Cycling Nutrition — All About Carbohydrates
Carbohydrates (carbs) are a vital energy source for the body.
Eating the right type of carb, in the right amount, at the right time will help you maintain sufficient energy during your rides. With that covered, you can perform at your best and avoid the dreaded ‘bonk’: running out of energy mid-ride.
Knowing what type of ride you will be doing can help you prepare correctly. It is important to note that each individual responds differently in how they digest carbohydrates.
Carbohydrates – 101
Carbs are essentially sugars or groups of sugars (like glucose and fructose). Carbs help to form food together with other nutrients like fiber, protein, and fat.
Most people refer to carbohydrate-dominant foods as “carbs”, but it is important to understand that each type of food has a unique balance of these nutrients. This unique make-up is what makes different foods preferable at different times, which we will discuss later.
High-intensity activity is the most carb-demanding type of training. During low to moderate-intensity activity (below a certain heart rate), our body prefers to use fat for fuel. As the intensity of your ride increases, so too do your body’s demands for carbs to fuel the movement.
Types of Carbs
Each type of carb has a different effect on the body depending on its structure and the food source. These differences affect things like:
- How fast the carbohydrate is digested and absorbed into the body
- The different nutrients that are alongside the carbohydrates (fat and protein slow down digestion and absorption)
- How it tastes to us (sweetness and texture)
Simple or refined carbohydrates are digested quickly in the body. They provide quick sources of energy. These carbohydrates do not help with hunger, and rarely provide any additional nutrients that the body needs. Examples include:
- Energy drinks
- Energy bars
Complex carbs are broken down slowly so the energy is released gradually in the body instead of in one spike as in simple carbs. Complex carbs are usually found in whole foods and have naturally-occurring nutrients such as fiber that help to slow the digestion process. Also, they are typically eaten with fats and proteins, which help to slow the burn of energy as well, resulting in more sustained energy over time. Examples include:
- Whole grains
The Glycemic Index (GI) is a number rating system that tells you how quickly a food affects your blood sugar level when that food is eaten on its own.
High GI foods are generally the simple and processed carbohydrates we mentioned above. Low GI foods are usually complex/unprocessed carbohydrates.
This rating system can be helpful for identifying the right carb-based foods to fuel your rides.
If you cycle regularly for long durations or at a high intensity you may need significantly more carbs on the days that you exercise. Individuals with more muscle mass also require more carbohydrates (muscle burns more fuel than other tissue).
Before and after rides of up to 2 hours in length, you should slightly increase your usual carbohydrate consumption to make sure you have adequate fuel.
It is important not to increase your consumption more than necessary. Excess carbohydrate consumption will be stored for future use (as fat or glycogen).
Which Carbs to Eat & When
Eating adequate carbs in the hours leading up to a ride will ensure you have the energy to perform, especially during high-intensity efforts.
2-3 hours before a ride, choose complex or low-GI carbs, as you still have time to break down these slow-digesting foods before you set off. Choose foods like potatoes, rice, fruit, or starchy vegetables.
Less than 2 hours before a ride, choose faster-digesting foods in smaller amounts. With less time for digestion, these will help you fuel up in time for your ride. Examples include white bread, ripe fruit, and blended drinks.
For rides lasting longer than 2 hours, it is usually advised to eat or drink 30 to 60 grams of carbohydrates per hour.
Fast-digesting, processed carbohydrates work best for high-intensity rides. That includes energy drinks, bars, and gels. Carbs in liquid form are the fastest-acting type.
For low to moderate-intensity rides, ripe bananas, white bread sandwiches, and bars are also appropriate.
Gatorade is another popular source of carbs and hydration during exercise, but we recommend first reading our guide to find out the answer to the question ‘is Gatorade good for you?‘
In the hours following a ride, choose mostly complex carbs with some high-GI included in a meal. These foods will help replenish your glycogen (carbohydrate energy) stores for future activity.
Sample Ride Day: Afternoon Ride
|Breakfast||Oatmeal with berries and nuts/nut butter|
|Pre-ride snack (1 hour before)||1 banana|
|Mid-ride snack||Energy bar|
|Lunch (After ride)||Egg and vegetable fried rice|
|Snack||Carrot sticks and hummus|
|Dinner||Chicken breast and garden salad|
In this meal plan, the rider will have a healthy balance of nutrients, while also having adequate fuel for a 2-3 hour ride.
Carbohydrate Dieting Techniques
What is Carb Loading?
Carb loading is a technique used by endurance athletes to maximize the amounts of glycogen stored in the body before a competition/training session. Glycogen is the form that carbohydrates take when they are stored in the body’s muscle and liver cells for later use.
The reason behind doing this is to increase the time it takes you to run out of energy. In other words, it takes longer to ‘bonk’.
In order to carb-load, athletes significantly increase their carb intake (to 10grams/kg of body weight) 2-3 days before the day of the event, while simultaneously tapering off (lowering intensity/time) their training sessions.
The ‘carb cycling diet’ is a way some athletes eat to gain the possible health benefits of a low-carb style diet, while still ensuring they have the energy required to perform during training and competition.
To do this, you must increase the percentage of carbs in your diet on training and competition days. On rest and recovery days, you lower the percentage to a below-average intake, increasing protein and fat instead. When adding extra protein and fat to your diet, do so with healthy options, avoiding highly-processed foods and trans-fats.
For a non-competitive athlete, a less strict version of this diet could be helpful for weight maintenance. You could increase your carb intake on days when you plan to ride and lower it again on rest days.
With all nutritional and diet changes, the degree to which it is effective will depend completely on your individual body.
It is important to note that before implementing any changes to your diet, always consult with a medical professional.