16 August 2010

Nutrition for Cyclists

Nutrition for Cyclists

By John Forbes, Wenzel Coaching

BicyclingHub.com would like to thank John Forbes and our friends at Wenzel Coaching for penning this special guest column for BicyclingHub.com readers. With specialties in road racing, endurance track racing, triathlon (sprint, olympic & Ironman distances), professional bike fitting and general fitness, John shares his wealth of coaching experience to provide comprehensive knowledge of training for success and offers valuable insights and advice on proper nutrition for cyclists.

Proper feeding before, during and after exercise rewards you with better performance, health, and satisfaction. You spend hours developing your biking skills, many dollars perfecting your equipment then wonder why you do not feel stronger during your rides, and why you are so fatigued when you finish. Well, the secret for experienced riders is filling their nutritional needs before, during and after the ride. Once depleted, if you do not replace them you lose all the benefits of the effort you just made as well as affecting fitness gained through your previous efforts.

Hydration: can’t live without it

The single most important action you can take is proper hydration.
We are mainly water--over 87%. A loss of even 1% affects performance; 3% or more is life-threatening. Assume even sedentary folks should consume at least 48 ounces of water or some non-diuretic fluid per day. You, as an athlete, should consume much more. Water is the simplest solution--but fruits, vegetables and even meats you eat provide fluids as well.

While there are various schools of thought regarding the amount you should take in per day, one approach is pounds equal ounces: divide by 2 and then consume that number of ounces of water per day. As an example, assume you weigh 150 pounds. Convert that to 150 ounces; divide by 2, which equal 75. That is the number of ounces of water you need per day, rain or shine, winter or summer. A simpler method asks that you consider the color of your urine. When it is pale, a diluted apple juice color, you are ok; dark, not ok. Frequently, we do not drink enough during the cool months because we do not believe we sweat as much. In fact, we sweat just as much in these cool periods; often, because we wear heavy clothing, even more than during warmer seasons. You might believe you produce more sweat in other activities as more is visible. One of the joys of riding your bike is feeling the cool breeze your motion creates, which evaporates your perspiration.

Living day-to-day (at least eating day-to-day)

Most of us are familiar with general day-to-day nutrition. That is, we strive for a good balance of carbohydrates, protein and fats, or roughly 60% carbohydrates, 30% protein, and 20% fats. As an athlete, you should temper this based on the amount of exercise you get. On high exercise days add more carbohydrates; on light exercise or rest days, subtract some. Of course, we should avoid as much as possible eating processed foods and foods high in sodium. While those of us who are profuse sweaters have larger sodium needs, you can address those in another way (discussed below). Ideally, we should eat five to seven helpings of vegetables and fruit per day. Drinking fruit juice does not fulfill the fruit requirement--particularly as the sugar content in such drinks is usually high. Even natural sugars add empty calories.

What about during the ride?

While everyday nutrition is fundamental for health, the thrust of this article is proper nutrition during and after a hard effort. Let’s look at some basic physiological realities. We can assimilate between 250-300 calories per hour but we burn more than 700 per hour during a typical ride or run. Those who say we should replace the calories out with calories in are misinformed. We cannot replace the calories lost during a hard effort; our systems are devoted to getting rid of heat and firing our muscles. However, we can replenish a portion of calories lost during a ride. For most people, that means we should consume between 18 to 28 ounces of a good, nutritionally balanced energy drink per hour containing complex carbohydrates, not simple sugars. Occasionally in extreme conditions, some may safely drink more. Amounts greater than these often lead to bloating, stomach distress and occasionally, vomiting or diarrhea. Acute over-hydration can lead to hyponatremic (too much sodium loss) coma, which can cause death. Fat stores easily make up the difference in needed calories. Even the fit athlete has thousands of usable calories stored as fat. During the course of a typical athletic event, you will not come anywhere close to expending a dangerous amount.

Avoid the ‘oses

Read the labels on energy drinks carefully. Avoid those foods that list glucose, sucrose, fructose and dextrose. If the label lists corn, avoid that as well. Corn is a primary source of those four –ose products. Simple sugars such as those above give you rapid energy spikes and equally fast energy crashes. In addition, they are not easily digestible; nor do they assimilate as quickly as complex carbohydrates will. Some research shows one can assimilate energy drinks at only about 100 cal/hour when working hard. Complex carbohydrates, on the other hand, absorb at about 300 cal/hour. Since our systems assimilate at about that rate you can get your usable caloric replacement per hour in one 18 to 28 ounce bottle. Which rate, as mentioned above, is the rate we can absorb fluids. Many manufacturers add simple sugars as they are cheap and carbohydrate rich. However, they are a waste of your money and can hamper your riding enjoyment.

What about longer rides?

If you ride more than two hours, you need protein as well as complex carbohydrates. Above two hours your system requires some protein -- only a small amount and not whey protein. Assume you can fulfill roughly 10% of your energy needs via protein during exercise. The most useful source of protein during endurance style exercise is soy or rice based, as they produce very little ammonia. During the demands of exercise the added glutamine in whey protein degrades to ammonia very quickly. Ammonia is a significant cause of muscle fatigue. Since you produce ammonia as you exercise already, do not add more! After exercise, whey based protein is exactly what you want, as we will discuss later.

An issue many riders wrestle with is, “should I use solid food or liquid?” Most find after experimentation that liquid food is more digestible and thus assimilates far faster than solid foods. Gels work more like a liquid than a solid food, so are a good source of quick energy. Of course, you should avoid fat laden foods or heavily processed foods at any time but particularly as you ride. Their refined sugars and saturated fats bloat you and cause lethargy, neither of which you want while in the midst of an otherwise enjoyable ride!

Sodium, boy, do we need it, but…

An oft-neglected nutritional need is proper electrolyte replenishment. I f you hydrate properly, get appropriate fuel replacement yet still cramp or suffer a significant bonk you may suffer from a serious shortage of electrolytes. Don’t assume salt tablets are the answer, however. They replace sodium chloride, salt, but not the other equally important components of well-balanced electrolytes. For that matter, most of us get far more salt in our daily diet than we need just from the salt content in foods. We generally need somewhere between 1500-2400 mg of sodium per day and get most get far more than that daily.

It is the other elements in electrolytes we often neglect: calcium, magnesium, and potassium are equally important and you won’t find them in salt tablets. Too much sodium chloride is as detrimental as not enough. Over-salt your system and you may bloat, suffer from water retention and endure stomach distress. Electrolyte needs vary not only from individual to individual but also day to day for each person. Heat, humidity, muscular needs and the like affect us all differently; you should experiment during your rides before you undertake a major ride. Start with the basic suggested dose of whatever product you choose, around 240 mg of sodium chloride with the other elements mentioned above is a general mid-range. On cool days you may need much less while on hot, humid days far more. Gauge your needs over the course of a few weeks prior to your big rides.

Only eat familiar foods during a big effort

This leads to another important point: never use a new fuel, supplement or fueling approach without thoroughly testing it in training. There are often serious repercussions in so doing. I speak from bitter personal experience. I tried a new fueling protocol once before a major race, cramped badly and dropped out. I later found that the particular combination in the product was not one my system assimilates well. Since then I have given any new fuel a long trial.

After the ride

Many athletes assume that they can eat whatever they want after they finish a hard effort. “I have burned x thousand calories. It is time for a cheeseburger and fries, washed down with a Coke and maybe a doughnut.”

Actually, it is time for replenishing your depleted muscles and energy stores through a proper combination of protein and carbohydrates. Now’s the time for a whey-based protein. Earlier I mentioned the problem with ammonia build-up during exercise as a reason one should not use whey protein during a long ride. After a hard workout however, the glutamine in whey protein works as an ammonia scavenger. Glutamine actually increases ammonia at first but then after 2 ½ to 3 hours, removes more than it added, thus helping rid your system of waste and the by-products of hard physical exertion. You will find if you use a good recovery food within 30 minutes after exercise followed by a nutritious meal within an hour you will sleep better that night, suffer far less from muscle soreness and generally feel fresher and ready for more. If you cannot eat a meal within an hour after you have your recovery food then have another helping of recovery food. You must replenish your system after every substantial ride or other exercise or you cannot perform at your optimum level and may even cause illness or injury.

Nope, you cannot really carbo load
If you are preparing for a long ride do not overeat in the days prior. You cannot really ‘carbo’ load. Instead, if you have trained consistently, fueled properly both during and after training and maintained proper hydration then your body has the energy it needs for your ride. Cramming food and drink down just before a major event only adds pounds. Pounds you must then drag around during your ride.

You don’t really need that big breakfast

Unfortunately, that dictum applies as well to a big meal within 3 hours of your ride’s start time if you plan anything longer than an hour to an hour and a half. If you eat a substantial meal shortly before an effort your system spends energy and glycogen digesting it. Save that energy and all-important glycogen for the ride. You will not reduce your glycogen stores substantially during short duration events. Instead, if time allows, eat a normal breakfast at least three hours before your even -- one that you have successfully trained at the same distances before.

But do sleep in

With that said, you should not sacrifice sleep so you can honor your long ride three-hour fasting window. Your system has substantial stores of fuel stored in your muscles, more than enough so you can begin your ride and begin your normal hydration/fueling routine. While you cannot add to your glycogen stores this close to an event you can enjoy a small pre-ride meal of 200 to 400 calories of a protein and carbohydrate mixture. So, sleep in, even though you may feel hungry in the morning before your big ride: you have more than adequate energy stores onboard.

For those who suffer cramps during or after a ride, there are a few possible causes. While some relate to improper or inadequate training or poor bike fit, improper nutrition is a substantial problem for many of us. The single most obvious cause is poor hydration, particularly when coupled with poor fueling. In addition, as mentioned previously, improper electrolytes balance. If you follow proper nutritional practices but still cramp, consult a professional bike fitter who can examine your bike, shoe fit and other areas for potential problems.

In summary: following a routine in which you get adequate rest, drink plenty of fluids, maintain a good balance of carbohydrates and protein, fuel properly as you ride then enjoy a good recovery drink after your ride you will enjoy your sport and grow ever stronger.

Note: all images (except Tour de Cure photo) courtesy of up-and-coming photographer Jonathan Schell.


Unknown said...

Great article by John Forbes. A lot of great information.

Reginald Lee
Max Muscle Sports Nutrition

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sam said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
sam said...

I’ve just featured this article in my new Top 11 Nutrition Tips for Cyclists post at:


If you've loved "Veg Out", then you're going to love the other 1 tips.


Unknown said...

Water is the main constituent of the human body.

Nutrition and Hydration week 2014

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