Nutrition advice for endurance cycling

Posted on August 3, 2021 by

If you intend to drive a car for several hours, it wouldn’t make much sense to start that drive with the fuel light on. It’s going to be far more efficient for your drive to put enough petrol in the tank before you leave.

Similarly, if you intend to ride a bike for several hours, you will need ample fuel in your tank so that your body (the engine) can sustain the duration of the ride. Much like your car, the better the fuel the better the ride so you want premium fuel from nutrient-dense foods prior to, during and after rides to get the best out of your body and recover well.


Before your ride

Given the duration and aerobic nature of long-distance riding, carbohydrates are the main fuel source. The longer the ride, the more carbohydrates you will require to delay the onset of fatigue. Therefore, before you commence a ride, you need to fill your carbohydrate stores, so they are ready to access during your ride.

For longer and more intense rides with hills or sprint sections, “carbohydrate loading” by increasing your carbohydrate intake in the day or two prior to your ride may be beneficial, especially if training regularly.

You can’t consume enough carbs in one meal as that’s not an effective way to replenish stores and may leave you feeling full and uncomfortable. At meal times in the days prior you shouldn’t need to eat excessively more than you usually do.

Include a range of these carbohydrates in your meals and snacks over the day:

  • Bread
  • Rice
  • Pasta
  • Potato
  • Sweet potato
  • Fruit
  • Cereals
  • Legumes

Make space for more carbohydrates by preferring carbohydrate-dominant options over larger serves of proteins and fats in a meal. Ideally ratios on the plate will change rather than just eating more on top of regular meals.

Carbohydrate, which is stored as glycogen, isn’t an infinite resource and will run out if not topped up and replenished. For a ride that is over two hours you will need to continue to top up full stores during your ride.


During your ride

For the more seasoned cyclists at some point you may have experienced the term ‘bonking.’ means you have hit a wall, depleted your glycogen stores so you physically can’t keep going meaning you may need to stop to recover and refuel. This is why preparation is so important.

If you plan to ride for 2 hours or more at a moderate intensity and you want to avoid this fate it’s advisable to top up your energy stores at regular intervals throughout the ride to replace the energy that’s broken down. Carrying energy-dense, low volume, carbohydrate-rich snacks will allow you to sustain your intensity for longer without taking up too much space in your pockets.

What this looks like over the length of your ride is to consume 30-60 grams of carbohydrates per each hour of your ride, with some elite cyclists taking up to 90 grams per hour. To put this into context, a medium banana has approximately 30g of carbohydrates in it.

Some portable carbohydrate snack examples to provide this every 45-60min on a ride include:

  • Fruit – fresh or dried (if your stomach can tolerate it)
  • English muffin or white bread with jam
  • Rice cakes sandwiched with honey
  • Flavoured Rice crackers
  • Muesli bars / cereal bars
  • Handful of lollies

Tip: Fold and wrap in baking paper so its easy to access with one hand if still riding or cut things into bite size chunks and put in a zip-lock bag to fit in your pockets.


After your ride

When you finish your ride, replace the carbohydrates that you have used as fuel, replace the fluid lost to return to being adequately hydrated, and repair the muscles used by consuming protein. Some practical examples of post:

  • Chicken and salad sandwich + tub of Greek yoghurt
  • Fruit smoothie (milk, yoghurt, fruit, honey, oats, ice, chia seeds)
  • Large milk coffee and raisin toast
  • Flavoured milk or yoghurt tube + piece of fruit
  • Eggs + baked beans on grainy toast


Remember hydration

Aim to commence any ride adequately hydrated by consuming fluid regularly throughout the day/s beforehand. In the same way you increase carbs slowly over a few days, you want to aim to do this with fluid intake, consuming at regular intervals – not all at once.

Carrying fluid to maintain hydration throughout the ride is also important, as it takes a fluid loss of only 2% to have a significant impact on both health and performance.

Water is always a great option, but a sports drink can also be useful as it provides the fluid and electrolytes lost in sweat, as well as carbohydrates which can provide a fuel top-up to replace that broken down.

If you are going for a long ride and you can’t fill up a bottle of water along the way you may need numerous bottles with you on the bike to alternate between sports drink and water.


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