Nutrition and hydration for cycling
Find out why carbs are best for cyclists and which other foods are recommended. Plus why and how to hydrate, the importance of a balanced diet and foods to avoid. Includes tips on when to fuel too.

Nutrition and hydration for cycling

Carbohydrate is the main source of energy when cycling. However, at lower intensities (e.g. touring rides, or even to some degree long distance time trials), fat is used as a fuel source too. This is because there is time for fat to be converted into a useable energy source at lower exercise intensities. In contrast, during short duration, hard exercise, such as climbing a hill, energy needs to be delivered to working muscles very quickly: carbohydrate is able to do this but fat cannot.

This ability to use fat in preference to muscle glycogen actually improves with training too. So, it pays to improve your fitness!

During a long ride at a steady speed, when fat is used as an energy source, this spares some of the (relatively limited) amount of muscle glycogen. This ability to use fat in preference to muscle glycogen actually improves with training too. So, it pays to improve your fitness!

How fuels are used

Working muscles prefer to use carbohydrate as an energy source. Each time you go for a ride you will use burn off some carbohydrate (glycogen) from your muscle stores. The harder and longer your ride, the greater the demand on your glycogen stores. If you do not replace this carbohydrate between rides by eating plenty of high carbohydrate foods you are more likely to fatigue early on in your next ride. This is why you need to eat a high carbohydrate diet, with bread, breakfast cereals, pasta, rice, potatoes, fruit and vegetables making up the main part of each meal or snack. Protein also makes a small contribution to energy demand, but you do not need to be concerned with replacing protein or fat between training rides or races.

Why carbohydrate is best

Eating between 5-10g of carbohydrate per kg bodyweight per day will cover most cyclists needs, from the recreational through to the highest levels of training or racing. For example, if you weight 70kg (11 stone) you will need to eat between 350g and 700g of carbohydrate each day to match your carbohydrate energy needs. You can get 350g from:
Eat different colours of fruit and vegetables as a good guide to ensure that your diet is balanced and contains the whole range of vitamins and minerals that you need
  • 2 slices of bread
  • 2 large bananas
  • 1 glass of fruit juice
  • Large jacket potato
  • Large plate of pasta
  • 3/4 large tin of baked beans
  • Cereal bar
  • Pint of milk
  • Large bowl of breakfast cereals
Most of your protein and fat can be provided by meat, fish or vegetarian alternatives that you have with the potato, pasta or bread. It's recommended that you eat five helpings of fruit and vegetables each day, too. (One helping is one piece of fruit, two tablespoons of vegetables or a glass of fruit juice). It's best to eat different colours of fruit and vegetables as a good guide to ensure that your diet is balanced and contains the whole range of vitamins and minerals that you need.

hydrateThe Importance of hydration

Even slight dehydration can produce a serious downturn in performance through an increase in body temperature. Your body need adequate fluid stores to produce sweat that evaporates and cools the body, and to keep your vital organs functioning properly.

As a rough guide, expect to consume about 500ml water per hour - more in very hot weather or if you are big person. Drink afterwards too, as soon as possible, to replace any sweat loss. As your body will still be producing sweat and also urine you actually need to replace one and a half times the volume of sweat that you have lost. You can check this by weighing yourself before and after your ride.
For example, if your body weight has gone down from 85kg to 83kg this means you have lost two litres of sweat (one litre of sweat = one kilogram of weight) so you actually need to drink three litres of fluid to rehydrate fully.

If you've sweated a lot, a drink containsingsome salt (sodium) will help you rehydrate. You will continue to feel thirsty until you are completely rehydrated. Plain water can actually switch off the thirst mechanism; but having the presence of sodium in the water prevents this. It's not essential to worry about the other minerals and electrolytes that are contained in commercial sports drinks. Although they are lost in sweat, there is not an immediate need for them unless you are cycling in more extreme (hot) environments. In which case an electrolyte drink with minerals may be a good idea.

Keep yourself hydrated by drinking small, frequent amounts of fluid during a ride (two or three 'gulps' every 15-20 minutes). You'll still be generating heat, and perhaps sweat, and losing moisture from your body through your breath. Your stomach can usually empty 600-1000ml fluid each hour, so drinking 500-1000ml per hour is ideal.

Balanced Diet

Keep a good balance of foods in your diet. It is easy to fall into the trap of living on pasta, bread, cereals and other high energy carbohydrate foods, whilst ignoring the protein foods and the vegetables, fruit and general variety of your diet to cover your vitamin and mineral requirements. 

Protein foods can be good sources of essential vitamins and minerals and they don't have to be high in fat. For example, lean red meat is an excellent source of iron, which has an important role in oxygen transport around the blood. Other protein foods that are high in iron include tuna, chicken breast and green leafy vegetables. Low-fat dairy products (skimmed milk, low-fat yoghurts) are just as good as the high fat versions, in terms of providing protein and calcium.

Although you should avoid an excess of fat in your diet, don't be too fanatical about the fat contents in your food. You need some fat in your diet to provide some of the essential fatty acids and fat-soluble vitamins. Just make yourself aware of which foods are providing the fat in your diet such as margarine or butter on toast or in sandwiches, creamy sauces on pasta, cheese, mayonnaise, pasties, pies, cakes, biscuits and fried foods. Eating colourful vegetables such as carrots, tomatoes and red peppers, will provide (fat-soluble) vitamin A in a low-fat form. Eat fruit and vegetables when you can - snacks that you eat 'on the road' might not be particularly rich in vitamins and minerals.

Suggested food and drink for cyclists

In terms of nutrition, the main priorities in your diet are: high carbohydrate content, low in fat, easily digested. Cereal bars, dried fruit, malt loaf, bananas and low-fat biscuits (e.g. fig rolls and garibaldi biscuits) are ideal and both easy to carry and to eat on the bike.

This 'osmality' is in balance with the fluids in your body and so it will be easily absorbed through the stomach and can rehydrate you faster

Plain water, fruit squash and low calorie fruit squash are good for fluid replacement but not as good as isotonic drinks. Isotonic drinks contain around 6g of carbohydrate per 100ml with a small amount of sodium. This 'osmality' is in balance with the fluids in your body and so it will be easily absorbed through the stomach and can rehydrate you faster than other drinks, as well as providing a small amount of carbohydrate to help fuel your muscles.

If you take a more concentrated carbohydrate drink, this could actually dehydrate you at the expense of providing energy. Such 'hypertonic' drinks are most useful for refuelling after a ride, especially if you find it difficult to eat immediately after exercise. It is important that you replace some carbohydrate immediately after finishing if you want to recovery your energy stores quickly (and train again the next day!). However, if you wish to take a 'liquid food' like this (in case you have difficulty eating on the move) it is best to alternate each 'food bottle' with one of plain water.

Timing of eating

Aim to eat 2-3 hours before riding. A light, easily digested meal, such as sandwiches, toast, cereals etc. to provide carbohydrate for your liver glycogen stores is ideal, ensuring your blood glucose levels don't drop, making you feel weak and light-headed. Snacks such as bananas or cereal bars can be eaten in between your mealtime, right up until the ride begins. To recover quickly, especially after a long or hard ride, it is essential to eat or drink something containing carbohydrate as soon as possible.

Foods to avoid:
  • High fat foods.
  • Sugary snack.
  • Lack of variety in your general diet.
  • Caffeine and alcohol. These are diuretics, so keep them to a minimum in order to keep well hydrated.
  • Drinking concentrated carbohydrate drinks during a ride. These can impair fluid absorption and upset your stomach.


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