Cycling nutrition can be muddled with fad ideas and, like most sports, cycling can be a hotbed of disordered eating. Knowing what, how much and when to eat often leaves cyclists confused at best and bonking or DNF’ing at worst.
I’m going to tell you how to take the worry, risk and fads out of your training and race nutrition.
Who is this article for?
It’s for anyone who cycles outdoors or mountain bikes for fitness and/or competes and takes part in cycling events up to serious recreational athlete level. Pro cycling nutrition needs a slightly different and more measured approach provided via a fitnaturally bespoke sports nutrition plan.
What cyclists should eat is much the same as what we should all eat. A good range of vegetables, beans, lentils, whole grains, nuts and seeds, whole milk, yoghurt cheese, fruit, fish, poultry and meat. As with all good nutrition you should eat as wide a variety of real foods as possible, that’s the simplest way to ensure you get all the nutrients you need. What do I mean by real food? Food that doesn’t contain artificial additives and hasn’t been over-processed; food you make yourself from scratch using natural ingredients.
Eat from all food groups, the last thing you want to do as a cyclist is mess about missing whole groups such as carbs. Glycogen is an easy fuel source and starving your body of it will raise cortisol levels. Cortisol is a stress hormone that wreaks havoc if levels are continually high.
Straighten out your general eating with our brilliant weekly eatnaturally plans.
What is carbohydrate?
It’s chains of sugars that break down in the body to make glucose. Glucose is the main source of immediate energy for the muscles, brain and other cells. There are two main types of carbohydrate, simple and complex. Simple carbs are sweet foods like sugar and sweets, complex carbs are starches such as bread rice and pasta. Vegetables are also classed as carbs, but are mainly non-starchy.
Well-timed quality carbs are a fantastic energy source. Aim for an appropriate balance of carbs, protein and fat and try to time them to fit your training. Eat your carbs around and during training rather than loading them at times when you’re relatively inactive.
If you’re new to a sport then don’t stress the timing too much, just make sure you eat what feels like a comfortable amount from all food groups without overeating.
Do cyclists need more carbohydrate than sedentary people?
Carbs are the preferred fuel source for exercise and are absolutely what cyclists should eat. They will not make you fat or diabetic unless you overeat them. To stay healthy long term and particularly to save yourself from overtraining syndrome, eat quality carbohydrate in amounts appropriate for your level of activity and training. And that is never zero.
I don’t want you to cut carbs from your diet. Humans are designed to use carbs for energy.
How much carb?
Recommendation for sedentary people: I’m going to make this rough as I don’t know how sedentary you are. As a guideline your meal should have a portion of carbs about the size of your fist. Make one meal a day low carb such as omelette and beans with salad, or steak and stir fried vegetables.
Recommendation for endurance training: Endurance athletes such as cyclists should follow the guidelines for sedentary people but increase carbs around training. A pre training meal should be roughly 1g of carb per kilo body weight. During training again go for about 0.8 to 1g of carb per kilo and afterwards about 2g per kilo.
There’s not too much need to stress the numbers though, just base your fuelling on the ride scenarios I give you below and pack a bit spare in case you need it. As long as you feel strong and have a happy gut everything is good.
Real food as cycling nutrition, or gel and sports drinks?
As a cyclist you can stand more real food than, say, a runner as you don’t have the same jolting going on, although the bent over position of road-bike-riding does compromise digestion.
It’s good to get some of your carbs from drink, we prescribe cloudy apple juice and water mixed 50/50. Cloudy apple juice releases its carbs more slowly than other fruit juices and doesn’t have such a sharp taste. You could use commercial energy drinks if they’re easier for you to carry in the form of powder you can mix with water. Try to minimise your intake of commercial sports products because they’re usually packaged with additives and you’ll ingest a lot of them over the course of your cycling life; not the best for good health.
Gels and gel bloks are handy to carry, again they can have artificial additives so beware of overuse. They can also be cloyingly sweet and the sudden sugar rush of gels can leave you feeling, or actually being, sick. When using gel decant several into a squeezy bottle and just have sips throughout the session, with water.
Both gels and drinks are obviously sugary and can badly damage teeth over time. We recommend regular sips of water slooshed around the mouth.
Getting some of your carbs from real food is great for a palate change, is more natural and can increase calorie intake for long hard rides as well as adding a bit of protein. A few things to try are:
- Peanut butter or cheese sandwiches
- Mini cheddars
- Fitjacks or flapjacks
- Malt loaf
When is the best time to eat carbohydrate?
Just before, during and just after training. Simple!
While I’m talking about food timing, it’s best to pre-fuel about 45-75 mins before the session. People vary in their ability to exercise on a full stomach, so play this as an individual but try not to leave more than 90 mins between pre-food and exercise.
An excellent strategy for refuelling is to finish the ride at a main mealtime, that saves you having to add extra food to your day.
What is protein?
It’s a chain of amino acids strung together to make ‘building blocks’ to be used for manufacturing components such as hormones, muscles, tissues, enzymes and antibodies. There are 20 amino acids and nine can’t be made by the body, we have to ingest them. These nine are called ‘essential amino acids’.
A food which has all nine is called a complete protein, this includes meat, fish, dairy and eggs. Incomplete protein foods can be eaten together to provide all essential amino acids; for instance something as simple as beans on toast gives you the full set. Have a glass of milk with it and you have no worries about that meal’s protein content.
Do cyclists need more protein than sedentary people?
Serious regular cycling will break down muscle and need extra protein for repair and growth. If you’re just cycling recreationally to work and back each day for 30 mins each way, or doing one or two medium rides a week, a normal diet and regular protein intake will be totally fine.
How much protein?
Recommendation for sedentary people: Everyday-people need about 0.8g of protein per kilo of body weight per day. It’s rare as hen’s teeth for people in the western world to be protein deficient because we eat so much food from a wide range of sources and base our diets on heavily on meat and poultry. Almost all foods contain protein, even vegetables.
Recommendation for endurance training: Endurance athletes such as cyclists need about 1.2 to 1.4g of protein per kilo body weight a day.
I’m 63kg (10st), give me a day’s combination of foods that make up the 1.4g of protein per kilo body weight?
- One egg
- A regular tin of tuna
- One chicken breast
- A regular 170g pot of Greek yoghurt
- 400g of beans
So you can see it’s not that difficult to eat enough protein without resorting to manufactured expensive protein shakes and powders. Don’t forget that all the other foods that go alongside these high protein foods contain protein too.
Are you beginning to wonder why people stress so much over protein? Good cycling nutrition doesn’t need loads of stressing about numbers and macros, it just needs a little more attention than a regular diet.
Real food, or shakes and powders?
The jury is still out as to whether protein from powders and shakes is a help or a hindrance, as with most nutrition stuff you can find research supporting both theories. It’s certainly a popular approach and if you go down that route it’s important to be aware of how much manufactured protein product you’ll ingest over the course of your cycling career. Protein supplements usually come packaged with artificial sweeteners, flavourings, thickeners and other additives, not substances recommended by fitnaturally, and neither are they what cyclists should eat. Yes they can be convenient at times when you can’t get real food, or enough real food, but getting your nutrients from real food gives you the other multiple benefits that real food offers, not least enjoyment. If you’re into protein supplements there’s lots you can read about them elsewhere on the internet, fitnat is about real and tasty food.
When is the best time to eat protein?
The amino acids from protein are pooled by the body and called on when the body is focusing on growth and repair. This largely happens during the night so eating protein straight after a ride is not critical to recovery but will help you feel satisfied and stop you grazing on unnecessary calories later on. There is a theory that increased blood circulation during and after exercise helps the amino acids into the muscles and with our suggested fuelling you’ll be using that potential opportunity. Eating or drinking some protein during long rides may help you go for longer more comfortably and will add much-needed calories; it’s also a nice change from sweet tastes if you choose real food.
We often prescribe a milky drink or kefir before bed, as a protein boost using natural food.
Nutrition for cycling sessions of varying frequency, duration and intensity
Here we’ll look at some of the most common bike sessions and talk about how to fuel them, I’ll give you a few ideas for meals but remember it’s vital that you vary your food intake. That’s the knowledge you get with our sports nutrition plans, we show you how, you learn and apply, forever.
It’s not rocket science but getting it right will help you to get the most out of each ride and to recover well in-between without breaking down valuable lean tissue and without adding strain to each ride by carrying too much body fat.
Bear in mind that these sessions will always be affected by the sessions you do around them. So if it’s an easy recovery ride of an hour ask yourself what you did the day before and what’s coming up the next day. That should always influence your food choice.
Get your cycling nutrition fully dialled in with a couple of weeks on our bespoke sports nutrition plans.
One hour recovery ride
Before: A small carb meal about 60 mins before, such as porridge made with 30g oats, milk and honey. Arguably you could ride this fasted but the name ‘recovery ride’ gives a clue. You’re recovering from a hard session, so it’s best not to do this one on empty.
During: Nothing, or sips of water if the weather is very hot or you’re at high altitude.
One hour steady recreational ride
If you’re a seasoned cyclist this session won’t tax you, just regular everyday breakfast lunch and dinner is good. If you’re new to cycling or you feel tired (in which case it’s better to rest) or you just don’t operate well on fasted exercise have a small meal before.
Before: If you’re used to it you can ride this at breakfast time on just a cuppa or some water then enjoy breakfast afterwards. If you haven’t built up to fasted morning exercise then have a few spoons of Greek yoghurt and honey before riding.
Note: We only use fasted early morning training at fitnaturally as a way of calorie-sparing when an athlete wants to hone body comp. Never for exercise longer than 90 mins or of any duration of it’s high intensity, or in situations where it might affect rider safety
During: Nothing, or sips of water if the weather is very hot or you’re at high altitude.
After: Some carb and protein, nothing out of the ordinary, a bowl of our Cool Porridgewould be perfect.
There’s no need to drink during a 60 min session unless the weather is absolutely boiling.
One hour hard ride
A hard ride will need pre-fuelling but no in-ride nutrition. There will be more muscle damage so some protein afterwards is in order.
Before: Cool porridge
During: Nothing, or sips of water
Afterwards: 2 slices of egg on toast, sourdough or real bread. Glass of milk.
Two hour hard ride
Absolutely needs pre-fuelling with carbs. You’ll need fluids during the ride and carb and protein afterwards. If it’s a hard session sandwiched between other hard sessions you might even need a bit of solid food during the ride.
Before: Cool porridge with sliced banana
During: Cloudy apple juice and water mixed 50/50, to thirst, add a pinch of salt in very hot weather. Optional: 50g plain flapjack at halfway, with water.
After: Immediately afterwards have a glass of milk or kefir. Then:
Two toast with 3 scrambled eggs. Fruit salad. Or two slices of toast with Chilli beans. Fruit salad.
3-4 hour steady ride
These rides are normally done by seasoned cyclists going out on a Sunday session. They’re not particularly taxing as the rider is well adapted but they usually need some solid food as well as ‘carb juice’. You’ll need to think more about how to carry food and drink in bottle cages, Camelbak systems and in back pockets or bento boxes.
Before: You’ll need a normal-sized carb based meal the night before. Something like spaghetti bolognese is perfect. On the morning have porridge made with 50-60g oats, whole milk and honey, or try our Athlete’s porridge.
During: Cloudy apple juice and water mixed 50/50, to thirst. Try a base rate of 500ml per hour and then as you feel thirsty. Have 100g of plain flapjack, or try our fitjack, as two 50g feeds, one at 90 mins and one at 3hrs mins. If the ride is 3 hours just have 80g of flapjack at 90- mins, Always have solid food with water.
If you have a café stop half way’ish just have the apple juice and water until you get to the café and have cake and milk/latte then just plain water on the ride home.
After: 2 slices of Poached eggs, spinach and parmesan on sourdough toast, a banana and a glass of milk. Or go for a simple baked potato with tuna and colourful salad and a glass of milk.
3-4 hour hard ride
This might be where your gut starts to protest if you throw certain foods at it, intensity compromises digestion as the gut competes with the working muscles for blood supply. What you eat the night before will be influential, so keep the fibre down and have some easily digestible carbs such as risotto. Any solid food you eat on the morning and during the ride will be a chore for the gut so you need to choose stuff that’s easily digested, non fibrous and eat it in small pieces. Otherwise you can use liquid nutrition and gels, but always remembering it can be hard to get enough calories from liquid alone.
Before: Athlete’s Porridge, use 60-70g oats.
TIP: If you sometimes have gut issues, eat your porridge a good hour before riding then go for a short walk, that should stimulate the gut and make for a comfier start to your ride.
During: A good energy drink with no artificial sweetener such as High 5 2:1 or Tailwind Nutrition. Base rate of 600ml per hour then to thirst. Increase base rate in hot weather or for very hard and hilly rides. For those kinds of ride you could switch to an energy drink with some protein, such as High 5 4:1. Take small feeds of solid food after 45 mins and every 30 mins, such as 30g of plain flapjack or 1-2 quarters of a peanut butter sandwich on white bread without crusts. You can make peanut butter roll-ups, just cut the crusts off a slice of bread, butter it and add peanut butter, roll it up Swiss-roll-style and cut into bitesize pieces.
After: A good feed with carbs and complete protein, such as baked potato with chicken salad, followed by fruit salad with Greek yoghurt.
Long steady ride of 5 hours plus
When you’re going really long you will definitely need solid food and a good feed the day before. Riding long and steady will mean you can process solids more easily and you might even have a food stop or two.
Before: The day before you need decent carbs at lunchtime like a jacket potato with cottage cheese salad then easy carbs in the evening such as our Athlete’s pasta followed by ice cream. On the morning have porridge and one piece of toast with peanut butter, if it’s a real steady one you can even have a fry up!
During: Solid food every 75 mins’ish, starting 60 mins in. Each feed could be 30g of flapjack and a quarter of a PB or cheese sandwich, always with plain water. Between solid food have energy drink at the same hourly rate as a 3-4 hour steady ride. Lay off the protein drink as you’ll be eating protein foods. If you have a meal stop go for easy food such as child’s portion of fish and chips, for 90 mins after the meal-stop drink plain water then go back to the previous regime.
After: Immediately afterwards have chocolate milk, a banana and a handful of salted nuts. Tell you what works really well too, a tin of rice pud! Or if you’re straight home you can pre-make some fitnat rice pud. Then within a couple of hours a hearty meal of carbs, protein and vegetables, such as fish pie, broccoli, peas and carrots followed by Greek yoghurt and berries.
The lowdown on cycling nutrition
- Eat a good varied diet
- Use your hand size as a rough portion guide
- Don’t cut carbs from your diet
- Time carbs around training
- Fuel with real food whenever possible
- Keep your gut happy during rides
- Stay at a good healthy body composition to be strong and fast
A note about bread
After a ride you want some easy fast food. Sometimes you won’t have time to cook potatoes or rice so it’s easiest to have bread or toast. Don’t listen to the bread police! Good bread is fantastic.
What is good bread?
No more than flour, water, yeast and salt; even better is sourdough as it makes your gut a happier place.
Never do a fasted road ride if you’re someone whose blood sugar dips easily or you just don’t feel good on fasted training. Road riding needs you to have all your wits about you. If you’re used to fasted rides, and adapted to them then do them at your own discretion.
fitnat friends on two wheels
fitnaturally is partnered with coaching company Spring Cycle Coaching who provide fantastic training plans from beginner to advanced, we’re happy to fuel their people. SCC’s Director Holly Seear uses our nutrition plans.
Holly is passionate, professional coach who holds the top British Cycling qualification of Level 3 Coach as well as being a Personal Trainer, Mountain Bike Leader and National Standards Bikeability Instructor. With a passion for getting more women on their bikes and involved in cycling she is also a Strongher Ambassador, a Breeze Champion and works as a mentor with British Cycling’s Ignite Your Coaching Programme supporting new female cycling coaches.
fitnaturally also works with, and supports athletes at the brilliant Epic Cycle Coaching. The coaching team at EPiC is made up of current and ex racing cyclists who have all achieved success on the bike. Knowledge is key, EPiC Cycle Coaching’s techniques combine decades of learning with the evolution of sports science to great effect in assisting all their riders to successfully increase their physiological capabilities.
Lastly, if in doubt, ask me!