Cycling expends a lot of energy, and consistent performance demands proper fueling and refueling to replace the energy spent. Striking the right balance of what, when, and how much we eat and drink can be tricky. Both under-fueling and over-fueling will hinder your performance, and the optimal amount of food to take in varies based on your ride’s intensity and duration and how your body responds to refueling. We can’t provide you with a personalized meal plan, but we can give general guidelines on how to fuel for cycling, including what to eat before, during, and after a ride, how to stay hydrated, and what types of foods you should avoid. The cycling nutrition advice we offer is for cyclists whose goal is performance, not weight loss. Whether you are a seasoned pro or a new cyclist, this guide will help you fuel your body to get the most out of your cycling experience.
What is the proper nutrition for cycling?
High-intensity cycling is fueled by carbs. Around 70% of VO2 Max, your body begins to rely on carbohydrates because they’re the most easily accessible and most efficient energy source. As you exceed 70% VO2 max, your body’s percentage of fuel provided by carbs also increases. If you plan to cycle at high intensity, your performance will suffer without carbohydrates to help you power through. During these types of rides, energy gels are often the fuel of choice because they’re easy to digest and consist of simple carbohydrates, making them a fast and efficient energy source.
During low-intensity periods of a ride, your body will use fat for energy. So healthy fats are good fuel sources for long and relaxed or mildly aerobic rides. Some cyclists like to train low-carb at low intensity to enable their bodies to burn fat more efficiently and store more glycogen for critical moments of intensity. However, low-carb training can easily backfire. It can deplete your glycogen stores, leaving you with no energy and a growling stomach. And if you ride often without enough carbs, your body can become less efficient at performing at high intensity because it reduces the enzymes in your muscles that enable you to produce energy quickly. The bottom line is that carbs are the best fuel when your cycling demands speed, power, and high exertion.
How many carbs per hour when cycling?
Carbs are an essential source of energy for cycling, but balance is key. Eating extra carbs won’t serve you well because the average person’s body can only absorb 1g of carbohydrates per minute or 60g of carbs per hour. But just because your body is capable of absorbing 60g of carbs per hour doesn’t mean that’s how much you should absorb. The amount of carbs you need during a ride depends on the amount of energy expended and the duration. And the longer you ride, the higher your carb requirement each hour. You can use a power meter to determine how much kJ of work you exert in an hour and refuel in carbs 20–30% of the energy spent. Assuming your glycogen stores are full before riding, these general guidelines can help you to determine how to replenish your carbs during a high-intensity ride.
- Less than 1 hour: 0g (0 calories) per hour
- 1–1.5 hours: 20–30g (80–120 calories) per hour
- 1.5–3 hours: 30–60g (120–240 calories) per hour
- More than 3 hours: 60–90g (180–360 calories) per hour
It is possible to consume more than 60g of carbs per hour, and pro cyclists often need to do so. The number of carbs your body can absorb per hour can be increased by using fast-acting and easily digestible energy nectars.
How much should you drink while cycling?
Fueling and hydration go hand-in-hand. You can’t digest carbs well without fluid. You’ll get nauseous, your muscles will work slowly, and you won’t be able to replenish your energy fast enough. It is important to replenish any fluids lost during cycling. The amount you need to drink depends on your size and how much you sweat. Your sweat level also varies depending on the weather and intensity of each ride. A simple way to determine if you need to hydrate more is by weighing yourself before and after cycling, and consuming one liter of water for every two pounds lost. If you lose more than 3% of your body weight after riding, you’ll know you likely aren’t drinking enough.
For shorter rides, less than 90 minutes, drinking water will keep you well-hydrated. On longer rides, you’ll need to replenish electrolytes lost and consume some calories in liquid form, so you’ll want to hydrate with sports drinks in addition to water depending on your body’s caloric and carbohydrate needs.
Learn more: 12 Best Cycling Hydration Drinks
How to fuel for cycling
The best way to fuel for cycling is specific to the length and intensity of your rides. And fueling doesn’t just happen during a ride–how well you eat and drink before and after your rides is key to recovery and performance as well. We’ll break down how to fuel for before, during, and after rides lasting longer than 1 hour. Jumping on your bike for a quick ride lasting less than an hour won’t require any extra nourishment during your ride.
Fueling before a ride
On the day of a race or a medium or long ride, you’ll want to make sure your glycogen stores are full before you start. Eat a full meal that you can digest easily 3–4 hours beforehand, and then eat a carb-rich snack, like a banana, energy bar, or bagel, 60 minutes before your ride. During your last big meal, don’t choose rich, fatty foods or whole grains that take longer to digest. For an extra carbohydrate boost before a race, you can take 20–30g of carbs in gel form 15 minutes before it starts.
What to eat during a ride
If you’re going to be cycling for longer than an hour, you’ll likely need to refuel during your ride, even if you don’t feel hungry. You don’t want to realize once you’ve hit a wall of fatigue that you should have fueled sooner.
For rides less than one hour, you don’t need to consume any additional calories, assuming your glycogen stores have been replenished since your last ride or workout. Eating a meal within an hour after the ride will help replenish depleted glycogen.
Fueling during shorter rides (1.5–3 hours)
Cycling for 1.5–3 hours demands 20–60g of carbohydrates per hour depending on the distance and intensity of the ride. At this length, you may want to consider drinking a sports drink, especially if your ride is within the 2–3 hour range and high intensity. Lower-intensity rides under 3 hours can be fueled by a mix of carbs, fat, and protein, but as you increase the intensity, your fuel should come primarily from simple carbs in the form of chewables or gels.
Fueling during long rides (3+ hours)
Cycling for over 3 hours requires between 60–90g of carbohydrates per hour based on the demands of the ride. It’s a good idea to save the simple carbs for the last portion of the ride for extra energy to finish strong. Usually, the initial stages of endurance rides are moderately intense and can be fueled with some solid but easily digestible foods, like a nutrition bar or sandwich. On ultra-long rides, choose foods you enjoy eating because the longer your ride, the less motivated you’ll feel to fuel, but doing so is critical to your performance and health. Hydrating on endurance rides requires a combination of water and electrolyte and carb-rich sports drinks.
What to eat after a ride
After a ride, it’s time for real food. Eating a carb-rich meal or shake 20–60 minutes after you get off the bike (20 minutes is ideal) will help you refuel efficiently. If you can’t eat a meal right away after an intense ride, immediately drink a recovery drink and then eat as soon as you can. You need to make refueling a priority, even though you’ll be exhausted after a long and challenging ride. After your meal, snack throughout the day until bedtime.
What foods should you bring on a ride?
Bring foods on a ride that are easy to pack and easy to digest. On endurance rides, you’ll want to pack a mix of gels, sports drinks, and solid foods for different points throughout the race and to prevent fueling boredom from setting in. Gels and drink mixes are convenient, fast, and efficient sources of energy. But when your ride demands something more substantial, nutrition bars, bananas, rice cakes, sandwiches, trail mix, or baked goods are great options, along with liquid nutrients.
What foods to avoid when cycling
Fiber, fat, and protein are all important nutrients, but they aren’t the best choices while cycling or right before a ride. All three nutrients slow digestion and energy absorption and will leave you feeling bloated and sluggish when trying to perform well. Here are a few types of foods that you should avoid before a ride and wait to enjoy afterward.
- Fried foods
- Creamy foods
- Protein bars or shakes
- Beans and fiber-packed veggies
- Whole grains
- Rich, heavy pasta
When grocery shopping, your shopping cart should contain foods made up of simple carbohydrates to sustain your energy and help you perform your best. For low-intensity ride days, choose foods with healthy fats or complex carbohydrates. Getting the right nutrition before and after your ride is also critical because you can’t replenish all of your nutrients on the go.
Most importantly, don’t ride on an empty stomach. When you cycle without fuel for your ride, you’ll easily feel fatigued and find it difficult to maintain your pace. When your body doesn’t have enough fuel to support your muscles, you’re more susceptible to cramps and injury.
To maximize your cycling performance during a race or endurance ride, it’s crucial to prioritize proper nutrition and hydration. But becoming a stronger cyclist requires dedicated training to increase your power and endurance. These workouts and training plans we’ve created to help you prepare for your next race or gran fondo.
- 10 Best Strength Training Exercises for Cyclists
- 3 Indoor Cycling Workouts to Make You Faster
- 10 Best Ways to Increase Cycling Power
- The Beginner Cyclist Training Plan
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