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Cycling, as an exercise form, sets up your body for a unique bunch of challenges, and the rewards are many. But to get the most out of it, you have to ramp up your game in terms of lifestyle, time management and nutrition. Sports nutrition, in particular for cycling, is a different beast entirely. It is a supercharged nutrition strategy that has healthy everyday eating habits at its foundation, with building blocks made of specialized “training nutrition.” A sports nutrition plan is geared at getting you into full cyclist form.
There are many things to consider when you take up cycling: your unique body characteristics, your lifestyle habits, your daily sleep pattern, eating habits, age, gender, existing muscle mass, and fitness baseline. All of this will advise your daily caloric intake of both macro-nutrients (carbohydrates, fats, fibre, protein) as well as micronutrients (vitamins and minerals). The other things to factor in are your individual goals: Are you looking only to lose weight or train for a bike race or triathlon? Are you looking to go on long, low-intensity rides, or high-intensity mountain biking? Do you mean to train consistently, or expect unavoidable fluctuations?
The main goal of daily nutrition is to maximize your “metabolic efficiency.” This concept, coined by Bob Seebohar, coach and sports dietitian pertains to how efficiently you use your body’s stored fat and carbohydrate calories for energy. According to Seebohar, the recreational cyclist will likely store in upwards of 80,000 calories as fat in their body but only 1200-2000 calories as carbohydrate (the range being due to gender and muscle mass differences). Because of this large discrepancy, the idea is to train your body to use more of the almost unlimited fat stores, and preserve the carbohydrate stores until you really need them. A daily diet of Protein + Fat + Fiber + the right Carbs boosts your metabolic efficiency and primes your body to burn fat reserves first. This is invaluable in endurance sports like cycling as you are tapping into an almost unlimited wellspring of energy.
The pillars of sports nutrition:
Having a daily diet rich in protein is vital for not just building immunity or muscle mass, but it will boost your post-cycling recovery. Endurance sports, like cycling, takes a lot out of your tissues and muscles. Post-workout protein powders or shakes must be an indispensable part of any athlete’s lifestyle.
If you’ve been taking your nutrition seriously, you know that all fats are not created equal. There are good (polyunsaturated) fats and bad (monounsaturated) fats. Omega 3 and 6 fats, found in fatty fish like salmon or cod, or in nuts, seeds, particularly flaxseeds, or avocado are incredibly beneficial. Use cold-pressed oils such as olive or coconut oil. Industrial seed oils, like canola or safflower, or oils found in processed foods are best avoided or, at the most, restricted.
Fibre or roughage, found in fruits, legumes, grains and vegetables, plays a dual function. Soluble fibre not only keeps you feeling satiated, fuller, after a meal, but most importantly, helps stabilize your blood sugar. This is of great use for any endurance activity, which depends on optimizing and stabilizing blood glucose. It also helps lower cholesterol levels. Insoluble fibre absorbs water and softens the stool, and helps ensure proper elimination of waste.
Just like fat, there are “good carbs” and “bad carbs.” You want to eat a fist-sized portion of low-glycemic carbs (slow-burn/ sustained energy-releasing) carbs such as whole grains, vegetables, or fruit at every meal. For instance, your breakfast could comprise muesli, oatmeal with fruit or yoghurt. Your lunch could include whole or sprouted-grain sandwiches, and dinner could consist of brown rice or quinoa. Avoid large servings of carbs. You will experience a surge in energy followed by a massive dip. The above strategy will supply you with enough carbs to be in shape for your cycling. Sugars or sugary carbs are a huge no-no. You cannot out-cycle a bad diet.
Make sure you are taking in adequate vitamins and minerals. Adding a daily multivitamin or spirulina extract will enhance your training diet.
According to certified Spinning instructor Mansi Garg, liquids are a cyclist’s best friend on the road and off it. Stay well-hydrated and energized with water 24/7. To avoid brain fog and dizziness after an intense round of cycling, you should be drinking 1.5 to 2 litres of water daily. Moreover, coconut water, orange juice, lemon and black saltwater are great natural ways to stay hydrated. Also, you could go in for energy drinks, soft gel tabs, electrolyte mixes or gummy bear gels. These have to be spread out throughout the course in a timely manner.
Triathlete and Ironman, Kedar Datar, regularly bikes 60 km and will typically have a banana to start with, and carry water and energy gel for the road, to cover fluid loss while cycling. At a high level, he recommends loading up on carbs before a race, having complex sugars and easing up on proteins and fats. According to him, everything is relative, so things like distance, speed, weather, terrain, the gradient should all be considered in the approach to nutrition.
Experts recommend weighing yourself pre and post-ride to work out your hydration needs. For every kilo you have lost, you need an additional one litre of water to balance it out. Even 2% dehydration results in a significant drop in performance, so staying hydrated is all-important.
Carb top-up for the road: When and how much?
Sports nutrition recommends eating an hour or two before your ride, then every 20-30 minutes during the ride if it goes beyond one hour. You should also eat something within half an hour to an hour after you finish. Which brings us back to the relationship between daily nutrition plans and ride intensity.
If you are eating enough throughout the day:
- Easy-paced rides (<90 minutes) will not always require additional fuel support. You will be sufficiently propelled by your body’s own carb stores.
- Longer or more intense rides will need you to load up on carbs for sustained energy throughout and especially towards the end of the ride.
According to research, a fueling plan supplying 30-60g of carbs per hour of riding is a good place to begin. You can opt for a carbohydrate drink, gels, bars or a mix of these to supplement your daily nutrition. Start at 30g per hour and slowly increase your carb intake to determine how your body uses it and adjusts to it. Work towards 60g: if you can tolerate it, it will improve your performance. Another way to work out your additional calorie requirement is to multiply the distance travelled in miles, by 40-50 calories. For example, for a 30-mile ride, you can estimate an extra calorie need of 1200-1500 calories. This range is applicable at the lower limit if you are slower or lighter, and towards the upper limit if you are faster or heavier.
You can use gadgets too: a cycling computer that estimates calories burned according to the terrain you rode over will help provide more accurate calculations of your calorie requirement.
Eating and drinking on the road: Know your bars, drinks and gels:
The intensity and duration of your ride will also determine what you can digest. Solid foods such as bars are usually better tolerated towards the beginning of a ride, but not for a high-intensity race. As your duration or intensity increases switch from bars to gels. Take carbohydrate gels with water. The exception being an “isotonic” gel, with the most effective fuel delivery being achieved in a 6-8% solution. This will require about 125-150 ml of water per 10 g of carbohydrate gel.
Cycling and weight loss: When should you cut calories and when should you not:
Your post-workout appetite may surpass usual hunger levels as your body releases “hunger hormones” to compel you to eat, so it can preserve its fat stores.
- If you are in training for long or high-intensity events, or close to an event, don’t cut calories.
- If you are trying to lose weight, eat, but with a little calorie deficit within the range of 250 calories in your daily food consumption.