Fueling fundamentals with Maurten’s Joshua Rowe

There's no speed without power and no power without calories.

Those words are from Olav Alexander Bu — Norwegian sports scientist and super coach — and sum up nutrition for endurance performance in an exquisitely simple way.

To break down that concept further, and to give a rider a clear idea on how they can use it in their own fuelling and hydration strategies, we talked to Maurten’s Nutritional Scientist, Joshua Rowe. In particular we focused on how it can be adapted in the young and burgeoninggravel racing sphere.

“Looking at performance gravel events, we can clarify Olav Alexander’s words even further,” says Joshua. “If performance is the rider’s primary goal, they need to get from A to B as quickly as possible. That requires them to produce enough power to travel at the required speed. Then that power output needs enough calories to be maintained.”

Rowe explains that those calories — between 60–90 grams per hour — should mainly come from carbohydrates. That’s because it’s more efficient for the body to use carbs compared to fats — making it easier to maintain power and avoid the dreaded bonking, where you feel as if you have hit the wall and lose all power.

It’s a place no endurance athlete wants to be, and staying on the right side of the energy line requires a lazer like focus on nutrition and hydration.

Photo: Maurten

Photo: Maja Johansson
Photo: Maja Johansson

“Bonking is a relative result of the rider depleting their carbohydrate stores — meaning the body has to transition to using fats as a predominant fuel source,” he says. “What tends to happen is they maintain the same intensity, but because the body needs more oxygen to break down fats, it results in reduced power output at the same intensity.”

There is a well-known saying that by the time you feel thirsty, you’re already dehydrated. The same can be said of energy levels — when you feel low on energy, you’re already in the red. “If energy levels are low, it takes the body time to absorb and rebound. It’s important to fuel throughout the race, not just when you feel like you need to. Develop a fueling and hydration plan and stick to it,” he says.

Gravel racing sees athletes spending long hours in the saddle at a steady aerobic intensity, punctuated by relatively short bursts of high-intensity efforts. This makes it critical to be as aggressive as possible with fueling. “The body only has a finite amount of stored carbohydrate available, so, if you don’t fuel, fats need to contribute as a fuel source during prolonged endurance events like gravel racing,” he says. “However, if a gravel athlete can have a high carbohydrate intake — in other words, an aggressive fueling strategy, frequently consuming drink mixes or gels — they can delay the onset of fatigue and be able to produce more power for a longer period of time.”

Photo: Ian Walton Hemingway
Photo: Maurten
Photo: Maurten

Another factor riders need to take into consideration is the weather on race day. On hot and humid courses, fluid intake increases, while the carbs intake stays the same — as close to 90 grams per hour as possible. Something which requires training your stomach, especially important for female riders. “Physiologically, there is no difference in carbohydrate uptake and utilisation between males and females,“ says Joshua. “The main differences are linked to carbohydrate intake tolerances — women are more susceptible to experience gastrointestinal (GI) issues compared to men. Every endurance athlete should train their gut to handle more hydrates, but females need to practice fueling more — to increase their carbohydrate tolerance.

Photo: POC Sports
Photo: Ian Walton Hemingway

Just as we prepare our equipment for training and race day, Joshua explains that, ultimately, we should do the same for fueling and hydration. “Test and trial all your fueling equipment — bottles, soft flasks, hydration vests. Practise fueling in training and personalise your fueling strategy. Develop a plan that can be printed — so you know the timing, frequency, and what products to consume. As they say, no guts, no glory.“

(In the next instalment on race fueling, we will explore the role and importance of a hydration strategy.)

Photos by: Maurten & Ian Walton Hemingway & Maja Johansson