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Nutrition for Cyclists

Cycling is a growing sport in Northern Ireland. We are blessed with a terrain that is proliferating the cycling talent in our province as well as an increasing number of competitive and charity bike rides. However, if you are a newbie or cycle mainly to keep fit and get leaner its important that food not only impacts your performance, but enjoyment on the bike. I have created some simple tips for nutrition for all abilities when it comes to your bike rides. From the importance of carbohydrate and protein to when and what to ear and drink before, during and after a ride.

Getting the correct amount of calories on board.

When I write blog posts I always stress the importance of the law of thermodynamics, otherwise known as calories in Versus calories out. You can celebrate the fact that your calorie output will now certainly increase, however before you break out the chocolate bickies don’t make the mistake of rewarding yourself with poor quality food choices that are high in calories and low in essential vitamins and minerals. By doing this, you will end up negating any calorie burn you have created on the bike and end up eating more and probably gain some weight.

A good way of estimating your calorie needs is to multiply the distance travelled in miles by 40-50 calories. So for example if you have been on a 30 mile bike ride you can estimate and extra calorie need of 1200-1500 calories. If you are a slower or lighter rider err towards to bottom end of this and toward the top end if you are faster or heavier.

If you are aiming for weight loss, aim to leave shortfall in calories that you replace so that you are still in a deficit, I recommend leaving this to around 250 calories a day if you want to continue to ride strong.

Carbs are important.

Carbohydrates are the bodies primary source of energy when cycling. These days people are trying to cut carbs and trying to do these rides on a chicken salad, but its important for cyclists for all levels to understand that carbs fuel the muscles. Any excess in total intake over and above the calorie needs with be stored as fat (the same is true for protein and fat).

A simple and practical rule of thumb when it comes to carbs is to eat a fist sized portion of low glycemic or slow burn carbs such as wholegrain, fruit and vegetables with each meal for snack. These slow burn carbs avoid the peak and trough of energy that can leave you feeling tired. Examples of meals include Porridge oats for breakfast, a piece of fruit mid morning and mid afternoon, a wholegrain sandwich for lunch and an evening meal of wholegrain rice. These small servings supply enough energy without leading to an energy drop . Furthermore, 90 minutes to 2 hours afterwards your digestion will be complete and you’ll be ready to get on your bike. All carbohydrates are not created equal and have a different impact on energy and overall health. All too often I see cyclists using this as a green light to snack on sugary and low quality carbs, this has have a negative effect on energy levels and recovery.


Protein is essential to cyclists as it supports health, immune function and recovery. Protein is paramount because it helps with the repair of damaged muscle created during cycling. Just like carbohydrates a small amount of protein in each meal or snack is preferable to a large hard to digest piece of protein, this facilitates better energy levels. Furthermore, all recent research highlights that protein increases satiety levels which can help keep the appetite under control.

Good fats

Eating good quality fats assists with reducing inflammation in the body. The type of fat you eat is critical to health, performance and weight maintenance. Food such as nuts, seeds fish and oils such as olive oil and coconut oils are vital to maintaining health.


It is recommended that cyclists drink in addition to the suggested 2 litres of water per day. This is to match any loss created whilst cycling. To work out how much water you need I advise to weigh yourself before and after cycling, for each kilo you have lost you will require an additional litre of water. For example if you ride for 60 minutes and it leaves you 0.5 kilo lighter then you just require an extra 500 ml of water in the diet to re-balance things.

With just 2% dehydration can lead to a drastic reduction in performance so its vital that you pay close attention to getting your fluid intake correct. Its almost important to bear in mind that if you are cycling in warmer weather that its worth topping up your electrolyte stores too due to the loss in salts. This can be done by popping an electrolyte tablet into your water bottle.

Pre and Post-ride fuel

Your pre-ride food depends on the intensity and mileage you are doing. For example if you are eating adequately throughout the day, easy paced rides of 90 minutes don’t always need additional fuel support as there are plenty carb stores to fuel this.

If you are riding for longer you may need to top up your carbohydrate stores. Studies suggest that between 30-60 grams of carbohydrates per hour of riding is optimum. This can be done by using gels or bars. Make sure to check nutritional label for carb content. Its worth practising your nutrition on your training rides and not taking a gel for the fist time on the day of an event. I have known many athletes who get an upset tummy by doing this. Always take some water with your gel unless you are using an isotonic gel.

The first 20 minutes after a ride is known to be the optimum refuelling period. Taking a carbohydrate rich meal will improve the rate at which your energy stores refill creating greater stored energy for your next ride. It is suggested that you consume one gram of carbohydrate per kilo of body weight. Don’t forget to combine this with protein to ensure good muscle recovery and less chance of injury and soreness. Good examples are a baked potato with beans or a few pieces of fruit and a protein drink.

In summary, its a difficult task timing your nutrition for cycling and its a matter of practising it on your training rides. Its definitely worth eating 90 minutes before hitting the road. Eat small regular meals throughout the day to make way for a mid morning and afternoon snack.

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