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Nutrition basics for Cycling
Posted by: Editor
Posted on: Wednesday 28th November 2012


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Nutrition can be a difficult subject for athletes. Sure, we all know you need to 'eat properly' for optimal performance, but it can all seem a little too scientific and complicated with so much advice around, and so many different drinks, bars and gels all claiming to be your 'perfect' partner.

So, in this cycling special, we try and simplify matters for you, with some solid advice on what you should eat before, during and after cycle training, plus of course race day.


Nutritional challenges for cyclists:

Cycle training, whether for triathlon, road racing or time trialling, usually involves long hours of training either on the road, turbo, rollers or race circuit. As a result, regular riders require a high energy, nutrient rich diet in order to stay with the pace on long rides, recover properly between weekly training sessions or races and prevent mid-season fatigue or illness. It is not uncommon for club cyclists and age group triathletes to cover 150-200 miles a week in training with elite and pro-riders frequently covering twice this distance!

The average calorie and carbohydrate needs of a club cyclist averages 38-48 Kcal / Kg of bodyweight and 5-8g carbohydrate / Kg / day. Elite / Pro riders may need around 60 Kcal / Kg and 8-12g carbohydrate / Kg respectively!

Pre-training

Following an overnight fast, it is important that a cyclist boosts depleted blood. A well-planned pre-ride meal, consisting of ‘slow-burning’ carbohydrates and a moderate amount of protein will release a steady supply of sugar into the bloodstream to fuel the early stages of your ride. This ‘baseline’ energy supply can then be easily topped up with fast-release carbohydrates on the road.

Some ideal pre-ride meals, eaten about two hours before the start could include any of the following:

  • Porridge (half milk / half water) with sultanas and apple.
  • Scrambled egg or baked beans on oatmeal or granary toast.
  • Dried fruit (apples, apricots, peaches, pears) stewed in apple juice with low fat yoghurt and honey.
  • Wholemeal English muffins with peanut butter and jam.
  • A ham salad sandwich on granary bread.
  • A bowl of chunky vegetable soup and a wholegrain baguette

Try to drink at least 500ml with this meal, water or an electrolyte drink are good choices, but a hot drink such as weak tea or hot blackcurrant / honey and lemon can be a good psychological boost on cold days.

During training

During endurance rides, a common mistake is not to start taking fuel on board early enough, especially if it’s not long since your last meal. However, if you are planning to be out for 3-6 (or more!) hours of riding, you still need to start topping up your blood sugar within the first half an hour of the ride. The dreaded ‘bonk’ or blood sugar low that can leave you feeling at best empty and despondent and at worst wheels-up in the gutter, can creep up on you very suddenly. Trying to get your blood sugar back to normal whilst continuing to burn energy riding is extremely difficult and not very enjoyable!

On the other hand, stopping mid-ride for a great big ‘fry-up’ isn't a great idea either! A large, high fat meal will sit in your stomach and may feel as if it is going to end up on the road rather than propel you up it!

The best strategy is to start eating and drinking early and snack regularly as you go; then make the ‘coffee stop’ another light top up say of fruit cake and a drink or toast and hot chocolate rather than a full meal; this will leave you feeling energised but not bloated and sluggish. Ideas for ‘on the bike’ snacks include:

  • Malt loaf or hot cross buns.
  • Fig rolls or dried fruit bars.
  • Energy or cereal bars.
  • Filled panini halves (Tour rider’s favourite, fits perfectly in jersey pockets, please wrap well!!)
  • Home-made trail mix (throw together handfuls of dried fruits, bite size cereals, nuts and seeds, home-made popcorn and a few chunks of dark chocolate (on winter rides only!)
  • Jelly sweets or liquorice (in moderation)
  • Oat cakes or plain biscuits.
  • Bananas and other fruit that will travel well.

Again, in cold weather, a thermal bottle containing a hot drink can encourage you to drink enough if cold fluids don’t appeal, you will still sweat a lot especially when wearing several layers.

Post-training

Eat and drink within 15-30 minutes of getting off your bike! This is one of your most important strategies to accelerate recovery, reduce post-race soreness and help your immune system. Palatable, easy to consume options could include:

  • Low fat chocolate milk.
  • Rice pudding.
  • Recovery drinks (carbohydrate:protein mix)
  • Sandwiches.
  • Cereal and milk.
  • A banana and a sports bar.

Accompany these with a sports drink or add an electrolyte tablet to your water to help rehydrate your body faster.

Competition

A pre-competition meal is vital to top-off muscle and liver glycogen stores that a well planned taper or recovery period will have loaded up. As well as fuelling the muscles, liver glycogen provides fuel for the brain to ensure that you are concentrating on those sharp corners and technical flying dismounts!! In addition, racing with sufficient fuel in your system will reduce the impact of high intensity exercise on the immune system thus warding off the dreaded post-race coughs and colds.

Generally, follow the same principles as a pre-training ride meal – tried and tested foods are always the best (and safest) option! However, as in previous articles, keep the fat and fibre content of the meal low as when exercising at high intensity, these nutrients may cause stomach upset. So choose white bread or bagels rather than wholegrain, add banana to your porridge rather than lots of dried fruit and have egg or low fat soft cheese rather than beans on toast on race day!

If you have eaten this meal 2-3 hours before racing, a good proportion of this carbohydrate will have been used up with just the pre-race excitement (or panic!) and bike racking / registration activities. So remember to top up your blood sugar with a gel or approximately 200-250ml of sports drink about ten minutes before the start (practise this before a high intensity workout).

During an endurance event such as an Olympic distance (or longer) triathlon or a road race or longer distance time trial, you will need a PLAN to get your nutrition right as your focus on the day will (hopefully) be on racing not food and drink; you need to be able to switch to ‘auto-eat mode’! In shorter distance races (up to say half-ironman / 50 mile cycle races), gels and sports drinks are usually adequate. However for ironman and century rides, many athletes find that solid foods can help to offset distracting hunger pangs. Whichever fuel you choose, formulate a plan that will give you 30-60g of carbohydrate along with 1-2 litres of fluid an hour. Cutting energy bars or other foods into portions containing approximately 20g of carbohydrate and eating one piece every 20 minutes is a good way to monitor your intake or set your watch to bleep every 15-20 minutes to remind you to drink / take on fuel.

Finally, always ensure that you have a snack and electrolyte drink or recovery drink in your transition or kit bag that you can face consuming immediately after the race (see post-race nutrition).

Remember

Planned Picnics Power Pedalling Perfectly – enjoy your ride!


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