Part 6: Don’t just train, experiment

Race-day fuel for the 2021 National 12 Hour TT – would have been great if I could actually consume it all

So I’ve entered the UK National 24-hour Time Trial Champs in July 2022 – riding as far as I can on open roads in a 24 hour period – oh dear…

As a 44 year old dad working full-time as an ICU doctor, I’m not going to win – but I still want to ride a performance to be proud of. More than that, I want the whole process to feel enriching, with learning and adventures along the way.  

Over these six months, I’m finding out more about everything needed to perform in an ultra-distance bike race. By sharing what I learn, I hope to discover more about the sport, myself, and the ingredients of success…or failure.

Preparing for this 24-hour TT needs a lot of time in the saddle. Not using this time to experiment, learn, and refine plans for race day would be a huge, missed opportunity.

Experiments on a single person are never going to add anything to the world of sports science – but they’re still vital to figure out how to apply science to the individual. The fundamentals don’t change, but we all have subtly different minds and bodies with subtly different needs.  

Plans for this weekend’s Audax, with the pre-ride nutrition plan I have now settled on for long events

Some differences, such as aerobic fitness, are pretty obvious. Riding at 200w will feel easy for some, hard for others, and near-impossible for others.  A simple fitness test (say, riding 20 mins as hard as possible) or looking back at race data can put a figure on this.

But some differences are much harder to measure. How many grams of carbohydrate per hour can you digest?  What percentage of your maximum power can you sustain for 12 hours without collapsing?

JP putting his fitness to the test on Old Winchester Hill

To answer these harder questions, we need a methodical approach. Without this careful planning and measurement, it’s far too easy to draw the wrong conclusions:

Were you faster today because you produced more power…. or was the course/weather/traffic more favourable?

Did you feel stronger today because you fuelled better… or because you were fresher/better-paced/more motivated?

For reliable answers, we need to standardise as many factors as possible, while adjusting the one thing we want to study. We then need a structured way to record and compare the results.

When planning my training with Toby last autumn, we realised a key question for me was:

“What combination of food and drink will give me the highest, sustainable intake of carbohydrate per hour?”

Experience during my four previous rides of 12 hours or more suggested this is a key limiter to my performance.  On each of these rides, I reached a point where nausea and fullness limited how much I could eat and drink. Unsurprisingly, I then found myself getting weak, spaced-out, and slow.

At the finish line of the 2020 National 12-hour – not a drop of glycogen left in the body!

To tackle this, we started by looking at my training and racing logs, including power data and my notes on what I had eaten each time.

I then learned more about the physiology of endurance metabolism, including the way sugars are absorbed from the gut, and the limits of the body’s fuel stores.  I also read evidence and opinions on how best to fuel long efforts, and what were thought to be decent rules-of-thumb.

After learning about the important role of fat as fuel, and how this varies between individuals, I got in touch with physiologists at Loughborough University to find out more.  They tested me at various power levels on my TT bike while measuring the gas I breathed to calculate how much fat and carbs I was burning at each power level.

60 minute fuel-utilisation ramp test at Loughborough Uni

But most importantly, I tested the theory and refined my plans.

Toby and I included a series of nutrition tests during each of my weekly 4-hour endurance rides over the winter and spring. Each time, I tried to standardise my power and my pre-ride food, while tweaking one thing at a time for my on-bike nutrition. We were then able to look through my notes and power data to see what worked and what didn’t.

I now have come up with a plan that seems to work for me – at least over shorter durations. But this 24-hour is a LOT longer than those 4-hour training rides. 

So this spring I’m testing it out over longer and longer rides.  After a 200km/8 hour Audax ride in March, I added in some more savoury options (energy drink gets a bit sickly after a while!), then returned to Loughborough in April for a combined 6 hour ride and repeat lab test (full geeky data to follow!)

Testing and refining plans on March’s 200km Audax. Worked well, but would be even better with more cheesy potatoes

My final long test of fuelling and pacing will be this Saturday, on a 400km/16 hour Audax ride in East Anglia. Sadly this means skipping the tea-room and chip shop opportunities, as I’ll carry all my food and drink mixes in my jersey and an enormous saddle bag.

The roads are too bumpy for a TT setup, so I’ll be taking my road bike, but I’ll otherwise try to match my plans for race day.  To keep the experiment as realistic as possible, I will follow the first 16 hours of my power targets and fuelling plans for the 24.  I can then make any final tweaks based on my experiences (good or bad!).

Everything prepped now my the evening before, my pre-ride brekkie, and my 400km ride (plus a little refreshment for the end)

So… let’s see how it goes!  Along with the fuelling, I’ll also be testing out a GPS tracker link, which should be live from the start (09:00 GMT+1 on Sat 7th).  Let me know if it works, and I’ll report back via Strava at the end…

Live Tracker:


4 thoughts on “Part 6: Don’t just train, experiment

  1. Hi Nick, good luck with the 400. I recently rode two 400k events, both of which I finished in under 16 hours. What I have found is that I do get sick of carbs after a few hours, especially in the heat. I recall a documentary with team Sky, their nutritionalist talked about maintaining an ‘alkaline stomach’ or something to that effect. I will be interested to see how you go. For a 400, I only need to maintain 140 watts to go under 16 hours, aerodynamics are important, even in the longest rides.
    On the subject of bikes, I recently rode a ‘gravel’ 200k event on my TT, no problems. Road bike is just too slow.

    Good luck.


    1. Thanks Patrick, that’s really interesting. I think carbs are important the whole way through, but the type of carbs does make a difference in what remains palatable as time goes on. I have found that including some non-sweet starchy options at least once per hour is helpful for me (eg cheesy potatoes, bacon rice cakes and pitta breads with Marmite). Cheers, Nick


    1. yes – actually Torq energy bars held on by their own stickiness! The cling film was just there to keep them clean before the race. It worked pretty well, although a couple fell off before I ate them 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

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