The hunger attack: how to avoid it | Health on the saddle – Selle Italia
The hunger attack: how to avoid it

The hunger attack: how to avoid it


Long before food science came onto the scene, veteran cyclists used to have a saying which went: “if you put off eating until you are hungry, you are bound to succumb”.

What we are trying to get at is that cyclists are well aware of the importance of drinking and eating properly. That means snacking at regular intervals during the outing so we are not drained of energy at the exact time we want to step up our performance levels and exert ourselves more because perhaps we need to get to the top of that crucial slope…

A feeling of weakness, shaky legs, a heavy head, nausea, cold shivers… a hunger attack descends upon you rapidly, making you feel just generally unwell and interfering with your ability to cope with the strain. Basically, the bogeyman is always lurking, but let’s be rational about things and work out what brings the attack on and how to ward it off.

As you will know, our body needs sugar, and particularly glucose, as a “fuel” to cope with physical activities.

Glucose is a monosaccharide produced by converting the carbohydrates we ingest. It is the main source of energy for our cells, but our organism cannot use it unless it is first stored in our muscle tissue in the form of glycogen.

A precious reserve

The long and short of it is this: when we ingest carbohydrates, they are converted into glucose. Insulin then transports it to the liver and muscles, where it is, in turn, converted into a complex carbohydrate (glycogen) after which it is stockpiled until we are ready to use it.

Calculations have demonstrated that our body can contain about 300-400g of glycogen and 70% of this is located in our muscles.

Physical exertion causes us to use up this “stockpile”. If we do not eat to replenish it, we will suffer a hunger attack. The quickest way to build it back up again is to eat (in moderate amounts) carbohydrates with a high glycaemic index which stimulate insulin production; a good way to stop our reserves from running low is to make sure our meals include a regular and suitable supply of complex carbohydrates.

Another culprit causing hunger attacks during physical exertion is dehydration due to heavy sweating. Amongst other things, this significantly lowers our stamina levels. So, it is crucial that we make up for lost liquids by drinking regularly whilst we ride.

Basic strategy

The strategy to be adopted in order to stave off the dreaded hunger attack is quite simple: maximise glycogen reserves in the hours prior to exertion. In order to do this, experts recommend that, in the two days running up to the ride, we consume about 10 g of carbohydrates per kg of body weight, and then consume another 3-4 g per kg a few hours prior to the session of physical exertion.

In the course of physical activity, it is recommended that we consume 30-60 g of rapidly absorbed carbohydrates on the hour. One excellent way to do this is to take special maltodextrin-based food supplements, but take care not to overdo it because they can cause nasty side effects (… diarrhoea…).

Plenty of liquids will boost the absorption rate of these substances, but will especially help us to maintain the right levels of body hydration: a loss of over 2% in body weight due to sweating will lead to a significant lowering of performance levels.

How much water do we need during exertion? Obviously, much depends on how hot it is, but about 1 litre per hour is a realistic estimate.

This is a field where common sense does not always prevail and there are a lot of fallacies around. Unfortunately, cyclists often listen to hearsay and fall into bad habits.

One example of this? It is often said, quite absurdly, that if you want to keep up speed on a hot day, you have to cut down on drinking so as not to weaken your legs…

One last tip: avoid at all costs following nutritional-data charts, diets and supplements without first having consulted a specialist.





*Mandatory fields