Cyclists have one of the highest energy demands out of most athletes and this often creates certain hurdles, especially when it comes to nutrition. The energy demands of their bodies are particularly hard to cover and they need to follow strict high-calorie diets in order to fulfill their body’s needs. In this article, I’ve compiled some of my top healthy eating tips for cyclists along with a ton of other useful answers and insights on this vast and interesting topic!
Before you get to the point in which you will have to determine how much, what, and when to eat, you will need to understand your body’s demands better…
Understanding Your Energy Needs
Your body is slightly different than all others and has specific nutrition and energy needs that you must fulfill throughout the day with various meals and proper hydration. The energy your body uses throughout the day is measured in calories and is the baseline you should start from. A typical adult needs around 1500 calories to sustain the normal function of the organs and body systems. With exercising and other activities you raise the number of calories your body needs to keep running without being in a caloric deficit. Being in a deficit will trigger various processes that are geared more towards storing energy (in the form of fat) rather than burning it for your energy needs. That is why you should always understand and stay on top of your energy needs.
On average, a 155-pound adult will burn around 600 calories per hour when cycling at a moderate pace on a mixed route (uphill and downhill). Mountain biking takes slightly more calories but is pretty much the same, in general. Some intense cycling workouts can push this number to go up with as much as 50%, so take that into account. Having that in mind, you see how a simple 2-hour workout can burn as much as 1200 calories which will add to the daily caloric needs of your body.
There are some advanced cycling apps that can calculate your calorie expenditure when you input your age, weight, height, and some other parameters. Having a wrist tracker that can sync with those apps is going to be a great benefit for your workouts. If you’re looking for a fitness tracker to help you measure your cycling progress and calories burned, I suggest checking out my guide on some of the best fitness trackers for cycling!
Now, your whole daily meal plan can be separated into three stages:
- Eating during the workout
- Post-workout meals
Now, let’s discuss all of these three eating options, and then I will give you a few daily diet examples that you can try for yourself!
Eating Before The Workout
During your day before the cycling session, there are a ton of meal and snack options that you can enjoy. Having foods rich in easily-accessible carbs is a good approach but it isn’t mandatory. Such foods mostly include carbs with a high glycemic index.
The general recommendation in terms of snack periods and times is to eat around 2 hours before your workout and every 30 minutes during the workout itself if it takes longer than an hour. After the training is over, it is recommended to replenish your energy stores within 60 minutes. Eating after the workout will help your body fill its emptied glycogen supplies in the liver and muscle cells, taking the load from your metabolic system and preparing you for the recovery process.
Eating before the actual workout depends on what the workout will be and more importantly – when it will be. Here are a few scenarios:
Example #1 – Having an early workout
Some people prefer waking up early and getting a 60-90 minute ride before they head off to work. These are a bit tricky when it comes to eating since the body will be in a fasting state in most cases. If you feel hungry and feel your stomach gurgling, you can eat something small like a peanut butter sandwich or a handful of various nuts. Drink a little water (200-300 ml) in order to prepare your body’s engine for the workout.
Skipping eating before such an early workout is also okay but make sure that you still hydrate and that you bring along a snack in case you get hungry.
After the workout is done, make sure you treat yourself with a proper well-balanced and nutritious breakfast rich in carbs and fats.
Example #2 – Having a mid-day moderate/hard workout
If you’re having a fast-paced cycling workout in your lunch break or around the middle of the day, make sure that you’ve had a mid-morning snack around 1-2 hours before that. Hydrate yourself well and maybe even bring electrolytes with you if you expect the workout to be extra hard.
Right after you’re done, get to that big lunch you’ve been waiting for all morning!
Example #3 – Early aerobic ride
Doing an aerobic cycling workout in the morning with a duration of 2-3 hours will require you to prepare your body accordingly. Eating a small but balanced breakfast is a good option here. It doesn’t have to be a huge meal, only enough to match your coming energy expenditures and counter your hunger. Having energy bars with you on the ride is necessary since you will need to replenish your energy stores every 30-40 minutes. Drinking half a liter of water every 30-60 minutes is also good but that depends on the climate on your route. Still, we’re talking for a slow to moderately paced ride that doesn’t push you too hard, so homemade food and less water are okay.
Example #4 – High-intensity evening ride
This is about those after-work workouts that happen before your dinner. These high-intensity sessions are typically revolving around increasing your cycling speed. They require the most energy but also happen in a time of the day when your body is best prepared and best supplied with nutrients, assuming you’ve eaten well throughout the day. These workouts should happen around 2 hours after your afternoon snack which, in this case, can be slightly bigger and more caloric to match the caloric needs of the evening workout. After you’re done with this workout, get right to making dinner.
Properly fueling your body for a tough workout will not only ensure that you have enough energy to push through but also prevent some common cycling injuries linked to fatigue and excessive load on the body.
Snacks To Fuel Your Ride
The goal of eating during your cycling session is to avoid “hitting the wall”. This happens when your body runs out of glycogen in its stores (in the muscle and liver cells). That is also when you start feeling lethargic and extremely fatigued. There are three types of nutritional supplements you can take during your ride to counter that process:
- Energy bars
- Energy drinks
- Energy gels
Energy bars serve as an easily accessible and highly compact way to bring carbs along on your ride. They are packed full of high-glycemic-index carbs and are excellent for energy top-ups during a heavy workout. The suggested amount you should be taking is around 1 gram of energy bar per kg of body weight every hour. This means that a 70kg male should eat around 70grams of energy bars each hour he’s training. Converted to pounds, that is around 2.5oz per 155lbs per hour.
What is important to mention again here is that supplying your body with additional energy during the ride is only essential when your workout exceeds 60-90 minutes. For shorter workouts, the pre- and post-workout meals do a good job of covering your energy expenses.
Energy gels are similar to the bars but are in a gel-like form. This has a ton of benefits but also brings a bit of an artificial feel and taste to them, which some people don’t like. What they’re great for, however, is absorption. They have almost water-like absorption levels in your stomach and intestines, making them an ideal source for carbs on your training. The downside is that you will need many of those packs to fuel your workout. Still, they provide the fastest access to 100 calories from all of the three alternatives.
Something that is even faster to absorb and still has a relatively high amount of carbs in it is an energy drink. They also hydrate you relatively well but are a bit harder to take as you go and don’t really do much for the hunger sensation that you might start to feel on a longer ride.
The idea of what to eat after your workout is over is heavily debated but one thing we all agree on – you should be eating after your workout. Well, not immediately but rather 30-40 minutes after you’re done training. That would have given your body enough time to wind down and relax and prepare its metabolic systems for an influx of nutrients. It is an older claim that proteins after a workout will help your body build muscles more efficiently. That, however, hasn’t been proven or, at least, there have been no direct links found. This is because the process of building muscle fibers isn’t as fast as your protein metabolism through the GI tract, meaning eating proteins cannot directly help your body recover after a heavy workout.
Eating carbs, on the other hand, is easy to manage for your body and simple carbs like glucose enter the bloodstream relatively fast. That allows them to get to the liver and be transformed into glycogen (which is a concentrated glucose-storing molecule). From there, these glycogen molecules go to the muscles and top up their otherwise depleted glycogen stores. That is essential to the recovery process of your muscle cells as a deficit in carbs can severely limit their future performance since the glycogen stores won’t be properly topped up nor as big as they would’ve if you’ve replenished them right after training.
Here are some calorie-rich carb-heavy meals that are a great choice for your post-workout meal:
- Sweat and sour pork
- Sweet pie
- Dinner rolls
- Rice pudding
- Summer carbonara
- French toasts
- Cornflake chicken
- French fries
- Mac & Cheese grilled cheese
- Spaghetti tacos
Having a good cycling computer on your bike can also help you keep track of your body’s metrics if it is connected to a good cycling app. You can learn more about some of the best cycling apps by clicking here!
Frequently Asked Questions
How do pro cyclists lose weight?
The main way many pro cyclists lose weight is by managing their diets. What they typically do is slightly reduce their calorie intake to just match their energy demands. The main meal is placed a bit after the main workout for the day with a balanced breakfast and mostly energy-rich foods during the training session.
Why are cyclists skinny?
The majority of the load is located in the cyclist’s legs. The chest and arms don’t have a major role in cycling other than providing steering and stability, hence most cyclists aren’t very strongly built in their upper body.
How man calories should a cyclist eat on average?
As I mentioned in the article above, cyclists should generally aim to cover all the energy expenses of the body during cycling workouts and races. On days with heavy workouts, some cyclists eat as much as 8000 calories while some race days can end up making their bodies burn up to 15 calories per minute. Covering for all of that can result in energy needs of more than 10,000 cal for a single day.
I hope that the healthy eating tips for cyclists here have been helpful. As a whole, what you should aim for is for your body to always be well-supplied with energy (mostly carbs with high-glycemic index) in order to address its heavy caloric needs during cycling workouts. Eating throughout the day is also important depending on your workout’s duration and intensity.