You take your bike out for a ride regularly, and maybe you even monitor your training load. You might even follow a training plan. Everything done correctly, right? Well maybe, because a lot of cyclists forget about their nutrition strategy. And this is a pity, because sub-optimal nutrition hampers making improvements. Allow me to explain the basic principles of an appropriate strategy and what to eat and drink before, during and after your bike rides.
Nutrition is fuel (calories) and nutrients, both needed for optimal performance and even the prevention of injuries. As a cyclist, your daily intake of food and liquids can be split up into 3 macronutrients. It should at least consist of 6–10 gram/kg bodyweight carbohydrates, 1.5–2.0 gram/kg bodyweight protein, and 20% of total calories in fat. In general, your daily needs will comprise 200–300 gram of vegetables, at least 2 pieces of fruit, whole grain cereal products, dairy (substitutes), meat (substitutes), nuts and seeds, 1.5L water, fat like olive oil and enough sunlight or vitamin D3 supplements. Your weekly needs comprise oily fish, vegetables and greens. Alcohol deteriorates your immune system and has a mitigating effect on the protein synthesis in recovery after strenuous exercise and is therefore not recommended.
Carbohydrates and protein are the key to optimizing performance and recovery. Carbohydrates are stored in your muscles, liver and blood in the form of glycogen and are used when exercising. Depending on the duration of the effort, you need to replenish this stock. To top up glycogen stores 3–4 hours prior to heavy exercise, a carbohydrate rich meal (200–300 gram, simple carbohydrates) can be consumed. For efforts up to 60 minutes, there are enough carbohydrates in stock, so you don’t need to consume any extra. However, a quick mouth rinse containing carbohydrate will improve performance. Between 1–2.5 hours of exercise, usually 45–60 gram/hour will be sufficient. For exercise lasting more than 2.5 hours, up to 90 gram/hour of glucose/maltodextrin + fructose in a 2:1 ratio is needed. This ratio is important, because when the transporter proteins for glucose in the intestinal lumen are saturated, the fructose transporters can also be used, partly the reason for a potentially enlarged carbohydrate uptake.
There are many strategies for improving performance by (temporarily) omitting carbohydrates from the diet, but to start with you should be able to handle the 90 gram/hour intake without any gastrointestinal distress. Because, in the end, that is what your body needs during the race/important cyclo. In general, the higher the desired quality and volume of the training, and the more extreme the environmental conditions (hot, cold, altitude) are, the more important carbohydrates get. Consuming enough carbohydrates during and post exercise is essential to replace glycogen stores, facilitate fast recovery and reduce the impaired immune response after training. 1.0-1.5 gram/kg bodyweight post exercise is sufficient for the first half hour. This can be repeated every 2 hours for the next 4–6 hours.
Protein consists of essential, partly-essential and not-essential amino acids. Your diet needs to be varied, and should therefore contain the essential amino-acids, because you are not able to create them yourself. Only with a positive protein balance can your body fully recover and facilitate metabolic adaptations. It is recommended to consume your total daily protein need in 6 little portions of 0.25-0.3 gram/kg body weight. The older you get, the more protein you need: up to 0.4 gram/kg body weight. Longer bike rides of +4 hours may, in addition, also require ~5gram/hour protein intake, to replenish the available protein. Post exercise, 1 dairy-based protein portion needs to be consumed within 1 hour. Dairy is rich in casein and whey, both consisting of all the 9 essential amino acids and proven to be optimal muscle adaptation facilitators. Optimally, you consume something rich in whey within half an hour post exercise, and something rich in casein before you go to bed. By doing so, the faster digestion and absorption kinetics of whey optimize fast recovery and the ‘slower’ casein facilitates optimal muscle synthesis during the night.
Last but not least: hydration. Urine should be pale yellow. This means, in general, that you should drink 0.5–1L/hour when exercising, preferably an isotonic sports drink. Hereby, you can replenish your electrolyte losses and also consume a part of your required carbohydrates. However, your stomach isn’t used to this volume yet, so practice is the only advice. When, post-workout, your urine runs too dark, then you haven’t drunk enough.
To sum up: start with the basics: so make sure you got the macronutrients in check in the right proportions. Thereafter, train your gut to handle the consumption of enough carbohydrates and liquids during training. The biggest mistake I often encounter is that cyclists don’t train with a proper fueling strategy but still expect the body to handle large amounts of carbohydrates on race day. When finished, replenish your carbohydrates and protein stocks, and don’t wait too long to do it! Bon appetit!