By Claire Baseley, Registered Nutritionist
The internet is awash with articles on how to get the edge in your training and racing or how the next wonder supplement may revolutionise your ride. Some of this information may be based on scientific research but much of it will have been conducted on highly trained individuals or even athletes. The results aren’t necessarily relevant for the general population and if you don’t get the basics right, no amount of focusing on a single detail will improve your performance.
Rather than rushing out to buy the latest supplement or herbal remedy, get the fundamentals right first to make the most out of your ride.
Fuel your ride
To get the most out of training, it’s best to do it fuelled. You wouldn’t drive your car without petrol or diesel in it, so you’ll be able to work harder and cycle at a higher intensity if you’ve eaten enough food beforehand and you refuel afterwards to recover. That’s pretty simple!
Try to eat a meal about 2-4 hours before training to give your stomach time to empty and your body a chance to digest some of the food. It’s best to eat foods that supply a balance of nutrients (including carbohydrate, protein and some fats). Examples to help to fuel your ride include:
- a baked potato with baked beans and grated cheese,
- a wrap or sandwich with hummus, egg, cottage cheese and salad,
- a stir fry with vegetables, tofu and noodles
- toast with peanut butter and banana or
- porridge with berries and a glass of milk.
During a shorter ride of 60-90 minutes or less, you won’t need to take on board any more nutrients but if you’re going to be out for a few hours, you’ll want to take some fuel with you to keep your energy topped up. Go for foods that are easy to eat on the move, not too sticky or messy and that won’t cause you any tummy issues (these can be quite specific to the individual so there may be a bit of trial and error figuring out what works for you). Some ideas for handy snacks en route include malt loaf, fruit and nut bars, a banana or flapjack. Energy drinks and gels are popular and provide a readily available source of carbohydrate to working muscles. However, they can increase the risk of dental erosion. Save them for big events and really intense endurance sessions.
Finally, make sure your meal after training contains a balance of carbohydrate and protein. Carbohydrate will help to replace the stored carbohydrate (as glycogen) you’ve used as fuel during training and protein will help to repair post-workout muscles and rebuild the body’s energy generators. The pre-training examples are also great options for after your ride, as is a vegetable omelette with new potatoes, lentil bolognese or curry with rice, or mixed bean and vegetable tacos.
Now there may be occasions where you do want to train with limited fuel or at least limited carbohydrate, as this may help to improve performance in the long term but on these occasions, you will be training at a lower intensity. For more information on how to “train low”, check out this article by the sports scientist Asker Jeukendrup.
To carb or not to carb
There has been much debate over whether low carbohydrate diets can support endurance performance. The best diet for an individual is the one they can healthily and comfortably sustain in the long term but when it comes to endurance performance, the evidence suggests that a diet relatively high in carbohydrate foods is advisable, to ensure your glycogen stores are kept topped up and to promote training adaptation.
How much carbohydrate you’ll need depends upon your body weight and training volume. If you train for about an hour a day, you might need 5-7g/kg body weight (bw) a day; between 1-3h a day around 6-10g/kg bw/d; and over 4h a day, potentially 8-12g/kg bw/d. However, this applies to athletes and even elites often struggle to consume the amounts of carbohydrate required to optimise performance. Many rely heavily on liquid calories, which might be effective at getting the fuel in but the large amounts of sugar required isn’t recommended for dental health and can lead to weight gain if consumed without being burnt off.
Breaking it down, research recommends eating around 2.5g carbohydrate/kg bw around 3 hours before exercise, which is 175g carbohydrate if you weigh 70kg. Start with smaller amounts to begin with, to minimise the stress on your gut and build up slowly. The last thing you want it to start pedalling and to feel sluggish, nauseous or even worse!
Try to rely mainly on wholegrain sources like oats, wholegrain bread and pasta, and brown rice as well as potatoes with the skin on, fruit or starchy vegetables. If you’re struggling with portion sizes, try to eat smaller meals more frequently.
If you are out for more than 60-90 minutes, you’ll need to top up your fuel with either food or drink. Studies recommend consuming 30-60g readily available carbohydrate an hour, from food or drink (aim for the upper end if you’re riding for longer). If you’re riding at high intensity for over 2.5 hours, then you may need even more but again, start at the lower end and gauge how you feel, experimenting with different sources of carbohydrate (food or drink) until you find which works for you.
Examples of foods providing 30g carbohydrate include:
- 40g dried fruit
- 1-2 bananas
- Sports drinks (check the label)
- Energy bar or fruit bar (check the label)
Finally, to recover and replenish glycogen stores after training, aim to consume 1-1.2g carbohydrate/kg bw within 4 hours of exercise. Again, aim for complex and wholegrain sources of carbohydrate, as described above.
Low carb diets are very popular at the moment and may have a place in the treatment of epilepsy or some cases of type 2 diabetes but their role in endurance exercise is more complicated. The ‘train low’ strategy, as part of a periodised training regime, may help to improve the body’s ability to burn fat for fuel, thereby improving endurance performance but the biggest drawback to a low carb diet in the long term is that, with depleted glycogen stores, the capacity for high intensity exercise falls, training feels harder and power and speed can drop.
The power of protein
Protein seems to be the nutrient of the moment but in reality, protein has always been important in stimulating muscle synthesis and reducing protein breakdown following either endurance or resistance exercise. Indeed, combining protein and carbohydrate in a post training meal or drink may be more effective than consuming carbohydrate alone.
For endurance athletes, aim for around 1.2-1.4g protein/kg bw/d, consuming protein foods at regular intervals throughout the day. After training, aim for 0.25g protein/kg bw to help repair the mitochondria (the body’s energy powerhouses). This is around 20g protein for an 80kg individual.
You can find around 20g protein in many foods:
- 600ml milk or 700ml soya milk
- 450g plain yoghurt
- 3 eggs
- 100g tofu
- 300g chickpeas
- Serving of whey or soy powder
Hydration hydration hydration
With the laser focus on nutrition, it can be easy to forget the importance of hydration in endurance performance. How much water you lose depends on the intensity and duration of training, the temperature and humidity of your environment, and your own personal biochemistry. Dehydration, in which you lose around 2% of your body water can impact performance, particularly at higher temperatures but it’s also very important not to over-hydrate.
There are many technical recommendations for how to calculate your fluid needs before, during and after exercise but in practical terms, it is best to drink according to your thirst. The notion that if you are thirsty, you are already dehydrated is an urban myth. If you are thirsty, it’s a perfect time to have a drink!
Ensure you are hydrated before training by sipping fluid in the hours before your ride and then drink according to thirst while cycling. This helps to avoid the dangers of under- or over-hydration during exercise and avoids the need for complex hydration schedules.
A top tip is to weigh yourself immediately before and immediately after your ride. If you’ve gained weight, you’re drinking too much and if you’ve lost more than 2-3% of your bodyweight, you may not be drinking enough.
Isotonic sports drinks are a good way to both hydrate and fuel during exercise. However, if you are using food or gels for fuel, then make sure you also consume plain water at the same time.
Supplements are just that
Many athletes are keen to try out the latest supplements that boast of performance benefits based on cutting edge research. While some supplements may offer benefits and they are certainly convenient, it is essential to get diet and training right first and add in supplements, where relevant, as an afterthought. It is entirely possible to optimise performance without the need for any supplements.
The bottom line is that training and eating should be enjoyable and sustainable. If it becomes more diet and exercise than eating and training, you are probably losing sight of the fun element of cycling!
For further information, the book Sports Nutrition by Anita Bean is a mine of practical and evidence based tips for athletes.
This article references:
ACSM/AND/DC (2016) Nutrition and Athletic Performance. Med. Sci. in Sports and Ex., vol 48(3), pp543-68.
Beelen et al (2010) Nutritional strategies to promote postexercise recovery. Int J. Sport Nutr. Exerc. Metab., vol 20, pp S15-32.
Burke et al (2011) Carbohydrates for training and competition. J. Sports Sci., vol 29, Suppl. 1, pp17-27.
Claire is a Registered Nutritionist with 20 years’ experience in food and nutrition, She specialises in nutrition for active individuals and is a keen swimmer and cyclist.