When it comes to food, there’s a wealth of information available. Some of it can be confusing, conflicting or just plain complicated. Here, Lynn Clay provides a glossary of important nutritional terms and explains how the straightforward process of getting your nutritional needs sorted can help you become a faster, stronger and healthier cyclist
If you are keen on cycling, you’re probably interested in your diet, health and weight as well — but if you find nutrition information dry, chewy and a real headache, it’s time to go back to basics.
Get these things right and the rest is just the icing on the cake. From the importance of carbohydrate and protein to when and what to eat and drink before, during and after a ride, we have the answers.
1. Consume the right amount of calories
The first thing to celebrate if you’ve just taken up cycling is that it increases your calorie requirement. Before you throw down your magazine and run to the fridge to indulge in your favourite treat, however, be aware that many cyclists end up rewarding themselves above and beyond the calories burnt on a ride, so although you can eat a little more, try not to abandon healthy choices or to max out on portions.
A good way to estimate your additional calorie need is to multiply the distance travelled in miles by 40-50 calories. Therefore, if you’ve been out for a 30-mile ride you can estimate an extra calorie need of between 1,200-1,500 calories erring towards the bottom end of this if you’re a slower or lighter rider and toward the top end if you’re faster or heavier.
Of course, having a GPS device which estimates calories burned according to the terrain of the ride will give you a more accurate indication of your additional need and you should take off any calories consumed on the ride (or any extra calories ingested in the immediate period before or afterwards).
In response to your ride, although not in the immediate period afterwards, your appetite should increase above the level you are used to as your body releases hungry hormones in its mission to maintain body fat stores.
If you’re seeking a little weight loss, then aim to leave a shortfall in calories replaced to create a deficit that will encourage some fat loss, but limit this to 250 calories a day deficit maximum if you want to continue to ride strong. It’s also wise to avoid cutting calories when you’re in stressful, long or high intensity training periods or close to an event.
2. Carbohydrate: the body’s fuel supply
Carbohydrate is the body’s primary energy source for cycling. Stored in the muscle, any excess in total intake above the body’s calorie needs will be stored as fat (the same is true for protein and fat).
Your weekly requirement for carbohydrate will depend on how many miles per week you ride and other lifestyle demands. Sports scientists will recommend intake within a range of 5-9g of carbohydrate for each kilogram you weigh per day. The problem with this is that many of us don’t want to spend time counting grams of carbohydrate, so a practical recommendation is far more useful.
As large servings of carbohydrate lead to a peak and trough of energy that can leave you feeling very lethargic, a good practical way to eat enough carbohydrate to support your training, but avoid the effect of large servings is to aim to eat a fist-sized portion of a low-glycaemic carbohydrate (‘slow-burn’ carbs such as wholegrains, fruit, vegetables) with each meal or snack. This could be cereal such as oats at breakfast, a small piece of fruit mid-morning and mid-afternoon, a wholegrain sandwich at lunch and perhaps some wholegrain rice or quinoa with your evening meal.
In this way, these small servings will supply enough energy without leading to an energy drop. Another advantage of eating in this way is that 90 minutes to two hours after your meal, you are likely to have digested the smaller portion and be ready to get on your bike.
It’s worth noting that all carbohydrates are not equal and will have a different impact on energy levels and health. Although many celebrate the green light to sugary carbohydrates that cycling appears to allow without showing on your waistline, indulging in too many sugary carbohydrates in the regular daily diet can have a negative impact on recovery, energy levels and health. It’s always best to opt instead for wholegrain slow-release carbohydrates and fruit and vegetables that are packed full of nutrients rather than refined sugar.
3. Are you eating enough protein?
Protein is often thought of as muscle food and not relevant to cyclists, but getting adequate protein into your diet will support your health, immune function and recovery. Responsible for tissue maintenance in the body and playing a vital role in immune function, it follows that your recovery will be sub-optimal if you are accelerating muscle damage through training while not meeting your needs.
With recent research highlighting that protein is also more filling than an equal calorie measure of carbohydrate or fat, increasing your intake just a little can help to keep your appetite under control too.
Including beans and pulses in your diet along with lean meats, fish and low-fat dairy foods can help you meet your requirement. It’s advisable to limit your consumption of red and processed meats that are linked with a higher incidence of disease. Just like carbohydrate, a small amount of protein in each meal or snack is preferable to plonking a large, hard-to-digest piece of protein into one meal resulting in better energy levels.
4. Good fats, not bad fats
The type of fat you select is critical to health, performance and weight maintenance. Fats are grouped into ‘good’ fats and ‘bad’ fats. Good fats include polyunsaturated fats (Omega 3 and Omega 6 fats) and monounsaturated fats (Omega 9 fats). Whereas saturated fats found in meats and processed foods are to be limited, Omega 3 and 6 fats are vital to maintaining health and are found in nuts, seeds, fish and oils such as flaxseed, borage and starflower oil.
Additional benefits from these fats include a reduction of inflammation in the body, making them great for those with asthma and allergies while also providing a stimulatory benefit to the metabolism, and therefore assisting in weight loss. Good fats are known to reduce bad cholesterol (LDL) and are therefore an important part of the diet to assist in the prevention of heart disease. Aiming for around 20g of good fat per day is a great strategy for health support without the risk of adding too many calorific fats to the diet.
5. Eat the right vitamins and minerals
There are two main types of vitamins — fat-soluble and water-soluble ones. The fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E and K are stored in the body. The water-soluble ones, however, are not stored in the body and therefore are needed in the diet every day. Minerals such as calcium, iron and zinc are also needed daily, but only in very small quantities.
These vitamins and minerals can be found in a variety of foods. The NHS recommendation of five pieces of fruit and vegetables per day is aimed to assist in the daily achievement of these vitamins and minerals along with sufficient fibre intake. Selecting a rainbow of colours and aiming for darker-coloured fruits and vegetables is recommended.
To ensure deficiencies don’t develop, especially when training regularly, a good multivitamin is also a wise investment but avoid mega-dosing on nutrients unless used as a short-term treatment (for example in the case of vitamin C and zinc use during a cold to reduce severity and duration of symptoms).
6. Make sure you drink enough to perform at your best
Drinking enough fluid will not only support better riding, but will result in better energy levels while you’re going about your daily life. If you have experienced that foggy-head feeling after a long run it’s usually a sign to drink up. In addition to drinking 1.5-2 litres of water across the day, cyclists should ideally be drinking additional fluid to match any loss during riding.
An easy way to work out your need is to weigh yourself pre and post-ride. For each kilo you have lost, you require an additional litre of water, so if a 60-minute ride leaves you 0.5kg lighter then you just require an extra 500ml of fluid in the diet to rebalance things.
With just two per cent dehydration resulting in a significant reduction in performance, it’s worth paying attention to this statistic. It’s such a small simple step, but it will make a huge difference.
7. Fuel your ride properly
If you are eating adequately across the day, easy-paced rides of less than 90 minutes don’t always need additional fuel support. Your carbohydrate stores will provide plenty of fuel over this period.
If you are heading out for a longer or more intense ride, however, topping up your carbohydrate stores will support better performance so that you still have plenty of strength towards the end of your route.
Studies indicate that a fuelling plan delivering between 30g and 60g of carbohydrate per hour of riding is optimum, so experimenting within this range is a good start point. You can opt for a carbohydrate drink, a mix of water and gels or bars, or a mixture of all three. Just be sure to check the carbohydrate content rather than assuming that the total declared weight is carbohydrate.
The amount of carbohydrate people can take on board is very individual. Some may be able to digest 30g per hour whereas others can take on 60g without any gastrointestinal distress. Start at 30g and gradually increase this on subsequent rides to find out how much you can tolerate. If you can tolerate 60g, this will support better performance, so it’s worth trying to get your body used to this.
Consider that exercise intensity will dictate what you can digest too, along with how long you have been riding. Solid foods such as bars are usually better tolerated towards the beginning of a ride and are ideal for the first half of a sportive, for example, but taking on a bar for a high-intensity race such as a time trial, would leave you struggling to digest it. As the duration or intensity goes up, switch from bars to gels to make up any extra carbohydrate in addition to your drink.
When taking on carbohydrate in a gel form be sure to take on water with it too, unless you are using an ‘isotonic’ gel, with the most effective fuel delivery being achieved if your carbohydrate is taken on in a 6-8 per cent solution. This will require 125-150ml of water to be consumed with each 10g of carbohydrate delivered by a gel (this will contain some fluid, so will lower your additional need).
8. Recovery food: when and what to eat after you’ve ridden
The first 20 minutes after a ride is known to be the optimal refuelling period where nutrients are taken up more efficiently and transported to the muscle stores. Taking on a carbohydrate-rich meal or drink in this period will improve the rate at which your energy stores refill, which will have a direct impact on how much stored energy you have available for your next ride.
With research indicating that an intake of 1g of carbohydrate per kilogram you weigh during this time is perfect for refuelling, a 70g carbohydrate feed for a 70kg cyclist is perfect. Combining this with 10g of protein will reduce your likelihood of getting injured, assist muscle recovery and reduce muscle soreness and has even been shown to speed up carbohydrate muscle refuelling.
A milk-based drink, a whey or soy protein-enriched smoothie, a jacket potato and beans, or a specialised recovery formula all make good, sensible options. With some of the specialised formulas you can benefit from ingredients such as glutamine and colostrum, two proteins that can provide extra immune support after strenuous training sessions or races.
9. Caffeine: good or bad?
Some people avoid caffeine like the plague and others embrace it for its performance-supporting effects. If you’re a fan, you’ll find most sports physiologists are with you with studies showing that 1-3mg of caffeine per kilo of body weight can result in enhanced performance, increased power output and improved mental focus, with larger doses generally offering no additional benefit.
Interestingly, caffeine’s effects appear to be negated by the heat, with studies in hotter climates showing no benefit. This may be due to fatigue being limited by thermoregulation in these conditions rather than fuel supply.
If you are thinking of giving a caffeinated drink or gel a try in an event try it in training first. However, it’s not for everyone. If you suffer from high blood pressure or a heart condition, caffeine use is not recommended and if you are on any medication, it’s best to check with your doctor before giving it a try.
10. Get your pre-ride nutrition timing right
It can be pretty difficult working out what to eat prior to a ride and I think most cyclists will have experienced both cycling hungry and trying to pedal uphill with a stomach that feels like it has a lead weight in it! Neither of these are a particularly pleasant experience. To avoid these situations, time your pre-ride meal for at least 90 minutes prior to hitting the road.
If you eat small, regular meals over the day, downsizing your three main meals to make room for a mid-morning and mid-afternoon snack, it makes it easy to ensure you are fuelled before you head out. Instead, choose a low-fat, carbohydrate-dominant meal or snack with a small amount of lean protein, as this will be digested a lot more rapidly than fatty or protein dominant meals.
Shopping tips for the best cycling nutrition