The Right Food for the Right Ride – Determine Your Cycling Nutrition
The chances are you know that cycling nutrition is vital to putting in good cycling performances. What you eat on and off the bike is important and plays an important role in how far you can ride, how often, and how quickly you recover from long endurance rides.
Do a little online research on the subject and you quickly realise that the information from one expert to another often contradicts. There is a lot of it and the science and thinking seem to change year in year out. Opinions that were discarded five years ago resurface. It is all very confusing and frustrating.
Fear not, however, as in this article we are going to give you actionable tips to help you discover what food is good for you and your cycling career.
Along the way, we’ll give you the current thinking used by pro cycling teams.
In many respects what you eat is determined by your objective. Improving performance is different from losing weight. Here, we’re going to focus on cycling performance.
It's All About You
The fact is that your diet is going to be unique to you. What works for a cycling buddy isn’t necessarily going to agree with you. As such, you’re going to have to experiment with cycling nutrition to discover what works.
Bear in mind that your cycling nutritional needs are going to be dependent on the training session or event. So, for a 100 km sportive what you consume is going to be very different from a ninety minute training spin. Keep this in mind.
Equipment You Need to Determine Cycling Nutritional Requirements.
Before we talk about food, let’s talk about how to record your training efforts in relation to food.
The following make for good training aids:
- Power Meter or Heart Rate Monitor – This will help you determine your Functional Threshold Power (FTP) and work out training zones.
- Pen and paper – Keeping a log of what you ate on a given ride is good practice. You can note what you ate and when, and cross reference this with performance numbers to see what food worked and which didn’t.
- Strava or a similar app – This tracks your speed, distance and time for each ride. You’ll need this information to determine what cycling nutrition is right for you.
- Turbo Trainer – Optional, but having one of these means you can stick to your training plan no matter the weather.
Now, let’s talk about endurance riding.
Endurance Riding – What you Need to Know
Building endurance, strength, and power are vital to successful road cycling. Endurance underpins it all. Martin, a SportActive head pro cycling coach explains endurance, its importance, and how to use it to ride further. A good endurance base is vital to successfully completing demanding sportives such as the Mallorca 312 and Marmotte Granfondo Alps sportives.
Determining your FTP (Functional, Threshold, Power) or maximum heart rate is important to endurance riding and your nutritional intake. This enables you to use training zones which enable you to ride within a specific zone. Training zone 2 enables you to burn fat before dipping into your glycogen (carbs) stores.
Hydration is vital to good cycling performance and becoming dehydrated is dangerous. When you ride you lose fluid and electrolytes through sweat. Current thinking is that a 5% drop in hydration levels equates to around a 30% drop in your physical and mental performance. In other words, it is hugely important to take on plenty of fluids.
Some Pro Teams weigh their riders before and after rides. A well hydrated cyclist shouldn’t have lost any weight at the end of a ride. As a starting point, the science believes for every 0.5kg of weight lost, you’ll need 500ml of water to keep your hydration levels where they should be. This figure offers good insights into how much you need to drink during a ride. For example, if you find you’re 2kg lighter after a two hour spin, you’ll need 2 litres of water to rebalance.
Water is fine for short rides but as your distance increases, you’re going to need to replace electrolytes as well as water. Electrolytes are minerals that hold an electrical charge and keep your muscles and nerves firing.
Salt and potassium are good examples of electrolytes.
It is believed that Pro road cyclists lose between 400-2000mg of electrolytes per litre of sweat. Many of the leading brands of energy drinks aimed at the cycling market have settled on 1000mg per litre. It is a starting point you can work with initially.
Electrolytes are also taken by cyclists in tablet form or powder that you put in your water bottles.
External factors are a great influence on how much water and electrolytes you’ll lose. Hotter days require you to drink more fluids as do weather conditions that demand a lot of effort such as wind.
Terrain as well plays a part. More demanding climbs require more effort and this requires more fluid. Keep this in mind.
Also, as you improve your hydration requirements will change.
Cycling Nutrition Food
Let’s talk about food. When you eat you build up or restore carb levels, which is what you burn when putting in intense efforts (zone 3+) or when you deplete your fat stores. For post ride you’ll take in carbs and proteins to assist muscle recovery.
Eating before a ride tops up your glycogen stores which is exactly what you need before you start turning the pedals. As such, you want to eat carb and protein rich foods about an hour before the ride. Porridge is a good choice but other foods such as pasta and quinoa are considered to be good sources of carbohydrates.
Avoid surgery food such as pancakes and syrup.
On the Bike
Many nutritional cycling coaches measure the amount of carbohydrate needed in carbs/per hour. Take a look at the following numbers some coaches believe are a good baseline to work to in terms of carbs/per hour. Think of carbs as fuel.
- 1 hour ride – No fuel needed.
- 1-2 hour ride - 20g carbs per hour
- 2-3 hour ride - 30g carbs per hour
- 3 hour ride -40g carbs per hour
For high intensity sessions and or competition, the thinking changes again.
- 1 hour session or race - No on-bike fuel needed
- 60-90min session or race - 30g carbs per hour
- 90min-3hr session or race - 45-60g carbs per hour
- 3 hour session or race - 90g carbs per hour
Although there is a lot of room for experimentation, use these numbers as a starting point.
Carbs can be consumed in the form of gels, solid food, and powder that you put into your water bottles. Again, you’ll have to experiment to determine what works for you.
Current thinking is that the body can process carbs faster when they are comprised of two thirds glucose and one third fructose per hour. This is considered optimum for performance cycling.
Your body will process carbs easier than fat and will start to use them as you deplete your fat stores. Carbs are stored in glycogen in your liver and muscles and this is what you restore when you take in carbs.
Gels vs. Solid Food
Current thinking suggests that your body can process gels faster than solid food at least for most cyclists. That said, some cyclists say that the gels bring gastro issues and or they don’t see any performance gains from eating gels over solid food.
As such, it is a good idea to use and compare gels vs solid food to see how your performance is affected. The thinking is that the faster your body can process food the sooner your body can replenish energy stores and harness the benefits. From this viewpoint, gels seem to make sense. Like all things cycling nutrition related, however, one size does not fit all.
Some road cyclists like to eat bananas when riding as they are a good carbohydrate source and contain the electrolyte potassium.
Your choice of food will be determined by what you can tolerate, and what you like and feel comfortable eating.
Post ride food helps your muscles and tendons recover from a ride and avoids injury. Your post ride food should consist of protein and carbohydrate foods. Milk is a great post ride food.
Tips for Getting Your Cycling Nutrition Right
- Make a training plan and include a nutritional plan. Your nutritional plan will detail how many carbs and litres of fluid per hour you’ll need for each ride.
- When riding set an alarm for when to fuel. This is easily forgotten when on a ride.
- For each ride write down how much fuel you consumed and what kind of fuel it was. For example, you may have had two energy gels, and two bananas. Don’t forget to record the grammes. Record how you felt during the ride and indicate if it was the best/worst you’ve felt so far.
- After a few rides review your logs to see if you can pinpoint what works best for you.
- Experiment with how much fuel and liquid you consume and record the results.
Don’t forget that as you improve your nutritional cycling requirements can change.
If you can get your training and nutrition on point, you’re taking significant steps to becoming the best cyclist you can be.
SportActive – Faster, Fitter, Stronger