What to eat before cycling
If you're looking to get on your bike more and improve your fitness, or want to step up your training to compete in races this year, elite sports nutritionist James Collins has some advice to help you boost performance and get the most from your rides...
Road cycling has witnessed huge growth in recent years, following the success of Great Britain’s elite cyclists. Elite riders can cover between 400-1000km a week, whereas their recreational counterparts can total over 300km a week. This high volume of training places importance on the diet to sustain performance and to help all cyclists improve their fitness.
What and how much should I eat before a ride?
Fuelling properly for exercise is vital to get the most from your workout. The main fuel for exercise is carbohydrate, which is then stored in the muscles and liver as glycogen. The body is only able to store a relatively small amount of carbohydrate, which is why keeping it topped up is so important.
It is well reported that the carbohydrate needs of elite Tour De France cyclists can vary from 8-11g per kilogram bodyweight (480-660g carbohydrate for a 60kg cyclist). Planning at this level is vital, as constant ‘grazing’ is the only way riders can meet high energy needs, to restore muscle glycogen. For recreational riders training at a reasonably high intensity, their daily carbohydrate needs are between 5-8g carbohydrate per kilogram bodyweight.
Riders' training diets also need to be varied enough to provide sufficient protein to support muscle repair, polyunsaturated fats to reduce muscle damage and vitamins and minerals to aid cellular growth and repair.
Consider the duration (and intensity) of training sessions, you can then plan your fuelling strategy accordingly. For a weekend ride under 3 hours; a high carbohydrate meal the evening before, followed by a high carbohydrate breakfast, will be sufficient to start the ride with muscle glycogen levels adequately topped up.
How long after eating a meal should I wait before getting on the bike?
Everyone has different levels of comfort regarding eating around exercise, so it is important to trial what works for you. In general, allow 2-4 hours before cycling, following a larger meal to allow for digestion, and 30mins - 2hours for a smaller snack.
Consider the Glycaemic Index (GI) of carbohydrates - A food’s GI measures how quickly it is digested and broken down into glucose. Lower GI foods, give a slower release of energy and should be the focus of main meals during training. High GI foods are quickly broken down to glucose and thus available energy. These make great options for quick snacks, before, during, or after training and when ‘carbohydrate loading’.
In general, main meals should be high in lower GI carbohydrates and moderate in protein and fats. Good meal options include;
Should I eat before an early morning ride and if so, what should I opt for?
You should eat where possible before your morning ride; especially if it is a longer session (1 hour in duration) or a high-intensity session. The body uses carbohydrate stores (quickly broken down to energy) for high-intensity work, and if cycling having not eaten breakfast you may not be able to maintain the quality of exercise. Due to the body's position on the bike, riders generally find it easier to tolerate food closer to cycling, though you should try a few strategies and see what works best for you.
Here are two morning situations to plan for:
The early riser - if you wake up 2 hours before your cycle, good options include:
Straight out of bed - if you prefer to get straight out on the bike, the following, quickly-digested, options are good options for you:
If you can’t tolerate any food before your ride, or prefer not to eat, try increasing the carbohydrate portion of your evening meal the night before, as this will be stored in the muscles (as glycogen) ready for your morning session.
What should I definitely avoid eating before a ride?
To provide sufficient fuel, foods should be predominantly high in carbohydrate. Riders should also use foods they are used to, make them feel comfortable, and don’t cause any gastrointestinal symptoms.
In the 2-4 hours before, riders should try to limit the following, as these are well known causes gastrointestinal distress (diarrhoea, bowel upsets): Excess fibre, excess fatty foods, unusually spicy foods, excess caffeine intakes, and more obviously, alcohol! In the hour before a ride, snacks should focus on smaller easily absorbed, high GI snacks and reduce the amount of fibre consumed.
Now you know what to eat before your cycle, get the rest of your training nutrition right:
What to eat during your cycle
What to eat after your cycle
What to eat before your swim
What to eat during your swim
What to eat after your swim
What to eat before your run
What to eat during your run
What to eat after your run
Are you training for an event this year or getting to grips with a new sport? Share your tips and experiences below.
As a sport and exercise nutritionist, James Collins regularly provides comment and consultation within the media and maintains a role of governance within health & nutrition in the UK, where he sits on The Royal Society of Medicine's (RSM) 'Food and Health' Council. He was heavily involved in advising Team GB in the run up to the London 2012 Olympic games, and now towards Rio 2016.