Cycling Nutrition for Beginners

Good cycling nutrition and eating the right foods can really help you get the best out of any ride on your bike. But with so many conflicting opinions and confusing products out there, it can be difficult to know where to start. Is carbohydrate intake more important than protein? What does good cycling nutrition look like?

We've put together a guide to nutrition for cycling that will help you understand the best food and diet to turn to to get the best out of your cycling performance.

What is a good diet for cyclists?

A healthy and balanced diet is essential for any cyclist, whether you're a professional or a recreational rider. You've invested in the perfect road or electric bike, so it makes sense to get the best out of every cycling experience. Eating the right foods and packing in important nutrients will help you to maximise your performance and fuel your body for long days on the bike. So, when it comes to thinking about a cycling nutrition plan, should you be focusing on carbohydrate or protein sources?

The answer is - both! Carbohydrates are an essential component of any cyclist's diet as they are the body's main source of energy and are necessary for short and long-term exercise performance. On the other hand, protein is also important for fuelling muscles to help you recover, as well as for building new muscle mass and strength. Protein should be incorporated into your diet in the form of lean meats and fish, or plant-based proteins such as tofu, seitan, tempeh, and beans.

As a general rule of thumb, correct cycling nutrition should include a balance of both proteins and complex carbohydrates, such as whole grains, vegetables, and legumes. It should also include a balance of healthy meals and snacks to make sure you've got enough nutrition throughout the day and across multiple rides if needed.

Make sure to include essential fats (from fresh fruit, vegetables, nuts and seeds) to support normal body function and to help with recovery and muscle growth. Adding fruit, nuts, and seeds will also provide you with added energy, vitamins, and minerals which are beneficial for overall health and performance.

You also need to make sure you're focusing on hydration - make sure you've got water and possibly a sports or carbohydrate drink on hand for particularly strenuous or long rides. Get yourself a bike bottle with a cage or holder to make sure you've always got the right drink on hand. Ensure you listen to your body and tailor your diet to your individual needs and goals.

How many calories do I need for cycling?

The ideal calorie intake when cycling can vary depending on a variety of factors, such as intensity and duration of the ride, as well as body weight, health and training goals. Generally, for a leisurely ride, a cyclist can expect to burn around 200-500 calories per hour. However, with more intense or longer rides the amount of calories burned could skyrocket to over 1000 calories.

Good nutrition is essential for cyclists to keep up their energy levels and avoid fatigue. Eating foods that are high in protein and carbohydrates before a ride will help to keep you energised. During a ride, snacks like energy bars and gels can help to top up energy levels and replenish quickly used fuel stores.

After a ride, it's important to replenish glycogen levels to ensure optimal recovery. Eating complex carbohydrates like pasta and potatoes and lean proteins including fish and chicken will help.

Overall, the number of calories you need for cycling is completely individual and should be tailored to your own needs. Understanding your body's nutritional needs can take time and experimentation, but the key is to stay fuelled and hydrated on the go!

Cycling nutrition guide - what to eat, when

What to eat before cycling

How soon before cycling you eat (and what your cycling diet consists of) will affect how quickly your body can convert the fuel into energy. It's always really important to allow your body enough time to digest heavier meals before jumping on the bike. Not giving your body enough time to properly digest a larger meal, can lead to a bad ride, and can cause you to feel uncomfortable, or even nauseous and dizzy.

Eating nutritious and easily digested food, such as fruits, vegetables and carbohydrates, is a great starting point. You can also supplement your diet with electrolytes, protein and additional hydration, if necessary.

For the best digestion, try these foods around three hours before a ride:

  • Porridge

  • Pasta

  • Bananas

  • Wholemeal bread

  • Eggs

What to eat during cycling

Keeping up your carbohydrate intake during cycling - whether it's a race day or you're just out training or for a workout - will help you maintain your energy. A good nutrition strategy involves both food and fluid intake, so make sure you keep up your hydration with a drink every 15-20 minutes, and a small snack every half hour or so.

Sports drinks offer better hydration than water alone and can help with post-cycling recovery - avoiding dehydration and cramps. Energy gels and protein bars are also good options to fuel as part of your diet.

What to eat after cycling

After a good workout, you will have worked up an appetite. Generally, the first 30 minutes after exercise is known as the golden window to refuel to boost recovery and performance. So, it's beneficial for cyclists to make sure they've got a meal or snack lined up after the bike is put away.

Some healthy ideas for post-cycling fuel include:

  • Eggs - an omelette, or poached on toast

  • Jacket potato and beans

  • Beans on toast

  • Protein smoothie

  • Rice

  • Chicken

  • Fish

  • Plant-based protein - e.g. soya, pulses

Check out ourCycling Inspiration hub for even more ways to level up your bike rides.

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Cycling nutrition FAQs

What should you eat while cycling?

What you should eat while cycling depends largely on the duration and intensity of your ride. For short, lower-intensity rides, an energy bar and some fruit can provide enough fuel to keep you going. For longer, more intense rides, you may need more complex carbohydrates, such as a peanut butter sandwich, as well as protein and healthy fats to help your body recover after the ride.

Should you eat carbs or protein when cycling?

Generally speaking, you should aim to have a balanced intake of both carbohydrates and protein when cycling. Before the ride, complex carbohydrates such as whole grains will provide the energy you need, and lean proteins like beans and eggs will help your muscles recover afterwards. Buying specialist carbohydrate snacks or specific cycling nutrition products can help ensure you're consuming the right nutrients and vitamins for the best performance.

What is the best recovery drink for cycling?

A recovery drink is a great way to refuel and replenish after a long ride. The most important factor is to choose one with both carbohydrates and protein. The best energy drinks for cycling will contain a ratio of around 2:1 carbs and protein.

What are the best cycling gels for beginners?

Cycling gels are a good way to replenish your energy during an intense ride. For beginners, it's best to choose a gel that has lower levels of caffeine, as this can make you feel jittery. The best energy gels for cycling offer more simple carbohydrates, such as maltodextrin and glucose, as these can provide a more sustained boost of energy.

Should I eat before or after a long ride?

You should aim to eat a meal that contains a balanced mix of complex carbohydrates and lean protein both before and after any long ride, as this will ensure that your body has the necessary fuel to perform and recover.

Is it better to eat before or after a short ride?

For short bike rides, eating beforehand is typically more beneficial as you can top up your energy stores and ensure that you don't start flagging earlier than is necessary. Depending on the intensity of the workout, a light snack after the ride may also be beneficial.

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