I love cycling! My happy place is getting out for a long ride on a nice summer day. But without proper fueling, even my recreational joyride can come to a screeching halt real fast! Whether you are competing in an endurance race or heading out for an all day ride, proper nutrition and hydration can make the difference between fully enjoying or barely enduring a day of riding. Just as you wouldn’t take off on a road trip without enough fuel in your car, the same is true for your body’s fuel tank when you embark on a long ride. Eating the right foods before, during and after your ride will help provide for an enjoyable ride and optimal performance.
Carbohydrates: The Fuel of Choice
The body’s fuel of choice for an endurance sport like cycling is carbohydrate. Carbohydrate-containing foods, such as fruit, potatoes, rice, pasta, bread, milk, yogurt, honey, etc. are broken down in the body to glucose and stored as glycogen in the muscle. Therefore, for the recreational or competitive cyclist, eating enough carbohydrates at each meal and snack (not just the night before) is essential to ensure your “gas tank” (glycogen) is ready to go. The well-fueled cyclist should have enough energy stored as glycogen in muscles to support 90 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise.
Fueling Before You Ride
The ideal time for a carbohydrate-rich, pre-exercise meal is three to four hours prior to your ride. The amount of carbohydrate depends on a number of factors, such as body weight. For a 150-lb cyclist, aim for 80 to 100 grams of carbohydrate (i.e. 1 cup oatmeal, 6 oz Greek yogurt, 1 cup berries and a slice of whole wheat toast). In addition, consuming 100 to 300 calories of a low-fat, carbohydrate-rich snack (fruit and crackers) an hour before your ride will also provide muscles additional glucose to be used for energy, while sparing glycogen and delaying fatigue. Fluids are as important as food in preparing for a long ride. Prepare by drinking enough water the day before the ride (evidenced by pale colored urine) and sipping on a 16-oz sports drink the hour before going out.
Foods and Fluids during Long Rides
Dehydration is the leading cause of fatigue for the endurance athlete. Staying well-hydrated during a long ride is essential for having a good ride. A general rule of thumb is 20 ounces of fluid for every hour, ideally ingested in small frequent intervals for better absorption and utilization by the body (about 5 to 8 ounces every 15 minutes). Electrolytes, such as sodium and potassium, are lost in sweat and essential to maintain proper water balance in your tissues. Therefore, consider carrying two bottles, one with water and one containing an electrolyte solution. For rides longer than 4 hours or in very hot or humid weather, cyclists need to plan to include additional sodium and potassium-containing foods during the ride, such as bananas, tomato juice, pretzels, salted nuts or broth.
If your ride will include some high intensity riding, strenuous hill climbing, or will be more than 90 minutes, then you will also need to fuel with additional glucose during the ride. When glycogen stores get low you “hit the wall” and consequently run out of energy. For this reason, it is beneficial to consume easily digestible carbohydrates from a variety of sources, such as sports drinks, bananas, energy gels, etc. and see what works best for you. The American College of Sports Medicine recommends 50 grams of carbohydrate for a 150-lb cyclist each hour (again in small, frequent intervals). Unfortunately, some novice riders limit their consumption of carbohydrate calories during exercise for fear that a sports drink or carbohydrate gel “contains too much sugar” or “will cancel out the calories burned from training.” A study completed at Colorado State University demonstrated that this approach actually backfires. Researchers discovered that subjects who restricted carbohydrate intake during exercise ended up consuming more calories the rest of the day than subjects who ingested carbohydrate during activity (Melby et al., 2002).
Some basic tips for carrying and consuming fuel while riding:
- Be sure your fuel will hold up to weather conditions, such as heat and humidity.
- Partially open any small packages for easy access.
- On unsupported rides, carry snacks in a jersey or jacket with multiple easy-to-reach pockets.
- Portion your hourly food into separate baggies and consume one bag per hour.
- Carry powdered sports drinks and reconstitute when you have access to water
Restore, Replace and Repair from Your Long Ride
The goals of recovery nutrition are to: 1) Restore fluids and electrolytes lost through sweat during a long ride, 2) Replace glycogen stores (muscle fuel) depleted during activity, and 3) Repair muscle tissue broken down from high intensity activity.
Rehydration is vital to recovery following a long ride. Ideally, you have replenished water (sweat) lost during your ride. However, when you get off your bike, continue to drink water or a sports drink to quench your thirst or until urine is pale.
Within 30 to 60 minutes, have a snack that includes carbohydrates (to replace glycogen) and protein (to repair muscle tissue). Aim for a 3 to 1 ratio of carbohydrates to protein, i.e. 60 grams of carbohydrate along with 20 grams of protein. Examples of good recovery snacks include low-fat chocolate milk; fruit and yogurt smoothie; graham crackers with peanut butter and low-fat milk; apple or banana with nut butter and low-fat milk. Finally, follow-up with a healthy meal that includes a balance of protein-rich meats, vegetables and whole grains that will continue to restore, replace and repair those essential nutrients lost during activity so you will be ready to ride again soon.