Nutrition for Cyclists

Thursday, May 30, 2019. Author Geraldine Campbell and Dr. Haran Sivapalan

Nutrition for Cyclists

There’s no shortage of keen cyclists here at FitnessGenes.

Our Partnership Program Manager, Alex Auld, recently cycled 114km (with no less than 2,300m elevation gain) with the boys at GCN (Global Cycling Network) as part of their GCN Mallorca Event.

Chief Operating Officer, Simon Murfin, owns an eye-watering stable of bikes that he’s built himself and regularly takes to the trails.

Just last weekend, Dr. Haran Sivapalan, our resident Science Writer (who is for some reason referring to himself in the third person) covered 300 km around Snowdonia (see photo below) as part of his training for the 2019 Etape du Tour.

Of course, logging miles in the saddle is only one part of a cyclist’s training. Proper nutrition is also extremely important. Just ask anyone who’s experienced the dreaded ‘bonk’ (also known as ‘hitting the wall’), where the body’s glycogen supplies run dry, often due to inadequate carbohydrate intake. 

Wanting to find out more, I talked to Geraldine Campbell, Scientific Researcher at FitnessGenes, who holds an MSc in Clinical Exercise Physiology. 

In this article, she offers her thoroughly-researched and evidence-based advice on pre-, in- and post-ride nutrition. 

 

The importance of carbs

Carbohydrates, for most activities, are our predominant energy source. Intermittent high-intensity exercise, sprinting, and long duration activities all have research supporting the positive impact of appropriate carbohydrate fuelling [1] [6] [7] . Cycling is one such sport that will see performance benefits, if you optimize your carbohydrate intake pre-, during- and post-exercise.

 

Pre-ride nutrition

What should I eat?

The timing of your intake influences what types of carbohydrates are appropriate for you to consume.

Pre-ride fuelling is important, and your Carbohydrates and insulin trait can help guide you on the best sources of carbohydrates to eat in order to limit spikes and crashes in insulin and glucose blood levels.

Usually, low-to-moderate glycemic load carbohydrates such as wholemeal pasta or bread, oats, sweet potato or lentils are the best sources to get your body’s glycogen stores topped up.

 

How much should I eat?

The duration of your ride will influence the amount of carbohydrates you should consume in the 3-4 hours before cycling [9].

For rides lasting: 

<1 hr: aim to eat 1-1.5 grams/kg bodyweight

~1 hr: aim to eat 1.5-2.5 grams/kg bodyweight

1-3 hrs: aim to eat 2.5-3.5 grams/kg bodyweight

>3 hrs: aim to eat 4 grams/kg bodyweight

 

A final part of your pre-exercise nutrition is to consume a small amount of carbohydrate in the hour before a ride. This should come from an easily digestible form of carbohydrate (e.g. dried fruit, banana, wholegrain bread) and contain around 25 grams of carbohydrates. High-fiber foods should be avoided as they could cause gastric discomfort.

 

Nutrition during a ride

For long duration rides (anything over the 1-hour mark), your in-ride / on-the-bike nutrition and intake of carbohydrates is key to maintaining your cycling intensity and limiting early onset of fatigue [5].

 

What should I eat?

Unlike your pre-ride sources, the carbohydrates you consume here should be simple, fast acting sources like glucose. Gels/ energy drinks are common sources of in-ride fuelling as they provide this fast-acting energy conveniently.

Other good in-ride nutritional choices for getting your glucose boost are bananas, fig bars or a small peanut butter sandwich. Factor in when you have feed stations or café stops, and make sure you don’t eat within 30 minutes of stopping at these.

 

How much should I eat?

You should be aiming for 30-60 grams of carbohydrate per hour. Do not wait until you are hungry – start taking in some more energy after the first 20 minutes and then at regular intervals throughout.

It is important to not over-feed during a ride as this can lead to gastrointestinal issues. The reason for this is that our digestive system can only absorb approximately 60 grams glucose per hour.

Some gels/bars/drinks are now offering glucose/fructose combinations which enable you to increase your carbohydrate intake to as high as 90 grams per hour, while minimizing the chances of digestive issues. This is because fructose can be transported into the gut through different pathways to glucose.

The combined use of fructose and glucose has been shown to increase carbohydrate oxidation in prolonged exercise, with increased lactate production and oxidation (which translates to having more fuel for the muscles). This provides performance benefits over and above consuming glucose alone [2][8] .

 

Post-ride nutrition

Post-ride carbohydrates are very important for ensuring you recover well, especially if you have a short recovery time before another training ride or race.

 

How much should I eat?

1.2-1.4 grams/kg bodyweight [3] in the first 60-80 minutes after cessation of cycling maximizes the rate of muscle glycogen resynthesis.

Adding protein to your carbohydrates can help speed up glycogen replenishment as well as allowing a positive protein balance, minimizing the loss of muscle mass through muscle growth and repair.

Aim for a 3:1 ratio of carbohydrates to protein in your post-cycle meal to aid your recovery [4] [10].

 

Hydration and electrolytes

How much should I drink?

Aim to consume 500-1000 ml of fluid every hour, ideally in 125-250 ml portions every 15-20 minutes.

Remember the climate will influence your hydration levels. A great way to keep track of your hydration is weighing yourself before and after a ride. For every kg of weight lost, replace with 1.5 litres of fluid (ideally with an electrolyte-containing drink) [11].

 

Electrolytes

Post-ride, you also need to ensure you replenish any lost electrolytes (such as sodium). Your Salt trait provides insight on your sensitivity to salt and how to best structure your salt intake to prevent depletion of sodium stores; which you may be particularly susceptible to after exercise.

Your ACE activity and Acute (short term) angiotensin II level traits provide insights and actions related to how these physiological pathways can influence your hydration needs – particularly your susceptibility to water and salt retention or loss.

 

REFERENCES

[1] Cermak, N. M., & van Loon, L. J. (2013). The use of carbohydrates during exercise as an ergogenic aid. Sports Medicine, 43(11), 1139-1155.

[2] Lecoultre, V., Benoit, R., Carrel, G., Schutz, Y., Millet, G. P., Tappy, L., & Schneiter, P. (2010). Fructose and glucose co-ingestion during prolonged exercise increases lactate and glucose fluxes and oxidation compared with an equimolar intake of glucose. The American journal of clinical nutrition, 92(5), 1071-1079.

[3] Atkinson, G., Davison, R., Jeukendrup, A., & Passfield, L. (2003). Science and cycling: current knowledge and future directions for research. Journal of sports sciences, 21(9), 767-787.

[4] Luden, N. D., Saunders, M. J., & Todd, M. K. (2007). Postexercise carbohydrate-protein-antioxidant ingestion decreases plasma creatine kinase and muscle soreness. International journal of sport nutrition and exercise metabolism, 17(1), 109-123.

[5] Coyle, E. F., Coggan, A. R., Hemmert, M. K., & Ivy, J. L. (1986). Muscle glycogen utilization during prolonged strenuous exercise when fed carbohydrate. Journal of applied physiology, 61(1), 165-172.

[6] Jeukendrup, A. E. (2004). Carbohydrate intake during exercise and performance. Nutrition, 20(7-8), 669-677.

[7] Baker, L., Rollo, I., Stein, K., & Jeukendrup, A. (2015). Acute effects of carbohydrate supplementation on intermittent sports performance. Nutrients, 7(7), 5733-5763.

[8] Jeukendrup, A. E. (2010). Carbohydrate and exercise performance: the role of multiple transportable carbohydrates. Current Opinion in Clinical Nutrition & Metabolic Care, 13(4), 452-457.

[9] Thomas, D. T., Erdman, K. A., & Burke, L. M. (2016). American College of Sports Medicine Joint Position Statement. Nutrition and Athletic Performance. Medicine and science in sports and exercise, 48(3), 543-568.

[10] Ivy, J. L., Goforth Jr, H. W., Damon, B. M., McCauley, T. R., Parsons, E. C., & Price, T. B. (2002). Early postexercise muscle glycogen recovery is enhanced with a carbohydrate-protein supplement. Journal of Applied Physiology, 93(4), 1337-1344.

[11] Sawka, M. N., Burke, L. M., Eichner, E. R., Maughan, R. J., Montain, S. J., & Stachenfeld, N. S. (2007). American College of Sports Medicine position stand. Exercise and fluid replacement. Medicine and science in sports and exercise, 39(2), 377-390.

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