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Food for Bicycle Touring

Unlike backpacking, bicycle touring does not require special, lightweight foods. Except for one compact emergency meal that should always be carried, food can be purchased fresh each day. The later in the day you buy it, the less you will have to be concerned about carrying it.

We didn’t give much thought to food at the start of our touring career. Most people don’t unless it’s something they think about a lot anyway. The only change bicycle touring made in our eating habits was to increase our appetites as we exercised more. We always considered ourselves fairly up to date nutrition-wise; Susan spent as much time as our busy student lives and, later, our professions allowed trying to improve our eating habits and general levels of health.

Then our tours increased in length, taking in hot summer deserts and strenuous, high mountain passes. We wondered why we were not performing physically at the level we thought our selves capable of, but usually wrote it off to “not being in any hurry.” Our bi cycles were in top condition, well fitted with good equipment, and our physical conditioning was good by most standards. Yet we felt there was something missing, something holding us back from our full potential.

On the cross-country trip we enjoyed excellent health and well-being until just after lunch most days, then we were frequently wiped out by the mid- afternoon blahs that we attributed to heat, late hours the night before, too many hours on the road, any excuse we could think of except the right one — we weren’t eating right.

On our return Jim found a copy of Food for Fitness published by World Publications. It’s a guide about various aspects of health and diet especially for the athlete or the athletic. We don’t consider ourselves athletes by any stretch of the imagination, but much of the in formation in the guide is directed to any one who feels that the average American diet isn’t the answer to total health. Some sections seemed pretty far-out to us at the time, some still do, but as a single source of information on getting control over your food intake it was a turning point for us.

We began to make some basic changes in our eating habits, not only while bicycle touring but in our every day life. Over the years we have experimented with many popular notions that have since been forgotten and we incorporated others into our eating style that now seem so basic we can’t re member eating any differently. The conclusion we have come to is that there is no such thing in our family as a touring diet. We eat on the road as we eat at home; the secret is that we have totally revamped our previous normal American diet at home so that we should say instead that we eat at home as we eat on the road.

Drying food in advance is becoming an increasingly popular way for cyclists to have a dependable supply of nutritious, lightweight food in any environment.

Changing Habits

What have been the outstanding changes? We have almost completely stopped eating white-flour products, substituting whole wheat commercial products or homemade breads and pas tries when our life is conducive to Susan spending the necessary time in the kitchen. She enjoys making much of her own food — bread, yogurt, noodles, cereals and sprouts — but we have not always had a kitchen or the time and tools needed to do it on a regular basis. But we are careful about the ingredients contained in commercial products.

Wealso make concerted efforts to cut our sugar consumption — not just white sugar but all sugars except those occurring in fruits and foods naturally. With a teenager in the house that is sometimes a desperate battle and we don’t always do so well ourselves, but it’s something we are constantly aware of and working toward.

Our protein consumption has dropped tremendously, especially meats and dairy products, and most of the latter are low-tat or nonfat milk products when we do have them. We’re now working on cutting salt intake — we have a long way to go there but the battle lines are drawn. Cutting fat intake was fairly easy as we have never been much for fat consumption. Our children have been raised on nonfat milk (for economic reasons before we knew otherwise) and now we find delightful the variety of foods available with low or unsaturated fats.


The one thing that has kept us in the game this long is moderation. As we watch and worry we see generalized trends constantly emerging in a wide variety of studies by many differing organizations and individuals. When we decide that something needs changing, as when we decided to do away with white flour, we begin gradually and work through it over a long period — as much as a year or two. We find this necessary with children especially; you might be able to “cold turkey” some forbidden food if you are alone or not responsible for anyone else’s eating habits, but a sure way to turn a perfectly normal child into an unrecognizable monster is to suddenly and without warning take away the sugar bowl, Twinkies, Captain Crunch and Pop Tarts (which are anything but tart). It can be done gradually so that as the supply dwindles so does the appetite for it. If fruit and yogurt are waiting in the refrigerator after school, there is hardly a glance in the cookie jar.

It takes time to develop new habits in food purchasing and preparation. Take it from Tim that a good way to seriously strain a marriage is to suddenly require a totally new look on the dining table. Go easy once you decide what changes to incorporate into your diet, especially if those changes affect others as preparers or partakers. A long bicycle tour is no place to make radical changes in your diet.

Why Bother?

Two of the most important sources for our personal approach to nutrition have been the excellent but all-too-few articles by Dr. Creig Hoyt, medical editor of Bike World magazine, and Dietary Goals for the United States, a study done by the U.S. Senate Select Commit tee on Nutrition and Human Needs. This study, issued in early 1977, was com piled by Senators Percy, Dole, Kennedy, Humphrey, Schweiker, McGovern and Zorinsky. The original edition urged people to eat considerably less meat, eggs and dairy products but came under such intense lobbying from the food industry that the senators were forced to publish a second, revised edition in late 1977. That one is available as Dietary Goals for the United States — Second Edition, Stock No. 052-070-04376-8 (83 pp.) for $2.30 from the U.S. Government Printing Office, Cap Street, Washington, DC 20401. Considering the amount of research, time and expense that went into it coupled with the whole business of politics, lobbying and com promise that modified it, the result is truly a moderate approach. Not some reactionary appeal or far-out health- food proposal, it’s a middle-of-the-road approach to a very controversial subject. Yet, taken in the context of American eating habits, its findings seem truly radical. Let it speak for itself:

Too much fat, too much sugar, or salt, can be and are linked directly to heart disease, cancer, obesity, and stroke, among other killer diseases. In all, six of the ten leading causes of death in the United States have been linked to our diet.

Last year every man, woman and child in the United States consumed 125 pounds of fat, and 100 pounds of sugar. . . . In 1975, we drank on the average of 295 12-ounce cans of soda.

In the early 1900s almost 40 per cent of our caloric intake came from fruit, vegetables and grain products. Today only a little more than 20 per cent of calories comes from these sources.

With increasing affluence, we have also increased our body weights. Obesity is probably the most common and one of the most serious nutritional problems affecting the American public today. . . . Over 30 percent of all men between 50-59 are 20 percent overweight, and 60 percent are over 10 percent overweight. One-third of the population is over weight to a degree which has been shown to diminish life expectancy.

One in three men in the United States can be expected to die of heart disease or stroke before age 60 and one in six women. It’s estimated that 25 million suffer from high blood pressure and that about 5 million are afflicted by diabetes mellitus.

Deaths from colon and breast cancer are uncommon in countries with diets low in animal and dairy fats.

Groups whose diets are low in fat and high in dietary fiber have much lower rates of cancer of the colon, rectum, breast, and uterus than com parable groups of Americans who consume more fat and less dietary fiber.

Compared with persons of normal weight, obese people have a higher risk of developing cancer, especially cancer of the uterus, breast, and gallbladder.

In the United States the number of cancer cases a year that appear to be related to diet are estimated to be 40 percent of the total incidence for males and about 60 percent of the total incidence for females.

Fat, sugar, salt, and white flour, all are present in far greater amounts than is necessary, desirable or reasonable in our diets. Anything affecting the national health to so great an extent could certainly affect your personal health and your ability to enjoy and benefit from bicycle touring. You can slip off a normally good diet while touring, either because of unavailability of proper foods or the convenience of what is available, and still get by OK. But you cannot make up for a lifetime of poor eating by eating properly while you are bicycle touring. That is why we are dealing here with your regular diet rather than your dietary needs for a few days or months while you are on tour.

A primary problem in changing dietary habits are those who control our diets and profit by that control. Wait, you say, only I decide what I eat. Maybe, but then maybe not. You learned eating habits as a child from your parents, from your peers, and from television or radio. By the extensive use of mass advertising on almost unlimited budgets coupled with the philosophy of “give them what they want only after the desire has been created,” the food processing and distributing industries are in control of the vast majority of Americans’ diets. When was the last time you heard a TV commercial for fresh vegetables, fruits or whole grains? Dietary Goals puts it this way:

Food production and processing is America’s number one industry and medical care ranks number three. Nutrition is the common link between the two. Nutrition is a spectrum which runs from food production at one end to health at the other.

Demand for better nutrition could bring a halt to the expansion and/or use of less nutritious or so-called “empty calorie” or “junk” foods in the American diet, as well as make nutrition the rallying point of public demands for better health, as op posed to more medical care.

The question to be asked, there fore, is not why should we change our diet but why not? What are the risks associated with eating less meat, less fat, less saturated fat, less cholesterol, less sugar, less salt, and more fruits, vegetables, unsaturated fat and cereal products — especially whole-grain cereals. There are none that can be identified and important benefits can be expected. . . . Heart disease, cancer, diabetes and hyper tension are the diseases that kill us. They are epidemic in our population. We cannot afford to temporize. We have an obligation to inform the public of the current state of knowledge and to assist the public in making the correct food choices. To do less is to avoid our responsibility.

Recommended Goals:

So what are the “correct food choices” we, the public, should be in formed about? Here is the abbreviated list of dietary goals recommended by the U.S. Senate Select Committee with our comments in parentheses.

U.S. Dietary Goals:

1. To avoid overweight consume only as much energy (calories) as ex pended; if overweight, decrease energy intake and increase energy expenditure. (Bicycle touring will take care of that for you while increased consumption of unprocessed fruits, vegetables and whole grains will help curtail your initial caloric intake.)

2. Increase the consumption of complex carbohydrates and “naturally occurring” sugars from about 28 percent of energy intake to about 48 percent of energy intake. (When possible don’t use sugars or processed food that is high in sugar such as barbecue coatings, catsup, relishes and processed cereals. Honey is better but not if used excessively.

3. Reduce the consumption of refined and processed sugars by about 45 percent to account for about 10 percent of total energy in take. (No carbonated soda whatsoever. This alone would bring about half the recommended reduction in sugar for the average American. Un-sugared breakfast cereal would bring another substantial reduction.)

4. Reduce overall fat consumption from approximately 40 percent to about 30 percent of energy intake. (This is still a rather high-fat diet, but better than the American average.)

5. Reduce saturated-fat consumption to account for about 10 per cent of total energy intake, and balance that with polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats, which should account for about 10 percent of energy intake each. (Substitute poultry and fish for red meat and pork and eat only low-fat or nonfat dairy products.)

6. Reduce cholesterol consumption to about 300 milligrams a day. (One egg has 250 mg., 3 oz. cooked shrimp have 130 mg., 3 oz. cooked liver have 370 mg. and 3 oz. brains have 1,700 mg.)

7. Limit the intake of sodium by reducing the intake of salt to about 5 grams a day. (One-quarter gr. per day is all that is needed for health and this is easily acquired through the most rigid non-salt diet. One table spoon of catsup and ten salted french fries equal about 25 percent of the suggested 5 gr.)

Think about your own diet and how it compares with these seven modest proposals. These are the recommendations of a Senate select committee; nothing radical or politically damaging ever came out of a Senate committee. All of these recommendations are com promises and should be taken, not with a grain of salt, but as a starting point for a good nutrition program.

In addition to the government’s proposals, we suggest these as well:

1. Reduce protein consumption, especially red meats. The average American eats approximately 100 grams of protein a day. Protein is necessary for good health but more and more evidence is coming in that an oversupply of protein is having a serious derogatory effect on the health of the few developed nations that can indulge in this luxury. The body simply doesn’t need enormous amounts of protein.

One cup of whole cow’s milk contains 9 grams of protein, a cup of cottage cheese has 33 grams. Three ounces of ground beef have 21 grams, three ounces of chicken contain 20 grams and one cup of lima beans has 16 grams. Obviously, it doesn’t take much to make up your daily allotment. Americans who consume meat three times a day with several glasses of milk and eggs for breakfast are getting vastly beyond the normal daily requirement for protein. Not only is that unhealthy, but in a world where two-thirds of the population is undernourished, it’s also a crime.

2. As much as possible, eliminate consumption of white flour. Processed white flour (including so-called “un bleached” flour) acts like glue in your digestive system and some nutritionists think it actually retards the absorption of needed nutrients by thickly lining the walls of the intestinal tract. It’s linked with the high percentage of lower-digestive-tract cancer in our society.

Although bran is popular today, the best way to get bran is as it grows on the wheat kernel, coupled with wheat germ from that same kernel. White-flour processing removes both bran and wheat germ. Why add them separately in your diet when it all comes together in whole wheat products? In addition to whole wheat breads, you can now buy many whole wheat products from muffins to pasta. Pie and pizza crusts are easy to make with whole wheat flour, or if you use package mixes, add bran and wheat germ to make up for what the manufacturer took out. This is one time when buying bran and wheat germ separately makes sense.

Read the ingredients on all flour products you buy and switch to those that use whole wheat. Let the store manager know your preference. Many products add whole wheat but the primary ingredient is white flour. Wheat flour and unbleached flour are still white flour; it must say whole wheat or graham flour to be the real thing.

3. Instead of reducing sugar consumption by 45 percent as the Senate committee recommends, we suggest working toward total restriction of processed sugar from your diet. As you re strict your sugar intake your taste and craving for sugar decreases, not in a week or even a month perhaps, but over a year or so. Americans are started on sugar from the first drink of infant formula. Just now we are beginning to cut sugar from baby foods (commercial), admitting it was put there for the mother’s taste, not the baby’s.

As you restrict your intake of sugar you will be shocked at the immensity of the task. Unsugared cereal is relatively easy to get used to with fresh fruit mixed into the cereal, but just try finding unsugared fruit juices, catsup, salad dressing or canned fruits or even some canned vegetables. When we banned white sugar from the house, we substituted brown sugar with a glorious feeling of nobility. Then we found that, instead of one step less in processing, brown sugar had one more with molasses added to the finished white sugar. We now know that sugar itself is the enemy in any form — even honey if used in excess. Honey is a good substitute in that it’s easily digested and is sweeter tasting than a comparable amount of white sugar so you can use less. But try training your taste buds to relish the sweetness of a fresh carrot or a tree-ripened apple instead.

If you must eat out frequently or rely on convenience foods, at yeast don’t add sugar (or salt) at the table. It offers nothing but empty calories and, like salt, is an acquired taste. Sugar has been linked to a number of our modern diseases, including hypoglycemia and hyperactivity in children.

4. Eat plain, unprocessed, fresh foods whenever possible. Simplify your eating habits; cut down on multicourse meals. The time spent on washing, peeling (when necessary) and cutting fresh fruits and vegetables is time saved from cooking them. Most people (including children) prefer vegetables raw to cooked if given a choice. Keep fresh fruits and vegetables ready to eat in your refrigerator. Soon you and your family will develop the habit of looking there first for quick, refreshing snacks.

Soups and salads have replaced the standard high-protein, high-starch meat/potato/bread meals we were raised on. Our personal preference for Mexican foods, especially homemade refried beans on corn tortillas topped with tomatoes, sprouts, guacamole (avocado) and yogurt dressing fits well into our primarily nonmeat, fresh and raw foods diet. Homemade breads or breadsticks make any simple soup and salad meal into something special.

The only way you can completely control the foods you eat is to grow and prepare everything yourself. Although many people have returned to that life style, it’s not possible or even desirable for many others. In a complex society where we work at one task full time in order to pay someone else to do other tasks for us, there simply is no possibility of control over primary sources. But you can develop new habits and control your consumption through educated beliefs and a lot of label reading. The food-processing industry makes billions of dollars at the expense of our health and pocketbook, with popular compliance and encouragement we might add. Even our rebellions are tempered; look at the “natural cereals” now avail able. Many contain as much as 50 per cent sugar (usually brown sugar and honey), and we even hear the claim that sugar itself is OK because it’s a natural product. Sawdust is natural too, but that doesn’t mean it belongs in our food.

We’re proposing that you add to your health for all activities, bicycle touring especially, through an educated, knowledgeable approach to eliminating from your diet foods that are known to be harmful to health — white flour, sugar, salt, excessive fat and excessive protein. It’s difficult to talk about such changes without sounding fanatical, but for many of us such changes are radical and touch the very basics of our lives. You can make these changes without ever entering a “health food” store or reading a guide on health foods. If you want more information, read Food for Fitness, Dietary Goals for the United States and The Complete Guide of Food and Nutrition by J. I. Rodale. Your own interests and need for information will take you from there.

Eating on Tour

How does all this actually relate to bicycle touring? As with physical conditioning, if you have developed good habits before you ever roll out your front door, you will have few changes to make or worries about conditioning (or eating) on tour. But there is a little more to eating during an extended bicycle trip than maintaining your already excellent (we hope) food practices. Bicycle touring, since it relies on roadways, rarely takes you beyond access to a grocery store. Your only limitations to food preparation and consumption are how much of a kitchen you wish to carry and how you feel at the end of a day. Whereas fresh, raw foods are impractical or impossible on an extended back pack trip, you can tour for months with little or no change from your normal home diet.

When touring for any length of time keep your diet as simple and easy to digest as possible. You must have enough calories and nutrients to maintain a balanced diet and meet your energy requirements. The biggest difficulty is in eating enough. When exercising continually over long periods of time, you feel perpetual hunger. You are burning up a tremendous number of calories, yet dare not load your stomach to the point where the mere task of digestion robs your body of its ability to convert calories to muscular energy.

Rather than eating three heavy meals a day, give your body a steady, moderate supply of food that is easily digested and quickly converted to the task at hand. What foods are best? Carbohydrates (sugars and starches) pro vide almost all of the energy supplied to the body when exercising. They are converted and stored primarily in the liver in the form of glycogen. Glycogen is rapidly and efficiently burned by the body but must be continually replaced as a full supply can be used up in 50 miles of strenuous riding depending on the individual and the circumstances. When glycogen is depleted, a condition known as “hitting the wall” occurs at which point the person is simply unable to continue without rest and refueling.

Carbohydrates are a cheap, quick source of energy. They pass quickly through the digestive tract and continual “nibbling” will carry you to and be yond the 50-mile limit without stress (although you are unlikely to “hit the wall” at a leisurely touring pace). Foods high in carbohydrates should make up the bulk of your daily bicycling diet.

Fruits, nuts, whole wheat products — the list is endless and as varied as your imagination and appetite.

Some of the most avid cyclists we know are people who have a really pro found love of eating, yet not one of them is fat. Of course taking in more than you put out adds pounds, but those who love riding as much as eating seem to find a happy, slim, healthy balance that lets them load their plates without calorie counting. Keep a supply of your favorite carbohydrates handy all day while you ride and eat at regular, brief intervals.

Fats can be converted to body energy, but the process is much slower than with carbohydrates. You can live off the “fat of the land” (body fat) to some extent but not enough to keep exercising comfortably. If you want to lose weight, limit your intake of calories and increase your amount of exercise, but recognize that it’s rapid digestion of carbohydrates that keeps you going. As fat takes time to accumulate, so it takes time to dissolve; an extended bicycle tour is no time to go on a starvation diet.

Fat consumption should be severely limited while exercising due to the amount of time it takes to pass through the digestive tract. Fruit passes out of the stomach in as little as 30 minutes while a piece of meat can take up to four hours. Your body has better things to do than spend energy digesting a high-fat meal while you are trying to bicycle up a hill. Fatty foods like french fries and a hamburger at noon when your glycogen supply is depleted only insure an afternoon of the “blahs” as your body does battle with the fat when it should be easily digesting a load of carbohydrates for immediate use.

Protein (needed in small amounts to build and repair tissue) provides vitamins and regulates water and salt balance, but is of little value in the production of quick energy. Of greater concern to the touring cyclist is that most foods high in protein are either hard to digest (meat) or block the rapid absorption of fluids (dairy products). On long, hot days it’s all too tempting to stop for cool, “refreshing” treats like ice cream, frozen yogurt or malts. We learned the hard way that such habits only bring on a down-and-out afternoon slump. We’re not saying never indulge in such things, just don’t make a habit of

What does all this mean in terms of actual foods? Go for high-carbohydrate foods and keep snacking steadily through your cycling day. Eat a moderate breakfast high in carbohydrates like cereals, fruit and breads. Resist the temptation to have a three-egg omelet with sausage or ham on the side. Snack on fruits throughout the day — never very hard to do on tour — but supplement them with nuts, seeds, and whole wheat or other grain crackers, breads or muffins.

If you must eat lunch, make it merely a sit-down version with the above snack foods. Most people are so used to big lunches of cheese, meat and egg products that it takes some doing to restrict noon intake to mostly carbohydrates, but the result is well worth the effort. Keep in mind, however, that even with the right foods eating too much has a sluggish effect on your afternoon energy level.

After your cycling day ends indulge your cravings; stuff yourself with protein and as many calories as you desire if you must. Concentrate on those proteins (vegetable over animal) that are more easily digested so your body can make maximum use of the time until you hit the road again, but if you have been seeing visions of hamburgers all day, or — for us — tortillas, beans and cheese, go ahead and indulge. Eat only enough protein to meet your daily needs; use high-carbohydrate foods to fill the vacant space in your middle.

If you are touring in hot and humid weather, be conscious of those foods that slow down absorption of liquids in the stomach. The evening is your most important reservoir-stocking time; don’t sabotage your fluid replenishment efforts by loading up on high-fat foods or dairy products. Before dinner, drink several glasses of water or other fluids (nonalcoholic), which will pass into your system before a heavy meal. Clear soup as an appetizer is a good choice (see section twelve for types of fluids good for rehydration).

Avoid coffee. Even if you are a typical American coffee addict, try to cut down on consumption while bicycle touring. Aside from the many dubious aspects of coffee consumption, it’s a diuretic that removes more fluid from your system than it puts in. if you must have some, save it for nighttime rather than morning to give yourself time to rebuild your fluid supply before getting back on your bicycle. Herb tea is good if you must have a hot drink in the morning; once on the road pedaling hard, however, you wake up pretty fast.

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- Sample Menu -

(no cooking):


Raw oat cereal w/almonds or Dry whole-grain cereal

Nonfat or 2% milk


Wh/wh bread w/butter or w/peanut butter & honey

Orange juice

During the Day:

Bananas, oranges, apples Seasonal fruits Nuts, seeds (sunflower, chia, sesame)

Fruit juices (unsweetened) Dried fruit, nut & seed mixes

Granola bars


Reconstituted frozen juices (unsweetened)

Raw vegetables and canned beans, drained

Cold cuts & cottage cheese

Wh/wh bread w/butter

Applesauce (unsweetened)

Seasonal fruits or yogurt


(some cooking):

Cooked whole-grain cereal w/raisins

Nonfat or 2% milk

Seasonal fruits

Bran muffins

Grapefruit juice

Herb tea




Wh/wh crackers

Rice cakes w/honey

Applesauce (unsweetened)


Reconstituted frozen juices (unsweetened)

Green salad

Raw vegetables

Wh/wh macaroni & cheese

Yogurt w/fruit

Muffins, crackers or bread


(more cooking):


Hash brown potatoes or Wh/wh pancakes w/honey or fruit

Poached egg

Cantaloupe or grapefruit

V-8 juice

Herb tea or Postum

Hot soup

Hot cereals

Canned beans



avocado w/sprouts

tomato w/cheese slices peanut butter/banana


Hot soup

Wh/wh pasta w/spaghetti sauce

Cooked vegetables

Raw vegetables/salad

Hot, garlic wh/wh muffins

Seasonal fruit or yogurt

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We hesitate to get involved in the vitamin controversy, but we personally take supplemental vitamins B and C because we have found them useful during our cross-country tour. In Bike World magazine, Dr. Creig Hoyt mentions the advantages of these vitamins in protecting against lip and mouth sores and in the possible alleviation of the mental strain he and his colleague experienced in the 750-mile Paris-Brest Paris race. On long-distance tours the body undergoes considerable stress; we believe vitamins B and C help to minimize the negative effects of physical and mental strain.

Somewhere in most discussions of athletic diets the topic of carbohydrate loading comes up. This is a technique used by racers to increase the amount of stored glycogen in the liver so that “hitting the wall” (glycogen depletion) does not occur during highly strenuous, relatively short races (under three hours). Since bicycle tourists cycle for longer periods and at a more leisurely pace and are able to resupply carbohydrates while exercising, we feel carbohydrate loading is of no real value to the tourer. In fact, there are distinct hazards for some (see Dr. David L. Smith’s excellent article “Carbohydrate Loading” in the April 1978 issue of Bicycling magazine).

Food preferences are such a highly individual matter that we hesitate to inject our own here other than as generalized recommendations for reduction of sugar, white flour, salt, protein and fats. But if you are still at a loss for ideas, following are three menus we use on tour, listed according to their degree of difficulty in preparation. You may find, as we sometimes do, that sugar intake increases while touring. We deal with this by spreading the sugar intake over a long period of time. We nibble from our “gorp” bags (peanuts, raisins and sunflower seeds) small amounts every hour rather than dumping a lot of sugar into our systems at once.

The main idea is to be flexible — whether it’s in the expected amount of mileage for the day or in diet. Take what you can get, use what you have and most of all, enjoy every minute.

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