As a passionate cyclist, you will know the importance of good cycling nutrition, but the wealth of information out there can be complicated, conflicting and confusing!
At Veloforte, as well as our love for cycling, we love great food and eating well too. No matter how much money you might invest in new wheels, or how hard you train, great nutrition and cycling diet is the foundation for staying healthy and above all else enjoying cycling.
What you put into your body you get out. Our aim is to take you right back to the basics for a simple approach to getting it right.
Good nutrition affects every aspect of cycling. We’ll explain the different roles of carbohydrates and protein and help you to plan what to eat before, during and after a ride to construct your own cycling diet plan.
Cycling nutrition and the importance of carbohydrates
Carbohydrate is our body’s preferred source of fuel for cycling. We can store, in the form of glycogen in our liver and muscles, enough fuel for approx 90 mins of exercise. Anything beyond that means we need to be sure to take on board extra carbohydrate at regular intervals to avoid the dreaded cycling bonk.
When our body runs out of energy our cycling essentially grinds to a halt, or at least a very slow wobble! If you are training for a long cycling event such as a race, sportive or Audax it is really important that you practice different fuelling strategies during your training.
Not only does this help fix your strategy in your mind and make it familiar, it can help train your body and digestive system to better absorb carbohydrate.
Including your nutrition and fuelling strategy into your training means you'll also develop and support your needs for managing weight-loss, endurance capability and power. Depending on the intensity of your ride, your aim is between 30g - 60g of carbohydrate per hour and up to 90g if part of the carbohydrate is being supplied by a mix of glucose and fructose (the sugar from fruit).
During our long rides, we prefer to take both a bottle of water and one with an electrolyte drink and use a choice of our Classico, Di Bosco, Ciocco or our new Avanti bars - for its sodium content which can help with hydration.
All of our bars are deliciously natural and provide the optimal mix of carbohydrates (both glucose & fructose) from ingredients including dried fruits and agave plus protein from nuts, making them ideally balanced without all the gloopy, sticky additives & preservatives of synthetic bars.
They're much more enjoyable to eat (as well as being award-winningly delicious) and easier on your stomach too. They're also the most powerful natural products on the market, so your energies will be sustained all day long.
Cycling nutrition and diet plan at a glance
- Pre-ride: Light source of protein and hydration (e.g. scrambled egg or porridge and half fruit juice, half water).
- During cycling: Carbohydrates (e.g. carb-based energy bars).
- Post-ride cycling recovery: Protein and Carbohydrates (e.g. recovery bars, nuts or dry fruits).
Your most likely pre-ride or pre-race meal will be breakfast, but the same principles apply at any time of the day.
Your meal needs to ensure your glycogen stores are fully topped up and that you are properly hydrated. It must also be easy to digest - particularly on race or event day when a nervous tummy may make digestion harder.
Look for... foods with a good combination of protein sources and carbohydrate. Half fruit juice, half water is a great way to hydrate and the fructose from the juice will contribute to your carb needs.
Look for... light sources of protein such as scrambled egg, unsweetened yoghurt, nuts and seeds and combine with slow-release carbohydrates such as porridge, wholemeal toast or a bagel.
If you don’t have time for breakfast a Forza bar - with its mix of 12g of complete protein and optimal carbs - along with a fruit juice is a good choice.
Or if the meal is no more than an hour before your ride then a Pronto bar can be a brilliant way to perk you up with a mellow, yet powerful, caffeine hit - providing 80mg of natural caffeine... the equivalent to an Espresso.
Staying hydrated is absolutely critical for the digestion of food and to maintain a high level of cycling performance.
De-hydration, even in its mildest form, can really slow you down and leave you feeling ill and with a head-ache after your ride.
As well as drinking the normal recommended amount of 1.5 to 2 litres of water per day you need to drink extra to match any fluid lost through exercise.
Whilst it might seem a faff, a simple check is to weigh yourself before and after a ride. A well-hydrated rider shouldn’t be losing weight over the course of a ride. For every 0.5kg of bodyweight, you lose you need 500ml of water to rehydrate you.
Water alone is fine for short rides in cooler weather but if you are producing a lot of sweat then taking on board a little bit of extra sodium can really help your body maintain fluid balance, and prevent cramps.
Our Avanti bars are incredibly delicious and salty too, so they taste amazing mid-way through a ride with the sea salt providing 40mg of sodium per bar to help keep your fluid balance in check. Learn more about why we made the Avanti here.
During your ride
Different types of training sessions need fuelling in different ways - here are some examples:
Easy days & recovery rides
Lower intensity and short rides (less than an hour) won’t really need extra fuelling as you can rely on your glycogen stores, also at lower intensities your body’s fat stores can be trained to make a greater contribution to your energy needs.
To help train your body to burn fat, and reduce its dependency on energy from carbohydrates, you can try doing these short rides in a fasted state before you have breakfast, but be sure to refuel properly afterwards.
High-intensity cycling rides: hills and intervals
To perform these sessions well and reach the desired high intensities to get a training effect you need to be properly fuelled. Make sure you eat some carbohydrate during the day and have a carbohydrate snack an hour before.
You might find a Pronto bar handy here as the caffeine will also give you a kick to help with a hard cycling session. You can learn more about why we made the Pronto and how it helps you perform here.
If your session is longer than 90 minutes, make sure you're taking on carbs during the ride and be careful to refuel afterwards with a small meal of protein and carbohydrate - a Forza bar can be very useful, not to mention perfectly designed for Recovery (see later) if you don’t have time to make a meal.
Long-distance cycling rides
If you are out for several hours, or you are replicating race day conditions, then make sure that you have a cycling nutrition plan in place to replace carbs at a rate of 60g-90g per hour and start eating after the first 20-minutes.
This is a good test for your nutrition strategy and helps you to know what flavours of bar you like and how your body reacts to different foods, nutrition and fluids and timings.
Ideally, you would do a long ride at least once per week and a full ‘race rehearsal’ once a month in preparation. You can find more articles on how to fuel over long days across our #fuelbetter cycling nutrition blog.
Post-ride cycling nutrition recovery
After your ride, whether it is a short & easy one, a tough training session or after a cycling race, your first priority is recovery.
The first 30-minutes after finishing exercise is known as the replenishment window or glycogen window. During this time your body is primed to be ready to replenish your glycogen stores and start re-building your muscles damaged through hard exercise - all you need to do is give it the building blocks.
The golden ratio is 3:1 - 3 parts carbohydrate to 1-part protein.
The carbohydrate is needed to replenish energy stores in the form of muscle glycogen and the protein is needed to help convert the carbs into glucose and build and repair muscle fibres.
You don’t need vast amounts of protein for cycling recovery, many 'protein' products are designed for those wishing to bulk-up, so whilst they might seem high in protein, they don’t offer enough carbs for any recovery benefit from endurance exercise.
Veloforte’s Forza bar is packed full of apricots, orange juice, agave & honey as well as egg-white for protein. It has 12g of complete protein - more than double any other Veloforte bar - and perfectly hits the 3:1 ratio.
You can learn more about the benefits of complete protein and why we made the Forza bar here.
It’s useful to have one in your kit bag, your desk drawer or even your car glove box so that wherever you are after your training you will always have the right fuel on hand. After all, training is meaningless without proper recovery.
5 Additional tips to make the most out of your cycling diet
1. Consume the right amount of calories
Cycling is a great way of burning calories, and therefore good for weight loss, however, relatively gentle cycling can actually give you an appetite far in excess of the calories burnt!
When you get home from a ride ravenous, recovery is important of course, but try to eat only a little more than on non-exercising days, stick to healthy food choices and do not super-size your portions.
The number of calories you burn on a ride is dependent on your body weight and the intensity of the exercise, lighter cyclists burn less than heavier riders and easy rides consume less calories than hard ride.
A very simple rule of thumb... is to multiply the distance cycled by 40-50 calories - so a 20-mile ride would need an additional 800-1000 calories. You can also get an estimate of calories burnt using your power meter, heart rate monitor or GPS device, just be sure to accurately enter all your personal data first and be aware that some software packages are notorious for overestimating calorie consumption.
One last final warning - remember to subtract the calories consumed on the ride, if you are fuelling properly (or eating carrot cake at the café stop) you may not need as many extra calories as you hoped.
2. Make sure to eat enough protein
Many endurance cyclists are conscious of their body weight and don’t want to bulk up. It's a common misconception that protein will result in muscle mass gain. However, protein isn’t just for building big muscles, it is very important for health and for endurance exercise, and is an important part of every cyclist’s healthy diet.
Protein provides a pool of amino acids that act as the building blocks of muscle repair. After hard training, it is essential to make sure that you eat protein in the hours after cycling so your body has the tools it needs to strengthen and repair damaged muscle fibre.
Protein also plays a role in blood sugar regulation and weight management. Calorie for calorie, protein helps you to feel fuller for longer than carbohydrate alone and slows down the release of glucose into your blood stream, helping to prevent sugar spikes and crashes.
If you are looking for a healthy snack between meals, protein-rich foods such as nuts, natural yoghurt or peanut butter go down well with slow-release carbohydrates such as oatcakes, wholemeal bread or an apple.
If you are on the go and don’t have time or resources to make yourself a healthy snack a Forza bar with complete protein from egg whites, plus almonds and tasty dried fruit will keep feeding your recovering body the protein it needs and keep your appetite at bay.
3. Eat natural foods for cycling
What you eat and drink has a huge impact on how your body feels.
It’s not just calories or the amount of carbohydrate you eat but the quality of it. Natural foods have many benefits over highly-processed or synthetic products. They are naturally richer in vitamins, minerals and fibre in formats that your body is easily able to recognise and absorb.
Tour de France riders, who are biking and burning upwards of 5000 calories per day, still stick to natural whole foods for the greater part of their diet, employing team Chefs and mobile kitchens to prepare fresh, natural and nutritional food from scratch.
Teams know it is best for rider’s health but also increases the enjoyment of food and prevents flavour fatigue, an important aspect of motivation on any ride, multi-day event or three-week professional Grand Tour.
4. Go for the good fats
Fat often gets a bad rap - but not all fats are equal.
Good fats are essential to our health and well-being, especially if you are cycling regularly.
They keep our cell walls supple, are good for our joints and prevent inflammation. Perhaps most importantly they can decrease your risk of heart disease and strokes. Good fats include polyunsaturated fats (Omega 3 and Omega 6 fats) and monounsaturated fats (Omega 9 fats).
These can be found in nuts, seeds, avocado, cold-water oily fish such as salmon and oils such as coconut or olive oil. Bad fats to be avoided are saturated fats such as those found in meats, some dairy products and processed foods.
Fat has the highest number of calories per gram of all the macro-nutrients.
Aiming for 20g of fat per day will support good health without adding significant calories to your cycling diet.
5. Don’t forget your vitamins and minerals
Eating a full rainbow-coloured range of fruits and veg will ensure that you are getting sufficient vitamins and minerals for good health and to support your cycling.
The NHS recommends three pieces of veg and two pieces of fruit per day but many medical experts feel this is too low and recommend much more - up to seven, or even eleven servings per day. What's important is knowing you're eating these regularly and that they're playing a significant role in your daily diet.
By adding fruit and vegetables to every meal (and snack) these higher numbers are easy to achieve and your body will thank you for it with a stronger and more resilient immune system amongst many other benefits.
Remember that fruit and veg are both good sources of carbohydrate so reducing the amount of less nutrient-dense plain white rice or pasta on your plate with vitamin-rich vegetables such as sweet potato is a good way to meet your quota.
Dried fruit also counts and at Veloforte we make sure all of our protein and energy bars are stuffed full of this delicious and nutritional ingredient to help you eat more vitamins and minerals, as well as providing superbly effective carbohydrate for energy whilst cycling.