Nutrition and Cycling

Whatever your training goal, certain dietary requirements are universal: consuming the right number of calories, eating plenty of fruit and vegetables, and drinking enough water. However, there are distinct differences between the requirements for people lifting weights, for example, and those engaged in endurance or cardio-based sports and activities such as cycling or running.

This article is aimed at beginners, just getting into exercise and cycling for the first time.

Calorie Intake

It sounds cliché, but this will depend on your training goal. If you’re overweight, and you’ve started out cycling to drop some extra pounds, consuming extra calories is pointless. Calculate your TDE and deduct around 500 calories per day to reach 1lb of weight loss per week. (note, the whole 3,500 being equal to 1lb is just a myth. However, it is easy to remember and a good ball-park starting point. Simply measure your results weekly and adjust accordingly).

You’ll find a few ways in which you can track your calorie intake, and calories burned. The first and most basic way is the manual way – with a pen and paper or on your computer. You can keep notes of what you’ve eaten, how long and how far you have cycled, and you can get an accurate measurement of the calories you’ve consumed and the calories you’ve burned. A good rule of thumb is about 40-50 calories for every mile travelled.

While some (maybe the more technophobic of us) prefer the manual method, the rest of us are more comfortable using apps and gadgets. Detailed applications, equipped with large food databases, GPS tracking, heart-rate monitoring, and many other wild and wonderful features can help data-hungry cyclists track every detail of their training regime.

Hydration

How much water we should drink is a hotly debated subject; not just for athletes and fitness fanatics, but for everyone, it seems. Dehydration will certainly affect your riding ability, which, in turn, will compromise your performance, limit training gains and extend the time it takes to recover.

When the body is dehydrated, several physiological problems arise:

  • Core temperature increases
  • Blood volume reduces
  • Increased muscle glycogen use
  • Digestive function decreases

While sweating, your body loses weight. Just a 2% reduction in body weight will noticeably impair performance. Once you reach 7%, you can start hallucinating, and by 10%, heat stroke, circulatory collapse and death are possible.

By weighing yourself before and after a 60-minute ride, you can check the difference in weight. Make sure you weigh yourself naked and dry off when you return from your ride. Each gram of weight loss equates to one millilitre of liquid. Riders find they tend to lose around 0.5-1kg per hour, meaning they should drink 500-1000ml of fluid. While it is not necessary to rehydrate 100%, aiming for around 75% as a minimum should be fine.

While water is your primary requirement to prevent dehydration, you might want to take an isotonic drink during your ride. These drinks contain electrolytes as well as carbohydrates. This helps promote proper rehydration which can delay the onset of fatigue.

Carbohydrates

While consuming enough carbohydrates might seem easy, it is important to remember that the type of carbs you eat matters. You’ve probably heard of slow-release and fast-release carbs. In simple terms, this refers to the glycaemic index (GI) of the food in question.

Foods with a high GI (fast-release carbs) raise blood sugar levels more than foods with a medium or low GI. If you’re looking to go out for a ride at 10 am in the morning, eating foods with a high GI at 8 am for breakfast is not the best idea: blood sugars will spike quickly, insulin is released to control blood sugar levels, and this will normally result in energy being stored as fat if not being used. Foods with a high GI should be consumed during a race, for example, to provide immediate energy.

Slow-release carbs, as their name suggests, create a slower and more prolonged increase in blood sugar. In general, these slow-release carbs (which have a low GI) are more beneficial and should make up most of the carbs everyone consumes – not those engaging in endurance-based exercise.

Taking this into account, a few hours before your ride, you should look to consume foods with a low to medium GI. Consider things like:

  • Porridge
  • Muesli
  • Rye bread toast
  • Pita bread
  • Scrambled eggs (animal products don’t contain carbs, so don’t appear on the GI)

While not eaten at the breakfast table, other foods with a low to medium GI include:

  • Brown, wild or basmati rice
  • Sweet potatoes
  • Legumes
  • Lentils

Around 30 minutes before you set out on a ride, consume a snack with a medium GI. Here are some examples:

  • Banana
  • Orange or orange juice
  • Mango
  • Croissant

During the ride, the best options are to consume high GI foods and drinks. A mix of glucose and fructose at a ratio of 2:1 can deliver up to 50% more energy to muscles, allowing up to 90 grams can be used for fuel, per hour.

  • Fructose drinks – you can get drinks formulated to the 2:1 ratio mentioned, with added electrolytes
  • Jellied sweets
  • Carbohydrate energy gels
  • Dried fruits such as raisins or dates

Recovery Food & Glycogen

After consuming carbohydrates, anything not used for energy is stored. Firstly, insulin helps the body store the excess energy in muscle cells as glycogen. Interestingly, once energy is stored in the muscle as glycogen, it cannot return to the bloodstream to be used elsewhere. This means it must be used solely by the muscle. By encouraging glucose uptake by muscles, you have a readily available source of energy. For this reason, storing energy as glycogen is preferable to storing it as fat, which is harder to break down for energy.

If your ride is particularly long, it is advisable to consume carbs regularly throughout to protect glycogen stores. Also, after your ride, you need to replenish glycogen levels and consume protein to help with muscle recovery. Again, you should consume high GI foods. This encourages a spike in blood sugar, which provokes a greater insulin response, which results in greater uptake by the muscles.

A good rule of thumb here is to consume 1 gram of carbs for every kilogram of body weight, along with 20 grams of protein. For example, a large bowl of cereal such as corn flakes with milk is great – it is high GI carbs, with protein from the milk.

Essential Fatty Acids

Riding for considerable lengths of time, as with any endurance exercise, can cause inflammation. Essential fatty acids have proven anti-inflammatory properties, so are an important part of your diet.

You’re far more likely to hear the terms omega-3 and omega-6 when it comes to essential fatty acids. Omega-6 is found in leafy vegetables, seeds, and oils such as corn oil, sunflower oil, and poppy seed oil. Omega-3, is found in many foods such as nuts, seeds, and flaxseed oil, but is most associated with oily fish.

Oily fish is the best option because it is naturally high in EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) and DHA (docosahexaenoic acid). These are forms of fatty acids which show the most health benefits in studies. However, in foods such as nuts and flaxseed oil, the omega-3 comes in the form of alpha-linolenic acid (ALA). While the body can convert ALA into EPA and DHA, it is not very efficient at doing so.

For this reason, you should look to consume several portions of oily fish per week. If, however, you are vegetarian or vegan, you are limited as to where you can get foods high in EPA and DHA. In fact, the only option is algae supplements. You might see many vegetarian and vegan omega-3 supplements on supermarket shelves, however, they will usually be from flaxseed, and only high in the hard-to-convert ALA, so not ideal.

If you’re unable to eat a couple of portions of oily fish per week (or one portion if eating swordfish due to high mercury levels) you should consider adding supplements to your diet. Supplementing with fish liver oil is not the best option, as the liver is high in vitamin A, which can accumulate in the body and lead to health problems in the future such as osteoporosis. For this reason, supplementing with algae-based omega-3 supplements is advisable for anyone who needs to add more omega-3 to their diet.

Protein

Much research has been conducted regarding optimal protein intake in sports and exercise. While most of the studies focus on the level required to build muscle, there are some good studies which concentrated on endurance sports. They conclude that protein consumption should be about 1-1.6g per kilogram of bodyweight, per day. So, for a 70kg individual, 70-112 grams will be enough.

Exercising more frequently naturally puts more stress on the body, and requirements will be towards the higher end of the scale. Leaner individuals will also require slightly more protein, too. If you’re unsure of how much protein you should consume, check out this protein intake calculator.

Other Considerations

If you’re new to cycling, you might get a little ahead of yourself regarding the distance you can manage. While downhill riding is a breeze, you must remember you need to make it back up that hill. One option available is to motorize your bike to give you a helping hand. While that’s fine and well, in theory, it can also lead to bad habits, so might not be the best option. However, with that said, it has come to light in recent years that this has been used as a form of cheating in professional cycling, called mechanical doping.

Final Words

A well-balanced, healthy diet is advisable for everyone – no matter what their goal is. Cardio sports such as cycling and running, however, are far more demanding on the body, making proper diet and nutrition especially important.

By consuming enough protein, the right kinds of carbs, staying hydrated and adding essential fatty acids to your diet, you’re going to perform better, and for longer.

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