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Cycling Nutrition Guide

Words by Harry Archer

on 15/05/2018 15:31:09


The human body needs fuel to survive. 'Fuel' for the body comes in the form of what we eat and drink and it can have a massive effect in terms of physical and mental wellbeing for an individual. Most cyclists have some level of interest in their diet, fitness and health - but nutrition can often be seen as a bland and distasteful subject, overlooked in favour of the latest technology and kit. However, nutrition is arguably more important to good performance than all the Dura-Ace and Gabba in the world - what fuel you give your body will drastically affect your performance (and enjoyment) on a ride, whether it be a 10-mile ride round the park or a 120-mile sportive. Eat right and you'll feel stronger, fitter and faster than you ever have before, smashing your personal bests and feeling awesome in the process! The blog will guide you through the different food groups in a little more detail but as a general rule, following these 3 guidelines will put you firmly on the righteous path towards nutritional enlightenment.


Ever been on a ride, got 10 miles in and felt like you've been hit by a train? If you have, then welcome to the club - we've all been there and it's not something you'd want to do more than once. The way to avoid the suffering is to get your pre-ride nutrition bang on. Try to time your pre-ride meal for at least 90 minutes prior to hitting the road and eat small, regular meals over the day, downsizing your three main meals to make room for a mid-morning and mid-afternoon snack. Low-fat, carbohydrate-dominant meals or snacks with a small amount of protein are excellent choices as they will digest fast and are converted to energy rapidly when compared to high fat/protein meals. Alcohol, antibiotics and fatty foods might sound like the ingredients for a mad night out but in all seriousness, they can really mess up your gut. For a sport such as cycling, gut health is incredibly important and if you overlook this fact, you won't get the energy you require from what you eat, leading to cramp, fatigue and bad moods - any of which can ruin a good bike ride.


The first 20-30 minutes after a ride is prime time for refuelling as nutrients are taken up within this ‘optimum refuelling period’(ORP) more efficiently and transported quickly to the muscle stores. A carb-rich meal or drink in this period will improve the rate at which your energy stores refill, directly impacting on how much stored energy you have available for your next pedal. An intake of 1g of carbohydrate per kilogram you weigh during the ORP is ideal for recovery. So, if you weigh 80kg, an 8g carbohydrate based meal is perfect. Combining these carbs with 10g of protein will reduce the chance of injury, aid muscle recovery and reduce muscle soreness. No time for a meal after your ride? Don't stress! there are loads of quick ways to get the fuel you need into your body. In the cycling world this comes in the form of bars, gels and energy powders - which we'll cover in more detail below.

Calorie Counting

Active people often fall into the trap of over-eating because they're regularly exercising and thus see no issue in exceeding their recommended calorie intake. This is absolutely fine if you're looking to gain muscle or maintain a regular body weight but can also lead to people not fully receiving the benefits of their hard work in the saddle as all their gains are lost to stuffed crusts and meal deals. In reality, you probably don't need all the fuel you're putting into your body. Typically, your required additional calorie intake can be calculated by multiplying the distance travelled in miles by 50 (calories). Therefore, if you’ve been out for a 20-mile ride you can estimate an extra calorie need of approximately 1000 calories, slightly increasing/decreasing this amount depending on your weight and the speed/intensity of your ride. To lose weight without effecting strength and performance, a calorie deficit of between 400-500 calories a day will allow for healthy and sustained weight loss - any more than that and you risk causing injury or losing too much, too quickly and suffering with lethargy and fatigue as a result.



Food groups and cycling: What? When? Why? and How?


Carbohydrate is the number one energy source for the body. With a recommended range of 5-9g of carbohydrate per kg of overall body weight, it's important that you're consuming the correct amount of carbs - mostly because any excess will be stored as fat, making you heavier and ultimately slower (unless you're riding downhill!). Your weekly requirement for carbohydrate will be determined by the distance, frequency and purpose of your riding, with leisurely commuters needing much less than those taking part in all-day sportives. Consuming too much carbohydrate leads to 'peaks and troughs' in terms of energy levels, leaving you at risk of the dreaded 'bonk' where you’ll feel like you're constantly riding through quicksand infused with treacle.

It's all about pre-planning and balance - eat a fist-sized portion of a low-glycaemic carbohydrate such as wholegrains with each meal or a piece of fruit/healthy snacks to keep yourself topped up with enough energy to prevent lethargy without consuming too much and feeling overly bloated. Eating small amounts of carbs at regular intervals throughout the day also helps your digestion, preventing Dumoulin-esque toilet breaks mid-ride.

Before you reach for a packet of crisps heed this warning - not all carbohydrates are created equal. Sure, if you cycle every day you may think that you can eat all the refined flours and sugars that your heart desires without any negative impacts on the waistline. Whilst this may be true for some, bad carbs are bad news for everyone. Quite simply, too many sugary carbohydrates in your day-to-day diet can have a devastating effect on recovery, energy levels and long-term health. Stick with slow release, wholegrain carbs such as sweet potato, quinoa, pittas and brown rice whilst getting your sugar fix from fruit and vegetables, packed full of nutrients rather than refined sugar. Choose wisely and the right types of carbs fill you up, maintain your blood sugar levels, increase your metabolism and provide fuel for exercise, meaning that you push harder, perform better and get stronger.


When it comes to building muscle, protein is a vital component to achieving cycle-nutrition nirvana. By ensuring you've got enough protein in your diet you can give your health, immune function and recovery rates a substantial boost. This is because protein is responsible for tissue maintenance in the body, making sure you've got the muscle to support your might. You don't want to be cashing checks with your mouth that your legs can't cash and it makes sense that if you're accelerating muscle damage through intense training while not meeting your needs, then your recovery will be sub-optimal at best.

Cycling has a proud tradition of carb-loading that is mostly based around the benefits of the quick-fire, fast-acting energy carbs provide. Recent research however, shows that protein is more filling than an equal calorie measure of carbohydrate or fat and by marginally increasing your intake you can keep your appetite under control with more success. Protein can be found from a variety of sources including beans, fish, lean meats and low-fat dairy products. Try to avoid too much red meat - it's tasty but can cause all sorts of disease based unpleasantries that you'll probably want to avoid in later life. As with carbs, eat a little bit of protein at each meal as the 'little and often' rule will aid digestion and improve energy efficiency throughout the full duration of a ride.


Protein powders have become increasingly prevalent over recent years and whilst they do have their place, it's extremely important to make sure it's something you actually need. They can provide a convenient and accurate way of ensuring your body is getting the nutrients it requires and if you have a diet that is low in quality protein, such as some vegetarian diets, supplemental protein may be ideal to boost your performance. If protein powder is something you wish to incorporate into your diet, look for a high-quality whey protein as this will give the optimum performance to the major muscles involved in cycling. Be careful not to overdo it though, if you're already eating enough protein in your regular diet for muscular growth and repair, any extra will simply be broken down to be used for energy or stored as fat and the excess nitrogen will be excreted as urine.


Fats get a lot of bad press. Often labelled as the big evil in the nutrition world, think of fat like a Great White Shark, often misunderstood and harmless as long as you give it the respect it deserves. What is vital is that you understand the crucial differences between different types of fat. The type of fat you consume is critical to health, performance and weight maintenance. Fats are grouped into ‘good’ fats and ‘bad’ fats. Good fats include polyunsaturated fats (Omega 3 and Omega 6 fats) and monounsaturated fats (Omega 9 fats). Whereas saturated fats found in meats and processed foods should be limited, Omega 3 and 6 polyunsaturated fats are key to maintaining health and are found in nuts, seeds, fish and oils.

This type of fat is known to reduce bad cholesterol (LDL) and therefore is are a vital part of the diet - assisting in the prevention of heart disease. Aiming for around 20g of good fat per day is a great strategy for health support without the risk of adding too many calorific fats to the diet. In addition, these fats include a reduction of inflammation in the body, making them great for those with asthma and allergies while also providing a stimulatory benefit to the metabolism, and therefore assisting in weight loss. You don't have to banish the Big Mac completely, but to reach your full potential it's definitely worth swapping it out occasionally for something more body-friendly.

Hydration, probiotics, vitamins and minerals

Staying hydrated is key to the function of a human body. A 2% drop in body weight due to sweating will noticeably impair your performance, 4% will decimate your muscles capacity for work and at 5% you're likely to suffer from heat exhaustion and you’ll feel achier and breakier than Billy Ray Cyrus’s heart. Hit 7% and you’ll start experiencing hallucinations and, at 10%, circulatory collapse, heat stroke and death become possibilities. Dehydration causes your body to suffer from a reduction in blood volume, decreased skin blood flow, decreased sweat rate, increased core temperature, increased rate of muscle glycogen use and decreased digestive function - all leading to a prune-like state for the rider, with gastro problems and heat hallucinations thrown in for good measure. To avoid this fate on the bike, aim to take 2-3 swigs from your bottle every 15 minutes right from the moment your ride starts. This will ensure you stay one-step ahead of the heat and remain in good hydration throughout the ride. Tea, coffee, beer and fizzy drinks might contain water but they don't count towards your 'hydration target' - try to replace them with water, specifically designed isotonic drinks and fruit juice and you'll feel your performance improve immediately. The best drinks for cycling include electrolytes such as sodium and magnesium to replace salts lost during sweating. These products give you a boost, keep you hydrated and reduce your chances of getting cramp - what's not to love?


There are two main types of vitamins in the body — fat-soluble and water-soluble. The fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E and K are stored in the body whilst the water-soluble ones are not and therefore are needed in the diet every day. Minerals such as calcium, iron and zinc are also needed daily, but only in very minor amounts. Much of your need for these vitamins can be found in your regular food, so as long as you stick to your 5-a-day and have a well-balanced diet you’ll be onto a winner. Multivitamins are also a shrewd investment, just try to avoid overdoing it. A bit of vitamin C and zinc to fight a cold is all well and good but if you start relying too much of supplements your body could become dependent and suffer the consequences. Omega 3 tablets and probiotic yoghurt are always safe bets - keeping your immune system happy and your gut efficient - something that's very important if you're eating energy gels all day.

Cycle specific supplements

Cycling supplements come in a variety of forms, from chewy bars, glucose-filled gels and electrolyte drinks to protein powders, energy blocs and caffeine tabs. Whatever you prefer, we all need a boost sometimes, especially if you've been caning it on the pedals all afternoon. For chilled out rides under 90 minutes you're unlikely to need anything other than a bottle of tap water and a good breakfast to keep you going, but for longer, more arduous rides, topping up your carbohydrate stores will support better performance and ensure you'll have enough energy in the tank to get you to your destination un-bonked.

Realistically, you're going to need between 30g and 60g of carbohydrate per hour of riding and you can opt for a carbohydrate drink or a mix of water, gels and bars - whatever is best for you! Just be sure to check the carbohydrate content and find the correct carb level for your personal requirements. The amount of carbohydrate a rider can consume varies between every rider - some may be able to digest 30g per hour whereas others can take on 60g without any gastrointestinal distress. Start at 30g and gradually increase your dose on subsequent rides to find your tolerance. Additionally, if you're riding hard and fast, it's important to remember that this will slow your digestion as the body is fully occupied with keeping your muscles full of blood and oxygen. A little advice, as the duration or intensity goes up, switch from bars to gels to make up any extra carbohydrate in addition to your drink. This will get energy where it needs to go quickly as your stomach doesn’t have to work as hard to break down gels compared to solid bars.


In low doses (1-3mg per kg of body weight per day), caffeine can give you the alertness and immediate energy for rapid performance boosting over short periods. In the heat, caffeine has been shown to be less effective and is definitely not a substitute for proper hydration and carb-based energy. A can of Red Bull is about as hydrating as a handful of sand and if you don't counter it with good old H2O you’ll leave yourself vulnerable to the perils of improper hydration. Also, if you suffer from high blood pressure, heart conditions, IBS or anxiety caffeine is not for you, it'll make you jumpy, trumpy and heart thumpy and quickly turn an enjoyable day in the saddle into an entirely uncomfortable affair. If you are thinking of giving a caffeinated drink or gel a try build up doses slowly to find the right level for you and double-check with your GP if you're on any medication or are just unsure about how caffeine can benefit your riding performance.

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