Prevent muscle pain with good cycling nutrition

Eat right before and during cycling - as well as after - to avoid muscle pain. Words by Vicky Ware.

Consuming protein and carbohydrate post-exercise can help your recovery from training, but what about the fuel you put into your body before and during a ride?

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Laurent Bannock of Guru Performance is an exercise physiologist who specialises in fuelling for exercise. “The most important strategy is to eat sufficient quantities of food every day, not just on training days, especially protein-rich foods,” he says.

The essentials

  • Focus on everyday diet
  • Get adequate protein daily
  • Eat carbs if riding over 60 minutes 
  • Don’t under-eat
  • Don’t overtrain
  • Train less if stressed

Bannock also suggests that carbohydrates are crucial before and after exercise — and during, if your ride lasts more than 60 minutes — “not only to fuel the exercise, but also to prevent stress to the immune system that occurs when the body is deprived of carbohydrates.”

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While a post-exercise drink will help recovery from damage, fuelling sufficiently before a ride may stop damage occurring in the first place. If your body has insufficient calories to fuel a ride, it will break down muscle for energy.

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Bannock suggests: “A protein-rich meal in the hours before exercise will still be releasing amino acids via the blood to the working muscles, which will support the body from the stress and damage to muscle tissue caused by exercise.”

Beef provides iron, while turmeric fights inflammation

Beef provides iron, while turmeric fights inflammation

Inflammatory response

What about the fuel consumed during a training ride? “If you have eaten properly beforehand, that is, the day before and morning of training, you don’t need any special strategy during the ride to prevent sore muscles afterwards. You need to pre-load the body with nutrients well beforehand,” Bannock advises.

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Though tired legs are par for the course, excessive soreness may indicate that you’re not recovering properly: “Exercise is a form of stress that is normally tolerated by a fit and healthy body, but if there is already a level of stress, it can exacerbate the problem.”

Stress may cause an overactive inflammatory response, limiting the body’s ability to repair and rebuild muscles. Bannock explains that inflammation can be caused by “illness, under-eating and overtraining, too few days off and poor sleep”.

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To give your body the fuel it needs to recover, he advises eating “protein-rich foods, fats such as eggs and oily fish, enough carbohydrate and nutrient-rich vegetables and fruit.”

Pain-busters: omega-3 and ginger

Ginger + salmon = slash muscle soreness

Key points

A diet high in omega-3 fats has been shown to reduce muscle pain after exercise, possibly due to promotion of a more balanced immune system that can heal damaged muscle without excessive inflammation.

Caffeine before exercise promotes fat-burning during exercise, meaning your muscle glycogen stores are spared. Research suggests this helps prevent delayed-onset muscle soreness after exercise.

Antioxidant supplements may help prevent muscle pain post-exercise but research suggests they may stop positive adaptation to exercise in the process. It’s better to go for whole foods, such as fruit and vegetables, which contain antioxidants.

Adaptogens, such as Siberian ginseng, aid recovery when taken as a dietary supplement before exercise.

Glutamine is a non-essential amino acid that can significantly reduce muscle pain after exercise if used as a supplement beforehand. This may be because it stops breakdown of muscle for energy during exercise.

Taurine is an amino acid found in skeletal muscle tissue. It reduces post-exercise muscle soreness when taken as a pre-exercise supplement.

Getting enough carbohydrate during exercise is crucial to preventing excess stress on the immune system, and to fuel your muscles. A strong immune system will mean faster recovery from exercise.

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