Nutrition for cycling
Over the next few months Michaela will be putting together a series of blog posts to build more awareness around nutrition, and get people thinking about how they can best fuel their riding endeavors. Whether your goal is to get faster and stronger, have fun, or be healthy enough to still ride (and enjoy it) late into life, what you eat plays a fundamental role.
My name is Michaela Rogan, and I’m a competitive road cyclist and road ambassador for Bike House. In addition to (but also closely intertwined with) my love of cycling is my passion for nutrition. Off the bike, I’m an Associate Registered Nutritionist and I just completed my Master’s in Human Nutrition at the University of Otago last year. I’ve put together a series of blog posts to hopefully build some more awareness about nutrition, and get people thinking about how they can best fuel their riding endeavours – lycra-clad road racers, Signal Hill MTB-shredders, avid bike-packers, and recreational enjoyers of pedalling alike. Whether your goal is to get faster and stronger, have fun, or be healthy enough to still ride (and enjoy it) late into life, what you eat plays a fundamental role.
Nutritional needs exist within a hierarchy and your “pyramid” (for want of a better analogy) requires a strong and wide base before thinking about the nitty gritty of dietary manipulation or specific products or supplements. This is the boring stuff like eating your vegetables and having regular meals, but it’s also the perhaps less-obvious stuff, like having a healthy relationship with food and actually eating enough as a cyclist. Nutrition is far more nuanced than the headlines or influencers would have you believe, and if a particular diet, trend, or supplement sounds too good to be true, it probably is.
The current daily dietary guidelines for New Zealand adults from the Ministry of Health are as follows:
- 5 servings of vegetables: e.g., ½ cup of cooked vegetables, 1 cup of salad, ½ a medium potato or kumara
- 2 servings of fruit: e.g., 1 medium apple or banana, 1 cup canned fruit (drained)
- 6 servings of grains: e.g., 2 weetbix, 1 slice of wholegrain bread, ½ cup cooked pasta, ½ cup of porridge
- 2-3 servings of dairy or dairy alternatives: e.g., 1 glass of milk or calcium-fortified alternative, 1 pottle of yoghurt, 2 slices of cheese
- 2 servings of poultry, red meat with fat removed, eggs, seafood, legumes, nuts, or seeds: e.g., 1 cup of beans, 2 eggs, 1 medium fish fillet, ½ chicken breast, 2 slices (65g) red meat
For the general population, meeting these guidelines everyday should ensure an adequate intake of vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, fibre, carbohydrates, protein, and fat. Regularly exercising individuals will require more from several of these categories, but if you aren’t hitting these targets currently, it’s probably a good place to start. However, due to the unique demands of exercise, there are additional macronutrient guidelines for athletes.
As an athlete or someone who is physically active, carbohydrates are KING. They are a critical energy source for exercise, the main fuel for the brain, and play a role in immunity and bone health. The body can only store so much carbohydrate, so consuming enough before, during, and after a ride is important. Sources of carbohydrates include cereals, wholegrains, bread, pasta, fruit, and starchy vegetables. For those of you interested in the numbers, daily carbohydrate recommendations for athletes are given in grams, based on exercise volume, and relative to body weight.
- Low-intensity or skill-based activity: 3-5 g/kg/day
- ~1hr a day of moderate exercise: 5-7 g/kg/day
- 1-3 hrs a day of moderate-high intensity exercise: 6-10 g/kg/day
- 4-5+hrs a day of moderate-high intensity exercise: 8-12 g/kg/day
For example, if you weigh 70 kgs and go for a 1-3 hour steady or hard ride, you should be consuming between 420-700 grams of carbohydrate that day (exactly where in that range depends on the intensity, and what exercise you’ve got planned in the coming days). For some context, 1 cup of cooked white rice has ~45g, 2 thick slices of bread have ~35g, and a Clif bar has ~44g. So while that might sound like a lot, the following blog posts will cover how to distribute carbohydrate intake before, during, and after exercise to achieve these guidelines.
Protein is important for the repair and growth of muscles and connective tissues, so to get the most from your cycling, aim to consume 1.2-2.0 g/kg/day, “pulsed” at regular intervals. People often consume little protein at breakfast and snacks, a moderate amount at lunch, but then a large amount at dinner. However, your body will more effectively utilise that protein if it comes in regular doses of 20-30g every 3-4 hours, so aim for a source of protein at every meal. Good sources include meat, poultry, eggs, seafood, and dairy, whilst plant-based options include legumes, tofu, tempeh, and soy-based dairy alternatives. Wholegrains, nuts, and seeds also contain moderate amounts and can contribute meaningfully to overall intake – for example, a peanut butter wholemeal sandwich can get you pretty close to 20g of protein.
Athlete-specific guidelines for fat are, well, not very specific. Once carbohydrate and protein intakes are met, fat intake should be sufficient to provide the essential fatty acids, fat-soluble vitamins, and then enough energy to make up energy requirements (an intake that is generally considered “moderate”). Very low-fat diets struggle to provide enough energy, whilst very high-fat diets displace carbohydrates, pose cardiovascular health risks, and despite their hype, fail to elicit meaningful increases in performance. Prioritise sources of mono- and poly-unsaturated fats such as oily fish, nuts, seeds, and avocado, and choose vegetable oils like olive, canola, or rice bran oil for cooking. Try to limit saturated and trans fats, which are present in high amounts in meat fat, high-fat dairy like butter and cream, coconut oil, and commercially baked goods. The story does get a little more nuanced with very high exercise volumes, as the caloric density of fat makes it a vital and practical energy source.
A critical concept at the base of this “pyramid” is something called energy availability. Stay tuned for the next blog post, which will cover what energy availability is, why it is important, and signs of low energy availability to look out for.
Associate Registered Nutritionist