cycling is an intense form of sport that is a continuum of individual and team competitions with time trials, road races of different distances ranging from as low as 10km to as high as 250kilometers held over several consecutive stages or a single day.
Cycling calls for a high level of commitment and preparation by the athlete which is often proportional to the duration of the competition.
Proper nutrition and hydration are very critical in achieving peak athletic performance and hence every athlete needs to take them very seriously.
To achieve the best performance levels you need to get used to long and frequent training days, where you also train on how to manage your fuel and hydration needs in preparation for the big day.
Nutrition for Cycling Training
To be in peak performance condition, you need to have a nutrient-rich diet. You need to always ensure that you take in as much carbohydrates and proteins, to ensure that you have the energy for training and that you eat enough for adaption, repair, and refueling.
This is very critical particularly if you are used to having several training sessions every day. Elite cyclists typically require about 8g per kg per day, while club cyclists require 7g per kg per day of carbohydrates.
It is always recommended to take frequent snacks and meals whenever you are involved in intensive exercises. For adaption and recovery, high protein foods eaten on regular times across your day works really well.
If you are on a restricted energy budget, it is always better to time your meals so that you eat immediately after your training so that you can recover faster.
Recover meals or snacks need to be rich in nutrients and include the likes of lean proteins, whole grains, dairy, and fruit which have micronutrients, protein, and carbohydrates.
How to Hydrate for Road Cycling
Cycling is an intense sport which causes you to lose a lot of fluids. You need to drink strategically so that you can adapt your intake to factors such as altitude, training duration, and intensity, sweat rate, wind, and temperature all of which impact how much fluid you lose.
Whether it is the actual day of the race or just training, you need to start out well hydrated. This means that you have to drink regularly on training days and all the day leading up to the competition.
Always ensuring that you have a drink with any snack or meal during training is one of the best ways to ensure that you keep up with your body’s needs for fluids. While it is not practical or even necessary to replace all the fluid you lose while training or during a race, you can aim for a more realistic target.
This could be something like replacing 150% of approximate fluid lost during the intensive training session over the course of between 4-6 hours. The most effective way of getting back that fluid is by taking sports drinks. Sports drinks are classified into three types depending on their concentration of sugars: hypotonic drinks, isotonic drinks, and hypertonic drinks.
As compared to the blood, these drinks contain between 1-4% less sugar and hence they are typically absorbed very fast into the bloodstream. They are best when hydration is a top priority such as during or before long endurance events.
The concentration of sugar in these drinks is similar to that of the blood at between 6-8%. Most sports people drink Isotonics which are the most popular formula used in sports drinks. They are easily absorbed into the bloodstream, though they only give a moderate amount of energy and can cause digestive issues if you drink too much of them.
At more than 10% sugar concentration they have higher concentrations as compared to your blood. They are best used as recovery drinks given that their absorption is typically very slow.
The liver and muscles have limited supplies of carbohydrates and hence you will need to top up these stores about 24-36 hours before the day of the competition.
Depending on the intensity and distance that you may have to race, you may have to eat a high carbohydrate diet for 24-48 hours prior to the day of the competition.
The best foods are low fiber and compact carbohydrates as these are easily evacuated from the gut, so that you do not have to worry about a stomach upset on the big day.
What to Eat and Drink on Competition Day
As a cyclist, you need to be well hydrated before any competition. If you do not replenish fluid loss from sweating while riding, you will soon experience a reduction in power output and cognitive performance.
The best way to replenish fluids while road racing is to bring along a drink, from which you can sip throughout the race to top up your fluids. However, this may be an impediment during time trials and criteriums, as it will increase your bike weight, which makes hydration just before the event critically important.
Water is great for short events and training sessions but if you are going to be riding in hot weather or take part in long events, you need to have sports drinks, which come with the necessary electrolytes and carbohydrates.
The amount of carbohydrates for refueling that you will need will be dependent on the duration of the race and distance you will be riding. If it is a short high-intensity event you may get a boost in performance from regularly rinsing your mouth with a sports drink high in carbohydrates.
For the longer events lasting more than one and a half hours in duration, you can enhance cognition, boost power, and prevent muscle fatigue by taking between 30-60 g of carbohydrates every hour. For higher intensity events or events lasting up to 3 hours, you can go as high as 90g every hour.
However, this needs to be a mixture of fructose and glucose that you have been taking regularly during training. Foods you can eat include sports drinks, dates, jam sandwiches, fruit buns, sports chews, gels, and energy bars.
Recovery is very critical if you are to adapt to the rigors of the competition and the training sessions.
To fully recover it is recommended to have snacks and meals with a lot of carbohydrates, some protein for development and muscle repair and electrolytes and fluids to replace any fluid loss from sweating.
If you have gastrointestinal problems or suppressed appetite you should opt for fluids such as flavored milk or fruit smoothies.
Top Tips for Hydration and Nutrition for Cycling Performance
1. Consume the Appropriate Amount of Calories
Cycling is an intense sporting activity that requires a lot of calories right from the training sessions to the events.
While you need to consume a lot of calories to replenish your carbohydrate and protein stores, the most important thing is to ensure that you are not loading up on unhealthy choices just to get back those calories.
As such, you should not max out on portions or abandon healthy choices but rather eat a little bit more of high-quality food.
One of the best ways to ensure that you do not eat more than is necessary is to calculate the exact number of calories you need after your sessions or events.
The math is usually done by multiplying distance traveled by between 40-50 calories.
As such, a 30-mile ride could require that you add between 1200-1550 calories to your normal consumption.
You will need more calories if you are a heavier and faster rider and less if you are a lighter and slower rider.
You will typically experience an increase in appetite sometime after your training session or event as the body releases hunger hormones to compel you to eat so that you may replenish lost stores of fat.
If you are cycling for fat loss, going below the recommended calorie intake will create the required deficit that will help you drop fat.
Nonetheless, it is not advisable to cut more than 250 calories a day as doing so may sap your energy and reduce performance. You should also not cut your calories if you perform high-intensity training or you have a few days to the big event.
Have Sensible Fuelling Targets
Sometimes we sabotage ourselves by having unrealistic fuelling targets. Fueling here refers to the amount of carbohydrates you take during training and on race day.
The best carbohydrates are the type that is easily absorbed into the bloodstream to satisfy highly needed energy requirements.
Simple sugars really work well for cyclists because you need to sustain higher intensities for short races, which usually means that your gut will be unable to absorb and replace any carbohydrates introduced fast enough.
For the shorter events, you are unlikely to burn any significant stored up glycogen, and hence you won’t be in much need of more carbohydrates.
Once you start competing in longer sessions, your glycogen stores will start being depleted, thereby necessitating more aggressive uptake of carbohydrates to replace the used up fuel.
Load up on Carbohydrates: the Body’s Fuel Supply
Your body gets much of its energy from carbohydrates. The carbohydrates are typically stored as fat in the body and are drawn upon whenever the body needs it.
Your carbohydrate needs will be informed by lifestyle demands and how many miles of training sessions and competitive events you attend. According to scientists, you will need between 5-9g of carbohydrates for every kilogram in weight.
However, no one likes to count the grams of calories consumed after a training session or an event and hence a more practical recommendation is proposed.
Given that carbohydrates tend to be absorbed into the bloodstream very fast leading to peaks and troughs of energy, the best way to eat this important food group is taking no more than a fist-sized portion of slow burn carbs with each snack or meal.
Some of the best slow-burn carbs include the likes of quinoa, whole grain rice or whole grain sandwich, or a small piece of fruit. The small servings will provide just enough energy minus the crashes.
It is critical to note that different types of carbohydrates have a different impact on health and energy levels.
While having to consume carbohydrates without getting too fat is a welcome recommendation, taking too much carbohydrates could jeopardize your health, energy levels, and recovery.
The best carbohydrates are typically vegetables, fruit and slow release carbohydrates, typically found in whole grains which pack less sugar and more nutrients.
Eat a Lot of Protein
We often think that as cyclists we do not need much protein but we could not be more wrong. Protein is not only good for recovery, but it has also been shown to play a critical role in boosting immune function and repairing of broken down muscles and tissue.
As such, if you are training, you will be damaging the muscles and if you do not take enough protein, your recovery will not be as efficient as it should be.
In fact, it has been shown that protein is a more filling alternative to carbohydrates or fat and hence by taking more of protein, you can keep away the fat as you will not be as hungry.
Moreover, by having less fat, you will develop more muscle to become a lean and mean machine with better endurance.
A little bit more of some low-fat dairy or lean meats can be enough to meet your protein requirements.
Eat More Healthy Fats
The body needs both fats and carbohydrates for optimum weight maintenance, performance, and health. However, not all the fats out there are good for you.
You need to be eating the good fats which include Omega 6 and Omega 3 fats rather than the bad Omega 9 fats. Stay away from the monosaturated fats that are typically found in processed foods and meats.
However, the fats found in lean meats fish, seeds, nuts, and oils such as starflower oil, borage and flax seed are great for maintaining your health, given that they are rich in Omega 3 and 6 essential fats.
The good fats play several critical roles in your body that include preventing allergies and asthma, reducing inflammation and stimulating metabolism thus helping regulate your weight.
Moreover, eating good fats have been shown to be effective at getting rid of bad cholesterol and as such, you may reduce the risk of heart disease just by watching what type of fat you eat.
20g of good fats will be enough to keep you healthy while not adding too many calories into your diet.
Eat the Right Minerals and Vitamins
There are two types of vitamins that the human body needs – the water-soluble and the fat soluble.
Vitamins A, D, E, and K are stored by the body as they are fat soluble. On the other hand, are water-soluble vitamins which are impossible to store in the body.
To get these essential vitamins you have to consume these minerals from your everyday diet.
Similarly, the body also requires essential minerals that include zinc, iron, and calcium that you need to take every day though in not so large quantities as compared to the Vitamins.
As a cyclist, you can get these minerals and vitamins from a variety of food sources though vegetables and fruits are some of the best sources.
According to the NHS, getting darker colored vegetables and fruits with a wide range of colors should get you all the vitamins and minerals you need.
Train Your Gut
Once you have a general idea of what your fuel needs are depending on the time and duration of your races, it is time to train your gut.
Write down all your fuel items including all the sports drinks, carbohydrates, and protein that you normally consume.
Write out any unnecessary foods you have been taking and cut them out. For instance, if you have always been eating after a 30minute run, you could cut out the end of run snack as it is not necessary.
However, it is important to make the gut get used to frequent fueling without getting a stomach upset.
This will come in handy on race day as you will be used to frequent fueling hence you won’t likely get sick when you are competing.
Moreover, by frequent fuelling, you get a chance to become more adaptable by conducting a range of experiments to determine optimum energy and performance needs.
Drink Enough Fluids to Enhance Efficiency and Productivity
As a cyclist, you lose a lot of water during your training sessions and in the races. Not having enough fluids negatively impacts your energy levels as it leads to fogginess especially after you have been training hard.
It is recommended to take between 1.5-2 liters of water during the day. Always try to ensure that you replace all the lost fluids while you are out riding.
The best way to make certain that you replenish your lost fluids us by weighing yourself just before you head out for your ride and then after you come back from riding. Drink an equivalent liter of water for every kilo you lose during your rides.
For instance, if you weighed 65 before the ride and now weigh 64.5, you need to drink a half liter of water to regain the lost fluids. Given that even a 2% drop in hydration can result in a noticeable drop in performance, it is important to ensure that you are always well hydrated.
Eat Well Before Riding Out
If you have been taking sufficient food in the course of the day you will not need to eat more food if any the rides you take are easy paced and do not last for more than an hour and a half.
You should get much of the fuel you need over this time period from your carbohydrate stores.
However, if you will be riding for longer than one and a half hours and intend to have an intense ride, it is recommended to have a sufficient helping of carbohydrates for better performance and strength on your ride.
With about 30-60g of carbohydrate per riding hour, you should have more than enough fuel to give you the performance and energy that you need.
Some common carbohydrate sources you could try are bars, a mix of water and gels, or a carbohydrate drink. Always ensure that most of the snack you are taking is carbohydrate by checking the ingredients list.
You may need to experiment with how much carb is good for you as some people may get a stomach upset at higher dosages.
As such, it is always better to start at 30g and increase the dosage until you get to your optimum amount that does not result in gastrointestinal distress. You also need to take into account the type of snack and match it with the intensity of the exercise.
For instance, solid foods such as gels are best for the beginning stages of a ride as they are expected to provide energy over the course of along exercise.
However, they are not so good for high-intensity races, as the slow absorption means you may not have the chance to absorb them before the race is over. Therefore gels and drinks may be better suited to high-intensity races or time trials.
Recovery Food: What and When to Eat after Your Ride
You should be refueling in the first 20 minutes after you hit the road as this is the time when the body is most efficient at taking up the nutrient and storing them in the muscles.
When you take your carbohydraterich drink or snack, you will refill your stores faster which means you will have a lot of energy for your next ride.
The best way to eat your food is to take 1g of carb for every kilo you weigh within the 20-minute window.
Combined with a little bit of protein will go a long way to reduce muscle soreness, assist muscle and tissue recovery and make you less susceptible to injury.
Some sensible options to consider are drinks like a soy or whey protein enriched smoothie or a milk-based drink with beans and a jacket potato.
What About Caffeine?
Some people cannot do without caffeine while some totally hate it. However, if you like it you will be glad to know that sports psychologist believe that having 3mg of caffeine could result in improved cognition, increased power output, and enhanced performance.
Nonetheless, you need to know that caffeine tends not to have any significant positive effects in hotter climes and hence there is no need to use it if you will be racing in hot weather. As for the type of caffeinated drink, try out a gel or a coffee just before you get into training.
However, you need to remember that caffeine is not everyone’s cup of tea. If you are on any medications, have a heart condition or high blood pressure you need to consult your physician before you start using it.
Time your pre-Riding Nutrition Right
Deciding on what to eat before riding out can be tough and this has led to many cyclists either just going out hungry or eating something so heavy your stomach feels like you dropped lead balls in there.
The best way to avoid any of these situations is to have your meal approximately one and a half hours before you head out for your ride.
You should also be hitting small meals spread throughout the day to ensure some meals fall in the 90 minute period just before you go out for the training session or head out for the race.
The best meal is typically a carbohydrate-rich, low-fat meal with some little bit of lean protein that will be easy for the stomach to digest as you head out.