Updated 21st July 2018
If you’re planning to cycle the Prudential RideLondon on Sunday 29th July, or tackle one of the dozens of other sportives around the UK, a good nutrition strategy will help you get the most from your ride. I’ll be giving some simple tips on cycling nutrition on Centre Stage at the 2018 Prudential RideLondon Cycling Show . The Show is free to enter, open to all and runs from Thursday 26 July until Saturday 28 July.
The lead up to ride day
During a long ride you’ll be burning a mixture of fat and carbs for fuel.
When you cycling fast/ uphill you’ll be burning higher % carbs. So speedy riders will burn carbs faster than slow riders.
However, your glycogen stores are limited – enough to last just 1 ½ – 2 hours of high-intensity riding. Even slow riders will eventually run low on fuel.
When glycogen stores become depleted, you feel weak, fatigued and unable to maintain your speed. In exteme cases, you ‘bonk’.
Even if you plan to take things slowly, you’ll eventually reach a point when your glycogen stores run low and cause fatigue. So it’s a good idea for most riders to start the ride with full glycogen stores.
Serious riders will carb load – this is the process of maximising your glycogen stores in preparation for a long endurance event, and may improve your endurance by up to 2 – 3%.
It’s achieved by tapering (reducing) your training during the pre-ride week (do no more than an hour of exercise a day the final 3 days) and increasing your carb intake for the final 2 days to 7 – 10g/ kg bodyweight. That’s 490 – 700g/ day for a 70kg cyclist.
Don’t increase calories, though – just tip the balance of calories so you eat more carbs, less fat. Include foods such as porridge, potatoes, pasta, rice, bread, fruit and pulses in your meals. Do remember, though, that carb loading doesn’t mean eating as much as you can!
The day before
Fuel up with carbs today. Stick to the foods you normally eat and don’t experiment with anything new. Eat several small high-carb meals to maximise glycogen storage. If travelling, pack suitable food e.g. sandwiches, salads, fruit, nuts, dried fruit and bars. Drink plenty – that way you’ll start the ride well hydrated rather having to play catch up in the morning. Your urine should be pale straw coloured.
It’s best to steer clear of lots of high fibre, gas forming foods, such as beans, lentils, cauliflower, sprouts and spicy foods or anything that may upset your stomach and jeopardise your performance. On the other hand, if you’re fine with these foods, then there’s no need to avoid completely. Avoid eating too late in the evening and don’t over-eat (no need for huge bowls of pasta!). Suitable evening meals include
Pad Thai (noodles) with tofu or chicken
Baked Sweet Potato with avocado, chicken (or hummus) and salad
Chicken Paella or Butternut Squash and Pea Risotto
Quinoa and Roasted Vegetables with chicken or falafels
Goat’s cheese and Avocado salad with pitta bread
Chicken or Chickpea stew with couscous
Fuel before the ride
Fuelling before your ride will help keep hunger at bay and raise blood glucose. Eating something rather than nothing beforehand means you’ll feel a lot better during the ride and delay the onset of fatigue. How much and what you eat before the ride will depend on how much time you have between waking and the start of the ride.
Ideally, schedule breakfast 1 – 3 hours before the ride. The less time you have before your ride, the smaller your meal should be. Include foods rich in carbs and protein. If you can eat at least 2 hours before riding:
- Porridge with fruit and nuts
- Overnight oats
- Bircher muesli
- Granola, fruit and milk
- Greek yogurt, fruit and nuts
- Eggs with toast
If you have less than 2 hours or it’s just too early for you to eat a meal, opt for a bar, banana or smoothie. Drink 350- 500ml fluid 2 – 3 h before you start riding.
Many cyclists like to include coffee or tea for a pre-ride caffeine boost! Caffeine is a stimulant that blocks adenosine receptors in the brain. So instead of feeling tired, you feel more alert. It lowers perception of effort, making cycling feel easier and increasing endurance. The current consensus is approx 3mg/ kg body weight, that’s 210mg for a 70kg person, equivalent to a double espresso.
At the start, sip just enough water, squash or sports drink to quench your thirst (don’t overdo it, otherwise you’ll be making an early pitstop!). If you’re peckish, or skipped breakfast, consume an extra 25g carbs, such as a banana, gel or small bar.
During the ride
The purpose of on-board fuelling is to maintain blood glucose levels within an optimal range and supply additional fuel to your muscles. This reduces the rate at which your muscles burn glycogen and thus helps stave off fatigue. Result? Better performance and endurance.
Pack a variety of high-carb snacks that you have trained with. Take savoury as well as sweet options to reduce flavour fatigue and reduce the risk of tooth damage e.g. peanut butter sandwiches, rice cakes, cheese, nuts, date and nut bars, gels, bananas, flapjacks and dried fruit. Prepare as much as possible e.g. cut bars in half and open wrappers to make them easier to get into to, and put them in your pockets. Try and remember what’s in each pocket so you won’t be searching around for a particular food while you’re cycling!
Start fuelling after about 60 min and then plan to have a snack or ‘microfeed’ (15 – 20g carb) every 20 – 30 min for a total of 30- 60g/ h. The exact amount you need depends on hard you’re riding. If you’re cycling at a high intensity, you’ll be burning more carbs and therefore need to consume more carbs. If you’re cycling at a slower pace then you won’t need as much carbs as your body is able to burn more fat for fuel. It’s a matter of fuelling for the work required. The key is to fuel little and often; don’t over-eat but don’t forget to eat either. Some riders set a regular alarm to remind them. You’ll get 15g carbohydrate in the following:
- 250ml sports drink (6% carbs)
- 1 Medjool date
- 20g (a small handful) raisins
- 1 Nakd bar
- ½ energy bar, granola bar or flapjack
- 1 small banana
- 2 energy chews
- 3 jelly babies
- ½ energy gel
Take two refillable bottles: one for water and one for a sports or electrolyte drink (take what you used during training). You need to avoid under-drinking (dehydration) as well as over-drinking (hyponatraemia). Drink to thirst; the amount you need depends on your sweat rate, which will increase during hot humid weather and on climbs. Aim for 400 – 800ml/ h. The maximum you can absorb is 800ml. Any more will just slosh around your stomach and won’t provide any immediate benefit. Drink regularly (little & often), do not force yourself to drink or drink water excessively. Drinks containing electrolytes are recommended on long hard rides over 2 hours or when sweat losses are high.
Some cyclists like to use caffeine to give them a boost near the end of a ride. Get this from caffeine gels, tablets or chews – but only if you’ve used them in training.
Check in advance where feeding and drinks stations are on the route. Use the opportunity to re-fill your bottles and stock up with food. Be wary of trying new products, though – stick to what you’ve trained with.
After the ride
When it’s all over and you’re exhausted and aching all over, a healthy post-ride snack will help to refuel the glycogen levels and repair damaged fibres in your muscles. Eating or drinking some form of protein and carbs, ideally within two hours of finishing (if you ride twice a day), will help you recover quickly.
Sip water or a sports or electrolyte drink. Rehydration can take up to 24 hours so continue drinking little and often and listen to your thirst. You’ll need carbs and protein, which you can get from milk-based drinks, recovery drinks, cheese sandwiches, yogurt, protein bars, flapjacks and bananas. Then go ahead and celebrate!
If you enjoyed this post and want to find out more about food and nutrition, as well as some easy and tasty meal inspiration, then The Vegetarian Athlete’s Cookbook – More than 100 recipes for active living (Bloomsbury, 2016) is a great place to start. It features:
More than 100 delicious, easy-to-prepare vegetarian and vegan recipes for healthy breakfasts, main meals, desserts, sweet and savoury snacks and shakes.
- Expert advice on how to get the right nutrients to maximise your performance without meat
- Stunning food photography
- Full nutrition information for each recipe, including calories, carbohydrate, fat, protein and fibre