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It's a well-known fact that when we exercise, we must fuel our body correctly to support the activity we are doing. It's a lesser-known fact what exactly this "correct" fuel is.
The reason there is so much confusion around this topic is that it depends on so many variables. One such variable is the type of exercise you are performing. In this article, we are going to uncover the basics of cycling nutrition and understand how to stay strong during rides and improve your overall performance.
Nutrition and exercise go hand in hand. Expand your cycling knowledge with ISSA's Indoor Cycling Instructor Certification. Whether you want to learn more to improve your ride or to share through instructing, this course delivers everything you need to know to excel with indoor cycling.
You would never take your car out for a long weekend drive without first fueling it up properly; no one wants to get stranded on the side of the road. Just as important is fueling up properly before we exercise. When we don't get the right nutrition, our bodies experience a lack of power and endurance. We may even feel a little bit fatigued or dizzy. It's important to eat before exercise to ensure adequate and sustained energy throughout your ride.
The calories you eat prior to a ride can have a major bearing on your overall performance. Eating before you exercise helps to top off the body's glycogen stores. Glycogen is the stored form of glucose within the body. It is stored in the liver as well as skeletal muscle where it serves as a form of energy storage for the muscles themselves. Eating before you exercise ensures you have a full tank of glycogen stores in both your skeletal muscles as well as the liver.
Skeletal muscle glycogen is the first source of energy your muscles will tap into on your ride. This is ideal, as the breakdown of muscle glycogen during exercise impedes the muscles' ability to take up glucose from the blood. This leaves glucose in the blood more readily available for use in other body tissues during your ride.
Failing to fuel properly for a ride can lead to early fatigue and burnout. Inadequate nutrition, or poor nutrition, can lead to a lack of endurance and power and can lead to early fatigue and dizziness.
Fueling with inadequate calories leads to your glycogen stores depleting very quickly. Because the muscles do not have enough stored energy of their own, shortly into your ride they will start to draw glucose from the blood for fuel.
This is not necessarily a bad thing as it is a normal and healthy response during exercise. But when there is only so much fuel to go around, your body will always prioritize keeping essential functions running. This means that fuel is going to go to keeping your heart pumping first rather than keeping your legs pedaling. By fueling up before your ride your body will have more energy to go around, leading to a longer, stronger workout.
Calories from food serve as fuel for the body. And just like in your car, not all fuel forms are equal in terms of quality. It's your choice to fill with quick cheap fuel or load up on high-octane fuel. Your engine will run either way, but you won't get the same level of performance from both types of fuel. It's important to fuel your body with clean and sustainable energy.
Understanding the importance of fueling your body with the right calories before you exercise is just the first step. The next step is understanding what high-octane fuel for your body looks like. What foods are going to give you the best energy before going cycling?
A pre-ride meal should be something easy to digest and consist of familiar enjoyable foods. When you are going out for a long bike ride, it's not the best time to experiment with new foods your body hasn't encountered much before. Pick something simple and familiar, rich in carbohydrates and moderate protein.
To best fill up glycogen stores before a ride, foods rich in carbohydrates have shown to be the best choice. Carbohydrate calories can be used as an immediate fuel source or stored in glycogen and adipose tissue to draw on for later energy needs.
Because carbohydrates are the body's main source of fuel, embarking on a low-carb diet may not provide the best energy for your cycling goals. Some diets that have proven beneficial for cyclists are carb cycling and high carbohydrate diets. Diets that consist of a healthy volume of carbohydrates effectively load your body's glycogen stores and prepare you to perform at your best.
The type of carbohydrates you choose for your pre-ride meal is equally important. Simple carbohydrates are broken down very quickly by the body and don't provide long term energy. Simple carbs are great for quick energy boosts, but if you're heading out for a long bike ride, they are not ideal. Complex carbs are a great energy source as they are broken down slowly by the body and provide a sustained energy source.
One popular complex carbohydrate is quinoa. Quinoa provides double the amount of protein in comparison to regular grains at 8 grams of protein per cup. It's great for providing slow-release energy during a long ride. It's also a very versatile food and can be added to both sweet and savory dishes.
Bananas are also a great option before a ride as they are packed with loads of potassium. Potassium is an electrolyte that helps nerve and muscle function during your workout which can help to avoid cramping during your ride.
Peanut butter is a great addition to add in some extra grams of protein and healthy fats to create a killer pre-workout meal.
Protein provides essential calories and amino acids to be included in your pre-cycling meals. Protein is essential in helping build and repair muscle mass. Eating protein before your ride can promote a better anabolic response as well as aid in muscle recovery and overall muscle performance.
Pairing a healthy protein source like a chicken breast with a healthy complex carb like a sweet potato is a great pre-ride meal. Protein powders are also a great way to get a quick source of protein in before a ride in an easily digestible form. Blending protein powders with 15 grams of nut butter into a smoothie is a great meal before a ride.
It's important to drink enough fluid during your ride to promote better energy levels. Cyclists should be drinking about 1.5 to 2 liters of water per day plus additional fluids to match what was lost during their workout.
Milk has made its way to the main stage as a potentially beneficial sports drink. Replacing fluid and nutrients after an intense workout is critical to repairing and replenishing the muscles. Milk provides protein, carbohydrates, vitamins, minerals, and water which can be readily absorbed by the body to replenish nutrient stores after activity.
On the pre-activity side, energy drinks can be a helpful source to provide both fluid and fuel to the body during a long ride. Energy drinks serve two basic purposes: provide carbohydrates to fuel activity and replace electrolytes. The carbohydrates from energy drinks are quickly absorbed into the bloodstream and can be used to boost energy levels mid-ride. The caffeine in energy drinks can also provide a helpful energy boost during your ride.
Chia seeds are flavorless and can be added to just about any meal. These little seeds can play a critical part in the battle against dehydration. Because they can absorb about 30 times their weight in water, they help to regulate body fluids and retain electrolytes. Ground these seeds into a powder and add them to a sports or energy drink for an extra boost in energy and hydration.
Foods rich in carbohydrates and moderate protein have been shown to be the best pre-fuel meal for a long ride. But certain foods should be avoided as they may sap your energy before a cycling workout.
Foods high in fat and fiber are not a great pre-ride energy source. Fat and fiber are digested by the body relatively slowly. Pre-ride fuel should be a good source of energy that can be broken down relatively quickly. Because fat and fiber take a while to digest, they stay in the stomach a lot longer. This can lead to that bogged down feeling you may have experienced before when heading out for a ride. Fried food from most fast food joints is a meal to steer clear of when fueling for a ride.
Highly processed, simple carbohydrate sugary foods provide empty calories and are best to avoid before your ride. Breakfast cereals and yogurts are not great pre-ride nutrition choices as they are high in added sugars which contribute to the crash and burn phenomenon. The last thing you want when you set out for a long ride is to feel great the first 10 minutes and then hit a wall. The body breaks down these highly processed sugary foods almost instantaneously. They are used as immediate fuel and do not provide sustained energy.
Consuming foods with 20+ grams of added sugar before a cycling workout does not set your body up for performance success. The combination of very high sugar and low fiber foods leads to blood sugar and insulin spikes. These spikes are then accompanied by a crash where blood sugar levels tank and you find yourself hungry for more mid-ride. In addition, sugars lead the body to crave other sugary foods, thereby creating an energy-depleting cycle. It's best to avoid these sugary snacks before you exercise and opt for more sustainable energy sources.
Finding the best nutrition plan for endurance athletes is a personal journey. Determining if your goals are to build muscle mass, promote weight loss, or build endurance are all factors to consider when developing your personalized plan. What works for one person, may not work for the next. Determining the best diet for your cycling endeavors can come down to trial and error. Cyclists that have the most effective diets are those that listen to the rhythms of their own body. Bodies change over time so what worked for you last month may not work for you next month.
The one thing that the best diet plans have in common is that they are specific to the cyclist. They include a focus on pre-workout as well as post-workout nutrition. It consists of a diet that provides energy to meet the demands and requirements of the task at hand and is adhered to with consistency. The most important thing is to find what works best for you and adjust while you go. Realize that your plan may change over time, and that's okay. Find what works best for you and track your progress over time.
Are you ready to learn how to maximize nutrition for all stages of your fitness journey? Want to help others achieve their health and fitness goals? Sign up for ISSA's Nutrition course online to set your career in motion!