When it comes to training, nutrition plays an important role. A well-planned eating routine helps athletes train hard, remain healthy, and avoid injuries.
If you’re just beginning or even if you’re an experienced pro, it’s pretty easy to get lost in the world of cycling nutrition. These days, all professionals and top amateurs follow strict diet plans to improve their performance both in training and on the big day.
Getting it wrong may lead to under-performance and disappointment. Getting it right can give you the edge you need to succeed. In this blog post, we outline a beginner’s guide to cycling nutrition. To start, we breakdown each of the macronutrients and then provide you with a basic nutrition plan for your next cycling or endurance event.
What is cycling nutrition?
So, what does the body need to thrive and perform at its best under stress? Here, we take you through the basics of a simple cycling nutrition for beginners guide and provide examples of what an athlete’s diet should be for sports and exercise.
At the foundational level, you need a certain number of calories/day to sustain basic bodily functions — this is known as your BMR. You consume calories through food and beverages, which fall into one of two categories:
Macronutrients are the big players for big performance. There’s likely no sports performer alive, or any person for that matter, who hasn’t heard these words before: protein, carbohydrates, and fat. Macronutrients are hugely important to an athlete’s diet and performance. However, there may be quite a few who don’t actually understand the science behind their importance and how they affect your sports performance.
On the other hand, there are micronutrients. These typically contain very few calories, but contain essential vitamins and minerals. These are vital for the maintenance of tissue function, regular metabolism, and other key bodily functions. Mineral deficiencies can affect the immune system, and may reduce recovery ability.
Therefore, it’s essential to eat your greens, even if you don’t find them that exciting! Aim to get plenty of Vitamin D, Omega 3s, calcium, magnesium, B vitamins, and iron and zinc.
You don’t need to overthink it, either. Eat plenty of fruit and vegetables — the more colourful and varied, the better.
Okay, now what about the three macronutrients? How do they work, and why do we need them?
What is protein?
When you hear protein, think muscles. Protein is an essential part of every athlete’s diet as it is the muscle creator and repairer. Strong muscle tissue is vital for an athlete for obvious reasons. Not only does protein grow and repair muscles, it also protects them.
Eating protein-rich foods before and after a race or competitive event ensures that your muscles have everything they need to remain strong under stress and recover quickly when resting.
Protein is made up of amino acids. There are two types of amino acids: essential and non-essential. Non-essential amino acids are created naturally by the body, and therefore you don’t need to eat anything to get these. However, essential amino acids can only be obtained from your diet. Together, they create protein and, thus, muscle.
A protein-poor diet is going to affect your performance and your recovery in an unwanted fashion. So where do you get high-quality protein from?
Protein-rich sources are meat, fish, eggs, milk, and cheese. For vegetarians and vegans, there are plenty of plant-based sources such as beans, lentils, nuts, seeds, grains, and soy.
Further, aim to consume protein regularly throughout the diet and with every meal. The body can only absorb approximately 30g of protein at any given time, so spread it out for the best results.
What are Carbohydrates?
Carbohydrates or ‘carbs’ are your primary energy source. In other words, carbohydrates are petrol. Much like a car, your body runs on carbs and without them, you won’t be getting out of the driveway. If you’re planning on doing any endurance sporting event, well, you need a full tank.
Carbohydrates are digested and broken down into glucose. Glucose is essentially a simple sugar that provides all your energy needs. It’s also essential for brain function, which is why when you have low glucose levels, you may get ‘hangry’.
But be warned, some sources of carbohydrates are difficult to break down. If consumed at the wrong time, they can actually create problems rather than benefit your performance.
There are simple carbohydrates and complex carbohydrates. Simple carbs can be broken down and converted into glucose quickly — ideal for ‘on-the-go’ boosts of energy. Conversely, complex carbs take longer to break down and shouldn’t be taken during exercise or an event, but rather a good amount of time prior. Taken at the incorrect time may, and probably will, lead to GI (Gastrointestinal) tract issues, which are not very comfortable and will limit your performance. The last thing you want during an endurance race is to feel bloated and tired as your body tries to digest as well as perform. Not fun!
What are some simple carbohydrates?
Examples of simple carbs include bananas and other fruits. Fruits are made up of only 1 or 2 sugar molecules so your body can absorb and convert them into energy quickly. Other sources are honey, yoghurt and white rice or rice-cakes — which aren’t quite as handy as a piece of fruit when you’re mid-race!
(Although watching someone trying to eat a yoghurt while negotiating a tricky downhill on their bike would be entertaining.)
What are some complex carbohydrates?
Examples of complex carbs include pasta, bread, and potatoes. Complex carbs contain long strands of sugar molecules, as opposed to the 1 or 2 found in fruits. They also contain dietary fibre — a key player to gut health, regulating blood-sugar and cholesterol levels, as well as regulating toilet breaks.
As a result, complex carbs require a longer period of time to digest and convert into glucose and/or other vital uses. These should be eaten the day before riding or a few hours before your event so that they have plenty of time to be digested.
They are equally important as simple carbs and must be included in your diet if you want to achieve maximum performance. Having a good dietary plan is just as necessary as training when preparing for an event. The body needs both simple and complex carbs.
What are fats?
Surely fat should be avoided, right? Well, not entirely. We need fat in our body as it is basically our ‘store’ of energy and it is used to drive the body when exercising for longer or more intense periods. If carbs are the body's primary petrol, fats are the reserve fuel tank.
Indeed, according to a study by Colorado State University, up to 75% of energy for endurance events is provided for by fats.
Fats are also essential for joint structure and strength, muscle growth, hormone production, and the absorption of vital vitamins such as vitamins A, D, E and K.
So it shouldn’t be avoided, but controlled, as too much fat intake has obvious detrimental effects, and too little can limit your performance. Aim to eat healthy fats vs. unhealthy fats — more on this below.
What fats are good and which ones bad?
Let’s start with the bad.
Firstly, Trans fats are a big no-no for anyone looking to reach peak performance. They can be found in commercially baked and frozen goods or manufactured products with a long shelf-life. Think takeaway pizza, ready-made microwave meals, mass-produced cakes, popcorn and just about anything from the frozen section. There are basically no positives to them nutritionally, and a multitude of negatives.
Secondly, Saturated fats, which are found in foods such as bacon, cakes, cured meats, butter, palm and coconut oil are to be limited. This is because saturated fats increase the levels of LDL cholesterol (the bad kind) in the blood, which leads to the clogging of arteries. For everyone, but especially athletes, clear and free-flowing blood vessels and arteries are essential to good performance as the blood feeds the various parts of the body with the oxygen it needs to function efficiently. However, saturated fats can help in building muscle tissue if consumed in moderation.
On the other hand, Monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats are good for you and increase levels of HDL cholesterol (the good kind) into the body and decrease LDL cholesterol. This will protect the arteries and blood vessels.
Olive oil, avocados, nuts, seeds and fish are all good sources of healthy fats. Omega 3 and Omega 6 (which are found in the above) are also known as essential fats, as the body can only get them from your diet. They are essential for efficient brain functions and growth generally.
How much fat do I need?
According to sports nutritionists, you should try and keep your intake of healthy fats at about 10% of your bodyweight in grams. So, if you’re 80kg, you’d try to include about 8 grams of fats daily, and so on.
How do I do that?
Read the label. It might seem like an extra chore, but you’ll soon get into a habit, and once you’ve made a few dishes it will become second-nature to feed your body what it needs, and not more. You can also go to a sports nutritionist and get their expert opinion on what is right for you and what your objectives are.
You can also track your calorie intake using a food-tracking app such as MyFitnessPal. Simply scan the barcode of the food or manually enter the ingredients to find out exactly what you’re putting into your body (fats, carbohydrates, proteins).
So those are the MACRONUTRIENTS, the 3 key elements that all sportspeople need in their diets. Taken in balance, they will optimise your performance and recovery. Later in this post we’ll look at example dietary strategies for endurance events.
How many calories should you eat?
A lot of cyclists make the mistake of eating whatever they want, and as much as they want because they think they’ve burnt a lot of calories on the bike. However, this is not the best approach.
When you cycle, you burn calories. Typically, smaller rides burn less, and larger riders burn more calories. But it’s a two sided sword — cycling burns calories, but it also increases your appetite for more food. It’s why when you come back from a long ride you inhale half of the kitchen cupboard. And let’s not forget those mandatory coffee and cake stops.
Here’s a basic crash course in nutrition…
To stay the same weight, you need to eat at your maintenance calories. To lose weight, you need to eat in a calorie deficit, and to gain weight, including lean muscle mass, you need to eat in a slight calorie surplus.
Let’s use the example of eating at maintenance calories — you want to stay the same weight. On non-training days, your diet will most likely stay the same. But on training days, you’ll need to factor in the extra calories burnt on the bike. A lot of head units estimate calories burnt, but just be cautious as these are estimations. You can also use calorie calculators.
Once you’ve calculated the number of calories burnt, take into account the food you consumed during your ride. On those shorter rides, you won’t need many extra calories to maintain the same weight. Consume the macronutrients recommended above for the best results.
Other than that, the same guidelines apply… After your ride eat protein to improve your recovery and carbs to replenish your glycogen stores. Eat whole foods when possible as these contain key vitamins and minerals. But the odd sports shake or dietary supplement works, too.
What are the best foods for cyclists?
You’ll typically eat different foods on the bike vs. off the bike, unless you want to eat salmon on a plate while clipped in.
Popular on-the-bike foods include:
- Energy gels
- Peanut butter sandwiches
- Rice cakes
Popular off-the-bike foods include:
- Nuts and seeds
- A good quality olive oil
- Recovery shakes
- Pasta and rice
These are just recommendations. We provide a more detailed cycling nutrition plan a little later in this post.
What about hydration?
While this article is about nutrition for cycling, we can’t not mention hydration — it goes part and parcel with a good nutrition plan. Poor hydration reduces performance, stops the body from dissipating heat, and negatively impacts your recovery.
So how do you best hydrate for cycling? You should drink before, during, and after your ride. The most accurate way to determine how much you should drink is to calculate your sweat rate — this is how much water weight you lose via sweat during exercise. Your results will help you find the exact amount of fluid you should aim to drink.
Moreover, be intentional with your fluid intake. That means taking fluid onboard first thing in the morning if you prefer to ride early. A proper hydration strategy goes a long way, but unfortunately a lot of riders struggle to get this right.
To find out more about cycling hydration and for more details on how to calculate your sweat rate, read our blog post on the importance of sports hydration.
A quick note on caffeine
Cycling and caffeine go hand in hand — there’s a reason why it’s one if, if not the most used stimulants in sports. And although it may increase your performance, avoid the mentality that more is better.
Drinking or consuming too much caffeine can cause GI issues, stomach cramps, and even a decrease in performance. Even if you’re a habitual coffee drinker, don’t overdo it. If training for an event, you may find it useful to cut back your caffeine intake in the weeks prior so the effects feel more potent.
This is personal preference, however. So don’t feel like you need to kick the coffee. Most things are best in moderation.
Your cycling nutrition plan
You’ve done the training and have been following a balanced and healthy diet. Now your target event is here. What should you eat before, during, and after your endurance event to boost performance and decrease your recovery time?
ENDURANCE EVENTS - marathons, Iron Man, trekking, cycling, day-long eventsPre-event - COMPLEX CARBS & PROTEIN
The day before your event, at lunchtime you want to load up on pasta, veg and some protein, be it meat or a protein-rich food such as quinoa or brown rice. Then, at dinner, some fish or avocado and nuts. These are slow-digesting foods, meaning the glucose will be stored and ready for the following day.
Keep it simple and stick to foods you’ve been eating during training. You don’t want any last-minute gastrointestinal surprises. You know, the kind that demands a last-minute toilet trip.
Pre-ride - SIMPLE CARBS/CAFFEINE BOOST/ HYDRATION
On the day of your event, eat a banana or some other fruit. An alternative can be to take caffeine boost gels, which work much the same way. Further, you also want to give your body some electrolytes - they keep the body in balance and maintain your hydration, thus optimising your performance. This is especially important if riding or exercising for hours on end, or if in extreme heat.During Cycle - CAFFEINE BOOST/GELS/HYDRATION
When you’re riding, you tap into and deplete your glucose stores for energy. So naturally, you’ll need to replace them. A simple and effective way for those short on time is to squeeze down a sports gel. This will quickly add glucose to your system and give you energy. Furthermore, when going long, keep sipping away at electrolytes and water to keep you hydrated and moving efficiently.
If there is a scheduled break in the day’s event, use the time to take on some simple carbs, such as a peanut butter sandwich (if portable) and a banana. Again, gels can be the answer as they will stop you feeling full or bloated but provide your body with what it needs to keep going strong — they are also space-saving and less bulky than a packed lunch!
Most athletes, however, prefer a mix of sports gels, fruits, and whole foods. It’s easier on the stomach and a little more satiating. If your event will last several hours (or even days), it’s a good idea to consume a mix of foods. While sports gels are a quick and easy source of energy, you can’t live off them for a multi-day event.
Avoid overeating on the bike
For most cyclists, it’s better to be a little under-fueled and hungry than to overeat. This can cause you to struggle to digest your food and may upset your stomach. It can also cause nausea. And while the dreaded bonk should be avoided, it’s best to stick to a consistent fueling strategy of 60-90g of carbohydrates per hour rather than eating every in sight, including cakes, jelly babies, gels, jam sandwiches, and anything else you can stomach.
Stick to your nutrition strategy for the best results!Post-ride - CARBS/PROTEIN/HYDRATION
Well done, you made it. It’s tempting to celebrate with a little tipple perhaps, but wait. First, make sure your body has got what it needs to repair any damage and recover right. If you’re going again the next day, avoid alcohol altogether.
You should get a good portion of pasta, veggies and some protein to replenish your stocks. Make sure to take on plenty of water too. Then get some well-deserved rest.
There’s no hiding the importance of the right type of nutrition to your overall performance and recovery. If you supply your body with what it needs, at the right time, you’ll feel the benefits both during and after the event.
When you get your nutrition right, it makes all the difference. It can turn what would be a dreadful day in the saddle into the best ride of the year. It will take time to learn what works best for you (i.e. what foods to eat and when), but with a little practice, you’ll dial in your nutrition for great results on (and off) the bike.
Do cyclists need protein shakes?
Protein supplements can be a great way to increase your protein intake, increasing recovery and muscle building.
Do cyclists need creatine?
Creatine may improve performance but you don’t need to take it. It’s very much an individual decision. You’ll find natural sources of creatine in foods such as pork, red meat, salmon, tuna, and beef.
Should you eat carbs or protein when cycling?
Typically, carbs are the fuel and protein is for recovery. When on the bike, load up on easy-to-digest carbs and after cycling, consume a meal that contains protein to start the repair and recovery process.