As a cyclist, and endurance athlete, your nutritional demands are going to be fairly significant. It’s essential to fuel your body before, during, and after training to ensure you are giving your body what it needs for sustained energy and recovery.

Whether you are a seasoned cyclist, or are just dipping your toes into the world of endurance training, nutrition is key and plays just as an important role in your training program as the actual training itself.

With that being said, let’s talk about why nutrition plays such an important role in endurance training, and then look at a go-to guide on how to nourish your body as a cyclist.


Why is Optimal Nutrition so Important?

We all know that a healthy diet is an essential part of supporting overall health, but nutrition can play such a vital role in the health of an endurance athlete for so many additional reasons. When you are exercising for long periods of time, not only are you expending a tremendous amount of energy, but you are also putting some wear and tear on your muscles and joints. It’s essential to replenish your body with calories and nutrients to restore depleted glycogen stores and to refuel those tired muscles with adequate amounts of high-quality protein.

More specifically, here are some of the main reasons nutrition plays a key role in supporting the health of a cyclist.

Your body will require additional calories when cycling:

Any form of exercise is going to burn some of the calories you take in, but when you are training for an extended period of time, you may burn through quite a bit which increases your daily calorie requirement.

For cyclists, you can determine roughly how many additional calories you may need to add to your diet by taking the miles you traveled and multiplying this by 40-50 calories. You can also use an online calorie burning calculator like this one to more precisely determine how many calories you burn (on average) each ride which can give you a better idea in terms of how many extra calories you need to be adding back into your diet. Remember though, Calories are a good guide, but not terribly accurate to determine an energy surplus or deficit.

Your Body Needs Fuel For Exercise Performance:

Your body is going to require additional energy in order to power through a long ride, and you have to fuel your body with the right foods. Carbohydrates serve as an endurance athletes primary fuel source. However, not all carbohydrates are created equal, and a huge portion of carbs right before training may give you a burst of energy, but leave you feeling lethargic shortly after. You will want to focus on getting low-glycemic carbs into your diet that won’t cause a sudden spike in blood sugar. Stick to things like whole grains, fruits, and vegetables. Eating a balanced diet with a complex carbohydrate-rich snack before a ride is a great way to maintain balanced energy levels, and prevent sudden energy plummets. It is also recommended that you consume complex carbohydrates throughout training as well to help provide the body with additional fuel to get through your ride. Snacking on a piece of fruit during training or a whole-grain, low-sugar, and whole foods based sports bar can be a great way to support energy levels.

In addition to carbohydrates, adequate protein and fats are also needed to support exercise performance. The American College of Sports Medicine recommends that athletes get about 1.2-2 grams of protein per kg of body weight per day, spaced out throughout meals and snacks. Getting enough protein in your diet is key for muscle repair as well as muscle growth.

While the majority of the focus is often on carbs and protein, cyclists also require a certain amount of healthy fat in their diet. Fats can help support the absorption of fat-soluble vitamins, and they can also provide a stable source of energy. Fat has also been found to provide a protective benefit for endurance athletes by supporting adequate calorie intake. This was studied by The University of Buffalo that found that female runners who consumed 30% of their calories from fat, were far less likely to get injured than fellow athletes that did not eat as much fat. The thought behind this has to do with the athletes meeting their caloric goals. Since fats are nutrient-dense and provide an excellent source of energy, they also provide a good amount of calories.

So what does this tell us? This tells us that cyclists and other endurance athletes should be adding a decent amount of healthy fat to their diet. Things like avocados, nuts, seeds, coconut, and wild-caught fish are all excellent sources of healthy dietary fat.

Your Body will Require Important Vitamins & Minerals:

For endurance athletes, it’s important to stay on top of your vitamin and mineral reserves. Not only can they help fuel your body for better fitness performance, but they can help keep your immune system strong. Endurance athletes may be more likely to develop deficiencies if they don’t eat a well-balanced diet full of whole and nutrient-dense foods. Be sure to get a complex carbohydrate, a healthy fat, and a clean protein source in at each meal, and try to make snacks in between training sessions as balanced as possible too. A high-quality multivitamin or greens powder to add to your daily smoothie or shake can also give your body an added boost.

Make Hydration a Priority:

While optimal nutrition is extremely important, we can’t forget about hydration. Hydration often gets overlooked, but without it, dehydration can set it. Dehydration is not only detrimental for overall health, but it can also sabotage a training session. Studies have found that a 2% drop in body weight from sweating can negatively affect your ride. Not only is it important to stay hydrated throughout the day, but it is recommended that you take 2-3 decent sized gulps of water every 10-15 minutes while on the bike. And, if you are cycling for 60-minutes or less, plain water is just fine, but anything over that, you will need to replenish your electrolytes. Coconut water is an excellent all natural source of electrolytes, or you can find natural electrolyte tablets or an electrolyte powder like Catalyte by the company Thorne that dissolve in water that doesn’t contain the added artificial coloring and ingredients many commercial sports drinks do.

The Best Foods For Cyclists

As a way to help you improve your nutrition starting today, here are some of the best foods for cyclists that you can add to your diet. Keep in mind that these foods should be enjoyed as part of a well-balanced diet. Enjoying these foods regularly is a great way to ensure that you are fueling your body with what it needs to perform, recover, and sustain the energy requirements for cycling and endurance training.

Complex Carbs: Rolled oats, quinoa, brown rice, high fiber fruits like raspberries, pears, and apples, starchy vegetables like sweet potatoes, dark leafy greens, dates, figs.

Healthy Fats: Avocados, nuts, seeds, coconut oil, wild-caught fatty fish, whole eggs.

Clean Protein: Grass-fed animal products, whole eggs, wild-caught fish, full-fat unsweetened Greek yogurt, nuts, seeds, legumes, lentils.

The Takeaway

Now that you know everything you need to know about nourishing your body as a cyclist, let’s break this down. Here are the key points you need to know to help you kick your nutrition into high gear to help support your body for optimal training and recovery as a cyclist.

  • Stay on top of your increased calorie demands,
  • Enjoy complex low-glycemic carbohydrates as part of your regular diet and prior to exercise to help support energy levels.
  • Make sure you are getting enough protein to support muscle recovery by getting 1.2-2 grams of protein/kg of body weight per day.
  • Eat a wide variety of foods to support vitamin and mineral reserves. Take a high-quality multivitamin if necessary.
  • Stay on top of hydration by staying hydrated throughout the day, and sipping on water with electrolytes (like Skratch) every 10-15 minutes during your ride.

Make nutrition a priority during endurance cycling training. With the right fuel and adequate hydration, you would be surprised at how much better you feel both during your ride and after. Don’t cheat yourself. Do yourself and your health the favor of making healthy food choices to fuel your body for optimal health and fitness performance.

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Shayne Gaffney

About the Author Shayne Gaffney

Shayne holds a bachelors degree in Health Science in Professional Development and Advanced Patient Care, is a licensed physical therapy assistant in Massachusetts, a USA Cycling Level 1 (expert level) certified Coach, a USA Cycling Power Based Training certified Coach, Precision Nutrition Level 1 certified Coach, a US Military Endurance Sports (USMES) affiliated Coach, and USA Olympic Committee Safe Sport certified. He is the owner and head Coach of GC Coaching, Workout Content Editor at Zwift, the creator of P2 Coached Computraining, and the creator of Zwift’s “Build Me Up” Flexible Training Plan. He has been published in Bicycling Magazine, the TrainingPeaks blog, and Zwift Insider. He can be contacted directly via info@gaffneycyclingcoaching.com

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