Nutrition Basics and Eating for Cyclists
By Evan Oppenheimer
Biking is one of the most fantastic activities that you can do for your body. It is a great way to see beautiful places, get some exercise and have tons of fun in the process. Depending on how hard, far and often you ride, all that work requires fuel…sometimes lots of it! We are not talking about the gasoline type fuel, but the food you put in your body that gets you where you need to go while feeling great in the biking process. The purpose of this article is to provide a brief overview of nutrition tips for cyclists as well as how to eat right before, during and after rides.
Riding bikes, while typically a low-impact activity, can cause a person to burn anywhere from 200 to over 1,400 calories per hour! The variance is dependent on many factors including intensity (leisurely, moderate or intense pace), rider weight, terrain, weather and type of bike. For instance, a 170 lb male riding at a leisurely pace (10–12 mph) for one hour will typically burn about 500 calories. If the same person were riding at a fast pace (16–20 mph) for the same one hour, he would burn over 1,000 calories. Calories burned for women will be slightly lower, but what is clear is that when bikers are putting in miles, we need fuel to keep going the distance.
There are lots of theories on what types of fuel (aka food) work best for cyclists, but having a basic understanding of the different elements in food can enable you to get on the bike with ample energy and feel good doing it day after day. All food, when burned by the body, provides varying amounts of calories. Fat, protein, and carbohydrates all have different caloric values, but without getting into too much of the science end of things, a typical diet should be comprised of 10–20% protein, 30% or less fats, and 50–60% carbohydrates.
All of these food elements play a part in your ability to have solid energy while cycling, but carbohydrates, found in foods such as bread, potatoes, pastries, candy, pasta, fruits and vegetables, often make up the greatest part of your diet. Carbohydrates are the major source for the creation of glucose which is carried through the bloodstream and stored in the liver so it can be used for energy while the body is at work. Protein, found in foods such as meat, eggs and beans, are primarily used to build and repair body tissue. Fats, found in various foods, are stored for the long haul in several parts of the body. Excess calories from protein and carbohydrates are stored in the body as fat, and are only burned off when the body burns more calories than it takes in.
There are hundreds, if not thousands of diet plans and nutrition strategies out there, so ultimately the food you put into your body is a matter of personal preference, but the purpose here is to give a general sense of how food works for your body and how to get the most out of your food for optimal cycling energy.
Pre-Ride Nutrition Tips
As previously mentioned, the frequency and intensity of your riding is going to be a major factor in determining what and how much to eat to prepare for cycling. Before any level of ride, it is necessary for you to top off those glycogen stores so a pre-ride meal should consist of easy-to-digest foods that come primarily from carbohydrates. Whole grains and high-fiber foods will typically not digest as easily as other carbohydrates, so these types of foods should generally be avoided. It also should go without saying that pre-hydrating before an activity is always a great idea.
Although it’s fun experimenting to figure out what works best for your body, Monique Ryan from VeloNews suggests the following guidelines for pre-ride meals:
15 to 60 minutes before an early morning ride, aim for 50 to 85 grams of carbohydrates along with 24 to 32 ounces of fluid, such as:
- 1 energy bar
- 1 gel packet
- 16 ounces of a high carbohydrate drink
- 8 ounces of a liquid meal supplement
- 2 slices of toast with 2 tablespoons of jam
Example: 85 grams of carbohydrates could include an energy bar (40 grams) and a 24-ounce sports drink (45 grams).
Two hours before an evening ride, consume the equivalent of carbohydrates in grams as your body weight in pounds, for example 150 grams for a 150-pound cyclist. Keep protein amounts low, with virtually no fat, such as:
- Milkshake or fruit smoothie
- Breakfast cereal with milk and fruit
- Fruit-flavored yogurt
- Banana and other tolerated fruit
- Energy bar
- Bagel with jam
- Graham crackers
Example: 150 grams of carbohydrates could include: 8 ounces of yogurt with fruit (40 grams), 2 ounces of pretzels (50 grams), 1 medium banana (30 grams), 8 ounces of juice (30 grams).
Weekend Hammer Breakfast
Ideally, consume a fairly large breakfast three hours before a challenging weekend ride. Aim for 1.5 grams of carbohydrates for every pound of weight, or 225 grams for a 150-pound cyclist. Concentrated carbohydrate sources include waffles, pancakes and higher calorie cereals.
- Carbohydrate choices: Cereal, toast, waffles, pancakes, juice, fruit, maple syrup, jam, bagels, low-fat muffins, rice, pasta, skim dairy products
- Protein choices: Whole eggs, egg whites or peanut butter
Example: 225 grams of carbohydrates could include: 2 cups of cooked oatmeal (60 grams), 2 teaspoons of raisins (30 grams), 8 ounces of juice (30 grams), 1 cup of berries (15 grams), 2 slices of toast (30 grams), 2 tablespoons of jam (30 grams), 8 ounces of yogurt (30 grams).
Nutrition Tips for during Your Cycling Activity
Even with a good pre-ride meal, there is typically only enough storage in the body for about 1–2 hours of glycogen stores needed for activity. For longer rides and day-long epics, it is important to continually provide some fuel for the body to keep energy stores up. It is also a great idea to do this BEFORE you get hungry if you want to keep going strong throughout the day. With this in mind, electrolyte- and carbohydrate-rich drinks, gels and energy bars are great items to consider for fueling up during your physical activity. One 16-ounce bottle of water and/or energy drink per hour is a good general guideline in terms of hydration. If drinking only water, your in-ride fuel can be supplemented with energy Gu’s, various energy gels, Clif Shot Bloks and the like.
Post-Ride Recovery, Food and Hydration
One of the best things you can do post-ride is to not just eat a well-balanced meal as described above (a nice mix of carbohydrates, protein and fats), but hydrate! Water is an obvious choice, but fruit juice, vegetable juice, and regular or chocolate milk are all great options to encourage hydration and calorie replacement. Also, a good salty snack after a long or hard ride is never a bad idea and should typically be sufficient to compensate for any sodium losses. Sleep is another important factor in recovery after a ride, because without it, the best nutrition in the world isn’t going to do any good if the mind and body haven’t had a chance to rest.
In summary, eating a well-balanced mix of foods and ensuring proper hydration will keep you rolling long and strong on any ride. Like everything else in life, enjoy what you eat too because there is more to biking than just keeping the fuel tank topped off!