Why Is Nutrition Important For Cyclists
In case you didn’t already know, proper nutrition is essential for better health and fitness levels, and this certainly applies to cycling.
Actually, it applies even more.
Unlike other types of biking, cycling is not largely dependent on skills and maneuvering like you find with BMX, mountain biking, and so on. Sure, fitness levels are important with any style of biking, but it’s a whole different situation with cycling.
Cycling is all about maintaining an optimal pace for an extended period, which is entirely fueled by your energy levels. Your muscles and fitness play a huge role, but without fuel, they are useless.
Your fuel comes from your nutrition, hence making your nutrition and eating habits of the utmost importance -- if you’re wanting peak performance, that is.
With that said, if you’re looking for some easy ways to up your eating habits and overall nutrition levels, you’re in the right place. Here is a overview of some critical things to know about cycling nutrition, which includes dispelling a few myths in the process as well.
Cycling Nutrition 101
Required Amount Of Calories
The subject of calories is always the cause of much debate.
Let’s get one thing out of the way right off the bat. If you’re just starting out cycling, know that your caloric intake is going to have to go up, and it will gradually increase the more you ride.
Ever wondered how guys like Michael Phelps eat something like 10,000 calories a day, yet remain trim and in shape? This is why. The more you work out, the more calories your body burns, so you need to keep the tank filled to match the output.
So how many calories do you need? If you’re just starting out, a simple way to gauge your additional calorie need is to multiply the distance travelled in miles by 40-50 calories.
For example, if you’re leaving for a 30-mile ride, you can estimate an extra calorie need of somewhere around 1,200-1,500 calories. There are GPS devices and watches like FitBits that can help you better calculate this if needed.
After your ride, your body will release hunger hormones as it tries to maintain body fat stores. This leads to an increased appetite, signaling to you that you need to eat more -- so do it.
In the event you are trying to lose weight, attempt to leave a shortfall in calories replaced to create a deficit that will encourage some fat loss, but only limit this to a 250 calories per-day deficit maximum if you want to keep your riding level strong.
Ah, carbohydrates, another misunderstood aspect of cycling nutrition. Carbs are the body’s primary energy source for cycling, so this is important.
Your weekly carb requirements are dependent on how many miles per week you ride, along with other lifestyle demands. Most sports nutritionists recommend an intake that stays within a range of 5-9g of carbohydrate for each kilogram you weigh per day.
This is a little hard to keep track of, but there are some practical solutions to this.
Eating a lot of carbs in one sitting is a good way to crash later on, so you should instead shoot for a fist-sized portion of any low-glycaemic carbohydrates, such as whole grains, fruit, or veggies with any meal or large snack.
Some other ideas: Oats at breakfast, a small piece of fruit during the mid-morning or mid-afternoon, a whole grain sandwich for lunch and maybe some brown rice or quinoa with your evening meal.
I know it’s not always possible, but try to avoid super-sugary carbs when you can. Always opt for whole grains, fruits, and veggies, and you’ll feel a lot better, and perform better.
If you’ve only half-listened to nutrition experts and TV commercials your whole life, you may have the idea that all fats are bad. While it’s true that some fats are indeed bad and should be avoided, when consumed in the right amounts, other fats are quite healthy.
Simply put, there are good fats, and bad fats. The better fats include things like nuts, olive oils, seeds, fish, and even a little bit of butter. These polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats have a healthy amount of Omega 3, 6, and 9 -- all things that help your body.
Healthy fats also help stave off inflammation, which includes complications from asthma and allergies. They also lube your joints, stimulate your metabolism, and can even reduce cholesterol.
The bad fats to avoid are fairly obvious. Sugary foods, fast foods, candy, etc. All things in moderation, of course, but these need to be very moderated.
Protein is vital for recovery after workouts, as it aids your muscle and tissues in regeneration after grueling workouts. It’s also more filling than other foods, so you can up your intake a bit to feel more full and avoid eating filler foods that don’t offer much nutritional value.
Foods such as lean meats, fish and low-fat dairy choices are the best options. A small amount of protein with or in each meal or snack is better than having a large, hard-to-digest piece of protein.
Vitamins And Minerals
Vitamins are always a great idea, as long as you take the right ones, and at the right amount. There are two main types: fat-soluble and water-soluble.
Fat-soluble vitamins such as A, D, E and K are stored in the body. Water-soluble vitamins are not stored in the body, so they are needed in your diet. Minerals like calcium, iron and zinc are needed each day, but in small portions.
For the most part, five pieces of fruit and vegetables per day will help you get the daily allotted value your body needs. Pro tip: choosing an array of fruit and veggie colors is a better way to get a variety of vitamins and minerals.
Multi-vitamins are a great way to make up deficiencies you may encounter, especially if you’re having trouble getting what you need from foods alone for whatever reason.
Hydration is absolutely crucial, and it needs to be a priority every day, regardless of whether you’re riding or not. It’s safe to say that the majority of the earth’s population doesn’t come anywhere near what the daily intake should be.
You should be consuming around 1.5-2 litres of water each day, increasing the intake during rides to replace lost fluids.
A sports drink every now and then is fine, but water is always vastly superior.
The Timing Of Your Meals
Timing your meals before a ride can be a bit tricky. Eat too soon, and you’ll get that nagging empty stomach feeling mid-ride, which really sucks. Eat too close to your ride (or too much,) and you’ll feel like you have a dumbbell in your stomach. Neither are ideal.
The solution is simple: time your pre-ride meal for at least 90 minutes prior to getting on the bike.
If you prefer eating small meals throughout the day, try downsizing your three main meals to make room for a mid-morning and mid-afternoon snack, it makes it easy to ensure you are fueled before you head out.
Choose a low-fat, carb-filled meal, or any snack that contains a small amount of lean protein. You’ll notice a big difference.
A Few Last Nutrition Tips
Energy and recovery shakes are great and all, but it’s important that you try to eat real food as much as you can, rather than relying more on supplements, powders, gels, etc. There are a ton of healthy options you can rely on in between meals, or when you need a quick, nutritional filler.
Consider the words of pro cyclist Mark Cavendish when asked what his go-to snack is: “I’ve always loved pistachios, which have a lot of protein—more than 12 grams in a typical 50g serving—and tons of vitamins and minerals, like potassium, so I eat them between race stages. I even had my nutritionist create an energy bar with them. Now practically the whole cycling world eats it".
Wondering about caffeine? While you’ll sometimes encounter cyclists that say it’s best to avoid it during ride days, scientists don’t agree. Caffeine has been shown to provide a noticeable energy boost, increase awareness, and improve overall cognitive abilities in short spurts after consuming.
This doesn’t mean you should go down some giant 50 ounce cup of coffee before a ride. However, a small 12 ounce cup is often the perfect amount for most, providing just enough improvement, with little to no crash after.