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Cycling Nutrition

Getting adequate nutrition for exercise is important to keep your body functioning optimally not only before or during training or competition but afterward as well, 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, so that you can perform, feel great, and recover well after every ride.

 

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 works for you. If it works: keep it; if it doesn’t: forget it.

80-90% 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 (for those at the highest levels, further improvements come from specifically tailored nutrition and hydration protocols). Let’s take a deeper look at these core principles. It is vital to always consult with your primary care doctor before trying any new diet or supplement, as our body’s own individual response could be harmful.


grayscale photo of people racing bikes

Hydration

Dehydration is brutal on long rides but also has a great negative effect on our day-to-day lives as well. 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 an imbalance of water or electrolytes in the body. In the case of a cyclist, the cause will usually be the exercise duration, intensity, or climate. 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 1% 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 that occur during 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 that you are consuming during longer duration exercise.

Consuming too much plain water will maintain an imbalance, as mentioned above, with the system still lacking sufficient electrolytes.

As with all nutrition or hydration guidelines, the requirements for a 140lb person will differ from someone who is 200lbs. A good rule of thumb is to consume 8 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. In order to maintain adequate electrolytes, if you plan on spending more than 1 to 1.5 hours in the saddle, consider adding electrolytes to your water.

Post-exercise, continue to drink water in regular intervals following any long or intense exercise, staying vigilant for signs of dehydration as previously mentioned, such as dark-colored urine or 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

For those who cycle regularly, sodium (salt) is a crucial electrolyte for hydration and performance. While processed foods are infamously known for being high in sodium, for those who eat a diet of mainly whole or minimally processed foods, an adequate daily sodium intake can be hard to achieve. Pairing this 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.


 

Pre-ride Nutrition

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 contribute to improved recovery afterward. Choosing foods that agree with you, in amounts that suit your body size, and the planned duration of exercise 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. For protein, good 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 1 hour or less, consuming liquids or a snack is recommended, or you risk your meal not being adequately digested. A shake, smoothie, or 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
  • Spinach
  • Banana
  • Peanut butter
  • Water/milk

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 at high intensity, a sports drink like Gatorade could offer some benefits during a shorter duration ride as it has both carbs and electrolytes.

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 intensity of the ride, and planned duration. You must 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.


 

Post-ride nutrition

To adequately recover, refuel, and boost future performance, it’s vital to get your post-ride nutrition right. For these reasons, eating within 2 hours of finishing your ride is ideal to optimize these processes. At what point during those two hours you decide to eat will depend on what you ate/drank before, and during, your ride.

When it comes to 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.

Moving away from fast-acting carbs to slower-digesting choices post-ride is favorable for recovery and digestion. It is important to avoid these highly processed forms of carbohydrates unless specifically targeting performance during your ride, as out of this context they can have a negative impact on 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. Where possible, avoid highly processed fats and stick to whole, minimally processed alternatives.


 

Nutrient Timing

There are many different beliefs when it comes to timing meals around exercise. The fact that there is no conclusive, definitive formula speaks to what we mentioned before about our individual biology. The most recent research in the area seems to indicate 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. This allows for times when life gets in the way and it isn’t possible to time your meals around your rides.

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, but in order to get a rough estimate, webmd.com have 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 give an estimated 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, make sure 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’ when it comes to fruits and vegetables (not Skittles), as each will have a different composition and concentration of the nutrients, vitamins, and minerals you need to perform at your best (see below).

analog clock on a wall


 

Minerals & Vitamins

The body needs to have adequate quantities of vitamins and minerals to function daily, and this 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. Getting your levels tested during a routine check-up with your doctor is good practice for ensuring good health and optimal performance, as genetic variances could mean natural deficiencies requiring supplementation. While there is so much to be said about all the various vitamins and minerals and their range of benefits to performance, there is one vitamin and one mineral that are widely deficient in the American population and offer big performance and health gains when improved upon.

Vitamin D

Approximately 70 percent of people living in the United States are vitamin D insufficient and ~30 percent are deficient. Vitamin D has a number of vital jobs in the body: it contributes to bone and muscle health, has anti-inflammatory properties, and helps to make enzymes and proteins that prevent disease. Deficiencies in vitamin D have 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.

Magnesium

A 2014 study of the US population showed that 45% of the population is deficient in magnesium. 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 contributes to the health of our mitochondria, 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 levels of magnesium 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. As with all nutritional and diet interventions, the degree to which it is effective will depend completely on you as an individual, but in experimenting with different ratios, you may find something that works for you.


 

Conclusion

Understanding and applying all the above fundamentals of nutrition for exercise will give you a solid base to go into your next ride, training session, or competition. 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 out there that may offer further gains when it comes to your performance and recovery, but if you’re getting the core nutrition and hydration techniques right, you’ll be well on the way to improving not just your cycling, but your overall health.

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