Gas Station Fueling Tips: When Cycling Nutrition Goes Rogue

Even if you’ve never given the phrase “carbs per hour” a second thought (or a first), Hailey Moore would bet that all cyclists have a shared performance goal: we want to feel good while riding. And while performance-focused sports nutrition brands like Skratch Labs have largely catered to the carb-counting crowds, the science of nutrition underpinning their products can still be applied outside of the controlled confines of racing—to bikepacking, randonneuring and other unsupported adventure riding—when nutrition goes rogue. Hailey sat down with Skratch Labs dietitian, Colette Vartanian, to talk about gas-station fueling strategies, the magic of chocolate milk and if drinking ‘Trash Juice’ is actually ok. Read on for an unconventional conversation about cycling nutrition.

A few weeks ago at a media event for Skratch Labs newest hydration drink mix, I sat in their Boulder, Colorado cafe listening as co-founder Allen Lim talked about how he built the brand. Skratch’s origins can be traced back to the early 2000s when Allen was charged with creating complete nutrition plans for World Tour cycling teams. This included everything from fueling and hydrating for the riders during races and workouts, to nightly dinners on the road (Allen’s go-to pre-race dinner: Chicken Pad Thai).

During this time, with the quest for marginal gains reaching a fever pitch, Allen pioneered the anachronistic tactic of supplementing on-bike, lab-made nutrition with real food, with such self-contained snacks as Skratch’s signature sweet or savory rice cakes, egg-and-rice mini frittatas made in muffin cups and waffles, all outlined in the brand’s cookbook Feed Zone Portables. (The twist to the seemingly simple approach is that each recipe in the cookbook is carefully balanced to deliver an optimized ratio of carbs of varying complexities, with minimal fat and protein.)

The book and its contents acknowledge what seems to be at the core of Skratch as a brand: in the pursuit of peak performance, we should still bend science to meet the athlete, not the other way around. In the strictly numbers game of inputs and outputs, pesky human preference can, in fact, be seen as an opportunity for creativity. I’m always endeared to a brand when they’re willing to “give up” some of their trade secrets in the interest of edifying their audience.

Sure, you’d still have to spend $20 on the book, but after that initial investment (less than the cost of a 12 pack of Skratch’s pre-packaged energy bars) you have a literal wealth of knowledge at your disposal and could feasibly make all of your own ride* snacks from a home kitchen. (*In more recent years, Skratch has been promoting their powdered mixes more for high-intensity, race-day nutrition.)

On the topic of edification, at the aforementioned product launch event Allen recalled an epiphany he’d had during those early World Tour days. In order to test the effectiveness of an athlete’s hydration during training and racing, riders would be weighed pre and post ride, and—after adding back in calories and liquids consumed—the goal was for riders to end the day within 3% of their starting weight. With a level of animation that belies his devotion to nutrition as a science, Allen described his frustration at not being able to figure out why some athletes would “pass” the hydration test and others wouldn’t, even if they had taken in the same amount of water and electrolyte mix. What’s more, some of the athletes who “failed” the hydration test would report back that they couldn’t comfortably drink any more than they already were while riding.

To skim past some of the science jargon, Allen eventually made a few realizations; 1) the drink-to-thirst adage is not always reliable if drinking plain water because, 2) electrolytes are essential to helping the body hold onto fluids and thus remain hydrated, and 3) individuals have varying levels of sodium concentration in their sweat and thus need different dilutions of electrolytes in fluid to achieve the same level of hydration.

In the interest of being able to avoid making completely personalized electrolyte-mix dilutions for each rider, Allen decided to make three mixes: a less salty bottle, a medium salty bottle and a more salty bottle. After running some tests, he gave the appropriate solution to each rider based on the saltiness of the rider’s sweat and told them to then simply drink to the mix to thirst, supplementing as desired with plain water. And, after the next few rounds of weigh-ins, it worked.

Admittedly, my type-II nature gets sucked into solving these kinds of physiological puzzles—there is something so completely satisfying about getting something so right. However, during the course of that educational evening, I couldn’t help but think that Skratch’s hyper-controlled approach to cycling nutrition essentially goes out the window for multi-day, unsupported, big adventure rides where gas station fare more often than not dictates the menu. I also couldn’t help but think that most readers of this site might only be marginally interested in the marginal gains conversation. But, I think there is one thing that all cyclists would agree on: everyone wants to feel good while riding.

I left the media event that evening wanting to know more about what Allen had alluded to—that unreliable thirst mechanism—but I also wanted to know if there were some big-picture principles that could be applied to a more rogue fueling strategy. Fortunately, Colette Vartanian, Skratch Labs dietitian, was open to sharing some unconventional wisdom.

Understanding hydration and the thirst mechanism

The marketing team at Gatorade did its job very well in the late 90s/early 00s because I still have crystalline memories of the brand’s commercials from that era: slowed down, black-and-white footage of soccer and basketball and track athletes in the throes of motion and sweating buckets of colored Gatorade. That visual is, in fact, a helpful way of understanding the two measurable elements of sweat: 1) sweat rate, or total volume, and 2) sweat composition, or—as Allen discovered with his three bottles experiment—the ratio of sodium and other electrolytes present in one liter of sweat lost. As Colette explained, both of these variables will vary person to person but, on average, most people lose between 800-1000 milligrams of sodium per liter of sweat.

Ok but what happened to water being an acceptable option? To be clear (pun intended), plain water is still an integral part of the hydration equation, but replacing electrolytes lost is just as important as replacing liquids. Before taking any paired snacks into consideration, the potential risk, as Colette explained, of only drinking water is that you can essentially “waterboard” yourself. By not adding in sodium and other electrolytes, Colette says, “you’re getting tons of fluid but it’s not really being held on to, yet you may feel constantly thirsty because you’re not actually being quenched.” In other words, your brain may still be signaling to drink if you haven’t restored your body’s electrolyte equilibrium.

In this scenario, Colette cautions that “hyponatremia is the biggest concern—diluting all your electrolytes. A lot of people with hyponatremia tend to feel the same way they do if they’re dehydrated so they just keep drinking more water, then it can become really really dangerous.” (Read: you could eventually pass out.)

While you may not be inclined to go through the weigh-in rigamarole of World Tour riders to gauge hydration levels, Colette has a solution for riders who want to feel confident that drinking to thirst will actually keep them hydrated. “Most people want to drink something that is matched similar to their sweat,” she says. And, when I asked how to know if you’re not just drinking more because of the sodium present in a sports drink, Colette clarified by offering, “If you are not a salty sweater and you take something that’s too salty [for you], you may be able to tolerate it for a while—an hour or so—but you will not find it to be a refreshing drink […] When an athlete would rather have water while they’re sweating that’s typically a sign that they’ve overdone the electrolytes.”

As with Allen providing riders with the choice of three drink mixes—less, moderately or more salty—Colette advises creating a scenario where you can rely on intuition by always having a bottle of sports drink with that average dilution of 800-1000 mg/L of sodium (or ~616-777 mg per 28 oz bottle) and a bottle of plain water. If you’re not accustomed to riding with a bottle of a sports drink, she suggests alternating which you reach for initially and then observing which you naturally crave. By having the option of an electrolyte mix and regular water, you can safely rely on intuition and drinking to thirst by choosing whichever fluid sounds most quenching.

Still, Colette made clear that, while a good baseline practice, this is not always a foolproof approach; “Ideally, sports drinks allow you to drink to thirst more effectively, [but] there are times when that intuition can kind of go out the window.” She explained that factors like altitude (defined as elevations over 7,000 feet for most) and cooler temperatures can both depress thirst and appetite. Though most individuals actually burn more calories at altitude, normal neural signals like hunger and thirst can feel subdued.

Colder temperatures will dilate blood vessels in the body and many riders may feel like they have to pee more in the cold, leading to the misconception that they are well hydrated. In both of these scenarios, Colette recommends a more prescriptive approach to eating and drinking: a few sips every 15 minutes—shooting for 16 ounces to one liter per hour, depending on conditions—and a couple bites of a snack every half hour.

In terms of gauging one’s own level of hydration during or post ride, Colette said that urine color is an ok indicator, but it’s not 100% reliable. Certain foods or supplements can darken urine tint, while chugging your fluids can lead to the false positive of clear urine, when—in actuality—the chugged liquid might just be traveling through your system faster than the body can absorb it. Taking frequent sips over chugging is a safer hydrating practice, and observing what’s normal for you in terms of nature breaks while riding will provide you with a better baseline to work from for detecting future abnormalities.

Convenience store à la carte: Unsupported fueling options

“There are ‘sometimes’ foods and there are ‘all-the-time’ foods—but there are no bad foods,” says Colette when asked if there is anything she recommends, or advises against, for cyclists taking on unsupported multi-day rides. The main issue she sees among riders taking on routes like the Tour Divide is simply the problem of caloric replacement; “Getting in that amount of calories in whole food options is really hard, so we have to add in some processed or unconventional foods that, for a health-conscious individual, may seem unhealthy, but it’s more about total calorie consumption than what you’re eating.”

She goes on to say what too many riders have probably experienced firsthand: riding oneself into a calorie hole can be really difficult to reverse and can often impact one’s energy levels for subsequent days of riding. As a starting point, Colette recommends trying to ballpark how much you’re burning on any given day of the ride you’re taking on via a heart rate monitor or a similar method. From there, trying to take in at least half of what you’re burning per hour while riding will help keep your energy level consistent and start putting a dent in that total calorie vacuum. Adding a high-calorie drink to each resupply stop (e.g. juice, creamy coffee drink, milkshake) and extra condiments at meals are both easy ways to keep ticking up your daily calorie intake.

Protein is another everyday metric to keep tabs on; long endurance activities will result in some muscle breakdown. To stave this off, the International Society of Sports Nutrition states that endurance athletes need at least 1.4 to 1.6 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight per day.

Once you know how much you need to eat, Colette says what you eat will become more individual based on personal preference, availability and the intensity of your riding objective. For instance, gas station foods higher in fat and/or protein—hot dogs, beef jerky, cheese sticks, peanut butter, yogurt—as well as fiber (like trail mix) will be more tolerable for your stomach when riding at lower intensity levels, either at a more casual relative pace and/or on flatter terrain.

This is because at lower intensity levels of endurance activities, the body can more readily burn fat instead of carbs. But, when a certain threshold (i.e. the lactate threshold) is crossed, the body switches its metabolic fueling source to the quick-burning—but less energy dense—carbohydrate. The takeaway? To avoid potential GI turmoil, stick with bars, pastries, chips, crackers, cookies, etc., for sections of riding that are more aerobically demanding; but, when that 15-mile descent arrives or a long flat stretch, you can mix in less carb-forward snacks.

“We’ve probably done worse to our bodies when we were kids, or in college,” said Colette when I asked about any potential health risks to fueling almost solely from convenience store shelves during bikepacking efforts. “For two-to-five-day efforts, you can probably get away with minimal fiber and vitamins and other micronutrients, but for the longer efforts you will want to start thinking about those things.”

This guideline had been my general sense as well, as—based on personal experience—it’s after a few days of riding and scavenging gas station fare that I start to feel like I’m being impacted by what I’m eating. Colette said that lasting health impacts from nutrient deficiencies primarily impact the gut’s microbiome, but—with some diligence—you can make do with what’s available.

While the sugar content of juice may not be ideal in day-to-day life, she said that during multi-day, or multi-week, efforts on the bike, fruit juices like Naked can be a serviceable vehicle for vitamins (just make sure there’s an actual percentage of juice on the nutrient label), as well as vegetable juices like V8 or canned soup. For fiber, look for instant oatmeal, nuts, or bars made with whole grains.

In the years that I’ve followed the Tour Divide and other long-distance bikepacking races, I’ve noticed that some of the most experienced riders will make time to actually stop and sit down for a meal, rather than opting to constantly eat on the bike (though, of course, many go this route as well). Anecdotally, from long tours and shorter bikepacking efforts, I can say that I feel more satiated and energized after stopping for a real meal versus trying to fuel solely while riding, even if I am eating ‘real food’ (i.e. burritos) while making forward progress. I asked Colette if there’s any physiological sense to this:

“During exercise, your blood flow is directed towards the muscles in use, and thus moving blood away from the stomach. Stopping and eating provides better and more comfortable digestion, and we tend to hydrate better if we’re sitting and focused on eating. Hydration helps move nutrients through the body. And, the short rest could be helpful in the long term.”

On the exact opposite end of the fueling spectrum, I recently heard of the randonneuring phenomenon of fueling with ‘Trash Juice’ (i.e., sugar water) and wanted to see if I could elicit a balk. Colette was relatively unfazed but did offer a word of warning:

“Hmmm…I mean sugar and water are primarily what constitute soft drinks and sports drinks. For me, the biggest concern is ‘how much sugar is in there?’ because if you do too much simple sugar it crowds your gut and you’ll have to sh*t your pants, or what Allen likes to say, ‘you’ll have to pee out of your butt.’

“It comes down to understanding the osmolality of beverages; our blood has an osmolality of around 280 mOsm/kg. When it comes to sports drinks, or any beverage, you want it to be close to that [per liter], or lower, so that it can absorb more efficiently. If you have a drink that’s higher than that, it’s basically like being in a crowded concert—you get clogged and your gut goes ‘well, I can’t digest all this so it’s gotta come out one way or the other.’ So, you can have sugar water but you have to be careful not to overdue it. Scratch has 20 grams of sugar for each serving; for most people, 40-60 grams of sugar [per hour] is all they can tolerate in simple sugars as they’re exercising.”

Lastly, anytime my own gut has gone south, or I’ve wearied of all chewable food options, I never seem to tire of a cold chocolate milk. Given Lael Wilcox’s endorsement of downing dairy drinks during bikepacking races and my own positive experience with chocolate milk, I had to ask—what’s the secret? Colette is also a fan:

“Chocolate milk is a dietitian’s favorite recovery product. I love it and it’s something we recommend. First of all, it’s hydrating because milk, obviously, is a fluid; it also has carbohydrate—extra from what just the dairy provides—and it has some natural electrolytes. If you really want to make your chocolate milk work for you on the hydration front, grab a salt packet and sprinkle it into your milk. Most chocolate milk also adheres to [or gets close to] the magic endurance-focused 4:1 carbohydrate-to-protein ratio.”


Just like being able to troubleshoot mid-ride mechanicals, understanding the basics of what your body needs to keep rolling (smoothly) will only improve your riding experience and you don’t have to become obsessed with data to do so. The key to proper hydration is about cultivating a reliable intuition and drink-to-thirst scenario, while fueling is a little more straightforward: on the big days, eat simple foods often while riding, and eat even more—and more nutritionally-diverse foods—at the end. While you may have to endure some trial and error to find what works for you, measuring success by how good you feel while riding is a pretty appealing incentive. Because it’s that feeling that we’re all out there chasing.