, but your pace is a lot more controlled. Again, mentally you need to be able to deal with that situation and it’s not such an easy situation to be in.

3 sure ways to have a good day out

DK: We’re sitting in South Africa in the situation where we’re about two months, just under two months now to go to the 947 Cycle Challenge, one of the biggest races out here, that is the distance, it’s around 94km, people tend to focus a lot on the training. Obviously it is important, the training, the recovery from that. But often nutrition can get a bit neglected and this is one of the reasons why people can find themselves in this situation isn’t it?

MW: Without a doubt, there’s three sure ways to ensure that you have a decent day out in any cycle race, whatever race it is. The first thing you do is if you need to train properly, and when I say ‘train properly,’ I mean to holistically train.

Get that body to adapt completely to the same technical course that you are going to be racing. If it’s going to be a hilly course, you need to do hill work, if it’s going to be a fast course, you need to do speed work. Based on the time that you’re going to be doing the racing.

You need to be able to train according to how you’re going to race so that the body does adapt to that. But at the same time, as you mentioned, you need to also focus on the nutrition and I call that nutrition training. You need to try and experiment with your fuelling and make sure that you fuel correctly to be able to support the effort that you’re going to put out on the day of the race.

You need to practice that in training. You need to pick days where you are going to simulate a race effort on a similar course and you’re going to experiment with your nutrition and you can’t do this at the last minute. You can’t do this two or three weeks before, you need to start this 6-8 weeks before the event, at the very least. Because sometimes what you choose is not going to actually work for you.

So you need to keep on experimenting over and over. The other thing is that the stomach or the gut, as I call it, needs to adapt to the kinds of fuel that you’re actually putting into your system. Because if you don’t fuel yourself generally and then suddenly you fuel yourself, you can go into gastric distress. That’s the last thing that you want to do is get GI distress and cause havoc on your digestive system.

You really need to make sure that all things are put into perspective. The final thing I tell people is, pace yourself correctly. It’s very, very egotistical when it comes to cycling, guys go out there and they just explode out of the starting block. They put themselves into very high zones of intensity and in actual fact, they haven’t trained in that zone much. How long have they put themselves into that zone for?

Whenever I do talks I actually explain to people, if you consider yourself, your fuel tank to be like a box of matches. You’ve got 15 matches in that fuel tank, every single time you accelerate or push yourself beyond the threshold, you’re going to burn off a match. When those 15 matches are gone, you’re absolutely finished, you’ve got no legs left.

Save those matches for as long as possible, ensure that you’re seeded in the correct group, ensure that you’re pacing yourself correctly, and make sure that you stick to the pace that you’ve trained at. Because if you don’t, you’re going to land yourself up in trouble. No matter how good your nutrition is, it’s not going to save you from outpacing yourself.

DK: Mark, just looking within the 32Gi product range. If people were listening to this and they’re thinking, I need to adapt, I need to change, I need to get ready and use what Mark said as a focus. What products would you say would people be looking at to assist with that?

Nutritional questions to ask yourself as a cyclist

MW: The way I work when it comes to fuelling is quite simple. Maybe it’s not simple for some people, but the first thing I ask people is: Can you eat when you’re riding or do you prefer drinking your fuel when you’re riding? Because some people prefer a solid food and some people prefer a liquid feed.

When I say ‘liquid feed’ I mean a carbohydrate energy drink. When I say a ‘solid food’ I’m talking about obviously an energy bar. Then some people like a combination of those two and some people like a blend, they don’t like a liquid, like a gel and they don’t like a solid, but they like something soft like a chew.

So, you need to make sure that whatever you determine to be your fuel is going to be suitable from a palatable point of view and also from a texture point of view. Those are two ingredients. Once you understand that, you then need to decide what kind of an athlete are you?

Are you the person who is going to do your 90km bike race in under three hours or are you going to do it, are you a social cyclist, you’re just going to take your time and enjoy getting to the finish line. Because there’s very different fuelling for those two types of athletes.

The one athlete, we call them ‘race snakes’ as an example, they’re the kind of athlete that really goes there hard, fast and intense, a competitive athlete. The other type of athlete we call maybe a ‘weekend warrior,’ more of a social athlete out there to enjoy themselves, both different fuelling strategies.

The faster, more intense, high intensity athlete is going to go and look probably more for a liquid fuelling. The reason they would go more for liquid fuelling or a carbohydrate drink is because, or for gels for example, is because their intensity is so high, they don’t have the ability to chew and block those airways.

Things need to be very quick and simple and they also need to use more blood sugar spiking products, in other words, quick releasing carbs. Because the effort and the intensity that they’re going at, needs to be fuelled quite quickly to spare as much glycogen as possible during that event, over that short distance.

A solid approach to cycling nutrition

If you’re looking at a weekend warrior, they can look at probably more blood sugar stabilising products. They don’t really need to spike their blood sugar, they’re not performing at the very, very high intensity effort that some of the racing athletes are performing at. They might also enjoy a solid food or something in between, like a chew, which is a type of a solid food.

If I was going to take my time and enjoy the race, I wouldn’t even look at gels because to me that’s not social fuelling. That’s more fuelling for your serious, your fast paced athletes. You need to determine the type of fuel that you want, the kind of athlete that you are and based on that, you can then go and select the kind of fuelling that you want for that event.

We have put up some fuelling guides on our website for people to have a look at and at the same time we’ve actually sent out a nice fuelling newsletter which people can subscribe to, subscribe to the 32Gi newsletter.

We’ve sent out one which is: Prevent yourself from hitting the wall or prevent yourself from bonking and basically there’s a whole explanation of the kind of things you can look at. At the very end of that sequence it actually gives you an option to select which fuelling guide you want and you can download the fuelling guide off our site.

DK: Mark, fantastic and if people have any more questions regarding this, they can also email coach@32gi.com or Tweet us, @32Gi. Mark Wolff thanks very much for that fantastic insight. From Mark and myself, Mr Active, David Katz, we’ll catch up again with you soon.

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