Nutrition for Cycling – What to eat/drink prior to the race to maximise performance during it
Written by Professor Graeme L. Close
Professor of Human Physiology, Liverpool John Moores University
Expert Nutrition Consultant England Rugby
Head of Nutrition, Everton FC
Scientific Nutrition advising ambassador for GetBuzzing
Sport Nutrition plays an integral role in elite cycling success, possibly more so than any other sport. Whilst it is possible to get through some sporting events on stored fuels alone, to maintain high intensity cycling for any event greater than one hour in duration requires a carefully planned pre and during ride fuel plan. This article will look at what to eat in the days before and whist on the bike to ensure that you do not run out of fuel and finish the ride strongly.
Two days before the race
Whilst you may have read a lot about low carbohydrate diets enhancing training adaptions and assisting with weight loss (which they may be able to do), when it comes to maximising ride-day performance, especially high intensity performance, such as hill climbs or sprints, carbohydrates are still king. We can only store a limited amount of carbohydrate (about 400g in the muscle and another 100g in the liver) so it is crucial that we maximise these stores prior to starting the ride. Research has taught us that about 8g of carbohydrate per Kg of body weight per day is enough to maximise carbohydrate storage. For a 70kg rider this equates to approximately 560g per day of carbohydrate. I would recommend this for 2 days prior to the big ride, especially if you have been incorporating some low carbohydrate rides into your training plans.
To eat 560g of carbohydrate takes a little planning and effort. You may wish to do this as 4 main meals per day, each containing approximately 100g of carbohydrate as well as 3 snacks in between each containing about 50g of carbohydrate.
100g carbohydrate foods include
Large bowl of rice
Large jacket potato
2 x bagel
Large plate of pasta
50 g carbohydrate snacks include
2 pints milk
2 medium bananas
1 Get Buzzing Bar
If you do this for 2 days prior to the race you are sure that you have loaded your muscle with carbohydrate giving you the best chance of maintaining high intensity performance. We can also use this day to enjoy some high GI carbohydrate foods such as white rice or white bread. Often, we chose the lower GI varieties but when loading we know that the higher GI foods load glycogen faster than low GI ones. This is a great time to add some foods back to your diet that you may have been avoiding but still (secretly) enjoy.
Many people think that hydration only matters on the bike but I firmly believe that the key to in ride hydration is to start the ride hydrated. In this 2 day build up make an effort to drink regularly and not just plain water. Adding electrolytes to the water will help to retain this fluid. There are many great electrolyte tablets available now but please make sure you chose informed sport tested ones, especially if you are a drug tested rider. A good tip is put a 2 L bottle of water in the fridge the night before and use this to gauge how much you are drinking. You should be going to bed with this empty. Another great tip is that milk has been proven to hydrate better than plain water (probably because of the protein and sodium content helping to hold onto fluids). Milk also is a great source of protein so a glass of milk pre-bed can be a great strategy building up to a ride.
On the bike
If you have started the ride carbohydrate loaded then you already have an advantage over your competitors. The next advantage was can gain is to develop a great on bike fuelling plan.
During the ride, we know that you can use 60 g per hour of extra carbohydrate in the form of food / drinks or gels. If this is a mixture of glucose and fructose this can then become 90g per hour. The world’s best riders do this during high intensity rides or hill climbs despite what you may have read about them competing it in a low carb condition. It is a good idea to practice your ride fuel strategies prior to competition and work out how you prefer to get your 60-90 g per hour. Some riders like to do this with sport drinks, others prefer gels and others like foods. My suggestion is you use a combination of all 3, especially for the longer rides (some people find having just drinks and gels can become sickly).
Carbohydrate foods for on the bike include
500ml Typical Sports drink (29g)
Typical carbohydrate gel (20g)
½ Banana Get buzzing bar (20g)
Home-made Rice cakes (20g)
The home-made rice cakes are a particualr favourite with the professional cyclist and really easy to make. For example, one recipe is to simply boil 250g of Arborio rice in a pan with 250ml water, 250ml apple juice and 250ml coconut milk. Simmer until its “sticky” and then add to a lined baking tray. Put in the fridge overnight. You can add extras like dried fruit, dark choc chips if you want to make it tastier cranberries taste great). The day after chop into small squares 2” square, 1” thick, wrap in cling film and take on the bike with you. Next time you watch the Tour de France have a look, you will see many riders eating these homemade rice cakes.
Whichever way preference for carbohydrate, do try to get 60g per hour as this will improve performance. A word of caution though, just because 60-90g per hour is good this does not mean more is better. If you do take too much this can affect your stomach so please practice in a training ride prior to the real thing.
Finally, remember that if you do use a food/gel strategy for your carbohydrate needs rather than a sports drink, you will also need to drink some water to prevent dehydration. We used to suggest 150ml every 15 mins although recent research has questioned this. I now advise riders to drink to thirst during the ride but please remember to drink. There is no need to force fluid into you if you are not thirsty but please do not ignore taking some fluid on board during the race. Dehydration will impair performance and it is easy to avoid.
To summarise I will give you my 3 top tips for maximising your ride day performance
- Load with carbohydrate for 2 days building up the ride with about 8g per Kg body weight
- Hydrate well prior to the race
- During the race tale on board 60g per hour of carbohydrate and let your thirst dictate your drinking
Good luck with your race