Cyclist’s love talking about cycling nutrition and how they are using it to improve their performance. Bunch rides and post ride are filled with coffee, questions and advice from fellow riders.
"How much protein do I need? Do you need a protein shake? How much carbohydrate? Wait...should I even be eating carbs? I need to drop 5kg to optimise my power to weight ratio…Should I try Keto/fasting to lose weight?”
Advice in the media and social media on what, how and when we should eat is confusing. Some of this comes from athletes and “fitness professionals”. When we see one of our cycling idols promoting a supplement or specific diet to follow, of course we pay attention.
Before trying any supplements or diet I encourage all cyclists to get back to the basics with nutrition first. What does this mean? It means building a strong nutrition foundation with food and fluid at all meals, including those around riding.
What we eat provides us with carbohydrate energy for muscles and brain, protein for repair and muscle growth, fats for energy and essential fatty acids, vegetables for vitamins, minerals, fibre and fluid for hydration. We are just scratching the surface on what foods give our bodies here!
Choices before rides should be lower fibre, carbohydrate rich choices (white bread, plain cereals, milk-based smoothies). They are easier and faster to digest. Not too much fat or protein in these meals as this slows down digestion and absorption. Easy options for a week-day might be a slice of bread/toast with jam, overnight oats (Bircher Muesli) or a bowl of commercial cereal with milk.
Carbohydrate rich foods are also what you should put in your jersey pockets on long rides for fuel to keep legs peddling and brain functioning. Commercial ride foods like gels and bars, are designed to fit easily into your jersey pockets for this purpose. You can also make your own. One of the easiest options are plain sandwiches with a simple spread. I like squashed white bread sandwiches, crusts cut off, with peanut butter for longer rides. Same amount of energy as a gel and a little more satisfying if you do get hungry.
Foods that are rich in carbohydrate include: bread, pasta, rice, cereals, grains, fruits, potato, sweet potato, legumes, milk and yoghurt. Food rich in carbohydrate are the ones you want to eat before, during and after riding.
If a rider is focused on reducing body weight will reduce intake at other meals away from training to facilitate some weight loss. There may be some exceptions to this before very easy rides. Fasting or cutting carbohydrates around training certainly won’t work if the goal is to train hard, recover well and be healthy.
Protein rich foods help to keep our muscles in good working order and are vital for muscle recovery. They also make meals more satisfying. We can meet our protein needs using food - and do not have to have a protein shake or supplement if we are thoughtful about what foods we are adding to meals and snacks. We need more protein if we are more active and more protein as we age. As a guide ¼ to 1/3 of a plate will contain foods rich in protein – this can remain consistent on days you are training and on rest days.
Some foods rich in protein include: meat, chicken, fish, eggs, nuts, seeds, tofu, legumes, dairy foods (milk, cheese, yoghurt), some plant milks (soy) and tofu.
The best recovery practice is to eat as soon as you can after exercise - ideally within the first 60 minutes. If it is a little longer don't panic, don't leave it longer than 2 hours if you can help it. Our muscles repair and refill more efficiently in the first hour after exercise.
A recovery meal or snack should contain foods rich in both carbohydrate and protein. You will get hungry, cranky or sleepy (or all 3) a few hours later if you don't get enough at this meal. As a guide 1/3 to 1/2 of a plate should contain foods rich in carbohydrate if eating for recovery. For those really focused on performance, you will not see the adaptations and improvements you want from your training session if you miss this opportunity.
Nearly every client I speak to tells me they should eat more vegetables. They are more than a garnish to a meal. They are part of your support crew for a nutritious diet. They take equal importance to protein, fats, and carbohydrates. So, proportion them accordingly. As a guide 1/3 to 1/2 of a plate will contain vegetable or salad foods.
Importance of Hydration and cooling
We never really appreciate this aspect of cycling nutrition until we get it wrong. I have seen this happen many times in triathlon and cycling events. I recall one particular 3 Peaks Ride in Victoria in 2013 where temperatures soared into the very high 30’s. I saw fellow cyclists sitting deflated on the side of the road, with once black knicks stained white with salt residue from litres of sweat, unable to continue.
Having an idea of how much fluid you need to drink and then practicing this can help to manage regular rides and these more extreme scenarios. My tip for cyclists is to have an idea of your sweat rate. Choose a variety of fluids on longer rides so you don’t “over-carb” using sports drinks (energy and electrolyte). Just one litre of sports drink per hour is all your stomach can tolerate – more than this can lead to stomach upsets. Adding food on top of this makes it even worse. Using water, electrolyte only and sports drinks in combination is recommended.
Some specifics for females
In the past advice for female and male athletes was no different. But what female athletes have known for some time that this advice did not always work for them. We are now talking more openly and researching the impact of hormonal changes over the menstrual cycle and the impact on performance and diet. For example:
- In the luteal phase (period to ovulation) higher estrogen levels can make burning fatty acids for fuel more efficient, so great for endurance but not as efficient for high intensity activities. A little extra carbohydrate may be beneficial around harder sessions because of this.
- During the follicular phase (after ovulation) progesterone is higher, promoting protein breakdown. Making recovery after exercise when trying to rebuild muscle proteins more challenging. To combat this the recovery window for females is tighter than in males and females should consume their recovery meal, that contains both protein and carbohydrate, ideally within 30 min of finishing exercise. Intermittent fasting and low carbohydrate diets certainly don’t support hard training sessions.
- Peri-menopause and post-menopause is different again due to initially fluctuating and then low levels of estrogen and progesterone.
Working on the basics builds foundations for allows you to keep building on your nutrition practices. In many cases cyclists see improvements in physical and mental performance just through taking a little time to ensure meals are balanced and timed better around training.
Written by Rebecca Hay.
Accredited Practising Dietitian, Accredited Sports Dietitian. Performance Specialist.
Rebecca has over 20 years of experience in the nutrition and performance space. She specialises in sports and performance nutrition and disordered eating. She has participated and competed in a variety of sports including: netball, athletics, sailing, adventure racing, mountain biking, road cycling and triathlon. Her goal is to help her clients with practical and evidence based advice.
Rebecca works with athletes of all ages and abilities. She has worked with many teams and organisations over her years as a dietitian. Currently works in her own private practice and with the Elite Athlete Program at the University of Sydney.
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