Nutrition basics for cyclists

Fuelling really can make or break a ride. Take on too much and your body will have trouble balancing the needs of digestion with the needs of the exercise. Eat too little and you force your body to metabolise fat as fuel and risk bonking during intense sessions. Balancing intake and output is a core skill of an experienced cyclist.

According to my Garmin, the routes I ride cause me to burn anywhere between 1,000 and 2,500 calories. I do use an HRM and the correct age and weight stats so the figures are reasonably accurate. At least accurate enough for a recreational rider such as me. So on an average ride day, I would need to consume between 3,500 and 5,000 calories to provide my daily amount plus that which I would burn.

Nutrition basics

Our diets are generally made up of three macronutrients (nutrients we need a lot of), carbohydrate, protein and fat. Plus micronutrients such as vitamins and minerals. Having a good balance of everything throughout a week is ideal.

There is a good reason doctors go on about a healthy balanced diet. When you ask something extra of your body or put it through the wringer like an epic ride, you have to give it the fuel it needs to get the job done. Long before you go out on a ride, you need to make sure your body has been well fuelled and has everything it needs to work efficiently. The same when you come home. As well as replacing the nutrients lost during the ride, you also need to ensure it has enough of everything to recover properly before the next one.

Little and often

There’s no point loading up with food just before or only after a ride as your body could already be in deficit. The same for loading your plate at only certain points of the day. The feast and famine approach doesn’t work very well as it forces your body to make adaptations and compromises depending on what nutrients it has lots of and what it needs.

Your body can store certain minerals and vitamins for a few days but not all of them. We know it can store fat, but it isn’t quite so good at storing protein. It can also store around an hour’s worth of carbohydrate in the form of glycogen. However, we might needs these stores so we don’t want to use them up.

When a cyclist is training or putting in a lot of miles, your body has enough work to do as it is. You’re much better of making life easier on yourself by ensuring you have enough of everything most of the time.

We tend to eat a breakfast, a lunch and a larger dinner with the latter having most of our daily protein and carbohydrate. In an ideal world, we would eat little and often, spreading macronutrients throughout the day so our bodies have the chance to digest and make use of them. Eat too much at once and not all of it gets processed.

So for me, a normal day would look something like this.

Breakfast 8am – Berry smoothie with Greek yoghurt, a banana and skimmed milk

Snack 10am – Crackers and Hummus

Lunch 1pm – Grilled chicken sandwich

Snack 3pm – Homemade fruit and nut mix

Dinner 6pm – Homemade chicken curry with rice

A ride day might look something like this.

Breakfast – Porridge with fruit or syrup

Snack – Coffee and a cake while on the ride

End of ride – Recovery drink or milkshake within 30 mins of finishing

Lunch – Baked potato with chicken or salmon

Snack – Fruit, nuts, milkshake

Dinner – Lean meat with pasta or rice and vegetables

Supper – Milkshake or protein drink

Don’t be scared to snack around ride days. As long as the snack is nutritious and offers your body something other than empty carbs you should be fine. Cycling puts a lot of demands onto our body and will sometimes feel it more than others. If your body needs something it will ask for it. If you suddenly have an urge to eat a whole block of cheese, that’s your body telling you it needs something in cheese. Go with it, within reason.

Eating little and often has other benefits too. It can reduce insulin spikes and provide a steady source of energy throughout the day. If you’re the type to feel sleepy or lazy in the afternoons, having a healthy snack can address that. If you regularly feel hungry before dinner and have a tendency to load the plate more than you should, an afternoon snack can help that too.

Nutrition is all about giving your body what it needs to operate efficiently. The more you ask of your body, the more you have to give it. Plan accordingly and there should be no ride you can’t handle!

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