When you exercise, you have to fuel your body correctly to support the activity. However, there’s so much information out there about exercise nutrition that it’s easy to get confused. In this article, we break down the cycling nutrition basics that you need to know to stay strong during a ride and even improve your performance.
How Cycling Affects Your Body’s Need For Fuel
If you’ve ever gone for a bike ride without fueling up properly, you might have noticed that you didn’t have as much power or endurance. You might have even gotten fatigued or a bit dizzy.
Your body requires a certain amount of carbohydrates, fat and protein just to stay alive. The body stores energy from foods and converts them in different ways. Some types of fuel give your muscles an immediate boost of energy that you feel when you start cycling and your adrenaline kicks in. Other kinds are stored for use when your body really needs them.
Carbohydrates are important for giving cyclists energy. In her book “Endurance Sports Nutrition,” Suzanne Girard Eberle explains that sugars and starches quickly break down into glucose. Your body may immediately use this glucose for energy, or it may be stored as glycogen and converted back to glucose as your body needs it.
Your muscles store glycogen and convert it into energy as it’s needed. However, there’s only so much that your muscles can retain at a time. Research has shown that the more glycogen you have stored in your muscles, the longer you can exercise before you hit a wall.
After you’ve burned off the glycogen in your muscles, the body taps into the glucose that’s circulating through your bloodstream. If you continue to exercise without refueling, you can experience a dip in blood sugar levels, which can leave you exhausted and weak. It’s just as important to replenish your glycogen stores after exercising as it is to keep them level while you cycle.
The body also uses stored fat for energy. When you exercise, fat is converted into fatty acids, which fuel your muscles. Your body has greater stores of fat than glycogen, and this macronutrient can supply up to 100,000 calories during a biking session.
Protein is used to develop and maintain muscle mass. It also helps with exercise recovery. When your glycogen stores have been depleted, your body breaks down skeletal muscle to use as fuel. This usually happens in the later stages of prolonged exercise.
How Many Calories Do Cyclists Need?
Your basal metabolic rate is the number of calories that your body burns at rest. Most people need to consume between 1,600 and 2,400 calories per day to properly fuel their bodies, according to the 2010-2015 Dietary Guidelines for Americans. If you’re cycling regularly, you need more than that.
Business Insider says that Tour de France cyclists burn about 6,000 calories per day. Your own calorie requirements depend on how frequently and intensely you ride.
Calories Burned HQ explains that the average individual burns about 450 to 750 calories per hour while cycling. However, the total number of calories burned depends on your weight as well as your speed and the duration of exercise. At a pace of 14 mph, a 150-pound person would burn about 50 calories per mile.
You don’t necessarily need to replenish your calories the way that you would replace water, though. Registered dietitian Elle Penner suggests eating back about 50 percent of the calories that you burn and seeing how you feel afterward.
The time that you eat matters too. Research shows that your body’s ability to rebuild muscle and glycogen stores is improved immediately after a workout. Eating a combination of carbohydrates and protein after you exercise aids in this process.
Although the timing varies, most people should try to replenish some calories within 45 minutes of cycling. Glycogen production falls by about 50% two hours after a workout. If you fueled up before you cycled, you might not need to replenish as many nutrients afterward, says Healthline.
Plus, many people overestimate their calorie burn and underestimate the calories that they consume. If you do this, you might end up eating too much after a ride. This isn’t a problem if you’re maintaining a healthy weight, but it could explain why you’re plateauing even if you’re cycling in order to lose weight.
What Should Be In A Cyclist’s Diet Plan?
Easy-to-digest foods can maximize absorption and replenish your body adequately after a ride. Some carbs that break down easily in the body include:
- Sweet potatoes
- Green, leafy vegetables
Proteins that are easily absorbed include:
- Protein powder
- Cottage cheese
- Fish, such as salmon or tuna
- Greek yogurt
Fat goes a long way in providing energy. Mark’s Daily Apple explains that our bodies are meant to use fat reserves for energy. However, many people who consume a carbohydrate-heavy western diet are dependent on sugar for fuel. If you adapt your body to burn more fat, you’ll access the greatest, most long-lasting fuel source without having to carb-load before and during a ride.
Eating plenty of healthy fats while limiting carbohydrates can help you become fat-adapted. Some healthy fats include:
- High-quality, full-fat dairy products
- Olive oil
- Coconut oil
Cutting out highly processed, carbohydrate-rich food can help you balance your macronutrient profile without missing the sugars. It’s also important to fuel yourself enough so that you’re not consuming too few calories. Filling your plate with protein, vegetables and fats and making sure that you’re eating enough to feel satisfied can help you get the proper nutrients and the right number of calories to sustain your cycling regimen.
If your body is used to burning sugar, you may feel depleted when your glycogen stores run out. However, if your body is adapted to burning fat primarily, it will properly access glycogen stores as well. In other words, it becomes more flexible at processing fuel for energy, and you’ll be able to cycle more intensely for longer periods of time.
Is Juicing A Good Idea For Cyclists?
Many cyclists turn to sports drinks for energy before, during and after exercise. While these beverages may supply electrolytes and carbohydrates, they’re often highly processed and don’t contain many nutrients.
Juicing can deliver nutrients that are easy to absorb while helping to keep your sugar levels balanced. The practice of juicing has become a huge trend. Harvard Health Publishing claims that the sale of juicers increased by more than 70 percent from 2012 to 2013. While freshly juiced fruits and vegetables shouldn’t be your primary source of nutrition, because juices don’t deliver the fiber that you need for healthy digestion or to feel full, juicing can be a great way to fuel your body when you cycle.
Juice can also help with hydration, according to Human Kinetics. Adding water to your juice can help your stomach empty and rehydrate you more quickly.
However, some types of juice can deliver large amounts of fructose, which can be problematic for some people. In healthy people, research shows that fructose is equivalent to glucose when used as a fuel for exercising. However, other studies have shown that consuming fructose doesn’t increase the amount of circulating sugar in the blood that can be used by the body for energy. Instead, it increases triglyceride and LDL (bad) cholesterol levels.
When they combine fructose with other sugars, though, athletes may improve fluid absorption in the small intestine and improve carbohydrate oxidation, which can enhance performance. However, other studies have found that carbohydrate-laden beverages can reduce the rate of gastric emptying and prevent your body from properly absorbing fluids.
Juicing in moderation may be the best solution. Try to stay away from juices with a high glycemic index. These include pure fruit juices, which can quickly elevate blood sugar levels and cause cramping. Try to get an adequate combination of nutrients from your juices by using plenty of vegetables with the addition of just one fruit.
Nutrition Controversy: Why Doping Plagues The Sport And How Good Nutrition Can Compete
The Sport Digest says that doping is part of professional cycling’s culture. Using performance-enhancing drugs may be exacerbated by a pressure to win. The fact that cycling is such a high-endurance sport also makes cyclists more likely to use substances to enhance their performance.
One of the key factors in endurance is the body’s oxygen uptake ability. According to an article in The International Journal of Sports Medicine, certain drugs can improve blood oxygen levels and improve oxygen delivery to the muscles. However, many of them are illegal for professional athletes.
You can also improve your blood oxygen levels by eating the right balance of minerals. According to SF Gate, iron, copper and calcium help oxygenate your tissues.
- Cruciferous vegetables
- Bioactive whey protein
What Are Some Good (Clean) Supplements For Cyclists?
Intravenous glutathione injections have been shown to increase performance in cyclists. This substance is not on the World Anti-Doping Agency’s list of prohibited substances. However, if you eat well, you should be getting plenty of glutathione from your diet, according to WebMD.
Whey protein is also an ideal supplement for athletes. Experts recommend increasing your protein levels during frequent periods of high-intensity training. Whey protein provides amino acids that are closely linked to the human body’s own amino acid profile. It is easy to absorb and can help with recovery.
Creatine releases energy in periods of physical stress. It can help you exert power when you need it most. Studies on the supplement have inconsistent findings, and everyone’s response to creatine varies. However, many athletes use it to boost stamina, and it is not currently banned for professional athletes.
Beetroot juice delivers nitrates, which have been theorized to improve endurance. Some studies have found that a high-nitrate version of the juice can be effective in enhancing performance in highly trained athletes. One study looked specifically at cyclists who were exposed to a simulated high-altitude environment, which would compromise oxygen levels. The researchers found that a single dose of beetroot juice did augment their performance.
Eating To Prevent Injury
Proper nutrition doesn’t just allow you to get more out of cycling. It also helps you prevent injury. When you’re eating the right amount of carbohydrates, fats and proteins, you’re less likely to develop fatigue-induced problems.
For example, one of the most common injuries in cyclists is a collarbone fracture that can occur during a crash. If you’ve fueled up adequately, you’re less likely to experience the exhaustion and mental fogginess that can lead to accidents.
Getting enough calcium can also help prevent stress fractures. Taking in at least 1500 mg of calcium daily can significantly reduce the incidence of stress fractures in athletes. Incorporating vitamin D into the mix is also important because it’s essential for building strong bones.
Calcium-rich food sources include:
- Green, leafy vegetables
- Dairy products
- Sunflower seeds
- Sweet potatoes
Sun exposure is the best way to boost your vitamin D levels. Vitamin D is found in a limited number of foods, but it is added to some dairy products, cereals and other products.
Foods that are high in vitamin D include:
- Fatty fish
- Beef liver
- Egg yolks
Following an anti-inflammatory diet can also protect the body against damage, according to Eleat Nutrition. Foods that fight against inflammation are usually high in antioxidants and omega-3 fatty acids. They include:
- Egg yolks
- A variety of vegetables
- Fatty fish
- Citrus fruits
You might also want to stay away from foods that promote inflammation. These include:
- Highly processed packaged foods
- Trans fats
- Fried foods
- Refined starches
If you make sure to consume a wide variety of fresh foods on a regular basis, you should be getting the nutrients that you need to fuel your body for cycling and prevent injury without resorting to doping.