Golden Rules About Cycling Nutrition

Nutrition Rules for Cycling Success

You have to get your nutrition right to ensure proper fuelling and recovery to achieve the best possible cycling performance.

Cycling is a hard sport. There’s no easy way around it apart from tough training, dedication and commitment. But many cyclists are their own worst enemies because they don’t pay enough attention to proper nutrition.

The food you consume won’t make you a faster and fitter rider overnight, but it certainly help feed your muscles for the onslaught of tough training; lengthen the time to fatigue; help improve your immune system, which is temporarily weakened by a training session; and it helps rebuild muscle damage, allowing you to recover faster and return on the bike much sooner.

Fuelling your body well makes cycling easier and more enjoyable. The nutrition is closely linked to your performance and enjoyment on the bike. The effect of nutrition can be acute. When and what you eat in the hours before and during your training will have a considerable effect on your ability to sustain a hard ride over 60 minutes.

When it’s hot, the impact of hydration becomes even more important. Failure to have and follow a drinking strategy can be costly even during training, let alone in a race. It’s often the acute effects of nutrition that usually resonate with cyclists, which is understandable, as we feel those impacts on the bike — it’s not hard to see the connection and the difference good strategies can make.

The highly important role of nutrition in improving the immune system, speeding up recovery, rebuilding and adapting “stressed” tissues as a result of training, and maintaining key micronutrients stores, is often the untold story, and ultimately when done appropriately it will turn you into a robust rider.

making a plan
Keeping a food diary gives you an insight into your nutrition. You’ll see soon if there’s the right balance of macronutrients and micronutrients.

So let’s break it down. During high-intensity sessions, what would happen if you ignored your nutrition? First and foremost, you won’t get the maximum benefit from your exercise. In fact, in the short term you put yourself in a position where you might not be able to do the training session at the intensity required, and so providing a poor stimulus for the physique to adapt to.

Intense periods of exercise require proper fuelling as well as recovery to ensure you are in a state approach each session with full dedication. If you’re not regularly providing your body with the right micronutrients such as vitamin C, iron and magnesium, you will be increasing the risk of failing to deal successfully with the training demands. This adds to the stress on your immune system, which is already under great pressure.

Nutrition is a personal thing, which means it takes some time to get it right. It starts with taking a close look at your general diet and areas of deficiency, as well as experimenting in training to help find out what fuels your body best.

consuming gel
Cyclists consuming power gels during a race.

There are many cyclists who train almost as hard as pro cyclists, but only really think about nutrition when it comes to long rides or a race day. This invariably takes the form of just concentrating on carbs for fuelling.

Just think for yourself. The morning or night before an event, do you concentrate primarily on how many gels or energy bars you have, disregarding the importance of your pre- or post-race meal? More often than not, it’s an afterthought, and you end up having to make do with what you have in the fridge or cupboards.

Riders, and a lot of athletes for that matter, usually focus on macronutrients such as bread, diary, fish, and meat — foods that provide the body with energy. During heavy training sessions, this is of course of great importance, but it should be pointed out that micronutrients such as minerals and vitamins are just as important because they support recovery maintain health.

So what can riders do to prevent nutritional pitfalls? Athletes at all levels should listen to their body and be aware of their dietary habits — unfortunately this is as easy as just finding a plan and following it blindly. It’s a good idea and a useful strategy to keep a food diary, which is made much simpler nowadays, thanks to the mobile apps available. Our nutritional habits are usually fairly consistent over a two- to three-week period, and keeping track of yours will give you a good idea of whether you have the proper balance of macronutrients such as your carbohydrates, proteins and fats, and micronutrients such as minerals and vitamins. This makes it easier for you to make adaptations and then record the effects on cycling performance, recovery, as well ad general feelings of well-being. You should try it, it’s really a worthy investment.

road cycling race
It is possible to get through a race without consuming additional supplementation, but experts don’t recommend it.

Is it possible to go through a race without the proper nutrition? This is a question that’s often asked. In a perfect world, sports-people should get it right, but life’s never that straightforward.

It is possible to get through a race without consuming additional supplementation. But if you haven’t made specific training adaptations, such as using fat as fuel, there’s a high chance that you won’t have a positive experience; experts don’t recommend this. Take into consideration external variables such as humidity and heat, physical factors such as increased effort and mental factors such as increased stress, and you’ll soon understand that nutrition is a crucial piece of your race day kit.

You may be wondering if the professionals ever get their nutrition wrong. Well, of course they do. While it’s true that pro cyclists are very well supported by nutritionists and closely stick to bespoke nutrition plans, in the high-stress environment small details — such as not taking a sip from a water bottle or concentrating too wholeheartedly on the effort of the race, such as in a breakaway, and not consuming a gel — can be overlooked.

The most common mistake amateur cyclists make is paying attention only on fuelling when thinking about nutrition. Sufficient energy provision is important, but recovery, hydration and general diet are equally vital. It’s not all about carbs! That’s what you have to undertand and be aware of.

Take care you consume enough food rich in omega-3.

There are three golden rules about nutrition:

1. Take a close look at your general diet.

Consider your diet. Is your body getting enough energy and the right amount of macronutrients, such as carbs, proteins and fats, for you as an individual and for your training demands? Keep in mind, it’s not one-size-fits-all. Micronutrients will boost your performance; never forget about them. As mentioned before, keeping a food diary is a good start to keep track of your daily intake. Food diaries are incredibly revealing and when written honestly they can provide some clear insights into reasons for good and not-so-good cycling performances.

2. Make a recovery plan.

A recovery plan maximizes the training benefit and prepares you for the next season. Failing to recover properly can lead to diminishing returns from training and, ultimately, fatigue, injury and illness. You should drink a recovery shake after every session, which helps replace lost muscle glycogen to fuel your next training, and include quality protein.

3. Experiment in training — not in a race.

Do never experiment in an event as this can lead to disastrous results.

woman drinking water
It’s recommended to drink 5-7ml of fluid per kilo of body weight before training to top up your fluid levels.
  • Adjust your pre-exercise fuelling to suit the ride. If you’re planning a low-intensity session, carbohydrate loading could lead to weight gain, as your body is primarily using fat as a fuel source. High-intensity interval training, on the other hand, will take use of glycogen stores much more and, for this reason, it could be highly recommended to add some additional carbs such as an energy loading pre-ride snack.
  • Recovery requires carbs and protein. Carbs will help replace depleted glycogen stores and the muscles will be more responsive and recover faster if these are taken on board within 30 minutes of completing a ride. Protein is essential to help repair micro-tears in the muscle and help the body to adapt to the stress of the training session — adequate protein intake makes you stronger for future rides.
  • Know your fluid losses. It’s recommended to consume 5-7ml of fluid per kilo of body weight before starting training to top up your fluid levels.
two women smiling and holding phones
Fitness app is the newest way of keeping a food diary – online, on your PC or smartphone.

You can use MyFitnessPal online or as an app. It’s extremely easy to use and gives you a breakdown of your diet which several years ago would only have been available from a highly qualified nutritionist.

The unreliable factor is remembering and recording honestly all you have eaten. If you hook MyFitnessPal up to your Garmin device, the accuracy will go up a notch. It will sync to garmin.connect so that all the calories you burn during training get added to your account, and as the day goes on you can see exactly how much you should be eating to fulfil your body’s requirements.

You can establish goals based on weight loss and how much of each macronutrient you aim to consume each day. However, it’s not simply about calories. MyFitnessPal also generates easy-to-understand data showing you the macronutrients: the percentage of your nutrition coming from carbs, fat and protein. It also delves deeper into the micronutrients you should be consuming every eay and informing you about the exact amount of each nutrient you have eaten, and whether it suffice.

There’s a great amount of information at your fingertips, but it does need interpreting. Knowing at the end of the day that you haven’t consumed enough vitamin C, iron or zinc is only useful if you know which foods contain them.

However, over time, monitoring your eating helps you determine the good and bad habits in your diet. Indeed, filling in your daily food helps raise awareness of how much and when you are eating. Various studies have shown that people who keep food diaries tend to eat more healthily and lose weight.

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Written by Stephan Blake

Stephan Blake is a cycling enthusiast and rides hundreds of miles every season. On rainy and cold days, he does weight training and high-intensity training to support his cycling performance.


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