If you've got a race or long ride on the horizon you might be wondering how you're going to keep your energy up. Synthetic gels and sugary sports drinks aren't for everyone, so we've totted up our favourite natural fuelling foods for cyclists...
Fuelling options: Natural vs processed
For bike rides of over an hour, it’s wise to think about fuelling on the move to top up glycogen. This is the body’s main source of energy during moderate to intense exercise, which is stored in the muscles. Carbohydrate is the key nutrient to provide glycogen and you'll find a concentrated source in energy gels from sports nutrition manufacturers. Processed energy gels are easy to transport and deliver energy to muscles fast, but they can play havoc with your digestion and become pretty unpalatable after a few.
This is why many cyclists are now turning to whole, natural foods to power them through training rides. American professional cyclist Christian Vande Velde is reported to eat almond butter and honey on a tortilla for shorter, speedy training rides and jamon serrano with tomato and olive oil on a baguette for long, slower rides.
The beauty of the bike of course is that you can easily store food in a bike frame pack and slow down to eat, which makes fuelling with whole foods easier than in other sports. While space restrictions take three-course dinners off the menu, technically you can take along anything to eat mid-cycle. For optimum performance, foods high in carbohydrates will be what your body needs, and for most cyclists, the guideline is roughly 30–60g per hour, though needs vary depending on intensity. Experiment with our top natural picks and find out what works best for you during training rides...
Our favourite natural fuelling foods...
Sliced apples or oranges
Carb-laden foods can be heavy and leave you craving water, but fresh fruit is a refreshing way to take in a little carbohydrate and keep your body hydrated. Sliced apple, orange segments and grapes are easy to pack and won’t suffer from hours spent in the saddle. If you find energy gels difficult, taking in some fibre with sweet food may help your digestion too – fruit with skins on could help, but always test to see what works for you.
Easy to store and nibble on during a ride, trailmix has the added benefit of muscle-repairing protein in nuts and fast-release carbohydrates in dried fruit. Make your own DIY mix with dried cranberries, apricots and raisins, chocolate drops, walnuts, peanuts and anything else you like. Gummy sweets are the ultimate energy hit, so you could even add those in guilt-free, too.
A sweet pancake
A simple pancake, flatbread or tortilla spread with jam, honey or chocolate spread will give you a quick energy boost and sweet treat on the move. Roll up the pancake and chop it into small chunks so it’s easy to eat while you’re riding.
Homemade energy bars
Energy bars don’t have to be shop-bought, make your own and they’ll have exactly the same energy-giving effect. The beauty of making your own of course is that you can choose your favourite ingredients, plus they’ll be free of preservatives. Oats, cereal, fruit, nuts and chocolate drops are good ingredients, and honey and peanut butter will help to bind the ingredients together.
Dried fruit energy nuggets
A muffin on the move might seem extravagant, but it’s a good choice for a long ride since muffins are packed with energy, simple to store and easy to pick at while you peddle. Invest in a small muffin tin to make miniature muffins so they’re easier to transport and eat on the bike.
More of our favourite muffin recipes
The go-to food for athletes - included in almost every post-race goody bag - are bananas. Packed with potassium and vitamin B6, bananas help maintain blood sugar levels and replenish electrolytes that are sweated out during exercise. Pack in your pockets to eat during a ride or afterwards for recovery.
Porridge is a popular breakfast for athletes since oats contain slow-release carbohydrates, helping to give you sustained energy over a longer period of time. Oat cookies binded with sugary ingredients like honey, chocolate and dried fruit will give you a mixture of slow and fast-release carbs, helping to optimise your energy levels over the duration of a race.
If you’re planning to be in the saddle for a number of hours it’s wise to eat whole foods little and often to give your digestion a break from sugary gels and sustain your energy levels for longer. A turkey and cheese or chicken & avocado sandwich will give your body energy-giving carbs, plus a little protein to help with muscle repair. Though white bread is the nutritionally-lacking cousin of wholegrain, it’s a good choice to fuel a longer bike ride since it contains simple carbohydrates, which the body can break down more quickly. Tortillas and pitta bread are good options since they’re less bulky to store in a frame bag.
Are you a keen cyclist or a first-timer in the saddle? We'd love to hear your tips, experiences and comments below...