Health & Fitness

Cyclists need to make sure they have the proper diet to fuel their machine

Ah, spring and cycling. They go hand and hand. Whether you are a roadie or a mountain biker, this nutrition advice is for you.

I have a passion for cycling. It is a huge part of my life and, unfortunately, my budget. When I started cycling, I committed the cardinal sin of not taking enough food or water with me and returning home exhausted, famished and thirsty. Cycling is an endurance sport. You are out for long periods of time, and your body needs hydration and fuel.

Normally we need about 60 percent of our calories in carbs, 20 percent protein and 20 percent fat. But in the saddle, these needs change tremendously. You need to consider the pre-ride and the amount of time in the saddle and your post-ride.

The body prefers carbohydrates for energy, and your calories need to be distributed throughout the day. This is especially important in preventing “bonks” — those sudden energy drops. Most of us exercise in the morning or early afternoon. This is when we should be taking in calories. Because most of us don’t know exactly how many calories we need, listen to your body – eat when you are hungry and drink when you are thirsty.

Adequate nutrition and hydration is paramount for you to enjoy your ride. It is also important for those who want to go faster, go harder, go longer, improve their energy levels and recover faster. Experienced cyclists will tell you that nutrition has more of an effect on your ride than the best aero equipment.

Rules to cycle by

•  Never go into a ride dehydrated — it will take you a day to catch up. Our daily fluid needs are 30-35 mls per kg. This is approximately 3 liter water bottles per day. Remember that even a slight change in weight before and after a ride indicates dehydration, and that can really affect your performance. A 2 percent loss in body mass can indicate 5 percent lower performance. Pay attention to the color of your urine. The lighter it is, the more hydrated you are.



•  Calculate your sweat rate by taking your pre-ride weight against your post-ride weight. Subtract your post-ride weight from your pre-ride weight and multiply by 16 fluid ounces. Take that number and add all the fluids you drank on your ride. (Most water bottles are 20 ounces.) You then get how many ounces you need to replenish.



Always drink before you are thirsty. If you wait until you are thirsty, it’s too late.

Carbohydrate drinks

Sports drinks are controversial; this is more about personal preference. Some carb drinks and electrolytes can help you grab and retain fluid. In general, if you ride greater than 60 minutes on a ride, sports drinks provide a benefit. They replace electrolyte losses, enhance fluid absorption and utilization and provide an efficient delivery method for carbohydrates.

Which sports drinks are best?

This is not an easy answer. It depends on the intensity, hill climbs, etc. If you are just going out for a 1-hour ride, these are not necessary. Look at the ingredient label to make sure it has a variety of sugars. It should also include some electrolytes. You may want to dilute your sport drinks with 50 percent water for better tolerance. For endurance rides it is recommended that somewhere between 0-3 hours in the saddle you have some mixed carbohydrate source.

What kind of fuel do I need?

Again, this depends on your level of riding. In general, you should spread calories evenly throughout the day. Usually for riding days, it should look like this: 60-70 percent carbs, 15-20 fat, 15-20 protein.

Think about using high-performance fuels such as whole-grain breads, bagels, pasta, cereals, crackers, grits, granola, quinoa, brown rice, oatmeal, fruits (any), starchy veggies (potatoes, corn), peas, lentils, beans, seeds and nuts.

Go easy on high-fiber foods right before a ride as these tend to make you feel bloated. Remember, 15 percent of cyclists experience some kind of gastrointestinal distress. This is usually due to under-nutrition, over-nutrition or hydration.

Here is an example of a great pre-ride breakfast providing around 800 calories:

• One bagel with low-fat cream cheese and jam



• One banana with peanut butter



• One 12-ounce glass of orange juice



Remember to honor your hunger first. But sometimes hunger doesn’t kick in until several hours after a ride. So if you are not feeling hungry after sitting an hour in the saddle, be sure to nibble on something anyway to avoid a bonk.

I have many cycling friends, and the bottom line is to eat what works for you. Usually this happens by trial and error. I have friends who carry baked sweet potato chunks, jelly beans, glucose tabs, trail mix, etc.

What are my faves? I love shot blocks and stingers for rides that last one to two hours. For rides that are longer, I need a little protein and love Jete Bars that are made right here in Boise. Happy riding!

SeAnne Safaii, Ph.D., R.D., L.D., is an assistant professor at the University of Idaho Dietetics Program and past president of the Idaho Academy of Nutrition and Dietitics.

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