How to Avoid Bonking During a Bike Ride

If you ended up here, it’s pretty likely you’ve either bonked during a bike ride or are trying to avoid it.  If you haven’t bonked yet, props to you looking into how to avoid this.  Chances are you’ve heard a story or stories on people who have bonked.  Read on for my ideas on how to avoid bonking, and my most memorable experience.

What do you mean by “bonking?”  How does one “bonk?”

Basically, a “bonk” is the sound something–or someone–makes when they ‘hit the wall.’  In other words, it’s when you run out of sufficient energy in a physical or mental endeavor.

how to avoid bonking

What leads to bonking most of the time is either choosing an endeavor too far outside of the person’s physical ability or not properly eating and hydrating beforehand.  You run out of fuel.

There’s a saying in the world of endurance when it comes to providing yourself with fuel:

“Eat before you’re hungry, and drink before you’re thirsty.”  

If you’re thirsty during a ride, your energy stores are already being depleted.

If you’re hungry, the same thing.  Imagine that bike ride where you’re fantasizing about food.  As you ride along and expend more energy, the daydreaming of food becomes more and more extravagant.  That pizza gets bigger and bigger in your head, with more and more toppings.

When it happened to me

It was a hot summer day in Florida.

how to avoid bonking

I stocked up on carbs at a nearby K-Mart.  Granola bars, to be exact.  I didn’t eat anything beforehand.

I filled my bottles up with water and off I went, riding my bike from that K-Mart out to the trailhead six miles away.

The bars went in my bag along with my phone, the tools I always carry, and a paper map of the park.  I was looking forward to having a fantastic mountain bike ride.

how to avoid bonking

I did a long 14-mile loop of the park, wolfing down granola bars, but not really feeling a rush of energy.  By the time I got to the end of the loop, I was dragging.  Big time.  It was a hot, hot day, nary a cloud, and I didn’t think things through very well.

I’d screwed up.

My thought at this point was to take the shortest, most direct route home.  This took me along a long stretch of the Tampa Bypass Canal, a man-made body of water that was designed to prevent flooding along the Hillsborough River in Tampa.  The bypass canal has a berm along much of its length, which is somewhat popular with bike riders.  The berm also has zero shade, giving full exposure to the sunlight.

The heat further zapped me as I slowly made my way along the canal.  I needed to follow the canal for almost three miles.  I made it two miles before I finally found a shade tree.

Let’s hang out under this shade tree for 30 minutes, I thought.

So I did.  I actually had water so I drank the rest of what I had, then just chilled out in the shade.

After 30 minutes, I continued down the trail another mile to a dog park where I hosed my face down before relaxing for another 10-15 minutes.  My goal at this point was to avoid overheating and conserving the little energy I had.  Baby steps.

I then rode on to a grocery store that was another mile away.  I bought a Dr. Pepper and a candy bar of some kind and consumed it all on the sidewalk in front of the store.  After I was done, I rode the final two minutes back to my house.  That Dr. Pepper and candy stop gave me a little renewed energy, at least enough to get back to my house.

What saved me

I did a decent job of staying on top of my water supply during the bike ride, filling up at every opportunity.   However, I likely wasn’t well enough hydrated beforehand to take on a ride like that on such a miserably hot day.  I didn’t have a hydration bag at the time, but I do have one now, which is a lifesaver.

What to do for this to not happen

Take into consideration the weather conditions.

Drink plenty of water the night before.  As an added bonus swallow two or three packets of salt, the packets you find either at a convenience store or fast food joint.

In the morning, drink water before riding.  Coffee, too, if you drink it.  Coffee will give you an added boost, and I find it essential to my morning workouts.

how to avoid bonking

Again, take two or three salt packets right before riding.  Salt acts as a sponge, allowing you to retain the water without it going through you too fast, which dehydrates you and causes problems with energy (lack of electrolytes).

Nutrition and hydration are key.  And by nutrition I mean food.

I like to make an omelet with four eggs along with three or four strips of bacon.  Of course, 1-2 cups of coffee as well.  Eat about an hour before your ride.  A banana 20-30 minutes before the ride may be helpful as well, or perhaps a bottle of chocolate milk.  But remember the salt and the water.  Important!

Take a snack with you for the ride.  A Clif bar is not a bad thing to have.  It doesn’t have to be something like that, maybe just some assorted nuts.  Just make sure it’s something that’s not going to melt.  Another reason to carry a hydration bag: you can hold snacks, tools, and your phone.

If you find yourself fantasizing about food, go to your snack of choice.  Otherwise, leave it in your bag and enjoy the ride.

After the ride

After your ride’s done, the biggest thing is to keep hydrating.  You’ll feel thirsty throughout the rest of the day.  Don’t ignore that.  Keep drinking water, and maybe wolf down a salt packet.  As far as food goes, eat when you’re hungry, and just stick with your normal animal-based way of eating in this situation.

Bottom line

Follow the tips above and enjoy your ride.  A successful ride begins when you wake up that morning, not necessarily when you get on the bike.  Listen to your body.  Know your limits.  Don’t pick a 95° day to push your mountain bike ride from five miles to fifteen, for instance.  I pushed it and added many road miles to my additional trail miles.

Don’t do what I did.  Don’t bonk.  Bonking’s no fun.  Have fun on the trails.

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Do you have any ideas on how to keep your energy levels up during a bike ride?  Your own bonking experiences?  Please be sure to comment in the box below.

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