Most of us have experienced that sinking feeling of hungrily flinging open the food cupboard door only to discover that it’s bare. But before we can think about eating well, we need to consider how well we shop and indeed, how we restock that empty storage space. 

Whole food nutrition plays an important part in our health and our cycling performance and while we can do well in an event eating only sports nutrition, the everyday meals that we fit in around our training and races need to be based on good, healthy food choices.

>>> How to fuel for long distance rides

We took two Cycling Fitness readers shopping and challenged them to fill their trolley with enough food to create an evening meal for the night before their target event, their breakfast, something to eat during the event and a recovery snack for afterwards. Once they had made their selections we invited Emma Barraclough, senior nutritionist at Science in Sport to analyse their choices.

Perfect preparation

Watch the video to see if this food is best for cycling. Photo: Chris Catchpole

Watch the video to see if this food is best for cycling. Photo: Chris Catchpole

So we’ve seen attempts from two experienced riders to come up with nutritionally sound meals around their events and neither of them did too badly. With a few tweaks both could be scoring top nutritional marks, but what should we be aiming for? Emma Barraclough gives us some answers.

Pre-event meal

Key ingredients are high GI carbs such as pasta, rice, and potato. White foods are OK the night before an event as you want the insulin response that will build your glycogen stores up as much as possible. Some lean protein is fine; eggs, fish, chicken and vegetarian alternatives but avoid anything high in fat that will slow down digestion.

Complement it all with a good serving of fruit and veg.

Breakfast

The primary goal of breakfast is topping up muscle glycogen stores so again it’s high-GI carbs such as cereals, toast, bagels or porridge. It needs to be convenient, especially if you have an early start or are travelling to the event. Breakfast needs to be eaten two to three hours before the event.

During the ride

You can take either a real food or sports nutrition route. You can hit the carbohydrate and hydration requirements equally well with either, but the sports products give you convenience and also help to avoid unwanted fats in things such as chocolate bars or fibre in bananas that’s not needed and could lead to gastric distress.

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Sports foods are all about getting the fast energy that you need while minimising gastric upset. The more complicated the foods you use are the more likely you are to have an issue from a stomach point of view.

Recovery

Ideally you would eat or drink something within 30 minutes of finishing the event.

Your meal or snack should contain fast-releasing carbohydrates, protein and electrolytes to help with rehydration along with some vitamins and minerals.

Recovery drinks are popular for being able to deliver everything you need in a convenient form and give you the complete nutrition to support lean muscle mass and immune function.

>>> Refuel with real food after cycling

If you can eat within half an hour of finishing then great, but pre-planning is the key, particularly if you have to travel a long way after the event.

Try to eat a complete meal within a couple of hours of the end, even if you have had a recovery drink. A good dose of antioxidants from eating lots of fresh fruit and veg with your meal will also help.

Rider 1: Niki Kovacs

Photo: Chris Catchpole

Niki Kovacs, fuelling for track races. Photo: Chris Catchpole

Evening meal: Macaroni cheese (instant meal), dried tropical mango, Montezuma’s butterscotch chocolate, mixed nuts

The key job of the evening meal the night before a race is ensuring that glycogen stores are full and ready for the day after. The white pasta in the macaroni cheese would normally not be a first choice for a general healthy diet because of its high GI but the night before this is: “not a bad choice” says Emma.

“When you are carb-loading the night before, that is what you want. As much as our normal dietary stipulation is towards low GI, the night before an event high GI is a good option.”

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to healthier eating

While white pasta was fine, it was the heavy cheese-count that caused concern: “it slows down the transit of food through the gut, and you don’t want to have any problems come race morning so I’d recommend a tomato-based sauce which will also have a lower fat content.”

The night before a race it is common to want to pick at a bit of extra food, especially if you are resting up at home and thinking about carb-loading, but what makes for good post-dinner snacks? Niki didn’t score too badly here: “Chocolate is a sweet treat but it’s a nice small portion and has been balanced with some nuts and dried fruit. I’m quite happy with that,” concluded Emma.

Niki Kovacs having her nutrition checked by Science in Sport's Emma Barraclough. Photo: Chris Catchpole

Niki Kovacs having her nutrition checked by Science in Sport’s Emma Barraclough. Photo: Chris Catchpole

Breakfast: Soya milk, Innocent smoothie, free-range eggs, basmati rice, Italian ground coffee, butter

Breakfast is important on race morning for topping up your glycogen stores and fuelling you for the day ahead. Some people can feel very nervous on race day so a familiar breakfast can be settling and, if you are travelling away from home it needs to be convenient.

>>> Five pre-ride breakfasts for cyclists (video)

Niki has a slightly unusual breakfast of basmati rice pudding made with soya milk, eggs and butter. It’s one she swears by but Barraclough is less than convinced: “White basmati rice is high GI, just what she wants to keep her energy stores up, but she is mixing in the eggs, the butter and the soya milk. It’s got a high fat and protein content and that is not what you want before a race. It’s going to lower the GI and slow down its transit through the gut. You want to be hitting the start with a lot of this digested.”

Reducing the amount of eggs and butter, or using one or the other rather than both would improve things.

Alongside the home-made rice pudding are coffee and a smoothie. “Caffeine lowers the perception of effort and is a mental stimulant. Not a bad thing at all for a pre-race breakfast,” notes Barraclough but she reminds that with coffee you also need to hydrate properly. “I’d suggest around 500ml of water with this meal.”

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Smoothies are an easy way of getting in extra fruit and veg and if you suffer with pre-race nerves they are also easy to eat. Barraclough warns that people can become over-reliant on them instead of eating enough whole fruit. This means they could be missing out on fibre but on race day morning it is not a problem.

Race food: Lucozade energy drink, liquorice, wine gums, plain macaroons, bananas

Barraclough branded Kovac’s nutrition during her race as “interesting” with a strong reliance on sweets and biscuits to see her through a long day of track racing. “Bananas are OK,” says Barraclough, “although they are mainly fructose which is low GI and during exercise we want high GI. Fructose can take up to 90 minutes to be processed by the body.”

Coconut macaroons were a no-no because of their high fat content, another source of potential stomach problems, especially when eaten with a large bag of wine gums. “Macaroons are high in fat. Combined with the high sugar content of the sweets, she could be heading for gastric distress. She needs to drink quite a lot of water to dilute that concentration.”

When the glucose content in the stomach is high the body will start to draw in water from the cells to try to reduce it — a sure-fire way to stomach cramps. The simplest way of making sure you are getting the right concentration of carbohydrate during events is to use energy foods — it is much easier to count the grams of carbs you have been eating and also they are formulated to be easy on the stomach.

Shop right, eat right, ride right. Photo: Chris Catchpole

Shop right, eat right, ride right. Photo: Chris Catchpole

Shopping tips

  • Always have a list and plan meals in advance.
  • Never go shopping when you are hungry as there is too much temptation to make bad choices.
  • Think about how your evening meal can double up as lunch or a recovery snack the next day to save time.
  • Buy dry goods such as rice and pasta in bulk and remember to have both white and brown products for different meals at different times.
  • With thanks to The People’s Supermarket www.thepeoplessupermarket.org.

The People’s Supermarket is a community-minded, ethical grocery store selling healthy, responsibly sourced, seasonal local foods in Holborn, London.

Rider 2: Phil Lowe

Photo: Chris Catchpole

Phil Lowe, preparing for RideLondon. Photo: Chris Catchpole

Evening meal: Basmati rice, chicken breast, broccoli

Simple food often sits best the night before. It is more likely to be digested than something fatty that can lay heavy in the stomach and disrupt that all-important good night’s sleep.

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Phil’s choice is very much on the plain side but it gets the thumbs up on nutrition. “Lean protein is digested quite easily, greens are always a good source of nutrients and the high GI carb from the rice will top up his glycogen stores. Not the most exciting meal but it is solid nutrition,” admits Barraclough.

Breakfast: Jumbo oats, semi-skimmed milk, honey, blueberries

Phil went for the classic cyclist’s breakfast of porridge oats; an almost faultless performance that got top marks from Barraclough. “A decent amount and type of carbohydrate topped up with blueberries that are high in antioxidants make this a good pre-ride breakfast. There is a little bit of protein in the milk and in the oats but it should all sit fairly comfortably.”

During ride: Snickers, bananas

Although Phil had done well with his evening meal and breakfast choices, his nutrition during the ride would have been his undoing had this really been his race day.

“He’s going to need a bit more fuel than we have here!” exclaimed our expert. And once again the large number of bananas was a source of concern for Barraclough: “It’s fructose again — low GI sugars and it’s not particularly what we want in a racing scenario. The chocolate bar won’t travel well if it’s a hot day and it has a high fat content, made even worse by the nut content. This will make it slow to empty from the stomach — it couldn’t be any less ideal as nutrition for during the ride.”

While ordinary whole foods work well for most meals during races where performance counts, energy gels and bars can be incredibly useful to riders wanting to get their nutrition right.

>>> The best energy gels

“Gels go down a lot more easily than this many bananas on a long ride.” That’s not to say bananas are not suitable food but they are best eaten before the start of the ride to allow enough time for digestion and the subsequent release of energy. “Through a 100-mile sportive a banana or two would be fine but an over-reliance could cause you a problem,” concludes Barraclough.

Recovery snack: Tinned mackerel, basmati rice, spinach

Phil had really thought ahead about this and planned to use some of his rice from his evening meal to make a recovery snack.

“His rice from the night before is used with his mackerel and spinach, replenishing his glycogen stores with the high GI carbs from the rice. Mackerel has some good protein in there, some healthy omega 3 fats and spinach is a really good source of antioxidants.”

Fish is a bit of a personal preference and not everyone would fancy it after a long ride but despite only having one colour of veg — something noted by Barraclough as room for improvement — the verdict is good: “Nutritionally it stacks up.”

White or brown

Photo: Cycling Weekly media archive

What’s best, white or brown? Photo: Cycling Weekly media archive

General good nutrition advice is to eat brown rice, bread and pasta. With less processing these foods contain more fibre than their white alternatives and in the case of brown rice more nutrients. Brown rice, pasta and bread also have a lower GI. A low GI means that blood glucose levels are raised less rapidly, providing a sustained source of energy.

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However, while low GI products are recommended in your normal healthy diet, before, during and after exercise high GI products such as white rice, pasta and bread can be beneficial. These trigger an insulin response that helps drive blood glucose into the muscles to be stored as muscle glycogen, a fuel needed during exercise.

Our expert nutritionist: Emma Barraclough

Emma Barraclough Science in Sport SiS

SiS’s senior nutritionist. Since graduating with a degree in Sports and Exercise Science in 2005, Emma has worked with athletes across a range of sports. Emma competes as an elite Ironman and is a regular fixture on the GB age group team.