Healthy eating habits/Nutrition for Cycling: Eating well to optimise training
The following article provides a simple guide for the general public regarding nutrition and its role in optimising cycling training. For information about recovery and how this can further maximise training and performance see the Sports Dietitions of Australia website and the Australian Institute of Sport website.
- 1 The Importance of Diet
- 2 The Role of Carbohydrates
- 3 Eating Before Training
- 4 Nutrition requirements during training
- 5 Fluids
- 6 Useful resources
- 7 References
The Importance of Diet
Eating well and allowing your body to recover during periods of training will allow you to work harder, stay mentally focused and get the most out of each session. During cycling energy requirements are increased, but it is not just extra carbohydrates and protein your body needs. Adequate vitamins and minerals from a well balanced diet are vital to maintaining health, supporting the immune system and preventing injury.
The Role of Carbohydrates
Carbohydrates are our main fuel source which supply us with energy. When digested, carbohydrates are broken down by the body into glucose which is then absorbed into our cells and converted to energy. Excess glucose which is not immediately needed will be stored in the muscles and liver as glycogen. During exercise the body is able to convert glycogen back into glucose and use it for energy. The problem is our muscles and liver can only store a limited amount of glycogen, with an average of 375-475g in the muscle and up to 100g in the liver. Glycogen also gets depleted at a much faster rate than it is replenished. The longer and more intensely we train, the faster it is depleted leading to fatigue and reduced performance. While glycogen depletion is inevitable, it is possible to delay by supplying the body with adequate carbohydrates during training. This provides a direct source of energy which can be preferentially utilised.
Eating Before Training
Having a small snack or meal before training is important for topping up glycogen levels and ensuring you get the most out of your ride. Ideally meals should be eaten 2-3 hours before exercise to enable proper digestion. However this may not always be possible, as often a great deal of training is undertaken early in the morning. In these situations, it may be more suitable to have a light snack 30 minutes prior to heading out. Meals high in carbohydrates and low in fat are best as they are absorbed quickly and reduce stomach upset.
Pre-training snack ideas:
- Toast with jam
- Cereal with low fat milk
- Up and Go breakfast drink
Nutrition requirements during training
What you eat during training will depend on the length of ride and intensity. For low intensity recovery rides less than 1 hour there is no need for any extra carbohydrates. However for longer rides greater than 90 minutes, it is recommended to have between 30-60g of carbohydrates per hour. Higher GI carbohydrates are a good choice as they are absorbed quicker, allowing for a quick energy supply to muscles.
Snacks containing 30g of carbohydrate
- 1 sports gel
- Medium size banana
- 5-6 jelly lollies
- 500ml of sports drink
Adequate fluid intake while riding is important to prevent dehydration. The duration and intensity of training as well as the weather will all influence how much fluid you need to consume. Symptoms of dehydration include headaches, dizziness, lack of concentration and fatigue all leading to a reduced performance. It is recommended to drink 1 bottle per hour (750ml) but this will vary between individuals. It is important to be aware that hotter temperatures and increased sweating will cause greater fluid loss and increase the need for more fluids. Often in cycling it is hard to determine fluid loss, as sweat is easily evaporated in the wind. When in doubt a simple way to check your hydration level is from the colour of your urine. Aim for a pale yellow colour similar to straw. As you become more dehydrated your urine will become more concentrated and hence looks darker. If this is the case, then it is a good indication to drink more fluid.
Electrolytes and sports drinks
Sports drinks are ideal for longer harder rides as they contain both carbohydrates and electrolytes, therefore providing a fuel source along with fluid. Electrolytes are salts such as sodium and potassium. Sodium acts to enhance fluid intake by activating the thirst mechanism and increasing fluid absorption, while potassium aids in muscle contraction. It’s important to note that you should never dilute sports drinks as this will alter the concentration of carbohydrates and electrolytes rendering them ineffective. If using electrolyte mixes always follow the correct instructions.
Water or sports drink?
Sports drinks are great for longer rides (over 60 minutes) where they can assist in increasing performance and endurance, however for shorter less intensive rides water is best.
What about soft drinks and milk?
Soft drinks are high in carbohydrates and low in salts, therefore are better suited to refuelling but not great for rehydration. Milk is a great post ride option as it contains the same amount of electrolytes as sports drinks plus has the added benefits of protein, vitamins & minerals.
For other chapters in this book on sports nutriton see:
- Sports nutrition for children
- Nutrition & Quick Snack Ideas for Sport Performance
- Post Workout Nutrtion
- Sports drinks: are they really doing us good?
- Preparation for Game Day Eating
- Hydration for Adolescent Athletes
- Australian Institute of Sport. (2009). Nutrition: Competition and Training. Retrieved from http://www.ausport.gov.au/ais/nutrition/factsheets/competition_and_training
- Handbook of Clinical Nutrition and Dietetics (5th ed) Rowan Stewart. Australian Dietitian. Australia
- Sports Dietitions Australia. (2013). Fact sheets for the general public. Retrieved from http://www.sportsdietitians.com.au/factsheets/
- Thomas, B., & Bishop, J. (2007). Manual of dietetic practice (4th ed.). Oxford, UK: Blackwell Publishing Ltd.