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Your guide to cycling nutrition

Female cyclist with happy expression
Want to know more about what you should be eating and drinking before, during and after your bike ride? Your FAQs answered in this guide to cycling nutrition.

Whether you cycle to work, mountain bike on the weekends or are a complete cycling super fan, supporting your body with a suitable diet is key.

Find out what to eat before, during and after cycling, as well as what type of diet supports cycling the best.

What is a good cyclist diet?

All cyclists need a diet that gives them enough energy to power through their rides so they can enjoy it, not just endure it.

Cyclists also need to make sure they are nourishing their body with enough protein, vitamins and minerals to make sure their bodies perform and repair as best they can.

A typical cycling diet plan will include:

  • plenty of carbs before, after and even sometimes during your cycling
  • adequate protein to support your muscles
  • enough calories to keep you energised to cycle
  • some ‘quick energy’ snacks / gels (if you’re running for long periods of time)
  • an array of vitamins and minerals to help the body function and recover normally

But does it matter when you eat these foods, or how much of them you eat? Are some foods, drinks and snacks better for before / during / after your cycling? Let’s find out.

Why do cyclists eat so much?

When you take up cycling as a hobby, you can often feel more hungry than usual.

This should come as no shock when you find out that the average person will burn between 450 and 750 calories every hour they cycle.1 So it’s no wonder cyclists may be raiding the snack cupboard or piling up their plates more than usual!

There's many healthy ways to satisfy these extra calorie needs. Yes, eating a huge pizza and all the sides after a long bike ride may be very satisfying to both you and your body, but maybe don’t try it after every meal! The body tends to get sick of a junk food-heavy diet…

As well as satisfying your body’s extra calorie needs, nutritionally rich meals provide so much more. Plates full of fruits, veggies, complex carbs and protein will have a better macronutrient spread with lots more vitamins and minerals.

What should I eat on cycling days?

It does really depend on what type of cycling you’re doing.

If you're planning an easy-paced ride for about an hour/hour and half, eating a balanced diet throughout the days should be fine. Low-fat, carb-heavy meals are perfect for getting you fuelled up before a ride. Save the protein and healthy fats for later.

Top tip: wait at least an hour and a half after any meal before cycling as having a ‘full stomach’ could make you feel a little queasy/uncomfortable.

How many calories should I eat while cycling?

This is going to be different for everyone, as each person has a different calorie need depending on their height, weight, sex, genetics and lifestyle.

If you’ve started cycling out of nowhere, you'll probably have to increase your calories. The NHS recommends that men need around 2500kcal a day and women need 2000kcal, so keep these figures in mind and listen to your own body.2

You'll soon find out if you're eating too little calories because you'll feel fatigued from your cycling and struggle to recover.

What should I eat during endurance cycling?

Endurance cycling is a whole new kettle of fish! Normal cycling becomes endurance cycling when you ride over 60 miles in one trip, according the Endurance Cycling Organization.3

You will need to eat more in general if you’re training for these events, or around the events if you are already in good enough condition.

There’s a section below about what to eat when you’re cycling long distance with a maths equation to find out how many carbs you need and what snacks provide them.

Summary

  • There's multiple nutrition considerations to take before taking up cycling
  • Carbohydrates are key for every stage of your bike rides, protein becomes important later
  • You'll likely have to up your calories, unless you want to lose weight

Drinking and eating before cycling

There's no fast or easy rules about eating and drinking before cycling, except that cycling long-distance on an empty stomach first thing in the morning is a bad idea waiting to happen!

Different things will work for different people, like:

  • eating/drinking an energy-packed snack about an hour before their ride
  • making sure to eat and digest an adequate meal before thinking about getting on the bike
  • eating/drinking normally throughout the day and paying no mind

This can be influenced by multiple different lifestyle factors and goals. For example, the cycling commuter may only have time to quickly scoff a banana before pedalling of to work, whereas someone with a huge day-long cycle will have to make sure they have enough fuel in their bodies before setting off on the first leg.

Here are some FAQs about what you should eat/drink before you cycle.

What should I eat before cycling in the morning?

Planning to cycle when you get up in the mornings? Knowing what to eat beforehand can be tricky.

If you have 90 minutes to spare before your cycle, then a few of these light-yet-effective breakfasts could do the trick:

If you plan on having a full English in the morning, a big stack of pancakes, or any big meal, it’s probably best to wait two to four fours before you ride – maybe save this for a Sunday, eh!

If you don’t have that sort of time in the morning (especially when you’ve got a job to get to) read the next FAQ.

What should I eat one hour before cycling?

If you have an hour or less before you cycle, a light, easily digested, carb-loaded snack will probably be a better choice than a complete meal. Some good examples include:

  • breakfast smoothie
  • breakfast bars
  • breakfast muffins
  • fruit tea cake
  • snack/date bars
  • malted loaf bars
  • some biscuits if you’re desperate!

Do you have to eat before cycling?

Not necessarily. But, it probably won’t feel good trying to do an intense or long bike ride with no fuel to power you with.

If you really can’t tolerate food before cycling, there's the option to eat a carb-heavy meal the night before. This way, your body saves some of these carbs in the muscles as glycogen ready for you to tap into in the morning.

What should you not eat or drink before cycling?

There's a few types of foods you should try and cut back on in the few hours before your ride. This is because they can be associated with digestive discomfort and could ruin your cycle. Make sure to limit:

  • very spicy foods
  • high amounts of fibre
  • fatty foods

Same thing goes for your drinks. Some beverages are more likely to upset your stomach while you’re cycling.

  • Excess caffeine
  • Alcohol (obviously!)
Instead, try water, pre-workout drinks, isotonic drinks, and moderate amounts of caffeine can also help keep you hydrated while giving you that initial boost to get going. However, they may make you need the toilet, so maybe plan a wee break along your route.


Here’s one of the best pre-workout for cycling powders:

PE Nutrition Performance Pre-Workout Fruit Punch - 440g

  • Promotes energy and the reduction of tiredness & fatigue
  • 2g of L-glutamine & 2g of BCAAs and vitamins per serving
  • Contains caffeine and taurine to fuel your workout

Is cycling in the morning good?

Sure, why not! Any exercise is the morning is good if it suits you and your lifestyle. Getting out for a cycle in the morning can help kick-start your metabolism and get feel-good endorphins flowing to set you up nicely for the day.

Summary

  • Try and eat a meal at least 90 minutes before a bike ride
  • If you don’t have enough time for that, try a light carb-based snack or pre-workout drink before you ride
  • Avoid foods and meals with high fat or high protein contents before your ride
  • You can drink some caffeine but don’t overdo it

What should I eat while cycling?

Love a carb fest? Good! You may have picked the right sport.

In order to perform your best in cycling, you need to make sure your muscle glycogen levels are kept topped up on longer rides. This is what supplies energy to your hard-working muscles, hello quads and glutes! If you don’t refuel with carbs, your energy levels will dip and pumping those legs will seem much harder, some even start to feel empty and shaky.

How often should you eat while cycling?

The British Cycling Organisation recommends that you should plan to have 0.5-1g of carbohydrates per kg of bodyweight each hour you cycle, depending on the intensity. They say you should aim to spread that over two to three ‘micro feeds’ every 20-30 mins of your ride.

To give you an example of how this looks, let’s use an 80kg rider as an example. If they were going for a two hour bike ride, they'd need a total of 80-160g of carbohydrates, which would translate into roughly four snacks containing 20-40g carbs. Here's some examples:

  • 4 x fig rolls (about 12g of carbs each)
  • 2 x cycling energy gels (usually around 20g carbs each)
  • 1 x sports drinks (normally 35g carbs per 500ml)
  • 1 x energy bars for cycling (typically 40g carbs per bar)
  • 2 x brioche rolls with jam (about 28g carbs each)
One of the best energy gels for cycling is SiS GO Isotonic Energy Gel.

Are bananas good for cyclists?

Yes! Bananas are one of the best foods for cyclists. Your typical banana contains around 25-30g of carbohydrates, making great for before, during and after your bike rides. They also contain potassium, which can help rebalance electrolytes in the body – which is why people also recommend them for hangovers!

What should I drink while cycling?

It depends how long your ride is. If you only plan on riding for under an hour, plain old water should do the trick. However, longer rides or those in hot conditions are going to need some extra electrolytes.

Our bodies lose electrolytes when we sweat, and as they're responsible for normal cellular function, they must be replaced. Drinks that contain electrolytes like sodium, calcium, magnesium, and potassium.

If you’re going on a longer ride, you'll also need to replenish your glycogen stores with carbohydrates. It makes sense to combine all of these aspects in a sports drink or gel, so you get the carbs, electrolytes, and hydration all in one drink. 

Look for sport or energy drinks with around 40g of carbs per 500ml.

Summary

  • Drinking water should be fine for bike rides up until an hour
  • During longer bike rides you should top up on quick-release carbs and sports drinks with electrolytes to help keep you going

Drinking and eating after cycling

As soon as you put your bike away and sat down to relax, you’re probably going to be feeling pretty peckish, especially if it was a long bike ride. But what's best to eat and drink after cycling?

It’s all about allowing your body to recover after your ride, so you need to feed it what it needs to return to its normal physiological state.

Cycling recovery drinks come in handy to replenish your carbohydrate and hydration stores quick-time, but you should consider real food.

Snacks and meals high in carbohydrates and protein are best for around 30 minutes into your recovery, e.g. beans on toast and an electrolyte drink or a bowl of muesli with a protein shake.

This protein shake could play a part in your recovery:

PE Nutrition Performance Whey Vanilla - 900g

  • 22g of high-quality whey protein per serving
  • 4.8g of BCAAs + other amino acids that form protein
  • Expertly formulated with 3 different types of whey protein

The final say

  • Cycling can be as strenuous or as casual as you like, and if you’re going down the strenuous route, you need to pay attention to what you’re eating and drinking
  • Before a cycle you need to make sure you are hydrated, energetic and have packed in some carbs before you hop on your bike
  • During a long bike ride, you should replenish with quick-release carbs/energy gels/water every half an hour or so to keep you topped up
  • After a long bike ride you will need lots of carbs, protein, electrolytes and water to help your body recover

Disclaimer

The advice in this article is for information only and should not replace medical care. Please check with your GP or healthcare professional before trying any supplements, treatments or remedies. Food supplements must not be used as a substitute for a varied and balanced diet and a healthy lifestyle.
 

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