A Complete Cycling Nutrition Guide (On & Off the Bike)
Getting adequate nutrition for exercise is important to keep your body functioning optimally before or during training and competition and to facilitate recovery in the hours and days following any physical exertion.
Below, we highlight some nutritional considerations and techniques to help you with your cycling routine to perform, feel great, and recover well after every ride.
Build Your Own Nutrition Plan
The first thing to ask yourself when it comes to nutrition is, “Does this work for me?” Too often, nutrition advice is given in sweeping generalizations, targeting the ‘average’ person, forgetting that each one of us is biologically unique.
As individuals, we need to discover what works best for our own bodies through experimenting with various foods and supplements, the timing of meals, and the amount of food consumed. If you have found a nutritional technique that you would like to experiment with, incorporate it into your routine and see how it makes you feel. If it works: keep it; if it doesn’t: forget it.
80 to 90 percent of the performance and health benefits gained come from adhering to and executing the fundamental principles of nutrition and hydration, depending on the level of performance you are trying to hit. Further improvements come from specifically tailored nutrition and hydration protocols for professional athletes.
Let’s take a deeper look at these core principles. First, it is vital to always consult your primary care doctor before trying any new diet or supplement.
Experiencing dehydration is dangerous while cycling and can also have a negative effect on our day-to-day lives. To help us truly grasp the importance of adequate water and electrolytes for exercise, it’s important to know a little about the effects of dehydration on the body.
Dehydration occurs when there is a lack of water or an imbalance of electrolytes in the body. In the case of a cyclist, dehydration is more likely on long or intense rides or in hot and humid climates. However, it can happen in any circumstance if you neglect to drink enough.
Aside from thirst, some of the first symptoms of dehydration include fatigue and weakness, elevated core body temperature, muscle cramps, and headaches. These symptoms can begin to show with as little as one percent dehydration and can easily be avoided with some minor planning and care.
Drinking water regularly throughout your day will allow your body to be better prepared to handle the inevitable drops in hydration from exercise while also keeping fatigued at bay.
While exercising, we need more water than at rest, and this need is increased if the temperature is high or you are sweating a lot through extended high intensity. Less well-known but equally important is the need to replenish electrolytes in the water you consume during longer duration exercise (over 90 minutes).
Consuming too much plain water will not hydrate you fully as the system still lacks sufficient electrolytes.
As with all nutrition or hydration guidelines, the requirements for a 140lb person will differ from someone who is 200lbs. However, a good rule of thumb is to consume eight ounces of water every 15 minutes during exercise.
However, if you’re cycling through Arizona in the middle of summer, it would be wise to increase that amount. To maintain adequate electrolytes, consider adding electrolytes to your water if you plan to spend more than 90 minutes in the saddle.
Post-exercise, continue to drink water in regular intervals following any long or intense exercise and stay vigilant for signs of dehydration, such as headaches.
The important thing is to drink regularly, both during exercise and afterward, and pay attention to the signals of dehydration so you can stay safe and perform well.
Sodium (salt) is a crucial electrolyte for hydration and performance for those who cycle regularly. While processed foods are infamously known for being high in sodium, an adequate daily sodium intake can be hard for those who eat a diet of mainly whole or minimally processed foods and exercise regularly.
Healthy eating with exercise creates the potential for a lack of sodium. When it comes to sodium lost through sweat, it varies greatly from person to person, so having this test may be the best way to ensure you are getting enough. However, if you are eating and exercising as described, you may need to add a sodium-heavy electrolyte mix to your ride hydration routine.
What you eat before a ride can greatly affect your performance and how you recover. Eating adequate carbohydrates (carbs) in the hours before a ride will ensure you have the energy to perform, especially at high intensity, while eating sufficient protein beforehand will improve recovery afterward. Choosing foods that agree with you, in amounts that suit your body size, and the planned exercise duration is key. This may take some experimentation but will be quite worth it when you get it right.
If you have the luxury of eating 2 to 3 hours before a ride, a balanced meal with protein, carbs, and some healthy fat will set you up for success. Good choices for carbs include potatoes, rice, whole-wheat bread, and fruit. Good protein sources include meat or fish, eggs, Greek yogurt, or tofu. Take care not to eat too much during this meal as it could lead to tiredness or nausea during the ride.
If the time between when you eat and your ride is limited to one hour or less, consuming liquids or a snack is recommended, or you risk your meal not being adequately digested. A shake, a smoothie, or a piece of ripe fruit will give you a quick-digesting carb boost before a ride without causing lethargy or sickness. A delicious pre-ride shake could be as simple as:
- Protein powder
- Peanut butter
Experiment with ingredients you like, and be sure to include carbs, protein, and fat, to create a balanced drink.
During the Ride
For non-competitive rides lasting under 90 minutes, focus mainly on staying hydrated with frequent sips of water. This is especially true if your pre-exercise meal was good. If you are riding competitively or exercising in a hot climate and high intensity, an electrolyte solution could benefit performance.
To sustain longer durations in the saddle, consuming carbohydrates and electrolytes is key to maintaining energy, maximizing performance, and aiding post-ride recovery.
For the rides lasting longer than 90 minutes, it is typically advised to eat or drink 30 to 60 grams of carbohydrates every hour.
The variation in amount will depend on your body size, the ride’s intensity, and the planned duration. You should also consider how long it has been since your last meal.
There are various options to fuel a longer ride, and experimenting with each will give you an idea of what works best for you. The fast-acting / easy-digesting choices are sports drinks and gels. Fruit, energy bars, and sandwiches will take a little longer to digest and be available to the body as energy.
For high intensity and endurance cycling, favor higher carbohydrate snacks, as your body prefers carbs to fuel the energy systems used at this level. For low to moderate intensity, snacks that include a mix of carbs, protein, and fats will work. During low-intensity exercise, the body will use some fat as an energy source, and the protein may help with recovery.
It’s vital to get your post-ride nutrition right to recover and boost future performance. For these reasons, eating within two hours of finishing your ride is ideal for optimizing these processes.
When choosing what to eat, follow a similar structure to your pre-ride meal. Balance high-quality fats, proteins, and carbs with plenty of fruit and vegetables for vitamins and minerals to ensure optimum recovery. The protein will help you maintain or increase muscle mass post-ride by stimulating protein synthesis.
Avoiding fast-acting carbs and choosing slower-digesting options post-ride is better favorable for digestion. It is important to avoid these highly processed forms of carbohydrates unless specifically targeting performance during your ride. Out of this context, they can negatively impact recovery, energy, and overall health.
Including healthy fats like avocado, olive oil, or cheese provides nutrients while keeping you feeling satisfied with your post-exercise meal. Avoid highly processed fats and stick to whole, minimally processed alternatives when possible.
There are many different beliefs when it comes to timing meals around exercise. Unfortunately, there is no conclusive, definitive formula for everyone. The most recent research indicates that the overall intake of carbohydrates and protein throughout the day is the most important thing to get right, with minimal importance being derived from timing and nutrients.
How many calories do I burn while cycling?
There are dozens of variables that determine the exact number of calories burned during a given ride. To get a rough estimate, webmd.com has a great calculator where you can plug in the type of exercise (cycling), the subcategory (mountain), your weight, and the duration, giving you an estimated number of calories burned for that ride. Fitness devices and bicycle computers also estimate calorie burn, including variables like gradient and heart rate, to improve accuracy.
Getting enough calories & variety
Having a rough idea of the calories burnt during your ride gives you an idea of how much extra food you need to eat to make up the difference. If you are trying to lose weight, creating a small calorie deficit is okay, but to help with optimal recovery and improved future performance, ensure that you are getting all the nutrients you need.
Eating a variety of different foods is the best way to achieve the goal of optimal cycling nutrition. A great method of achieving this is to ‘eat the rainbow’ for fruits and vegetables (not Skittles). Each will have a different composition and concentration of the nutrients, vitamins, and minerals you need to perform at your best (see below).
Minerals & Vitamins
The body needs to have adequate vitamins and minerals to function daily, which is also true of exercise nutrition.
Eating a wide variety of seasonal fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, and meats is an excellent strategy for the average person. In addition, getting your levels tested during a routine check-up with your doctor is good practice for ensuring good health and optimal performance. Genetic variances could lead to deficiencies that require supplementation.
While there is so much to be said about all the various vitamins and minerals and their range of benefits to performance, one vitamin and one mineral are widely deficient in the American population and potentially offer significant performance and health gains when improved upon.
Approximately 70 percent of people living in the United States are vitamin D insufficient, and roughly 30 percent are deficient. Vitamin D has several vital jobs in the body: it contributes to bone and muscle health, has anti-inflammatory properties, and helps make enzymes and proteins that prevent disease. Deficiency has also been linked to weaker immune systems, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and cancer.
Getting enough vitamin D year-round is difficult for most of us, as we primarily get it from sun exposure. Vitamin D deficiencies are more likely the further you are from the equator, the darker your skin tone is, the older you are, and if you are overweight. For this reason, to get adequate levels without moving to the Caribbean, many people will require a supplement. Consult with your doctor for specific advice on supplementation.
A 2014 study of the US population showed that 45% of the population is deficient in magnesium. In addition, physical exercise and sweating contribute to magnesium loss, something cyclists need to pay attention to. Magnesium has been shown to affect over 300 metabolic processes and contribute to our mitochondria’s health, the little engines found in the cells of our body.
Healthy mitochondria are strongly linked to physical performance and longevity. If you doubt that your magnesium levels are at a good level, have your levels tested in your next check-up at the doctor. However, you can get a head-start by eating dark leafy-green vegetables like kale or spinach and almonds or sunflower seeds, which are all high in magnesium, and should go a long way in helping you to maintain adequate levels.
Carb Cycling Diet
The ‘carb cycling diet’ is a dieting protocol that some athletes use to gain the potential health advantages of a low-carb diet while still being optimally fueled for training and competition. This is done by increasing the carb-to-fat ratio on training days and lowering it on rest and recovery days. It is important to increase the number of fats in your diet with healthy options and avoid highly processed options and trans fats.
For the regular person, a less-regimented version of this diet could be helpful for weight maintenance, increasing your carb intake on days when you plan to ride, and lowering it again on rest days. Of course, as with all nutritional and diet interventions, the degree to which it is effective will depend completely on you as an individual. Still, by experimenting with different ratios, you may find something that works for you.
Understanding and applying all the above fundamentals of nutrition for exercise will give you a solid base for your next ride, training session, or competition. In addition, getting familiar with your own body through experimentation, mindfulness, and experience will mean that you can tailor each concept to your own individual needs.
There are hundreds of other tricks and techniques that may offer further gains when it comes to your performance and recovery. Still, if you’re getting the core nutrition and hydration techniques right, you’ll be well on the way to improving your cycling performance and overall health.