Ask any semi-serious cyclist their key to success and invariably the right cycling diet will get mentioned. Putting the correct foods, drinks and supplements into your body before, during and after each ride is a key focus areas for both professionals and enthusiasts, with many following a strict diet or relying on certain products to ensure they’ve got enough energy to burn.
Hitting the wall, or ‘bonking’ as it’s known in the cycling world, is a serious problem that can befall any cyclist, no matter how they’re riding. The high amount of cardio-vascular output teamed with muscle tiredness throughout the body can cause even the fittest cyclists to run out of gas, especially on large hills or after several tough rides in succession. This is why professional riders spend the vast majority of their time off the bike forcing down food, liquids, gels, powders and a whole cacophony of other cycling nutrition to make sure they’ve got enough to burn through on the next ride.
But which are the best cycling nutrition products for leisure riders? What’s the best cycling nutrition advice for beginners? And do I really need all those cycling gels and hydration tablets? Here are our top tips for developing your endurance by using a few tried-and-tested cycling nutrition hacks.
Sort out a cycling nutrition plan
Getting the right cycling diet isn’t just about picking the right foods on the day of your ride – it’s about having a balanced diet in place long-term. This won’t just drive fitness and help with weight loss, but also make you perform better on the bike.
If you’re one of these old-fashioned, pen and paper types, then you can’t go wrong with a diary. Jot down the meals you intend to eat, the number of calories they provide and the carbohydrates, proteins, sugars, fats, salts and any vitamins and minerals provided. You can then tot this up at the end of the day to see if you’re reaching your recommended daily amounts, then adjust this to match your goals for weight loss/gain or your training schedule.
If you have access to a smartphone, then there are loads of choices for food calorie counter apps that will do the hard work of sorting out a cycling nutrition plan for you.
MyFitnessPal is one of the most popular food trackers out there and will let you know if the foods you’re eating are right for the activity you’re trying to get better at or the amount of weight you’re trying to lose. FatSecret, MyNetDiary and LoseIt are also good options. While some of these apps are dedicated to managing weight loss, they can also be used to provide a quick overview of your daily calorie requirements, plus any tweaks you’ll need to factor in to make sure you’ve got enough energy for your ride.
If you’re really serious about improving your cycling performance, then using a cycling nutritionist can be an easy way to have the hard work done for you. Using a cycling nutritionist to figure out the correct meal plans, calorie intake and cycling supplements is usually reserved for the pros, but you can get top-level cycling nutrition advice if you’re willing to pay a premium.
Do your calorie maths before each ride
If you’re a food fan, then we’ve got some good news – if you’re taking up cycling in a serious way or increasing the length/speed/intensity/regularity of rides, then you’ll probably need to up your calorie intake at the right times to make sure your body has enough fuel to keep the pedals turning. But this doesn’t mean it’s free reign on takeaways and chocolate bars, as you’ll need more of the right foods, rather than your favourite pizza every night.
But how many calories does cycling burn? Well, it varies massively depending on your ride. If you’re pootling along to work or around a flat park, then you’ll obviously burn less than you would if you were trying to get up a monster hill as quickly as possible. According to Harvard University, cycling at around 12-14 mph for 30 minutes burns between 240 and 355 calories depending on your weight, so the longer or more intensely your ride, the more calories you’re going to need.
Although your body will start burning fat when you run out of calories, it isn’t a good idea to try and cycle on an empty stomach to try and shift the pounds. You won’t get very far for one, and you could actually end up risking your health by doing too much without the right amount of energy in your system. Always fuel up before your ride, so you aren’t left lying on the grass at the side of the road when your legs give up. Which brings us nicely on to…
Get your pre-ride feed right…
It’s all well and good forcing calories down to make sure you’ve enough energy for your bike ride, but you’ll need to bear in mind how your digestion system works when you’re hunched over the handlebars or gasping for air on a particularly tough section. A stomach full of the wrong foods is asking for trouble, so choose the right meal to make sure you’re able to focus on performing rather than keeping things down.
The go-to for fuelling your body are carbohydrates, which are digested and converted into glycogen, which is then stored to be used for energy. Don’t fall into the old cycling nutrition tip trap of ‘carb-loading’ however, as in reality your body can only absorb so many carbohydrates at once. You could even end up spending more energy digesting that gigantic plate of pasta than you’ll get for your ride.
Choosing the best food for cycling isn’t just about the immediate 2-3 hours before your ride either. Start your cycling nutrition plan several days before the ride itself, focusing on getting the right mixture of protein, carbohydrates and fibre, as well as staying hydrated. On the day before the ride, stick to lighter proteins like fish and chicken rather than red meat and feel free to eat rice, pasta or potatoes, but don’t feel like you need to force them down. The best way to get a good cycling nutrition plan in place is to eat the right things every day, but of course life can get away of this, so don’t feel too guilty if a midweek pizza slips in somewhere along the line.
On the day of the ride itself, leave yourself a good 90 minutes between eating breakfast and lunch and hopping on your saddle, which will give you enough time to digest your meal. Porridge is one of the best foods for cycling as it releases energy slowly, but you can’t go wrong with a 2-3 egg omelette either.
For additional slow-release energy that you can get in just before your ride, consider a protein bar or maybe a Bounce Ball. These high-carb snacks won’t leave you feeling full, so you won’t feel sluggish in the saddle.
…stay energised as you cycle…
We mentioned ‘the wall’ earlier, a metaphor for the state where you feel like you simply don’t have the energy to keep the pedals turning. Although additional training and mental willpower can go some way towards getting over this biking barrier, the best remedy for a total failure in the engine room is to get some sugar into your system.
As it would be impractical to rustle up some boiled spuds or pasta mid-ride, sugar, or carbohydrates that turn to sugar very quickly, replace slow-release carbs as a quick-fix energy booster to help tired bodies find that extra bit of steam. Many swear by a sugary drink, chocolate bar or handful of gummy sweets, but this is a great opportunity to use some tried and tested products to give you a proper boost and keep the energy demons at bay.
Super-easy to just rip open and swallow, flavoured gels are very popular with riders as there isn’t really anything to digest or drink. As well as sugar, some gels will also provide carbohydrates, salt to aid with electrolyte recovery, protein, and sometimes even caffeine to provide an even bigger energy boost for cycling.
If you’re just starting out with gels, then go for a variety pack like the SiS GO Gel Taster Pack. There are plenty of flavours to choose from so you can find a favourite, and you’ll get 22g of carbohydrates from each shot of gel to keep you going for longer.
Formulas and powders
Formulas and powders are usually dissolved in water first, and then drunk. This means you’ll need to take an additional bottle with you, or sacrifice your single water bottle cage for your pre-mixed formula. If you’ve got time to stop or aren’t racing, then you can always mix powders and formulas in your water bottle, drink up, then refill with plain old water for the rest of the ride.
A pre-mix powder energy drink like High5’s citrus flavoured powder is easy to make up on the morning of your ride and delivers up to 90g of carbohydrates per hour. It’s also lighter tasting than some bottled energy drinks that can end up being pretty sweet, so it’s easier to drink and digest.
Easy to shove in a jacket or jersey pocket, bars can be snacked on as you ride, providing some instant energy. Cycling energy bars can solve two problems – tackling hunger, and dipping sugar and glycogen levels – making them popular on endurance rides or with cyclists who are completing consecutive tough rides.
Some of the best energy bars come from Science in Sport (SiS). These cycling energy bars are designed to provide an instant hit using a high amount of carbohydrates that turn to sugar, so are a good backup to have on hand during longer rides.
One of the easiest energy boosts to take with you, these small sweet-like chews are packed with fast-acting sugars or carbohydrates that provide an instant kick if you’re starting to flag. They can be tucked in with your mobile phone in a jersey pocket, ready to be called upon when needed.
GU Energy Chews are a good choice for long rides as they don’t take up much weight and can even act as a mini treat for each milestone you pass – great for passing the time on more boring sections of training rides!
Important tip: Always read the label of any cycling supplements before taking them. If you’re sensitive to caffeine or haven’t built up a carbohydrate tolerance, then you could end up feeling unwell or sidelined with a bad stomach. Start using gels and other energy boosters in small amounts first, which will help your body to adapt to cycling supplements that are rich in carbs and sugar.
…and choose the right foods when you get off the bike
The food you eat after your ride is just as important as the food you eat pre-ride if you need to recover more quickly. After punishing yourself on the bike, your muscles, cardiovascular system and even brain will start repairing themselves, so having the ride cycling foods to help with this process will make it easier to get back on the bike with a shorter rest period (or at least make it easier to get into the office the next day without feeling too weak and tired)!
Again, our friends the carbohydrates are the go-to for tired riders, but don’t forget to factor in protein too, as protein helps muscles to recover.
Jacket potatoes, yams, pasta, rice or wholemeal bread are all rich in carbohydrates, so pair one of these with some plain cold chicken or fish to make sure you’re body has the right cycling recovery food to get you feeling normal again faster.
As well as a good square meal, it definitely makes sense to include some cycling recovery supplements into your post-ride routine. The SiS REGO Rapid Recovery Powder has been specifically designed to help muscles recover and rebuild, so when paired with the right foods, you’ll be able to recover faster ready for the next ride or training session. 500g will cover your for around 10 rides and it’s actually pretty tasty, with banana, chocolate, strawberry and vanilla flavours to choose from. Just add to water and drink within 30 minutes of finishing your ride for optimum results.
Make friends with carbs
We’ve talked about carbohydrates a lot so far, but they’re a great addition to any cycling fitness plan because they literally fuel your body. We’d recommend avoiding super-carb-heavy foods like pizza, chips and bucketloads of pasta, instead keeping things light.
The best carbohydrates for cyclists:
- Quinoa: Much healthier than white rice.
- Oats: Porridge is one of the best foods for cycling and can be cheered up with a little bit of honey or fruit, some jam or a few chocolate chips if you’re training extra hard!
- Bananas: A great fast food and one of your five/seven a day (depending on who you listen to). Just be careful not to overdo it as bananas can also have plenty of sugar in them.
- Sweet potatoes: White potatoes are the obvious choice, but a sweet potato or yam is just as good, if not better, at providing carbs without bumping up your waistline.
- Beetroots: Beetroot offers a variety of health benefits, but did you know that it’s also a great source of carbohydrates? Chop some into a salad, or add a few slices onto some wholemeal bread along with some extra lean ham for a protein and carb sandwich that’s easy to digest.
- Chickpeas: One of those vegetables that does a great job of filling you up thanks to additional protein, fibre and carbs, chickpeas also contain plenty of iron, phosphorous and B-vitamins, so they’re a great accompaniment to any curry or one-pot dish.
Tweak your protein intake
Protein has gained a bit of bad press over the last few years. from concerns about the long-term effects of protein-heavy diets like Atkins, to the worries about excess ammonia production from eating too much protein.
It’s therefore difficult to get a read on how much protein cyclists need, although the hard facts point towards more being better if you’re upping your training or cycling more often. Firstly, when you exercise, the protein stored in your body breaks down, so you’ll need to replace that at some point. Secondly, protein helps to repair and rebuild muscle tissue, which is vital for cyclists who put their leg muscles in particular through plenty of strain.
Meats like fish and chicken are preferred over red meats like beef and pork, but it’s all about balance, so steak doesn’t have to be off the menu. Eggs are also jammed with protein, and if you’re vegetarian or vegan then quinoa, chickpeas, lentils, soy milk and nuts are all excellent sources of plant-based protein.
Eat the right fats
Fat is bad for you, right? Well, no, the generalisation that cyclists should avoid fats isn’t exactly true. You’ve probably heard of saturated fats that are common in things like processed meats and your favourite fast foods, which do contribute to weight gain, increased cholesterol and problems like heart disease. However, their cousins the polyunsaturated fats (aka Omega 3 and Omega 6 fats) and monounsaturated fats (aka Omega 9 fats) are actually a necessary part of any balanced diet and offer plenty of benefits.
According to the NHS, there’s decent evidence to show that unsaturated fats can help to lower cholesterol, plus they help the body to absorb vitamins A, D and E. Particular points of interest for cyclists are that they can help with weight loss and the reduction of inflammation, which is key if your training rides are taking a toll on your joints and muscles.
Swap out cakes, cheese, chocolate and red or fatty meat for avocados, unsalted nuts, salmon and sardines. Also, use sunflower, rapeseed or olive oil rather than vegetable oil or animal fats when cooking.
If you’re within the estimated 89% of people in the UK who don’t drink enough water on a daily basis, then you really need to up your water intake if you’re going to be riding harder or more often.
Cycling hydration can be an uphill battle if you don’t naturally drink water or find it difficult to force down glass after glass to get to the magic 2 litres a day recommended by the Hydration Council, so you might need to bust out a few hacks to get your water intake right in time for a race, endurance ride or training session.
Fruit juices may seem like a good alternative for sweet-toothed water-dodgers, but you’ll need to keep an eye out for the sugar and additives inside juices and soft drinks. The same goes for milk. Adding some sliced fruit into a water bottle can make water a bit more tasty without overdoing it on the sugar, or you could use the tried and tested method of realising that over 2/3 of your body is water and just simply getting on with it.
Before your ride
Trying to get a load of water in you a few hours before the ride isn’t going to cut it either. You’ll be heavier, will need to stop to go to the toilet more often and may even feel queasy with water sloshing around in your stomach, so start hydrating properly at least a few days before your ride. Stick to 2 litres per day, then start upping it slightly on the day of the ride.
After your ride
Once you’ve stopped cycling, then it’s time to re-hydrate correctly. Even the most gentle of rides can have riders breaking out in a furious sweat, especially in hot weather, so you’ll need to replace the fluids you sweat out. An easy way to figure out how much extra water you’ll need is to hydrate properly before your ride, then weigh yourself. Once you’ve finished riding, weigh yourself again, and the difference in weight is what you’ll need to replace. Every 100g lost means you’ll need an extra 100ml of water on top of your 2 litres per day – an easy rule of thumb to remember.
Re-hydration isn’t just about lost water either. As you sweat, your body loses salts, electrolytes and important minerals like potassium and calcium. Replacing these is crucial for avoiding tiredness, cramp and stiffness the next day, so consider using re-hydration tablets alongside an increased intake of water.
SiS GO Hydro Tablets can be dissolved in water and contain high levels of sodium to promote electrolyte recovery. There’s a good selection of flavours to choose from and the calorie count stays low to help with weight loss.
Understand energy drinks
It may be tempting to knock back a couple of luminous isotonic energy drinks or taurine-packed hypertonic canned drinks that contain excessive amounts of sugar to try and get an energy boost before or during your ride, but there is actually a science to what kind of energy drinks should be used when:
- Hypotonic drinks contain small amount of sugar and are designed to quench thirst rather than provide an energy boost. They are best used during less strenuous rides.
- Isotonic drinks contain around 4-8g of sugar and are designed to be absorbed by the body as quickly as water. They’re good for endurance rides, as they give a quicker release of energy and also have hydration qualities.
- Hypertonic drinks contain a higher concentration of salt and sugar and are more difficult for the body to absorb quickly. This gives a much slower release of energy, making hypertonic drinks a good choice before tough rides or immediately after them.
Use caffeine with caution
Some cyclists swear by coffee or tea, whereas others avoid it like the plague. Medical research seems to be on the fence. The advice here is to understand how your body reacts to caffeine, then use it or avoid it to your advantage.
For many people, caffeine and cycling go hand in hand – it has stimulating properties that can be a positive influence on any ride, can help riders to dig more energy out of nowhere and can help to improve focus.
However, it can also have some negative affects.
Caffeine is a diuretic, so expect to visit to the toilet more often, and it can also have a negative effect on sleep patterns. Some cycling gels and recovery drinks contain caffeine to take advantage of these stimulating properties, so be sure to check the label and ingredients to make sure you go for a non-caffeinated version if you have a caffeine intolerance.
If caffeine definitely does the job for you, then consider swapping your milk-and-sugar laden cappuccino for caffeine supplements. Bio Synergy caffeine capsules offer more intensity and focused energy than the slow release of tea, coffee and caffeinated soft drinks, so consider these if you’re looking for explosive energy on hill climbs or time trials.
Master the art of sleep
You can get your food and drink absolutely nailed, but it’s all meaningless if you haven’t had a decent night’s rest before your ride. Sleep repairs your body, refreshes your brain and will help you to go for longer before your body gives up.
Good sleep isn’t just about switching the light off and closing your eyes either. Avoid eating any difficult to digest or carb-heavy foods just before drifting off, and definitely don’t drink any caffeine. If you’re stressed or over-thinking the race you’re doing in the morning, then there’s nothing wrong with a glass of wine or beer to help you relax, but a warm, milky drink is a better option.
Ignore the ‘recommended’ hours of sleep given too – if you feel fresh after 5 hours, then stick to that, but if you need 9, make sure you get it.
Getting the right level of cycling nutrition may seem like it’s all about following strict schedules and using certain products at certain times, but realistically cycling nutrition varies massively from person to person. Trial and error is often a good starting point for cyclists who want to bring more supplements into their training sessions, as certain body types will react differently to different types and brands.
Don’t forget to check out our full range of cycling nutrition products too, where there are plenty of functions, flavours and types to choose from.