Eating is an intrinsic part of cycling. If you get your food intake wrong, it doesn’t matter how fit you are – you could just ‘hit the wall’ (experience the dreaded ‘bonk’). Even many top pros can get their food intake wrong; insufficient food is a big factor in explaining an unexpectedly poor performance. As well as eating the right amount of food, it is also important to eat healthy foods which offer more than just calories.
Essential Tips for Cycling Food
- Use your common sense. Eat a good balance of healthy foods from a range of food spectrums.
- Consider how to maintain constant energy levels – avoid spikes in blood sugar levels.
- Make sure you have access to all important food groups, minerals and vitamins.
- You need more calories when cycling, but you don’t want to overload your stomach. Liquid food is good, fatty food is harder to digest.
More tips for Cycling Food
Right Balance Protein / Carbohydrates. One mistake cyclists can make is to just eat carbohydrates; but for recovery and long term good health, you will need a mix of carbohydrates and protein.
Avoid Too Many Simple Sugars. When you are very active, it is tempting to feel that you will burn off simple sugars, found in sweets and chocolates. However, even though you may burn off the calories, it is important to bear in mind these foods have nil nutritional value and can cause fluctuations in blood sugar levels, which is not desirable. It is better to base calorie intake primarily on complex carbohydrates such as grains, lentils and pasta. These provide steady blood sugar levels and not just an immediate ‘hit’
Good Balance - When doing long rides, it is good to take a balance of foods. For example, I like the ‘natural raw food bars’ pictured left. It makes a good change to the maltodextrin based energy bars and drinks usually found in cycling. A good balance of food is important both physically and psychologically..
Don’t Wait Until Hungry
When riding, it is important to eat regularly and not wait until you feel hungry. If you wait until you are hungry it will be too late. This is important for races lasting over 2 hours such as a 100 mile time trial. There is only so much food the body can take per hour, therefore, there should be a constant supply of food.
What Are Good Foods to Eat When Cycling?
- Bananas (although has relatively high glycaemic index)
- Muesli bars (mixture of food)
- Sandwich rolls e.g. jam sandwiches, banana sandwiches,
- Malt loaf
- Custom energy bars. Tend to be expensive, but can choose bars which have mixture of carbs and protein. I often buy similar bars, which are not specifically manufactured for athletes. These tend to be cheaper. For example, Fruesli bars, Nutri Grain bars e.t.c.
- Liquid energy. – The simplest way to take on board energy. Good for short races where digestion is difficult.
Eating For Recovery.
It is just as important to eat food for recovery as it is food before and during a race. I recommend taking a recovery drinks after hard ride. This enables and easy absorption of carbohydrates and protein; it also helps to re-hydrates. See: Recovery drinks
Glycaemic Index GI Index
Foods with a high glycaemic index increase the blood sugars rapidly. Foods with a low glycaemic index raise blood sugar levels gradually over a period of time. Therefore, before the start of a ride and at the beginning of a ride it is good to eat foods with relatively low glycaemic index. These foods include: apples, bran, spaghetti, baked beans.
- For example, brown bread is a lower GI index than white bread. Therefore, it is better to switch to brown bread before a ride.
- Foods with a high glycaemic index are better eaten at the end of a ride. High GI foods include: bananas, potatoes, jelly beans.
- Getting constant energy levels and avoiding blood sugar spikes is very important for cycling.
- I recommend reading: constant energy levels
Super foods are often over-exaggerated. You don’t become an amazing cyclist by eating some secret combination of ‘super-foods’ However, it is good to eat a variety of fruits and pulses with high-anti-oxidants and good mineral source. One super food I do recommend for racing is beetroot juice
Snacks During a Ride
These are the main snacks I take on a ride. Power bars, protein bars, bananas. I buy them in boxes of 24. I also take some of the nutri-grains because they are cheaper. I take liquid energy snacks when I’m doing intervals or really hard rides when the stomach is under greater stress.
Best Energy Bars for Cycling
I have reviewed all the different energy bars I’ve used during cycling here: Energy Bar reviews
Breakfast Before Cycling
Before cycling, I like to take Muesli with some fresh fruit (raspberries, blueberries). The oats provide good low GI energy source and are easily digestible. The fruits also provides good long lasting energy source and also give anti-oxidant properties. If it is a long ride, I may have some extra toast as well, but I don’t like to eat too much, as your stomach will be heavy. To take on extra carbs, I will eat snacks between meals.
Evening Food before Long Ride
Before long ride, I will have a good source of complex carbohydrates (e.g. lentil / rice mix) or some pasta. Avoid temptation to eat much more than usual. You will just give yourself stomach problems, which won’t help. Sometimes for early morning race, I have a small bowl of oats for supper. Rather than have super big meal.
Eat for the Next Day. Don’t just think about the present day; think about how your food will affect your ride on the next day. If you have a long ride for tomorrow, eat good quantities of complex carbohydrates the day or two preceding.
How Much to Eat?
You can consume double the amount of usual calories during a 100 mile ride. During the Tour de France, riders can consume up to 7,000 calories a day. See: Calories consumed
I feel you have to learn to listen to your body and respond to usual signals of hunger/ satiation.
I would be interested to hear what other cyclists views are on good / bad foods for cycling.