Food plays a key role in a professional cyclist’s performance and is one of the most important pillars for a good performance in sports. It will always be determined by how much energy a cyclist needs before, after and during a competition or training session. There’s no universal diet that will make you perform or recover better – each cyclist is different, and behind each one of them, there is a professional that checks and approves the diet or food necessary for a cyclist to perform finely and give their best.
Food is so important that professional teams have their own chefs preparing each team member’s food. Chefs know what food is better for each rider, and their circumstances.
What you eat, as well as when you eat and how you do so, is essential for the body to function as well as possible while on the bike.
What to eat while training – and when
It is very important to organise and keep a structured approach to nutrition when cycling. A cyclist should eat before, during and after each training session. There are a couple of very important factors that also need to be taken into account when training: the intensity with which you train and the number of hours you spend on the bike. The food you eat can be modified depending on these two factors.
Below is a brief explanation of the best foods for cyclists for before, during and after training.
What to eat before you start cycling
Eating before your training session is essential for performance. You need to fuel your body so that it can train and have enough energy until the end.
The main objective is to include foods rich in carbohydrates as they are the main source of energy and the most used by your muscles when you exercise – especially when you exercise at medium and high intensities. They should be complemented by foods rich in protein but in smaller quantities compared to carbohydrates, as they are foods that are lower in energy and their main function is to help muscles replenish and recover. Finally, you should include foods rich in fats, which contain the most energy. Unlike carbohydrates, fats provide energy slowly and your metabolism uses them as a source of energy at low intensities.
Here lies the distinction among the foods you will eat before training, depending on the intensity of it. If you are doing high-intensity workouts, you should eat more carbohydrates than fats. On the other hand, if you are doing low-intensity workouts, you should eat more fat-rich foods rather than carbohydrates.
Here are 5 examples of foods to eat before your training sessions:
- Rolled oats with yoghurt
- Banana with peanut butter
- Rice with vegetables
- Pasta with tuna, olive oil and oregano
- Quinoa salad
What you eat while you’re cycling
What to eat during a bike ride is very relative and will be influenced by the intensity of your training. Among the foods that you will consume during your training sessions, there are three varieties: solid foods, liquid foods and gels.
Solid foods provide fuel for much longer. Because of their density, they release more energy into the body, more slowly than liquid foods. They are ideal for maintaining good performance during long-distance training.
Some examples of solid foods eaten by cyclists are:
- Dried fruit
- Energy bars
- Rice cakes
When you are cycling, especially during high-intensity training sessions, you can lose up to 2L of body fluid or water. With fluid loss, you risk becoming dehydrated if you don’t drink frequently and reduce your performance by up to 10%. In addition, if your workouts are over two hours long or you are training in high temperatures, you not only lose body water, but you also lose mineral salts that are essential for the proper functioning of your muscles. Therefore, while you are training, you should drink frequently (every 15 to 20 minutes) and combine water with mineral salts to maintain a good performance on the bike.
Here are some examples of salts or liquids to drink during your workouts.
- Isotonic drinks, ideal for long duration training (rich in carbohydrates)
- Mineral salts to mix with the water in the bottle
Finally, let’s talk about the popular gels that are mainly taken by professional cyclists during competition or high-intensity training. The main purpose of gels is to provide a lot of energy as quickly as possible. This is because they have a high concentration of simple sugars and cause an energy spike in your muscles almost immediately. It usually takes 1-5 minutes for the body to assimilate it and for it to start to take effect in your body. The effect of gels is very powerful and short-lived, lasting between 30 and 35 minutes. It is advisable to drink a little water after taking a gel to help its absorption.
It is important to know in which situation to take the gel, depending on when you need it during your training or during your race.
Here are some examples of gels:
- Carbohydrate-rich gels
- Isotonic gels
- Caffeine gels
What to eat when you’ve finished training
The food you eat after training is just as important, if not more so, than the food you ate before starting to train. Everything you eat as a post-workout meal will condition your recovery process. Within this process, your metabolic window must be taken into account. You may ask yourself what a metabolic window is and what it is for – quite simply, the metabolic window is a phase that your body enters after training. It is a time window lasting between 30 and 45 minutes in which the body is still active and very receptive to assimilating the food that we provide it with. Therefore, you should take advantage of this period of time, hydrate well and offer your body the best foods so that it can absorb them and thus improve your recovery.
There are a variety of meal combinations that are ideal for recovery. The main foods for cyclists to eat after training are those rich in carbohydrates and protein. Foods rich in antioxidants should also be taken into account, as physical exercise generates stress and oxidation in the body, so foods rich in antioxidants are very important. Cherries, blueberries and blackberries are ideal to include after training.
Nowadays, cycling nutrition has evolved a lot and recovery shakes have been developed that combine carbohydrates and proteins to drink at the end of your training session or race. They are powders with different flavours that are mixed with water or milk and are very easy to ingest. Their main purpose is to provide the body with the necessary nutrients to aid its recovery process.
Here are some examples of foods for cyclists to take after training sessions:
A diet for each cyclist
Nowadays, nutrition and cycling are two things that go hand in hand. Both beginner and professional cyclists seek to structure their meals and follow guidelines to maintain a healthy and wholesome diet. The objective of following a healthy diet and nutrition is different depending on the level of each cyclist.
A diet for beginner cyclists
Beginner cyclists ride a bike because it is one of the most complete and least aggressive sports, and allows you to lose weight quickly and keep a good physical condition. Normally, the main objective of the beginner cyclist is to cycle in order to lose weight and become more and more fit so that they can improve their physical condition every day.
Training must be combined with a good diet in order to perform and recover properly. A healthy, varied diet will improve your physical condition in a very short time.
The first step is to cut out ultra-processed foods and focus on foods that actually benefit your body and are less processed. Include five to eleven servings a day of vegetables and grains and more than five servings of vegetables and fruit.
Then, it will be a matter of gradually getting into healthier habits, staying well hydrated before, during and after each workout session – you will notice a lot of improvements in your body and feel stronger.
Consistency is the basis for success.
A diet for professional cyclists
As we mentioned above, each cyclist is different and has their diet planned with the food that best suits their needs, always supervised by a professional.
The diets of professional cyclists are very strict and greater control is needed during stage races, such as the Tour de France. Each stage will have a different diet, depending on the route of the stage and the function of each cyclist within that stage, the diet plays a very important role in each cyclist.
Within each cyclist’s diet, they all share a common pattern: a pre-competition meal, food to eat during each stage and a post-competition meal.
The best foods for cyclists
Keep in mind that certain foods, when consumed at different times, improve your performance. The foods and meals you put into your body and when you put them in is very important, sometimes even more important than the physical training.
A cyclist’s diet should always be balanced, allowing you to take care of your long-term health and improve your immune system.
Here are some foods that will improve your cycling performance:
- Oatmeal. Provides slow-release energy, is rich in zinc, magnesium and B vitamins.
- Oily fish. The perfect recovery food. Great source of protein that will help you have a healthy cardiovascular activity and stimulate your muscle recovery.
- Eggs. They are very rich in amino acids and also a great source of protein. Ideal for muscle recovery and as a post-workout food.
- Broccoli. Food full of properties and excellent for the bones. Broccoli helps detoxification.