Whether you’re competing in Ironman, challenging yourself on a sportive or simply cycling for fun, fitness or adventure on the weekends, knowing what to eat to power your long distance rides is crucial. How you fuel before, during and after can dictate how much fun – or suffering – you experience while you’re in the saddle. Not to mention how well you recover to ride another day.
When it comes to cycling nutrition, there’s no one-size-fits-all approach. The only way to refine your personal fuelling strategy is through trial and error. But there are some basic building blocks of a long distance cycling nutrition plan that you can apply while conducting your self experimentation.
Here’s our complete guide to sports nutrition for long distance cycling to get you started.
Important nutrients needed for long bike rides
Stored as glycogen in the liver and muscles, carbohydrates are the body’s preferred source of fuel. Everyone has enough reserves to power around 90 minutes of exercise.
For anyone pedalling longer, research shows that topping up your carbs at regular intervals can significantly improve your cycling endurance and performance. Fail to refuel, however, and you’ll end up free-wheeling towards the dreaded cycling bonk.
On any long ride, from Ironman bike legs to sportives and Audax, you’ll need a fuelling strategy that delivers regular hits of simple-to-eat, easily digestible carbs. Most people use a combination of chews, gels, bars and drinks. Trial in training is the only surefire way to discover what works best for you.
As a rule of thumb, the body can absorb around 30g-60g of carbohydrate per hour. That can increase to 90g per hour with the right dual-fuel carb sources that mix glucose and fructose (the sugar from fruit) and use different transport systems in the body. But you’ll need to train your gut to handle larger quantities.
We’ve rounded up a selection of the best carbs for cycling here. But if you’re looking for a natural, powerful source of cycling energy, our Mixed Endurance Pack of Classico, Ciocco, and Di Bosco bars all deliver a delicious hit of bib shorts-friendly, dual-fuel carbs. Or check out our soft-chews for an almost melt-in-the-mouth punch of zingy energy.
If you prefer gels, our range of Veloforte Energy Gels pack 22g of fast-acting carbs in a convenient, easy-open packet for slurping on the go.
Training for – and surviving – long distance cycling efforts requires a sensible approach to self preservation. That includes getting enough protein in your diet for recovery and repair.
Individual protein requirements vary, depending on personal physiology and the duration and intensity of your ride.
Aiming to consume 0.4 grams protein per kilogram of bodyweight at each meal, provides a good foundational supply to support your efforts. But it’s always a good idea to reach for an immediate post-ride protein hit in a bar or shake too. This sets your body on course for recovery.
Protein also supports the uptake of glycogen into the muscles, so taking on board smaller amounts of protein during much longer rides can be beneficial too. Particularly if you’re cycling at lower, active recovery intensities.
Whether you choose plant or animal sources, you should aim for combinations that provide complete proteins with all 20 essential amino acids. For example, hummus and pita bread, peanut butter on wholewheat toast.
There are good fats and bad fats. The saturated fats in cakes, crisps, chocolate bars and biscuits can be harmful to health.
But the body needs good monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats to support the absorption of important fat-soluble vitamins (A,K,D and E) which aid recovery, energy supply and your immune system. They can also lower blood pressure levels, reduce cholesterol and cut the risk of heart disease. Foods like avocados, nuts and oily fish are all good sources of healthy fats.
Vitamins and minerals
While it’s possible to get your full complement of vitamins and minerals from your regular diet, supplements offer a convenient insurance policy. But however you get them, there are some of the bigger hitters cyclists should focus on:
Vitamin C – Keeps you in the saddle by supporting healthy immunity and helps fight cardiovascular disease. Fruit and veg are your best sources but you can also reach for a supplement for a more guaranteed supply. A 500mg daily top-up should suffice.
Vitamin D – A key component for building stronger muscles, stronger bones, increasing your metabolism and shortening recovery times. You can get 80% of your Vitamin D from the sun. But during the winter months topping up with supplements is highly recommended.
Magnesium – Promotes better sleep, helps regulate blood sugar and blood pressure. Also supports bone development, and nerve function, and helps your body use carbs and fat as fuel. All great for promoting better days out on the bike. Magnesium is found in foods like avocados, nuts, seeds and bananas.
How many calories should you eat?
Cyclists can burn anywhere from 2,000 to 7,000 calories per day, depending on physiological factors such as height, weight and basal metabolic rate. How quickly you rip through energy on the bike also depends on your age, weight, sex and the intensity of the ride.
As a guide, during an hour’s moderate-intensity cycling, an average-build male rider can burn around 600 calories. For an average female that’s around 500 calories.
For a more personalised estimate, this Calories Burned calculator is a useful tool.
Best types of food for long distance cycling
When it comes to nutrition for cycling long distances, you’re looking for high-energy foods that provide a good hit of easy to digest carbs. It’s good to pack a mix of flavours and textures and many riders find it easier to start with solids and move to gels and liquids later into a ride when the body – and the stomach – gets tired.
So what is the best food for energy for long distance bike rides? Here are five essentials you can pack in:
An amazing, pocket-sized way to fuel up on the go. Veloforte’s energy bars follow all-natural recipes that not only give you the boost you need – but taste great too. After all, you want to enjoy what you eat, right?
A good option for eating early when your stomach can still handle more solids, bitesize sandwiches with high-energy fillings like banana, peanut butter and jam are a good source of energy during rides.
Dates, figs, dried apricots, raisins, sultanas, cherries and other fruits are great sources of carbs from naturally occurring fruit sugars. They’re pretty robust and you can make your own flavour mixes. Throw in some salty nuts for texture and a savoury hit to balance the sweet.
A source of smaller, regular top-ups on the go, chews give you more control over the amount of fuel you’re taking on board and can help provide a more even source of energy. Veloforte Cubos are wonderfully soft chews, packed full of natural energy with some killer flavours you’ll look forward to.
Energy-dense and easy to port, flapjacks are a great option to pop in your bib shorts. They pack a combination of slower and faster energy sources from the syrups, oats, fruit and nuts.
Cycling energy gels are great when you need a quick, easy hit of carbohydrates on the go. They’re easier to digest than solid alternatives and Veloforte’s nectar-style energy gels are designed to go easy on the gut but also deliver a big punch of natural energy goodness.
What to eat the night before cycling long distance
The night before a long ride, it’s good to add a small number of extra carbs to your meal. But don’t overdo it. Try to avoid refined carbs and don’t eat them too late. Research shows that refined carbs and eating higher-carb meals later into the evening can disrupt sleep.
It’s also wise to avoid eating anything you wouldn’t usually eat or anything you know makes you feel heavy, sluggish or bloated the following morning.
Keep it simple, familiar and aim for a meal that balances carbs (the usual suspects apply here, pasta, sweet potatoes, rice) with a source of lean protein (chicken, fish, tofu) and nutrient-rich veg (broccoli, cauliflower, carrots).
For optimal sleep, avoid having alcohol or late caffeine with your meal too. If you’ve been smart you’ll also already be well hydrated and topping up small amounts of water. Guzzling litres after sundown is a fast ticket to sleep-disrupting toilet trips.
What to eat before cycling long distance
A lot here depends on when your ride starts. If you’ve eaten well in the lead up to this moment, you’ll have most of what you need in the tanks already. The aim is to give you carb stores a little top-up and send you out feeling satiated and energised – but certainly not full.
It’s sensible to get a small breakfast in, if you have time. Again, simple is smart and stick to what you know. A few quick and easy options include:
Get your oats
A bowl of porridge with a combination of peanut butter, honey, berries.
Toast your success
A couple of slices of toast with your topping of choice. Adding some nut butter can help create a more even supply of energy along with the faster-burn carbs from your bread.
If you’re short on time and struggle to digest solids ahead of big rides, try a smoothie or a meal replacement shake. The latter is a good way to ensure you start with a full RDA of essential nutrients. If you’re going for a smoothie, balance the fruit with spinach, broccoli and other greens.
A good option for energy top-ups while travelling to the start, cycling energy bars are portable, snackable and ideal for early mornings on-the-go.
A well-timed cup of coffee or green tea can enhance performance but if you’re already a regular drinker, the impact may be less noticeable. It can also help promote that all-important pre-ride toilet trip.
You should already be well hydrated but drinking a few small glasses ahead of your ride will help. Downing 2 litres likely won’t. Unless the help you’re looking for is multiple trips to the loo pre-ride.
What to eat during long distance cycling
Hopefully your bib shorts are packed with delicious carb-heavy foods you’ve successfully tried and tested on previous rides. Then it’s all about ensuring you’re hitting that 30-60g carbs every hour.
3 x Veloforte gels, each with 22g fast-acting dual source carbs
4-8 Veloforte chews, each with 7g carbs
1.5 Veloforte energy bars which pack around 40g carbs each.
3 x bananas with roughly 22g carbs per fruit
5-12 dates – with around 5g carbs per date
Remember it can take a while for the fuel to hit your system, so starting early can help you avoid gaps in service.
Start with solids
You might have an iron gut but the majority of riders find it becomes harder to consume solids – and easier to ingest liquids and gels – later into your long rides.
Small, regular feeds make for more even energy and less gastro gambling.
Follow your gut
It can be hard to eat anything, six or seven hours into a ride. So if you get a craving for something, it’s often smart to act on it.
What to eat after long distance cycling
Everything the cafe has to offer.
Seriously though, when you get off the bike after a long day in the saddle, the last thing you may want to think about is dialled-in nutrition but it pays to view the immediate aftermath as part of your ride-fuelling plan.
The aim here is to provide your body with the protein it needs for muscle repair along with carbs to replenish depleted glycogen stores. Those carbs also help support the protein synthesis that rebuilds damaged muscles.
Of course, that protein can come from a regular meal but for convenience, a recovery shake or protein bar is often the immediate weapon of choice.
Small, convenient, and easy ways to both fuel yourself and get some extra protein needed to help your muscles recover. Look for a carb: protein ratio of 3:1, like Veloforte’s Forza and Mocha bars.
A familiar favourite, the protein shake guarantees a measured hit of fast protein in, along with some fluids. Veloforte Vita and Nova shakes are packed with protein to help your recovery. But they’re also tasty enough that you’ll look forward to them at the finish line.
Post-ride meals: When you’re ready to eat, it’s important to support your recovery with a well-balanced, nutrient-dense meal that provides a good source of lean protein, along with some carbs to replenish your stores. Chips and a pint might be the blowout you fancy but that won’t help you bounce back fast.
Important: Don’t forget hydration
If you want to conquer climbs like a true King of the Mountains, good hydration is critical. Even low levels of dehydration can affect performance and mood. The aim here is to start your efforts well hydrated, replace the fluids and electrolytes lost through sweat (and maybe some tears) during and then rehydrate fully after.
On shorter rides, in cooler weather, water will suffice. But when the mercury – or intensity – rises and those kilometres stack up, your body needs extra help. Studies show that drinking sports drinks during exercise in hot or humid conditions can help prevent dehydration and improve endurance exercise capacity.
How much fluid and salt you lose – or need to replace – depends on your own personal physiology. To work out how approximately much fluid you lose during rides, weigh yourself (naked) immediately before and after and take a note of how much fluid you take on board.
How to calculate your sweat rate
First, measure your weight loss:
Pre-ride weight – post-ride weight = Weight loss
Then, measure your fluid intake:
Pre-ride fluid weight – post-ride fluid weight = Fluid consumption
Finally calculate sweat rate:
Weight loss + fluid intake / hour = sweat rate
Another simple way to look at it, for every 0.5kg of bodyweight you lose, represents an approximate fluid loss of 500ml. So you’ll need to replace that water to rehydrate but you can also use this to work out your hourly fluid needs riding in similar conditions.
Replacing electrolytes is critical too. Found in the blood, these salts and minerals are essential for normal bodily functions, supporting hydration, regulating nerve and muscle function, blood pressure and PH levels.
Veloforte’s all-natural, vegan rehydration range offers the perfect balance of minerals from a mix of dried coconut water, Himalayan Pink Salt and refreshing real-fruit powders, all in fantastic flavour combinations.
Not all sports drinks operate the same way. Some are designed to support speedy hydration as a priority, others focus more on energy delivery with a hit of carbs and fluids. Here’s how to spot your hypotonic from your isotonic.
End-to-end fuel for your next long distance ride
Now you have the building blocks to create your own long distance cycling fuelling plan, it’s time to stock up on gels, bars, chews, recovery shakes and cycling energy drinks and start experimenting.
Veloforte Mixed Pack bundles are a great place to start, with a range of options to try out. For vegans, the Vegan Complete Pack offers a selection of our best plant-based fuel for riding and recovery.