Cycling Nutrition: myths and truths

It is likely that many riders have only a limited idea of what to eat and drink when while cycling. Even with the internet and a wealth of knowledge available people still ‘blow up’ on rides. In case you are unsure what it means to ‘blow up’, this is when you have emptied your body’s carbohydrate stores. It is easy to avoid, especially on shorter rides. However on longer rides if you don’t top up then you are likely to feel an increasing level of fatigue to the point where you think I just can’t do this any more. This is where your stores are drained and the liver can’t supply any more carbohydrate, forcing your body to rely more and more on fat as fuel which is harder to access – or easier forms of fuel like broken down muscle.

This is why the professional teams spend a lot of money on cycling nutrition with the best nutritionists planning and carefully observing riders diets to ensure they hit their peak each day. But for the rest of us riding and training at a more modest schedule what do we need to know and where do we start to properly fuel the body?

Food is important but liquid is even more so

The most important aspect of cycling nutrition is hydration. If you become dehydrated you can be fairly certain that everything else falls apart.

Do you know how much you need to drink while riding to stay hydrated? No, then perhaps it is a perfect time to do a sweat rate test. A sweat rate test tells you what you really need to drink while cycling.

Typically people will sweat at a rate of between 1 – 1.5L of fluid per hour of moderately hard cycling. This will depend on the circumstances, riding in the middle of winter you are likely to sweat less than blasting along in summer.

One brand of electolytes

One brand of electolytes

The sweat test

  • Take your body weight before a one-hour moderate intensity cycle.
  • Keep a mental note of how much fluid you drank on the ride – but don’t eat food while carrying out this test.
  • Weigh yourself again when you get home or off the trainer.
  • Calculate the weight change and remember to add in the amount of liquid consumed during the workout. This is your sweat rate.

Sweat also contains electrolytes which need replacing on longer rides. Generally rides of less than one hour require only water, but on longer rides switch to a high quality electrolyte solution.

How much fuel?

Cycling is a high energy activity. On a high intensity ride your system is pushed pretty hard and can burn as much 15 calories (possibly more depending on your size) per minute.

Taking a moderate view on your requirements of around 10 per minute, it is reasonable that you are burning around 600 calories an hour.

If you have a GPS computer in which you put in your age, height and weight and it is combined with a heart rate belt you will get a decent estimate of the calories you used on a ride.

How much fuel can you digest riding?

If you are riding for less than two hours you should be able to ride without worrying too much about eating as your body has enough carbohydrate stored – you will be in a deficit when you get home but this is ok. But don’t forget your hydration needs.

On longer duration rides you will need to eat, eat early and eat often. A good first trick is always starting with breakfast to top you up and have energy come on-stream as you ride.

Under peak conditions your body can absorb a maximum of 90g of carbohydrates per hour but it is usually closer to 60g per hour. You can absorb around 60g from glucose sources and another 30g from Fructose sources. This means you can digest between 200 and 400 calories an hour while riding.

An example of a two formulated products, a bar and a gel

An example of a two formulated products, a bar and a gel

What sort of food?

People often use gels as they are quick and easy to consume. You will need around two gels per hour and be careful to follow the instructions as they normally need to be consumed with water and may contain caffeine. There are also formulated drinks to have in your bottles which are similar to gels.

However, it is fine to eat normal food too if you prefer. Good options include muesli bars or honey sandwiches. No matter your choice make sure that it does not contain lots of dairy or other hard to digest foods as you want the energy to hit your muscles fast.

Too much of a good thing

You can quite easily go over the nutritional requirements, eg eating more than 60g of carbs which can lead to stomach issues, such as bloating, later in a long ride.

An easy way to ensure your carbohydrate intake is right initially is to choose either gels or drinks. Drink plain water while you’re eating carbohydrate-rich foods such as energy bars and gels. Two gels and one bottle of water provide the same amount of energy and electrolytes as a typical endurance sports drink. Alternatively use a formulated carbohydrate and electrolyte drink that provides the 60 grams of carbs and skip the gels and bars.

A formulated high calorie drink powder

A formulated high calorie drink powder

Too much coffee

As a side note, watch out when buying gels as many of them contain caffeine. If you don’t like consuming a cup of coffee every half an hour, then be careful to buy gels without any caffeine. Some products are even 2x the caffeine.

What are the benefits?

Put bluntly, proper cycling nutrition equals more speed and helps you ride strong to the end of the ride. Blowing up on a ride can mean finishing slower than kid on a tricycle. Practice getting your nutrition right to finish strongly.

Finally, on a long ride you could easily burn your day’s food, so you need to eat enough food once you get off the bike to ensure proper recovery. It is not an excuse to overdo it with naughty foods though.

Further viewing

If you are interested there is a really in depth lecture on fuelling for cyclists by Heather Schwartz on the University of California TV.

Author: Christopher Baylis

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