Introduction to Cycling Nutrition

Why is Nutrition important for Cyclists? 

  • Alongside training and recovery, nutrition represents one of the most important factors for performance on the bike. 
  • Proper nutrition means ensuring that your muscles have enough of the right kinds of energy during your workout, and access to the nutrients they need for recovery. 

The First Nutrient – Water 

  • Before your training rides and the day of an event, hydrate well with water up to 30-60 minutes before. Drinking too much water right before you start riding can leave you needing to go to the bathroom, and if it’s a race you may not want to stop. 
  • During the ride, a good rule of thumb is 1 x 20 oz. water bottle per hour. If it’s very hot, you sweat more than average, or the ride intensity is high you may need to drink more to avoid fluid loss. 
  • For rides longer than 1 hour, use ½ sports drink and ½ water to help replenish carbohydrate and electrolytes. 
  • For your longest training rides, take a hydration pack or plan to stop and refill bottles. 
  • During training, use this method to find out if you are drinking enough during your rides: weigh yourself right before and after the workout. If you have lost weight, it’s due to fluid loss and you need to drink more on the bike. 

Carbohydrate and Glycogen 

  • Our working muscles rely mostly on carbohydrates stored in our bodies in the form of glycogen. 
  • Think of glycogen as like a fuel tank; the longer your ride is, the more carbohydrate you need to consume on the ride to keep the tank from going empty and to keep your muscles going. 
  • This is why sports drinks, energy bars and gels are made up of mostly sugars and complex carbohydrates. 
  • Fresh fruit such as bananas, and dried fruit like figs or pineapple are also great carbohydrate sources to use during training and racing. 

Protein Needs for Athletes 

  • Many endurance athletes make the mistake of over-eating protein, thinking it will make them stronger. 
  • Athletes do have a higher need for protein, but a balanced and varied diet will usually meet their requirements. 
  • Protein is not a preferred fuel source for working muscles, so it should play only a minor role in snacks on the bike. 
  • After a ride, protein shakes and protein bars aren’t necessary, but instead try to consume protein with carbohydrates in a ratio of roughly 4 parts carbohydrate to 1 part protein. 

Meal Timing 

  • The night before an event or a long training ride: eat a well-balanced meal with good quality complex carbohydrate, protein and a small amount of fat. Don’t over-eat and choose something you would normally eat. 
  • The day of a big ride: your biggest meal should be 2-3 hours prior to the start, to allow for good digestion. This should be another balanced meal of good quality complex carbohydrate, some protein, and a small amount of fat. 
  • Around 1 hour before you start riding, eat a small snack to keep carbohydrate levels up and avoid hunger during the event. 
  • During rides 1 hour and longer, it is important to continue fueling with carbohydrates on the bike. 
  • For recovery, have a carbohydrate rich meal within 30 minutes of finishing your ride. During the period immediately following exercise, known as the “glycogen window,” the body is most efficient at storing carbohydrate as glycogen. 

Make the Most of What You Eat 

  • Treat good nutrition as a part of your preparation for the event. 
  • Eat a balanced, nutritious diet before turning to expensive supplements. 
  • Pay attention to your body and learn what does and doesn’t work for you. 

By Dave Vukets, former Canadian national cycling team member and owner of Performa Nutrition Solutions, a nutrition consulting service.

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