Real Food vs. Gels, Blocks, Carb Drinks for 6 hour plus efforts

(The question stems from the TR Podcast Carbs 101 and an experience this weekend. Plus when ISN’T Fueling worth talking about?)

I’ve been using Trainer Road off and on since the beginning of the Pandemic but only last year got serious about using plan builder and sticking to it. I’ve gone from an FTP of 205 to currently 240 while also dropping about 25 pounds.

This year I’m running the Unbound 100 in June (maybe the 200 because I’m feeling a LOT stronger than I thought) and the Queen’s Stage Race at Rebecca’s Private Idaho too. With sage advice from my coach as well as the folks on the podcast the two big focal points I’m working on are pacing and fueling. This weekend I road non-competitive century to test both of those things with other riders on a course I’ve never ridden.

My eating plan was to use Garmin’s smart eat/drink for prompts (they work for me) but to start out eating real food (three different recipes from Feedzone Portables. Mushroom & Swiss Frittata, French Toast Bites & Sweet Potato Cakes) of varying fat/protein/carb profiles knowing that the energy I’m going to get from each is going to come at varying rates. I also had a good supply of gels, bloks, untapped in case I felt like I needed food that was easier to unwrap and consume in a short period.

The pacing plan worked like a champ, but I did discover something with fueling.

I stuck to the plan and ate real food for the first four prompts. On prompt 5 I started hitting what amounted to a 10 mile climb, so I switched to gels/bloks. I went through 2 gels and two packs of bloks before about mile 70 when I switched back to real food. After doing so I felt so much better and even had a what might be described as a second wind.

So my question is there any evidence to show that eating real food during endurance events leads to a more positive feeling as well as better performance?

I’m not sure of what literature there is but there probably is some but anecdotally a lot of people fair better on a mix or entirely real foods than gels alone. I suppose a lot of it is just down to your body system and how it processes thing.

Btw, good luck for the Unbound it looks an awesome event :+1:


Everybody is different. For me, I can’t do real food. My heart rate (and RPE) shoots up like a rocket trying to digest it and bogs me down. I focus on getting solid nutrition before the ride (the day before and early in the morning) and then rely on gels or drink mix during.

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I realize that not everyone can eat real. Heck even I can’t eat real if my effort level is too high. Inhaling a grain of rice isn’t productive to performance.
So the question is outside of how’s your stomach feeling and is your RPE conductive to it, but rather can one go farther on real food than on hyper processed exercise specific food.

I always try to do real food first then switch to the pure sugar stuff later in. In terms of a campfire comparison i consider the harder/longer to digest stuff like bars, rice cakes, sandwiches etc to be more the longer burning logs and the quick sugars (gels/chews) more akin to lighter fluid. Quick burning but more often required to keep it going. Likewise I also run into gut rot problems if I go after the sugars too much too early. Intensity will dictate such lines more clearly as later in a ride or at higher intensity blood shunting will take priority from digestion and move it to turning the legs, breathing and staying upright. I always start rides with a combination of bars and chews switching back and forth every 250 kj then sometime after 1500kj be it sooner or later I start going for just chews and gels. Or if I’m approaching some difficult feature of the ride I’ll take a gel in lieu of chews or bars. It does feel a bit more like a jolt of energy but of course it would late in a ride with that much glycogen burned and fatigue accumulated. My gut rot issues sometimes might be more related to hydration not being perfect but if I over sugar I’ll get to a point where I can’t really eat or drink anything because my belly bloats and hurts too much so for me there’s a balance to be struck.


I can’t say I’ve noticed a difference but almost all of my rides (outside of races) include real food of some kind. Usually it’s a banana, chewy bars, nutrigrain bars, fig bars, etc. That is more of just a personal preference thing than purely for fueling. I’ve done centuries on 90% ride food without issue at 100+g/hr.

I wonder if that second wind feeling came from a combination of being finished with a 10 mile climb, nearing the end of the ride, or other outside factor. I know even on flat rides, miles 85-100 can feel easier than miles 65-80.


I like the idea of real food. I tend to go with carbs in a bottle and gels and chews, simply because I find it easier to evenly spread that out across the ride.

And probably because once I’ve eaten a bar I can’t eat any more of it. If I got a sandwich out, I’d probably be tempted to eat more than I should.

I’ve got a 200 mile ride coming up and I’ll definitely be looking to mix in real food where I can, hopefully some well spaced stops!

Tbh I think this is more a question of practical application than “optimisation”
Most of the research on this vein is going to be focused on amount and relative ratios of macronutrients on performance- however, they’re mainly going to be looking at more isolated forms such as a sports drink, rather than a more complex food item that might differ significantly in composition/ingredients and can make it harder to demonstrate a specific mechanism.
You will find more anecdote than I’d ever want to sift through, and IMO those are just as valuable-at the end of the day, it’s down to what works best for you. To that end, I think that making the effort to create a detailed nutrition plan and practise it ahead of time is what has made you so successful here, rather than the food itself.

Can you go further on real food? I think it’s intuitive that you can’t live off sports nutrition forever, but when that happens is likely highly individual and subject to preference/ what you’ve actually trained.

In any case, congrats on a great ride!

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Interesting. I had a longer endurance workout interrupted by getting the family Thai food, which I ate while starting the 2nd half. My HR was up quite a bit for the 2nd half, and I suspected the normal meal I ate might be the reason.

It’s as much looking at the conditions and working out what works for you. The key is to ensure you don’t end up underfuelled whilst at the same time not taking on so much food you get gastric distress.

What concentration of carb solution can you tolerate in your bottles and for how long? Is flavoured or unflavoured better for you? Would one of the dextrin range suit you better? At the temperatures and effort levels you expect to work at, at what rate do you expect drink and therefore how much will come from that? How much real food can you eat in the conditions and how much do you think you’ll need to supplement the calories in your bottles?

Do you actually like gels and how much can you tolerate them and how often?

The answer as always is “It depends”. There are many answers to how to fuel long rides, there is no single way, that works for everyone. Going back to my first sentence, It’s down to you to work out what works for you in the expected conditions. I’m a fan of real food when I can but there’s only so much I can take on board when riding, and supplement this with liquid calories.


One of the great pieces of advice I got from my coach was to start eating the food I was going to eat on the bike for breakfast. The line of thought being if my stomach wasn’t going to be happy with what I’d made and packed at breakfast, pretty good odds it wouldn’t change & be good to go later.

On the how much to eat and when, I’ve found the Garmin Smart Eat prompt to work well for me. The key there especially with real food is to understand that say a Mushroom & Swiss Frittata (egg, Calrose rice, Swiss cheese, mushroom bits) is right around 200 calories, so when getting a 100 calorie prompt I don’t eat the whole thing. It still needs to be washed down with some water, but that’s no different than a concentrated gel like a gu or clif.

I’ve been experimenting with this too. My previous approach was to take entirely liquid feed & sports bars for a 12 hour TT, but I was always limited by nausea after a while.

I have recently tried substituting about 1/4 of my carb intake with something homemade and non-sweet, which I will have at the end of each hour.

I’ve been using savoury rice cakes, cheesy new potatoes and pitta breads with Marmite (not sure if you get this in the US?!). They’ve all been a very welcome change and I have felt less nauseated on the longer training rides I have been doing.

So yes, I definitely recommend experimenting