Cycling nutrition has come along way from the days of eating a raw steak before a 200km ride. (even in early 1980s, Sean Kelly wrote this was common practice). Cycling nutrition is also much more than just eating a full plate of pasta.
If you wanted to summarise the essence of cycling nutrition, I would suggest use common sense, eat good food and follow a balanced diet which incorporates all elements of the food spectrum. It is important to give cycling nutrition importance as it can make a significant difference to your physical condition. There’s no point cycling several hours a day only to lose out from inadequate diet.
Basics of Cycling Nutrition
All elements of food groups. It is tempting to think a cyclist just needs a plate full of pasta. However, it is important to take nutrition from all main food groups, carbohydrates, protein and fat. If you have a very high % of carbohydrates, the body can actually compensates for lack of fat by converting carbohydrate into fat stores. source
The exact mix of food groups will vary depending on your type of cycling. For basic commuting, carbohydrates may account for 55% – 60% of your diet. For long distance riding, carbohydrates will typically account for a higher % of your diet, as you need to replenish food stores. But, whatever riding you do, don’t just think carbs. A new High 5 Energy drink 4:1 is 4 parts carb to 1 part protein. Studies suggest the addition of protein helps provide more energy during long distance cycling
Mixture of Complex Carbohydrates. Studies suggest that heavy wheat based diets can be more taxing to digest. Some pro teams have even gone so far as to eliminate wheat from the diet of riders. The idea is that there are better sources of carbohydrate than wheat. I wouldn’t go so far to eliminate wheat. If nothing else it becomes harder to eat when you go gluten free. Also wheat is a good source of minerals such as vitamins B and D, calcium, iron, zinc, folate and magnesium. However, it does makes sense to mix complex carbohydrates, rice, pasta and other grains.
Different Types of Fat
We need fat as part of a balanced diet. But, some fats are better than others. In particular choose unsaturated fats such as vegetable oil olive oil(better when served uncooked) , avocado, and nuts; lean proteins; and low-fat or fat-free dairy products. see: types of fat
Lean meat, fish, eggs, soya and milk are all good sources of protein. Red meat is heavier to digest and has been linked with heart disease and colon cancer. Protein can also be found in grains and pulses, though they only offer part of the protein we need.
Don’t forget if you are racing hard for six hours, you may need unto 7,000 calories a day. This is over three times the usual level. If you’re trying to lose weight don’t forget, you still need to meet demands of body.
GI Index of Foods
The GI index is the rate at which food is converted to sugar. For example, Glucose will have a GI index of 100, because it is eating pure sugar. Other complex carbohydrates have a lower GI Index because they raise the blood sugar level at a slower rate. Low GI index foods can be thought of as slow release foods.
The problem with a rapid rise in blood sugar levels is that it can cause a rise in insulin and this causes the body to turn sugar into fats. High GI foods can cause spikes in blood sugar levels followed by crashes.
Therefore breakfast it is good to eat at least some foods with low GI index such as: Bananas, apples, nuts, cereals, beans, lentils.
However, don’t be obsessed with GI index. Firstly, in exercise, the insulin response of consuming glucose is limited. When you are exercising very hard, there are times when consuming glucose is what your body needs. Also, the GI index of food can vary. However, if you eat a breakfast of simple sugars with a high GI, you would definitely want to consider a different diet. This is one reason why pro teams increasingly start breakfast with low GI foods like fresh fruit. (GI foods at Ultra Cycling)
See also: Constant Energy levels when Cycling
Post Ride Recovery
There is a saying in the Tour de France, that you are always eating for the next day. At the end of a ride, it is beneficial to take on good recovery foods within 15 mins to help replenish glycogen stores. Recovery drinks have a mix of low GI carbohydrates and protein. You can also eat sensible foods like bananas, apples, lean meat sandwich, eggs on toast. It is better to have a snack rather than wait a few hours for a really big meal.
The below video is an interesting insight into what Garmin offer to the riders after a stage in the Tour de France.
Eating superfoods can’t make you a great cyclist. But, they may help give a small marginal gain.
Many people are claiming benefits of beetroot juice. It can help cleanse the liver and reduce stress. A recent study suggests that drinking beetroot juice can improve endurance by reducing uptake of oxygen in sportsmen. Times ref
Note: Beetroot juice can turn the urine pink or red and is quite acidic. You should drink it diluted.
Siberian Ginseng. Studies suggest a mixed review on the ability of Siberian ginseng to improve physical performance. But, some claim it can help increase physical strength and overcome colds.
Personal Tips for Cycling Nutrition
- Listen to body. Some foods taste good and nutritious. After cycling, I always enjoy an apple, it is both a good recovery food and helps liquid replacement.
- You can develop taste for good food. You can get addicted to a McDonalds style fast food. But, you can also develop taste for low sugar, low salt, fresh fruit and vegetables.
- It may sound silly, but sometimes I take time to look at food and feel it. You can get an intuitive feeling that fresh fruit and health home baked lentil lasagne is better than junk food.
- When racing make sure your stomach is used to energy gels. For example, high fructose energy gels may sit awkwardly in the stomach.
- San Pellegrino Mineral water. Again after a long ride, there is nothing better than drinking some cool San Pellegrino water. It is high in Magnesium which is said to aid recovery. It doesn’t have to be San Pellegrino, it just happens to be something I like.
- Make it Tasty. If you enjoy eating, that will definitely help. When you are happy, you can digest more easily. If you are in a rotten state of mind, I always feel that can enter the food and adversely affect you.
- Don’t feel guilty. I love eating carrot cake and sandwich cake. If you are training hard, you can burn off this kind of calorie.
- Everyone is different. People respond differently to do different types of food.
If you look on internet you will find many conflicting reports. I’ve seen a suggested carbohydrate intake for cyclists from anywhere between 50-80% of all calories. Personally, I don’t start calculating % of calories from Carbs e.t.c, it’s too much effort. The secret is to use common sense and feel what seems right.