After a few years of riding, most cyclists have got their heads around the what, how and when of cycling nutrition – but when it comes to supplements there’s a lot of confusion. With numerous stories of 'accidental' doping and concern over side effects (even if they’re felt only in the wallet), it's understandable that cyclists are wary.
There's a wide array of available sports supplements – powders, pills and potions – that carry plenty of marketing might with little scientific backing. But there are others that could help riders to feel more healthy, or indeed boost performance and results.
Anita Bean, author of The Complete Guide to Sports Nutrition, comments: “The vast majority of sports supplements have no evidence backing their claims. They are at best unnecessary, at worst harmful or illegal. That said, there are a few products that are supported by a peer-reviewed body of research.”
Here’s a look at a selection of the available supplements that we reckon have adequate backing, and their uses.
Recommended supplements for cyclists
1. Whey Protein
Carbohydrate is the primary source of energy used when you ride, cyclists often take this on via gels, bars and drinks. However, during exercise, muscle fibres break down, especially if the pedalling time in question is intense. You get stronger when they rebuild, and ingesting protein helps to facilitate what the brain-boxes of nutrition call ‘muscle protein synthesis’ – in other words, recovery and adaptation.
Protein is available in food – you’ll find 31g per 100g of chicken breast, 19g in the same weight of chickpeas, and 13g in a large egg.
Whey protein powder, however, makes ingesting high quality protein quick and easy - plus you’ll know exactly how much you’re taking.
You can mix it in with milk and fruit for a smoothie, or top your morning porridge up with a scoop. Stir it in well, or you'll end up chowing through what might as well be a standard bowl of porridge with complimentary lumps of chalk.
There’s a wide range of protein powder options – soy, egg, casein – but whey is a milk protein created as a by-product during cheese production. It’s particularly popular because it contains a “high concentration of essential amino acids, which support muscle recovery, including the amino acid leucine, an important trigger for stimulating muscle building after exercise,” according to Bean.
You can get enough protein to support recovery from cycling from your food, but Bean says: “choose whey supplements if you aren’t getting enough protein from your diet - [though this is] in most cases unlikely - or as a convenient post-workout alternative to food.”
The amount of protein you need varies dramatically depending how active you are and what you’re doing – a track cyclist spending time in the gym will damage more muscle fibres than an endurance rider.
Recommendations vary from 1.2g/kg of body weight to 2.2g/kg. However, one thing’s for sure, it needs to be spread out. Your body can’t effectively use more than 0.3g/kg - or 20g (whichever comes first) - at a time.
2. Beta Alanine
Beta Alanine is widely documented to have a beneficial effect on repeated sprints and surges of power – it’s utilised by track cyclists, as well as road cyclists seeking the elusive kick.
An optimal dose is about 3g a day – but Bean warns: “[this is] best divided into several smaller doses e.g. 4 x 0.8g for four – six weeks, followed by a maintenance dose of 1.2g a day.
“High doses (above 0.8g) may cause side effects such as paraesthesia (skin tingling), which fortunately are harmless, transient and can be prevented by using smaller doses.”
Beta Alanine is indeed famous for inducing a bizarre tingling feeling across the skin. Breaking the doses up does help reduce this. However, it’s not easy to take a white powder in doses of 1g at a time through the working day. You can purchase capsules, or take the dose in one go and accept the bizarre sensation, which tends to last for about an hour.
Creatine is naturally available in food – you’ll find about 2g in a pound of red meat, and 4.5g in a pound of salmon.
However, you can take it in supplement form – and this one is widely utilised by athletes for which strength and power are important.
“Creatine supplements increase muscle levels of phosphocreatine, an energy-rich compound made from creatine and phosphorus that fuels muscles during high intensity exercise, such as sprinting or lifting weights. The greatest improvements are found in high power output efforts repeated for a number of bouts. For this reason, it’s favoured by track sprint cyclists,” Bean says.
The most discussed side effect of creatine is weight gain, “due partly to extra water in the muscle cells and partly to increased muscle tissue,” Bean says.
Therefore, it’s not recommended for those to whom the weight side of the power-to-weight equation is crucial.
There’s a few options for dosage – you can load with 0.3g per kg of body weight, for up to a week – taken in four equal doses during the day. Alternatively, a load phase could be closer to 2-3g/kg for three to four weeks. After the load phase, you can reduce this to 0.03g/kg a day.
It doesn’t work for everyone, “anecdotally, some people are known to be 'non-responders.' This may be due to a diet high in meat in which the body is already saturated with dietary creatine prior to supplementation,” Bean says.
Another supplement popular among trackies is Sodium Bicarbonate - this is believed to buffer lactic acid build up over events lasting between one and 10 minutes. A recommended dose is about 0.2g/kg several hours before competition. However, there's little research around the benefits, and the potentially explosive side effects on the stomach are easy to imagine, so this should absolutely be avoided by those competing in longer races.
Cycling and coffee go hand in hand, but it’s not just because of the social benefits of a good cortado and a slice of cake shared with your café ride buddy.
There’s substantial evidence that points to the performance enhancing benefits of caffeine – a Spanish study found that whilst riders given 0.2mg per kg of body weight showed no boost in power, those ingesting 0.7mg/kg 70 minutes before a test saw the best improvement.
Bean recommends a bit more: “Low to moderate - 1-3mg/kg bodyweight - caffeine doses improve alertness, concentration and reaction time. There’s good evidence it enhances performance in both high- and low-intensity exercise and reduces the perception of effort during endurance exercise. Levels peak at around 30–45 minutes after consumption.”
It’s worth being aware that the amount of caffeine in your coffee will vary. Researchers from the University of Glasgow visited 20 outlets in the city back in 2011, and found one cup could contain anything from 51mg (that one was in Starbucks) to 322mg (independent café - Patisserie Françoise).
If you want your dosage to be provided with military precision, TrueStart coffee is where it’s at. This sport specific brand guarantees exactly 95mg per 2g serving.
5. Nitrate (found in Beetroot Juice)
There is some research to suggest that beetroot juice – or more importantly, the nitrates it contains – does more than just turn your pee purple.
“Research shows that beetroot juice can improve endurance performance and reduce the oxygen cost of submaximal exercise, as well as enhancing repeated sprint performance”, Bean says.
The recommended dose is 300-600mg nitrate is ideal. You’d need to eat about 200g of beetroot to get that – so the alternative is to buy beetroot shots or tablets.
Take this one with a pinch of salt, though, says Bean: “Results have been more compelling in untrained subjects, so if you’re fit already, don’t count on huge gains.”
6. Vitamin D
Vitamin D’s key purpose is to help regulate the amount of calcium and phosphate in the body; thus keeping bones and muscles well fed. Low levels of Vitamin D can result in weakened muscles, bones, and a struggling immune system.
Though it’s available in some foods, our bodies primarily create Vitamin D from direct sunlight, and the NHS advises that most of us get enough of it naturally from late March to September. From October to early March, those of us living in the UK are open to becoming deficient.
Bean explains: “Your GP should be able to test your vitamin D level; if it’s less than 50nmol/l, then you will benefit from a supplement - 100mg per day is the upper limit. However, if testing is not available to you, Public Health England recommends taking a daily 10mg supplement during autumn and winter.”
Being low in iron can result in fatigue, abnormal breathlessness and a loss of endurance and power. You can get iron in beans, dark green leafy veg such as spinach.
A serious iron deficiency will be diagnosed by your doctor - and they’ll prescribe supplements.
Women, particularly those who have heavy periods, are more likely to suffer from an iron deficiency, eating more iron during menstruation is advised.
Most cyclists will be pretty accustomed to taking electrolyte drinks and tablets.
Electrolytes are salts and minerals - sodium, chloride, potassium, magnesium, calcium, phosphate and bicarbonate.
They're lost through sweat, which is something most athletes do a lot of during exercise. Dehydration and loss of electrolytes can result in a drop in performance, so it's crucial to replace them.
Though data from studies doesn't quite stack up, there's an overwhelming amount of anecdotal evidence pointing towards the conclusion that low levels of sodium can result in the crippling grasp of cramp.
Most sports drinks contain about 200mg of sodium per dose, but the amount you need depends upon the salt content of your sweat and how much sweating you do. Drinks by specialist brand Precision Hydration contain up to 1,500mg per serving and could be a solution for people who suffer with cramp and fatigue associated with loss of sodium.
9. Fish oils
This one is less a 'supplement for cyclists' than it is a 'supplement to support general health'.
The World Health Organization (WHO) recommends people eat one or two portions of fish a week to contribute to general health.
Fatty fish contains Omega-3 fatty acids which has been linked to the reduction of inflammation, joint and bone health, and improved immunity. You can get it via eating fish, or you can take a daily capsule to ensure you get enough.
Another supplement related to joint health is Glucosamine - which is linked to maintaining healthy cartilage and connective tissue and preventing injury, and some cyclists take it to beat keen pain caused by pressure on the patella (knee cap).
Most nutritionalists will agree that it's entirely possible to meet all of your needs through 'real food', and this is often the best method. In some instances, supplements may help you to meet targets that can be overlooked under the pressures of a busy lifestyle.
If you do decide to incorporate one of these well researched supplements into your diet, do ensure it's coming from a reliable brand - check the label before you load up your innocent kale smoothie, you don't want to become the next beef steak doping victim.
Bean says: “If you are subject to anti-doping rules, then make sure that your supplements come from a reputable company that provides a certificate to prove it has been batch-tested for banned contaminants by a recognised sports anti-doping lab. Look for the Informed Sport logo on the label and check the batch number on the Informed Sport website,” she says.
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