The optimal nutrition for cycling - a detailed guide!
How to achieve your training goals properly
Optimization of nutrition basics
One thing in advance: Whether nutrition in cycling or in general – your diet should always have a healthy basis. A diet should have the best possible overall quality of nutrients and be varied.
How do I get there?
The easiest way to achieve this goal is to try to follow some simple guidelines. These include:
- Eat a lot of fruits and vegetables
- Regularly eat legumes and nuts
- Reduce meat and sugar consumption
These tips are not a groundbreaking novelty – they are common knowledge and widely used. And yet, it seems, many athletes still do not follow those rules. This is also reflected, among other things, in the numbers of diabetes or obesity cases worldwide, as well as other diseases of civilization.
To make these “guidelines” a bit more descriptive and practical, Lucas et al. in a 2019 study statistically backed up their statements and graphically depicted how a healthy diet might be composed.
The suggestions listed here for the optimal composition of your diet provide you with a good nutrient density and promote your health. Furthermore, this way of eating is also sustainable and not a resource burner. It’s a win-win situation.
If you’re worried about your protein intake when you see this data, it’s understandable in the first instance. However, legumes and nuts offer an alternative to meat products. We’re not saying you have to/should completely give up meat.
The eggs on the list below are also important sources of protein for athletes. So you can eat them more often with a quiet conscience, for example in the form of omelets or pancakes. Meals like these offer a way to get protein into your breakfast.
In addition to the amount of protein consumed, it is also important to distribute the intake evenly throughout the day. Data from Gillen et al. show that many athletes consume the most protein in the evening, whilst breakfast is unfortunately often low in protein.
Nutritionist Robert Gorgos has thought about which foods you could specifically take – and summarized them in a table.
The base of your cycling diet should be carbohydrates, which are easily digestible and nutrient-rich, whilst delivering energy evenly into the bloodstream. These trigger a lower insulin response and thus protect your insulin balance.
What’s that supposed to mean? How am I supposed to know that? After all, not everyone will be able to become a dietician.
Here’s a simple solution: imagine you have a bowl full of oatmeal and a bowl full of chocolate pops in front of you (we’re not paying attention to the sugar content for now) Now think: which bowl provides me with not only energy, but other nutrients as well?
To choose the right bowl, no degree will be necessary. Simple considerations like this will increase the nutrient density of your carbohydrate sources.
Exceptions are meals before competitions or very intensive training sessions. The focus here is not necessarily on gentle insulin response or high nutrient density. More important at this moment is to pay attention to the digestibility.
The basic rule is: unsaturated before saturated. Helpful sources of fat are seeds, nuts and high-quality oils. In our latitudes, usually too little omega-3 fatty acids are supplied. These are found, for example, in walnuts, flaxseed or chia seeds. For frying, saturated fats which do not burn are suitable, e.g. coconut oil or butter.
As mentioned above, it is possible to reduce meat consumption through the intake of legumes and nuts. It should also be remembered that there is also a lot of protein in certain vegetables as well.
An example of this would be broccoli. Dairy products, occasional fish and natural protein concentrates, for example from hemp, rice or peas, can supplement protein intake whilst providing valuable nutrients.
On the right side of the table above are the protective substances. These also play an important role in the nutrition of athletes. Because they protect you from free radicals and thus your cells from oxidation.
Very simplified, you could imagine it like this: You cut an apple in half and place it on the table. What happens after a while? The surface of the apple turns brown. But if we squirt lemon on the split apple, it will take longer to brown. The lemon provides protection. This is how (in the broadest sense) you can imagine the task of the protective substances.
Which of these protective substances are found in which foods has not yet been well researched. However, it is obvious that you should resort to such foods as often as possible – preferably on a daily basis.
A simple tip for this: Lots of vegetables and fruit. Certain root spices or garden herbs also turn out to be true superheroes when it comes to providing protective substances.
Cycling nutrition: the training-specific orientation
There are certain guidelines that are generally valid: However, there is no standard food that can be used for every workout.
In order to know how to nourish yourself with the best possible care in your training, you should consider beforehand what you want to achieve with the upcoming workout.
There are different goals that are pursued through a training session. These include:
- Improvement of the carbohydrate metabolism
- Improvement of the fat metabolism
- Reduction of Vlamax (maximum lactate formation)
- Weight loss
It is also important which training phase you are in or what time of year it is. Is it warm or cold? Am I in an altitude training camp? This all affects your consumption of carbohydrates and therefore changes the nutrition in cycling.
General information about carbohydrate consumption
How many carbohydrates do I need to consume? This question, as just explained, is related to some factors. Basically, the following applies: An increas in physical activity requires an increased consumption of carbohydrates, whereas the turnover of free fatty acids decreases.
Let’s use a practical example for better illustration.
Our example athlete can pedal 320 watts for about 50-60 minutes. With the help of software this can be displayed graphically, it illustrates the calorie expenditure per hour and use of carbohydrates per hour in relation to the watts pedalled. One thing is evident: the faster I go, the more carbohydrates are burned.
In the threshold range, our driver already burns 200-260g of carbohydrates per hour. Now it would stand to reason to say he should just take in the amount of carbohydrates per hour. Unfortunately, it is not that simple. From today’s point of view, the highest amount of carbohydrates that can still be tolerated per hour is 120g.
An intake of 60-100g/h is recommended for hard training or competition, depending on body weight and physical strain. This also explains why it is not possible to continue indefinitely in the threshold range. Of course, there are other factors that would make an endeavor like this impossible, but let’s focus here on the energy supply perspective.
Our athlete weighs about 70kg and has a carbohydrate storage of 400g. To illustrate our statements, we assume that he does not supply any energy from outside and drives 320W. As mentioned, we see in the graph that he needs 200-260g of carbohydrates per hour. Without external energy supply, this means he can keep going for a maximum of 1.5-2h.
If our athlete wants to ride for longer than 2 hours in this range, he must supply carbohydrates. This is not only the case for competitions, but also during challenging training sessions, a high carbohydrate intake should be ensured.
In addition, we can hardly expect our body to suddenly know on competition day how to surround itself with 100g of supplied carbohydrates per hour if it has never been confronted with such high amounts before.
Improvement of the carbohydrate metabolism
At high training loads, we move around or above the threshold range. If we exceed the threshold range, carbohydrate consumption actually increases exponentially. If we do not supply energy in such situations, there will be a consequence. Our body resorts to the third source of energy – proteins.
If this happens, it is called a catabolic metabolism or a catabolic process. In concrete terms, this means muscle mass is lost, our immune system is attacked and all in all our body is stressed and weakened. In short: We don’t want that – we have to avoid it!
In addition, the intake of 60-100g of carbohydrates per hour can prevent cravings after exercise and accelerate the recovery process. Incidentally, this also applies to less strenuous training sessions. While it is not always necessary to resort to such high amounts as 100g/h, it is always important to avoid catabolic processes!
In the following we want to show you exactly what it looks like to improve the carbohydrate metabolism can look like. For illustration we use our sports nutrition products FAST CARB, SLOW CARB, POWER CARB, RECOVERY SHAKE, RECOVERY 8 and the PORRIDGE BAR bar
– Full glycogen stores; carbohydrate-rich meal 2-3h before exercise (medium glycaemic index, medium energy density).
– Supply of fast available carbohydrates during exercise (FASTCARB40g/hor Power Carb 60-80g/h; target: carbohydrate intake 60-80g/h; if “train the gut” consistently 80-100g carbohydrates/h)
– Use open window and consume 1g carbohydrates per kg body weight and 0.2g proteins per kg body weight immediately after exercise (RECOVERY SHAKE with rice milk + 5 dates or 1 banana or RECOVERY 8 with water)
– High carbohydrate meal within 2h after exercise (medium to high glycaemic index diet, medium energy density; approx. 2g carbohydrates per kg body weight); moderate carbohydrate meal within 2h after exercise if “train low” the next day (medium glycaemic index diet, medium energy density; approx. 1g carbohydrates per kg body weight)
Improvement of the fat metabolism
The generally known motto for this is: travel as slowly as possible and sit in the saddle as long as possible. It’s not wrong. However, the common assumption not to provide any carbohydrates for as long as possible is wrong. Especially suitable for this purpose are special sports foods that provide carbohydrates slowly, such as our SLOW CARB.
Let’s look at the chart again. Our athlete burns the most fat, in absolute terms, at about 220 watts. This is his so-called “FatMax Zone”. So it makes sense to stay in this zone for a long time if you want to reduce your body fat percentage.
He burns about 500-600 kcal and 70-80g of carbohydrates per hour. We remember: our athlete has a total carbohydrate storage of 400g, so with an expenditure of 70g of carbohydrates, he could be on the road, without external supply, between 5 and 6 hours before his stores are completely empty.
This is a long time, but still not recommended. A supply of approx. 60g/h could avoid a harmful “driving empty” and still sufficient energy is provided by the body via fat.
Again, a useful example of nutrition in cycling:
– Possibly pre-drained glycogen stores; carbohydrate-moderate meal 2-3h before exercise (low glycaemic index diet, medium to high (if higher fat intake) energy density).
– Supply with slowly available carbohydrates during exercise (slow carb 30g/h, total maximum 90g/exercise, increase amount slowly); cover additional energy demand via medium – to slowly available carbohydrates in combination with some protein and fat (Porridge Bar); target: carbohydrate intake 30-60g per h
– Use Open window and consume 0.5 g carbohydrates per kg body weight and 0.2g proteins per kg body weight immediately after exercise (Recovery shakewith rice or almond milk + 5 apricots or dates)
– High carbohydrate meal within 2h after exercise (medium glycaemic index diet, medium energy density; approx. 2g carbohydates per kg body weight); moderate carbohydrate meal within 2h after exercise if “train low” the next day (low to medium glycaemic index diet, medium energy density; approx. 1g carbohydrates per kg body weight)
One of the many factors that influence carbohydrate expenditure is VLamax. The higher your VLamax, the more lactate is produced at a certain intensity of exercise. For many cyclists, a reduction in VLamax is advantageous for long circuits or in cycling marathons.
For events like these, high threshold performance and efficiency is required. In addition to weight loss, which can improve threshold performance, reducing VLamax is useful. Why? If VLamax is reduced, more energy can be provided by fats and carbohydrate consumption can be reduced.
An example of nutrition in cycling: Your training plan includes an activity level of medium intensity – useful for reducing VLamax.
– possibly pre-drained glycogen stores (this should be practiced very carefully – and avoided as soon as intense training is done); carbohydrate-moderate meal 2-3h before exercise (low glycaemic index diet, medium to high (if higher fat intake) energy density)
– Supply with slowly available carbohydrates during exercise (slow carb 30g/h, total maximum 90g/exercise, increase amount slowly); cover additional energy demand via medium to slowly available carbohydrates in combination with some protein and fat (Porridge Bar); target: carbohydrate intake 50-60g carbohydrates per hour.
– Use Open window and consume 0.5 g carbohydrate per kg body weight and 0.2g proteins per kg body weight immediately after exercise (Recovery shake with rice or almond milk + 5 apricots or dates)
– High carbohydrate meal within 2h after exercise (medium glycaemic index diet, medium energy density; approx. 2g carbohydrates per kg body weight); moderate carbohydrate meal within 2h after exercise if “train low” the next day (low to medium glycaemic index diet, medium energy density; approx. 1g carbohydrates per kg body weight)
The simplest and most effective rule to achieve this goal is that in order to lose weight, there must be an energy deficit. In other words, you need to take in less energy than you burn. However, it is important to note that the energy deficit is not too high. Specifically, it should not be higher than 10%!
To illustrate an example: You consume 3000 calories in one day. Your energy deficit should not be higher than 300 kcal. 300kcal is still a rather theoretical statement, so a few numbers:
For example, 300 kcal would be contained in 75g of carbohydrates, 75g of proteins, or in 33g of fat.
Not exceeding this 10% is important for long-term success. If your energy deficit is too high, you will experience cravings. These must generally be avoided. But if you try to reduce your weight, then cravings prove to be twice as counterproductive.
Another tip for successful weight loss: make sure to balance each meal. Many make the mistake of simply putting less food on their plate. This will not work long term, every meal should contain carbohydrates, proteins and fats.
Conclusion for cycling nutrition
In summary, when it comes to cycling nutrition you should:
- Optimize the basic diet
- Keep the goal of each training in mind
- Align the diet before, during and after training so it helps to achieve the training goal
- Keep your attention in daily life to a natural, nutrient-rich diet/food in order to be healthy and efficient in the long term
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 J. Collins et al., “UEFA expert group statement on nutrition in elite football. Current evidence to inform practical recommendations and guide future research,” Br. J. Sports Med., pp. 1-27, 2020, doi: 10.1136/bjsports-2019-101961.