Knowing how to properly fuel for cycling (whether it’s a long day ride, or a quick sprint) can make a big difference to your experience. This post is going to tell you everything you need to get started.
However, remember! This is general information, and you are an individual (a perfect cycling snowflake, yes you are, yesss, you are! *ahem*…) – optimizing your nutrition will involve some trial and error as you learn what your body responds to.
Honestly, nailing your nutrition for cycling, or even just making improvements, can make a drastic impact. Seeing that it doesn't require much effort to eat and drink, it seems too silly to not know how to do it right.
Two parts to an optimum nutrition plan
Your macronutrients, or macros, are the three nutrients that your body needs in large quantities in order to survive. You don't need to know every detail about your macros, but you should have a general understanding of what they do, especially if you're a serious or aspiring cyclist.
Carbohydrates are the body's main source of fuel. Upon being broken down, carbs are stored in your muscles (glycogen) or in your blood (glucose) to be later used as energy. Carbohydrates are identified as high-GI (glycemic index) or low-GI. This refers to how fast a carb is broken down and the resulting spike in insulin.
- High-GI: Broken down fast, resulting in a high spike in blood sugar
- Low-GI: Broken down slowly, resulting in a low spike in blood sugar
Proteins play an essential role in physiological and metabolic processes, including immune support and vitamin transport. In the context of physical performance, we are concerned with its essential role in the repair, regeneration, and support of tissues, specifically muscle.
Fats keep us warm, protect our organs, and are also responsible for many vitamin absorption processes. Fats play a very big role in providing fuel as well, especially at lower intensities. Increasing the ability to utilize fat has been suggested to increase the performance of endurance riders.
Screwing up your hydration is one of the easiest ways to sabotage your performance. There are 3 primary ways we lose water when we train.
Just a 2% loss in body weight from losing water can cause a dramatic drop in performance during prolonged exercises; evidence shows that even smaller losses can affect shorter, high-intensity performance. Stay hydrated.
Daily nutrition guidelines for cyclists
You wouldn't expect to show up to a race with no training and expect to kill it. So don't expect to ignore cycling nutrition all-year long and then do a fancy carb-loading protocol before a ride, thinking it will make you excel.
Assuming you train multiple times a week, you need to follow a consistent diet designed to support your needs.
It is recommended to eat 6-12 grams per kilogram of body weight a day (g/kg/d).
Your daily carbohydrate intake will depend on your personal preference and your daily activity level; exercising 1-5 hours daily will greatly change your needs. It's of interest that, while carbohydrates are the most essential macronutrient for endurance performance, the majority of non-elite endurance athletes do not meet the recommended intake for carbohydrates. Still, they eat more than enough protein and fats. But still…eat your carbs.
If you plan on pushing it every day, you're going to need to consume adequate amounts of protein to support muscle repair and tissue damage. Amino acids from protein breakdown are actually used for 2-8% of a cyclists' energy needs. Aim for 1.2-1.8g/kg/d.
Fats should NEVER drop below 20% of your diet. Being that you will need a significant amount of carbs, your fat intake should be no higher than 35% to keep some calories free.
Proper hydration is going to vary considerably for athletes, dependent on differences in their personal circumstances. It's estimated that most athletes will do well with 400–800 mL/h. Still, you should not think you "need" to hit a number. 400-800mL/h is your guide but let your thirst and urine color dictate how much to drink.
Nutrition before your ride
Your daily diet aside, what you eat before your ride is the first time to follow a specific plan. The main focus for your meal pre-ride is to "top up" your glycogen stores, much like topping up with gas before you embark on a long journey. Would you start a 5 hour drive with half a tank? Then don't start your ride in the same condition.
It is recommended to eat 1-4 g/kg of carbs, 1-4 hours before competition. If possible, it's recommended that most of these carbs should be eaten earlier on, aiming for 200-300 grams 3-4 hours before you ride. For the remaining time up until you begin riding, you can eat some simple foods such as fruits and focus on hydrating with a sports beverage.
You'll want to have amino acids already in your system before your begin riding. Aim for 0.3g/kg in the few hours before your race, or as much as your stomach can handle.
There is no need to put special emphasis on pre-hydration, assuming you have been hydrating properly. This means that you will get no benefit from excessive drinking; in fact, it can result in what’s called hyponatremia. Hyponatremia is a condition caused by the overconsumption of liquids, especially plain water, which can lead to death or other serious consequences.
Therefore, monitor your urine to dictate if you need to drink more or sustain your level of hydration.
You will want to put more emphasis on making sure you consume enough electrolytes pre-ride. Plus, this can also limit the chances of hyponatremia. Again, this makes sipping on a sports beverage your best bet.
How to Fuel during short rides and fast rides
Fueling for rides that are shorter than 90 minutes in duration will depend mostly on your pre-ride feeding.
However, recent research has shed light on the ability of carbohydrate ingestion during rides to improve performance in events as short as 1-hour. This includes oral consumption or even a simple carbohydrate rinsing (swishing around a carbohydrate beverage and spitting it out) can be effective.
This is most easily accomplished by using a simple sports beverage as it solves both problems.
How to fuel for long bike rides
When cycling for longer than 90 minutes, extra attention is required to keep your glycogen stores from running too low. Extra protein may also be of use.
And hydration. Obviously.
Follow these guidelines for optimum performance when you're planning on being out for a while.
The majority of studies have shown that performance is best enhanced by consuming 60-80g of carbohydrates every hour. There is also evidence that events lasting longer than 3 hours may even benefit from eating upwards of 90kg/hr.
It was generally believed that the body was only able to absorb 1g of carbs every minute. This would limit you to only 60g every hour. However, recent research has shown that consuming carbohydrates from multiple sources (i.e. glucose, maltodextrin, fructose) can allow the body to absorb significantly more than this. This is because carbohydrates are absorbed through different transport systems. One study showed that consuming glucose and fructose led to an 8% improvement in a cycling time-trial event than just glucose alone. You should also vary your sources.
It's important to note that there is a dose-effect between carbohydrate ingestion and performance with these numbers being the cut-off; there's no need to eat more. This is because, as mentioned our body can only digest so many carbs in an hour. While eating multiple carbs can increase this intake some, there's still a limit. Eating more does nothing; except maybe increase the occurrence of gastrointestinal distress (you don't want that).
The most common mode to ingest carbs while riding are with gels. For those on a budget or those whom prefer a more natural approach, raisins have been found to produce similar results in performance.
Your carbohydrate intake will have the largest effect on your overall performance. However, protein is a concern and can provide benefits.
As mentioned above, many don't realize that many amino acids are able to be used for energy. Certain amino acids can be converted into glucose for immediate energy, while others convert into acetyl-CoA to be used in the oxidative system. As much as 15% of energy used in prolonged exercise comes from proteins.
When taken together, it seems that protein also plays a role in enhancing the body’s ability to absorb carbohydrates AND improve performance. Proteins have also been shown to decrease the amount of muscle damage and soreness after extensive cycling.
The recommended rate of intake is 0.2-0.4g/kg/hr
Temperature, terrain, individual sweat rate…there are far too many factors involved in cycling that can affect athletes' hydration needs. This makes it impossible to give a blanket recommendation.
For example, sweat rates can range from 0.3 to 2.4 L/h. Being that your main goal is to try to maintain equilibrium with your water intake, you can see how this will look very different for different individuals.
It may not hurt to find an estimate of your sweat rate by tracking your weight before and after your rides along with making notes about the color of your urine. When weighing yourself, it's best to do it fully undressed as this will give you the most accurate reading. Be sure to wipe of excess sweat post ride.
You will also need to account for liquid taken in during the ride and if you urinate.
Some cyclists will choose to go on a shorter ride so that they don't need to hydrate. This will also lessen the chance of needing to use the restroom; therefore, all you need to do is monitor your change in weight.
Regardless of your what your optimum intake is, you will want to divide this by 4-6 and drink small amounts every 10-15 minutes.
Can supplements increase cycling performance
Supplements that are designed to give you a performance boost are known as ergogenic aides. The main thing to remember is that no pill or powder outweighs a crappy program or for nutrition. However, if you have these in check, there are a few which you may want to look into.
While most don't look at carbs as a "supplement", it has been considered an ergogenic aide during what's known as carb-loading.
Carb-loading is a method of eating carbohydrates to cause "super compensated" levels of muscle glycogen; this causes your muscles to store more than normal glycogen amounts. Studies have shown that athletes with super compensated glycogen levels see a 2-3% increase in performance for events longer than 90 minutes; there seems to be no benefits for events shorter.
Previously, it was believed that you would need 3 days of eating excessive carbohydrates. However, newer studies have shown that remaining inactive for 24 hours while eating high amounts of high-GI carbs (10g/kg) can effectively raise muscle glycogen levels.
Caffeine is the world's most popular drug (seriously, I don’t do well without caffeiene). Being a stimulant, many know of its ability to increase energy and alertness. Some don't know that caffeine is actually one of the most researched and effective ergogenic aids.
Caffeine works through several mechanisms such as:
- Decrease fatigue
- Increase motor unit recruitment of muscles
- Sustained maximal endurance
For endurance athletes to see a noticeable effect, they must take amounts higher than most are accustomed to. Most sport scientists recommend taking 3-6mg/kg within 60 minutes of exercise.
There is also research to suggest that caffeine during exercise can also improve performance. Researchers had a group of athletes perform 120 minutes of low-intensity cycling (60%) with 5 periods of high-intensity (82%) cycling for 2-minutes interspersed throughout. After 80 minutes, they had the athletes consume a placebo, a low-dose of caffeine (1.5mg/kg), or a moderate-dose of caffeine (2.9mg/kg). Both caffeine groups performed significantly better than the placebo group, and the moderate-dose group performed better than the low-dose group.
Use of nitrates has risen dramatically over the past few years in endurance riders. Nitrate supplementations enhance the availability of nitric oxide which can “potentially improve skeletal muscle function”
While evidence is not as consistent as the above two, studies have shown that nitrate supplementation can improve exercise tolerance, improve muscle economy, improve efficiency, mitigate fatigue, and decrease effort at submaximal workloads
Most studies promote the use of beet juice and recommend taking 6–12.4 mmol/day of nitrate administered 2–3 h before the activity
1) GU- GU is one of the most popular endurance nutrition company. They were amongst the first companies to come out with the gel, which is why the word “gel” is often associated with GU. They have further their line now with variations of gels, chews, and drink mixes. You can buy direct or from Amazon.
2) Hammer Nutrition- Hammer nutrition is arguably the best endurance supplement company. They offer a complete line of pre-formulate supplements from gels, chews, and hydration. Further, they even provide guidelines for what to use for short or long rides. A bit pricey but worth it if you have the extra money. Hammer Nutrition is sold primarily directly.
3) Honey Stinger- Honey Stinger is a really cool company in that they use real, organic honey in their gels. In fact, the famous honey bear bottle synonymous with honey was first designed by them to sell their honey! They now have a full line and everything is delicious…check them out.
Fix your nutrition for better cycling
If you are new to cycling, this can seem a bit much. But nothing is really easy when you first start. It will probably take a little bit of time to figure out your perfect hydration rate and how many gels you'll need. But once you figure out how to fuel for cycling, it will become second nature, just like riding a bike.
And don't think that you're locked into a specific strategy. The numbers in this article are guidelines. Feel free to experiment some and tweak according to your body!