Cycling, nutrition and hydration are not one size fit all. If you were to ask a group of cyclists what their menu looked like in preparation for their ride, you would get a room full of differences.  Despite the different approaches,  there are some key principles cyclists should use to get started. After we discuss these starting points, we can then give an example of what menus look like for different types of bicycle rides!

A simple place to start is with cycling nutrition. What to eat and drink during any length of the ride in general?

The Basics for any ride

Hydration works in conjunction with your nutrition strategy and is key to making your nutrition efforts successful. Dehydration slows gastric emptying and gut motility. Therefore, nutrition has the potential to be obsolete if you are dehydrated. Ultimately affecting how efficiently your muscles move or how long the food is in your gut leading to fatigue and nausea. Symptoms of dehydration may be delayed and can continue to accumulate without awareness, increasing its importance throughout the activity. 

Carbohydrates fuel high intensity activity!

When it’s time to increase intensity in training or competitions, carbohydrates are key. If carbohydrates are not available, your power output, ability to repeat hard efforts, and the likelihood of success decrease. Cycling is an intermittent-intensity sport. This means there are periods of low- a to-moderate intensity that you will be primarily fueled by fat. But there are critical moments of group rides or competitions that require carbohydrates to fuel higher intensity. There is a time and place for training with low carbohydrate stores but the interval workouts. Which will build a performance that makes high-power efforts possible fueled by carbohydrates.

Balanced Complex Carbohydrates for the Win!

30-60 grams of carbohydrates per hour for aerobic exercise is what is recommended by most standard sports nutrition professionals. Based on the fact most individuals absorb about a 1 gram of carbohydrates per minute. However, this is closely dependent on the overall activity level.  When conducting endurance bicycle rides or complex strenuous rides that are enough to deplete carbohydrate stores. Hence, it is appropriate to aim for the high end of the range.

Calculation of a Successful fuel can be done by the athlete’s carbohydrate intake and a rider’s hourly kilojoule (or power) output.  A good rule of thumb is to consume enough carbohydrate calories (input) to replace ~ 20-30% of the power (output) of work you’re doing per hour. A simple example of this is using 500 kj/hr as a good general measurement of the average male cyclist riding at a sustainable endurance pace. Therefore, he should consume about 100-150 calories of carbohydrate (25-37 grams) per hour on rides that exceed 90 minutes. If the same cyclist is pushing a hard pace of 800 kilojoules of work per hour. Then it should increase to 40-60 grams of carbohydrate per hour to sustain that amount of energy output.

Over-eating to Under-eating

In the case of riding for distance, overeating only leads to nausea. This requires you to slow down, cool off, rehydrate, and wait for it to pass. Too much in your gut can be more harmful than feeling slight hunger.  If you are slightly hungry, on the other hand, replenishing with carbs, which riders generally carry in pouches for convenient access, will allow you to continue a great ride.  This assumes you’re properly hydrated and just have a modest calorie deficit with a carbohydrate intake of 20-25 grams.

Separate calories from hydration

Temperatures can drastically affect hydration. It’s important to evaluate carbohydrate-rich sports drinks that can be helpful when it’s hot, but just like anything else there is a time and a place for these. If temperatures are high, your hydration requirements will increase dramatically. however, your ability to absorb carbohydrates does not change. So, when you simply consume water, when it comes to hydration, that is without any liquid carbs in it and also intake calories that are complex carbohydrates, you are able to have them independently based on conditions and intensity.

Fueling Bicycle Rides of Any Length

60-75 minutes short Bicycle ride

Hydration: plain water

Calories: None

Fasted Endurance Ride:  Muscle glycogen stores should be fully replenished within the previous 24 hours. There are more than enough carbohydrate stores when glycogen is full for a short ride.  It’s important to remember, that this is for high-intensity rides, and not to consume too much or digestion will cause you to feel weighed down. However, you can sweat out up to 1.5 liters of fluid in a hot, high-intensity hour so hydration is key with this type of ride. Following the ride, you do not require a large meal, just something that is rich in complex carbohydrates, along with some protein within the next 30-60 minutes after your ride.  This will help encourage quick glycogen replenishment. 

1-3 hours medium Bicycle ride

Hydration: water and electrolyte-rich sports drink

Calories: 30-60 grams of carbohydrate per hour or 20-30% expenditure

Types of foods to consume: bars/foods with a mix of complex carbohydrates, fats, and proteins for medium intensity level ride. Throughout the ride switch to simple sugars like chewables or gels depending on intensity.

Medium Endurance Ride: This is the best approach for interval rides with intermittent power, sustainable power, and peak power.  The time to exhaustion increases and the repeatability of hard efforts improves when fueled this way. After the bicycle ride, a moderate-sized meal with appropriate carbs, fats and protein within 60 minutes after the ride is adequate. If you will be training hard again within the same day or less than ~18 hours, it is recommended to add a recovery drink especially if your ride will exceed 1500 kilojoules of work.

3-6 hours long Bicycle ride

Hydration: mix of water, electrolyte, and carbohydrate drink. Additional calories from hydration when planning for hot weather and/or high-intensity.

Calories: 30-60 grams of carbohydrate per hour or 20-30% expenditure

Types of foods to consume: The previous day should include solid foods, including sandwiches, wraps, and sports nutrition bars.  Then bars/foods with a mix of complex carbohydrates, fats, and proteins for medium intensity level bicycle ride. Throughout the ride, it may be helpful to choose simple sugars like chewables or gels depending on intensity, and a substantial meal within 60 minutes of completing the ride. Do not overeat, it is important to continue consuming normal sized meals and snacks. while also maintaining proper hydration for the rest of the day. Muscle protein synthesis will take place overnight so ensure to have sufficient protein (i.e. a handful of almonds and a banana), prior to bed.

6+ Hours of extra long Bicycle rides

Hydration: mix of water, electrolyte, and carbohydrate drink. Additional calories from hydration when planning for hot weather and/or high-intensity.

Calories: 30-60 grams of carbohydrate per hour or 20-30% expenditure, this is where to be careful so as to not overload and weigh down the digestive process for your gut.  You don’t want to feel sluggish or heavy when riding and can always add in additional calories as you ride.

Types of foods to consume: The previous day and day of should include solid foods, including sandwiches, wraps, and sports nutrition bars.  Then bars/foods with a mix of complex carbohydrates, fats, and proteins for a long intense level ride. Throughout the ride switch to simple sugars like chewables or gels depending on intensity. After the ride a substantial meal within 30 minutes of completing the ride. 

Feel free to have a larger sized meal and continue snacking and hydrating the rest of the day as most will not have this type of ride back to back. Once again, muscle protein synthesis will take place overnight. Be sure to have sufficient protein. Food boredom and GI distress are the big challenges with this type of ride. Due to the moderate level of intensity on long endurance rides the ability to absorb carbohydrates fast enough is not usually a problem. Food rotation helps with boredom as well as a variety of different textured foods.

The Bottom Line

This article sums up what our nutritional profile should look like, according to the duration we bicycle. HealthifyMe would also like to take this opportunity to wish all a Happy World Bicycle Day and an abundance of good health. 

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