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RAGBRAI Training: Eat Before You’re Hungry, Drink Before You’re Dry

  • 2 June, 2023
  • Andrea Parrott

I occasionally get questions about what to eat or drink when out training and while on RAGBRAI. So I’ll attempt to address these questions here, but first let me grab a snack. We’ll start by talking about training as that is going to be different than on RAGBRAI itself. On RAGBRAI you will be overwhelmed with opportunities to eat. Perhaps too many. But when you are out training, you have to provide for yourself and that takes some planning.

Fueling: So let’s start with eating –  when to eat, what to eat and how much to eat.

When to eat: Eating for training begins before the ride. Depending on the length of the ride, you should plan ahead and make sure your body if fueled properly going into a ride, taking note of what and how much to eat below. Eating before your ride will ensure you have enough calories on board to be able to fuel your ride and may eliminate the need to carry food with you. In actuality, refueling should begin right after your ride the previous day. Let’s say you do a long ride on Sunday and plan to ride again on Monday. You should eat a decent sized supper on Sunday to begin replacing what you burned off during that ride. Then you can top off the tank before your ride on Monday.

If you are doing a long ride, you will likely need to refuel during your ride.  Depending on the length of the ride, you may need to eat something several times. For example, if you are doing a 4 hour ride, you should start eating 1-2 hours into the ride and have something with calories every half hour after that. Then once you are done, eat a meal to replace the calories burned during the ride.

What to eat: When you are riding you get your energy from two main sources: carbohydrates and fat. The main thing to focus on with your eating is carbohydrates, because these tend to get depleted rather quickly while even the leanest of us have plenty of fat to get us all the way through RAGBRAI, so you don’t need to worry about getting enough fat in your diet. You body can store between 1500 and 2000 calories of carbohydrate (in the form of glycogen which gets converted to glucose or blood sugar). This is enough to get you through about 3 hours of riding. On longer rides, and on RAGBRAI, you will most likely burn through your carbohydrate stores so you need to be sure you are refilling those by eating foods containing carbohydrates. And what are those? Carbohydrates (starch and sugar) are found in fruit, grains, vegetables, and even milk. So as you refuel during meals, and on the bike, be sure to include these foods in your menu.

On the bike you want to carry along some handy sources of carbs. This can come in the form of sports drink in your water bottles, or in snacks you carry with you on the bike. Bananas are handy – they even come with their own packaging. Dried prunes are packed with sugar – just make sure you get the pitted kind! There are all sorts of commercial energy bars in single serving sizes but you don’t need to buy those – my preference is to carry along fig bars. These are moist and bite size which makes them very easy to eat on the bike. Of course you can always stop at a convenience store and grab some juice or sports drink and some energy bars if you prefer.

How much to eat:  This is where it gets interesting. It kind of depends. If you are going out for a 1-1.5 hour ride after work, you don’t need to eat during the ride. You will have enough energy stored in your body and from your lunch to fuel your ride. As a rule of thumb, on rides less than 1.5 hours, I only take water with me. If longer than that I will put energy mix in my water bottle and if it is longer than about 2.5 hours I will take along solid food. If you are doing a very long ride, such as 4 hours, then you need to eat a good, carb heavy meal the night before, then eat some complex carbs (oatmeal is great) for breakfast and then head out with more food in your pockets or water bottle. Then when you are done, eat another good meal to refuel for the next day. The amount you eat should be relative to the amount you are riding.

What not to eat:  Right before riding and during riding, you should avoid foods that are high in fat and protein. These foods take longer to digest and may come back to haunt you on a ride. I have memories of a ride I did in France where the only food I could find was a huge sausage. I burped that back up the whole ride. Try to stick with easily digestible foods right before and during rides.  Save the sausage for supper.


Being hydrated is just (maybe more) important than being fueled properly.  If you run low on fluids, that can have immediate effects on your riding performance, heat tolerance and even your health. When you are exercising a lot you will lose a lot of fluids through sweating and breathing. Even when it is cool you are still losing fluids although you may not notice it as much, but definitely when it is hot and you are sweating buckets, you need to replace fluids as fast as it’s leaving. Staying hydrated will allow you to continue to sweat to keep your body cooled off.

Before rides you should feel hydrated, and a good way of knowing this is whether you’ve had to visit the bathroom recently. During rides you should drink frequently (every 15 minutes or so) and on longer rides take two large water bottles with you. On really long rides you will need to find places (e.g. convenience stores) where you can refill your bottles. Water and sports drinks are recommended to drink while riding as these will replace the fluid and sports drinks will also replace some electrolytes and provide some energy. Save the chocolate milk and adult beverages for after the ride.

Refueling and Rehydrating on RAGBRAI

There are some differences when actually doing RAGBRAI vs training for it. On RAGBRAI there is no end to the food offerings. You can start out the day eating a pork chop if you’d like, and pie is everywhere. Every town and often in between there will be a variety of food and beverage options. Often the issue isn’t where to find food, but how to avoid eating too much, or eating things that may make the rest of the day’s ride uncomfortable. So keep the ‘what to eat’ in mind and avoid things during your ride that may be heavy on your stomach. It’s best to eat small amounts of easily digested foods throughout the day. Then you can binge at night.

There are plenty of options to get water other beverages on RAGBRAI. Lots of folks will be selling or even giving out water and many towns will have water bottle filling stations, and most towns on RAGBRAI have a convenience store, so you don’t have to worry about lugging lots of water with you. And many towns have a convenience store where you can buy beverages other than water if you so choose.

Stay fueled and hydrated my friends.

Coach David Ertl

David Ertl is a USA Cycling Level 1 Coach. He coaches the Des Moines Cycle Club Race Team and individual cyclists through the Peaks Coaching Group. He also provides cycling training plans and ebooks at his website: http://www.CyclesportCoaching.com. He can be contacted here: cyclecoach@hotmail.com.

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