Nutrition tips for the everyday cyclist

Sports nutrition is often thought of as something that elite athletes pay close attention to, but not something that should concern the average cyclist. But no matter what level of riding you do, it’s likely that some adjustments in how you eat may make you faster or stronger on the bike, and get through your rides with plenty of energy. Here’s a few quick nutrition tips to make the most out of your cycling.

Shave some grams off your rig

Most cyclists (well at least us blokes) inevitably want to buy their next bike – one that’s lighter, faster and shinier. Saving weight by spending big on equipment has long been an obsession for many, but why spend hundreds (or even thousands) to save a few hundred grams when you can drop a kilo or two from your own frame without spending a penny (or at least a small amount on getting some expert guidance)? Nothing makes you ride faster uphill than giving gravity less ammunition.

So what’s the best way to go about weight loss – low carb, intermittent fasting, calorie counting or just eating less? Ultimately any approach that reduces the total energy (kilojoules or calories) will result in weight loss, but the approach that will work best for you is the one that you find the easiest to follow in the long term (and caters for any specific medical conditions, food allergies or intolerances).

One thing that very few people ever discuss is the effect weight loss has on your body’s energy needs. Smaller bodies burn less energy – so if you were to lose 5kg and return to eating what you did before, chances are your weight will rebound back to where it started (or worse). So it’s very important to realise that to lose weight AND keep it off you have to eat less energy (or burn more through exercise) than you are now permanently, for the rest of your life. If you can’t continue that whacky magazine diet or gruelling exercise regime for the next thirty years, then don’t start it in the first place.

Periodise your Fuel

Back in the 1990s sports dietitians used to go on about carbohydrate as being the important exercise fuel. If you did a lot of training you were told to eat lots of carbs. But things were a bit more primitive back then, and athletes were encouraged to eat lots of carbs everyday, regardless of the training schedule. Since then both training and nutrition has come a long way, and with it the concept of periodised nutrition. That is, matching your carbs to your training schedule. Big ride tomorrow morning? Then make sure you get plenty of carbs the night before. Rest day or an easy social ride? Then no need for it. Afternoon ride? Then it’s extra carbs for breakfast and lunch.

Carbohydrate is essentially starch and sugar, so foods like breakfast cereals, bread, rice, pasta, bananas, flavoured milk and yoghurt and foods made with flour and/or sugar will provide you with fuel for your high intensity efforts. Use these when you need them but reduce them when you don’t. You’ll have energy for training but eat less total energy over the week (helpful if weight loss is a goal).

Get maximum benefit from your training

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to realise that the more you ride, the fitter you get. But have you ever thought about what goes on in the body to make that happen? Research in the last ten years has been able to directly measure what’s going on inside the muscle. Following exercise, our muscles build proteins that result in the beneficial changes that occur in the body. With different types of exercise, different proteins are produced.

But nutrition also has a role to play. The protein building effect is enhanced by eating foods that contain protein shortly after a ride. Even when not exercising there is a role for regular serves of protein across the day to maintain your muscle size and strength.

There’s still more research to be done to determine the ideal way to eat protein for cyclists, but current recommendations suggest eating serves of 15-25g of protein (more if getting protein from plant foods) about 4-6 hours apart and one serve within the first hour after a big ride. Examples include a small tin of tuna, 3 eggs, 100-150g of meat, fish or chicken, 500mL of milk (plain or flavoured) or 200g of greek style yoghurt.

Have a plan

It never ceases to amaze me how many cyclists measure every aspect of their training. They have coaches writing individualised training plans, they measure heart rate, power, cadence and anything else they can analyse. But despite this, so few have a thought out nutrition plan that’s designed specifically to match their immaculately prepared training program.

Nutrition planning is about eating according to your goals and training schedule, to get the most out of your hard work on the bike. This means eating differently on different days of the week, adjusting your diet when your training plan changes emphasis during the year, and making adjustments when you’re injured or taking time off the bike.

It can be tricky working out exactly how to individualised your nutrition to your specific goals and training schedule. If you’re looking for an expert to help build you a plan, find an Accredited Sports Dietitian by checking out the Sports Dietitians Australia website – sportsdietitians.com.au

This article first appeared here: The Daily Tour Issue 06 (pages 102 – 105)