Nutrition for Cycling - What to Eat Before a Ride
Fuelling for a ride is something you should be thinking about, not 5 minutes before you get on your bike, but in the hours, and even days beforehand.
What to eat before a ride depends on three main things: when you are riding, how long you are riding, and how hard you are riding. The moment your ride is over an hour, or has some intensity in it, that’s when pre, during, and post-ride nutrition becomes really important. Fuelling for a ride is something you should be thinking about, not 5 minutes before you get on your bike, but in the hours, and even days beforehand.
Pre-ride, carbohydrates are the name of the game. Carbohydrates are an important fuel source for exercise, particularly at higher intensities, and are stored in the liver and muscles as glycogen. Consuming carbohydrate before exercise helps to maximise these glycogen stores for use during exercise, as well as keeping blood sugar levels topped up. The brain also relies almost exclusively on carbs for energy, so carbohydrate intake before and during exercise also plays an important role in concentration and decision-making. This becomes particularly important in a sport like cycling, which requires you to be really mentally switched on when riding in a bunch or sending it down a technical trail.
If we are talking numbers, consuming 1-4 grams of carbohydrate per kg of body weight in the 1-4 hours before exercise is recommended to promote optimal performance. This is a huge range (for a 70kg person, this is between 70-280 grams of carbohydrate) but this recommendation is given to be tailored to a wide range of exercise types, intensity, and duration. Downing 200g of carbohydrate right before a short leisurely ride is overkill, but spread over a few hours before a 4-hr ride with intervals will get you the most out of that ride.
Optimal pre-ride fuelling, however, isn’t just confined to the hours before a ride but might need to start the day before, especially if you are riding in the morning, and especially if that ride is longer than 90 minutes. Many people are familiar with the concept of carbohydrate-loading before a race (more on this in a later blog post), but the same concept applies with training if it’s a particularly hard, long, or important ride – a good rule is that fuelling starts with the two main meals before that ride. So, if you’ve got a big adventure or hard interval session planned for Saturday morning, then you want to prioritise carbohydrates at dinner on Friday and at breakfast on Saturday. Practically, pre-ride fuelling will depend on the time of day you are riding, so I thought I’d go through a few examples of fuelling for some typical situations:
This is probably the most straightforward situation to fuel for – maybe this is your weekend long ride. Focus on carbohydrates at dinner the night before - think rice, pasta, potatoes, bread – the longer and harder your ride the next day, the more of your plate should be carbohydrates. In the morning, typical breakfast foods, like porridge, muesli with yoghurt and fruit, banana on toast, bagels, and even pancakes or waffles are all great sources of carbohydrates to fuel you up for a ride. If you are more of a bacon and eggs type of person, make sure you are having a couple of slices of toast with that. Everyone is different with how close to exercise they can tolerate food, but a decent meal around 2 hours beforehand generally gives your body enough time to digest and process the meal.
For those longer or harder rides (we’re talking about 2.5+ hrs, depending on intensity) you’ll probably benefit from bumping the carbohydrate intake up a bit more. This could look like just having an extra ½ cup cereal with an extra piece of fruit, or having a bagel or some toast alongside your bowl of muesli. If you struggle with increasing the volume of food, adding a glass of orange juice, opting for lower-fiber options, or adding a good drizzle of maple syrup and a handful of dried fruit, can increase the carbohydrate content without adding too much bulk. Alternatively, having an additional top-up snack that’s low in fibre and fat for easy digestion about an hour before you hop on the bike, like some toast with honey, or a banana and a muesli bar, is another good strategy.
This can be the most difficult situation to fuel for – maybe you are getting on that Friday morning Blast train (would recommend), or training before work early in the morning. While it might be tempting to just roll out of bed and onto the bike without eating anything, you’re far more likely to get more out of a fuelled than fasted session, without the risks associated with fasted training. You’ll probably notice your energy and hunger levels to be far more stable throughout the rest of the day as well.
The first thing is to ensure that you’ve filled your plate up with a decent amount of carbs at dinner the evening prior, especially if you know you might not be able to get a proper meal in before riding. The best case scenario is that you are willing to set the alarm a little earlier than usual to have time to eat and digest something beforehand, but often the prioritisation of sleep can win that war. However, getting some carbs in is better than none, and the closer you are eating to hopping on the bike, the more “simpler” those carbs should be to avoid any gut troubles. Instead of a whopping bowl of porridge 15 mins pre-blast, you could go for: a glass of orange juice and a muesli bar, two slices of white bread with jam or honey, a banana and a few bliss balls, or even a handful of lollies.
The next part (which the next blog post will cover in more depth) is to prioritise fuelling early and often on the bike. Don’t feel like you have to wait until 30 minutes into the ride to eat something: if you are really pushed for time beforehand, start eating as soon as you get on the bike. If your early-morning ride is less than 45 mins, or even up to an hour without any intensity, I would probably still advocate for eating something, but it perhaps requires less diligence than for those rides over an hour or anything with intervals.
The other common riding situation for many of us mere mortals is the late afternoon or evening ride – maybe it’s a post-work MTB shred with friends, an evening zwift session, or MNR (Monday Night Racing). For something like MNR when you know you are going to be hurting, think about prioritising carbohydrate in your two main meals prior. If you are riding for more than an hour in the afternoon or evening, make sure that your lunch is more substantial than a veggie salad – maybe go for something with a pasta or rice base, or add a bread roll. If you usually buy lunch, sushi is a great option, or some sort of bread-based/sandwich situation. Save the greasy pie for a recovery day. And then pack a snack you can either have at work or as you are leaving or commuting home, so that by the time you arrive home and get kitted up you’re good to go. Again, this could be something like a PB&J sandwich with a banana, or a muesli bar from a box you keep in your car for this very purpose.
Stay tuned for the next blog post on what to eat during a ride (hint: it’s probably more than you think!)
Associate Registered Nutritionist