Cycling is an increasingly popular hobby among people of all ages and abilities, with statistics from Transport for London showing the number of cyclists in the capital reached a record high in 2015. Offering numerous mental and physical health benefits, it is easy to see why cycling appeals to so many people. For those who want to improve on their performance and take the hobby to the next level, getting the right nutrition is key. The following tips for before, during and after a challenging ride will aid performance from novice to professional cyclists.
1. Understand the importance of nutrition
Nutrition has always been important for cycling. Running out of energy and being left behind has always been something cyclists have tried to avoid, and even the earliest racing bicycles had bottle cages so people could carry drinks. Improved scientific understanding and the prevalence of commercially available products has meant there is more to think about today, and there are two main factors to consider. Firstly, performance in cycling is hugely influenced by power-to-weight ratio. You will often hear the professionals talking about watts per kilo. In the past, people would have had to go to a sports science lab to get the precise figures, but now power meters have almost become standard equipment on high-end bicycles and indoor trainers. Those who want to truly excel at cycle sport will find nutritional strategies for weight management are absolutely key.
The second main factor, which possibly has more of an acute impact on performance, is how to maintain energy levels in order to produce power. Generally, if people run out of carbohydrate energy whilst on a ride, their ability to produce power is massively compromised. In extreme cases, on a steep climb for instance, they may not be able to produce sufficient power to keep cycling. Other than refuelling with carbohydrate energy, the only option would be to get off and walk, which, even when not racing, can spoil an otherwise pleasant day out in the hills.
2. Make small long-term changes
Those planning far in advance of an event would be wise to follow basic advice regarding eating or drinking less to cut down on their body mass, given the effects this can have on performance. This does not necessarily mean making huge dietary changes. If you take the example of beer, there are sufficient calories in 22 pints of beer to make 1kg of fat. Someone who manages to reduce consumption by two pints per week for 11 weeks is likely to start an event 1kg lighter than they otherwise would, which would make a big difference to performance.
3. Eat sensibly on the day of an event
You hear stories of professionals waking early on the day of a race to consume vast quantities of pasta, but this is not often a person’s preferred or normal breakfast choice. If it is a long ride, it is important to try and ensure carbohydrate stores are topped up without eating food that is heavy on the stomach. It is probably not the time to experiment with adventurous menu choices; instead stick to foods that are regularly consumed and remember to keep things relatively simple. The night before an event, cyclists are often advised to consume approximately 200g of carbohydrate in the form of rice or pasta, but without a mountain of sauce it is likely to sit heavy the next day. A similar amount of carbohydrate for breakfast can be achieved with porridge, bread and rice cakes, but some people prefer a regular breakfast cereal fortified with some protein powder. In practice, people often overeat in the meals preceding a long ride, when they would be better to stick to a normal healthy diet, perhaps paying a little more attention to the high carbohydrate components.
4. Take energy supplies during a ride
For performance, it is best to aim for 60-90g of carbohydrate per hour, usually consumed in the form of gels, bars and energy drinks. Eat less than this and there is more chance of running out of energy. Eat more, and there is probably more chance of gastrointestinal upset than improved performance. Technical sports nutrition products such as those available from Secret Training make it easy to run the numbers and consume the right amount of energy without overeating. They are also designed to be more easily carried and consumed whilst out on the bike. In many cases, it is possible to meet carbohydrate energy needs with more ‘regular food’, but it is important to run the numbers; poor choices here could be heavy on the stomach. It may also mean consuming more fat calories than necessary, so people may not get the favourable effects on body composition they were expecting from the long ride. Often with technical sports nutrition the idea is to achieve better performance with the minimum amount of calories.
5. Replenish afterwards
The big numbers to aim for after a ride are approximately 20g of rapidly absorbed protein with 60g of carbohydrate, 500mg of sodium or potassium and 1.5 times the mass of fluid lost in sweat. Some salt is important to retain fluid after exercise because fluid tends to pass right through without it, meaning plain water is not sufficient to rehydrate post exercise. Unfortunately, beer is not sufficient either, so it is best to pay some attention to post-event nutrition before celebrating any victories! Protein is important for muscle recovery and, in combination with carbohydrates, is important in protecting the immune system, which is often acutely compromised after a long ride. Carbohydrate may be modulated up or down depending on if there is another big ride or rest day to follow. Consideration of post-event nutrition will go a long way, but use of compression clothing, saunas and massage can further enhance recovery. A good stretching routine and gentle spin on rollers or an indoor trainer can also help, along with a good night’s sleep.
Tim Lawson is the founder of Secret Training, which creates nutritional products and accessories for runners, cyclists and endurance sports. Tim has a degree in sport science and was a founder of an incredibly successful sports nutrition business in 1998, which was then sold. Tim is a former European champion track cyclist and has worked closely with many elite athletes to help improve their sports performance. Secret Training is currently the official supplier to UCI WorldTour pro cycling racing team Tinkoff Saxo, the team behind riders Alberto Contador and Peter Sagan. Tim still trains and has fought back from several severe injuries, including breaking his back in 2010 team pursuit championships, to achieve national and international honours in cycling. He is currently undertaking a masters degree in sport science and exercise physiology to add to his extensive knowledge in the subject.