Eat to Ride: Nutrition for Cyclists

In the seminal work, “Intuitive Eating: A Revolutionary Program that Works,” authors Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch explain why proper nutrition matters to cyclists: “When you don’t have enough energy, exercise is not invigorating, let alone fun.” Healthy eating is important physically and psychologically. If you hate the taste of protein shakes, then there is no reason to eat them. It is pertinent that a cyclist gets nutrition in the easiest and most satisfying way possible. A cyclists’ relationship to food is as important as the food itself.

When many cyclists follow strict diets or change their intake dramatically before a race, such an intense focus on food will not ensure a racer wins the medal. Food is not magic; it only complements a strong training regime. Only if you are training properly and looking to build miles, boost an exercise routine, or gain a competitive edge, will a smart eating regime help. Let this article guide you.

Off the Bike

A cyclist cannot be underfed and expect to win. As Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch state, “When you are underfed from dieting, it’s difficult to exercise.” Cyclists need carbs and lots of them. “Carbohydrates are the preferred fuel for exercise…If you do not feed your body enough carbs, it will dismantle its muscle protein to create vital energy,” said Evelyn and Elyse. 

Cycling one-hour burns at least 250 grams of carbohydrates, which is like 15 slices of bread. Not only do they propel cardiovascular activity, but complex carbohydrates also contain vital immunity-boosting phytonutrients. If a cyclist does not eat enough carbohydrates their body leeches carbs from protein stored in muscles. As the body loses muscle mass, the metabolism slows. Plant-based carbs stock an athlete with unique nutrient compounds that propel the body more completely than white bread. Examples include potatoes, zucchini, and beans.

In addition to at least six servings of carbohydrates, all humans require the following daily minimums:

  • 5 servings of fruits and vegetables (1 cup raw or ½ cup cooked)
  • 4 servings of protein (a serving is a card-deck size piece of chicken breast, for example)
  • 2 servings of 1 cup dairy
  • 8 glasses of water

Protein plays a vital role in the body. Every enzyme is made of protein. It is a building block in the immune system. Unfortunately, many popular diets prescribe more protein than necessary. Overeating protein causes the body to use calcium in bones as a neutralizer. Moreover, extra protein excretes into the urine. Therefore, it is ineffective for an athlete to eat protein as a substitute for other vital nutritional elements, like sugars. “If your body is on limited calories and not getting enough energy, it doesn’t matter how much protein you eat, the dietary protein will still be converted to energy,” say the authors of Intuitive Eating. “Remember, the body must have energy at any cost- this means at the expense of protein in your diet, and protein from your body (muscle).”

Many cyclists follow a strict nutrition regime that includes “carbo-loading” the day before a race. They eat obtuse quantities of carbs because they believe it will propel their race. “Balance is achieved over a period of time,” said Evelyn and Elyse. “Most nutrition recommendations are intended to be an average over time, not for a single meal or a single day…you will not suddenly get a nutrient deficiency if you did not eat enough one day.” Packing a week’s worth of carbs into a single evening probably will not result in the sustainable health required to win a race.

Do not pursue a strict and superstitious pre-race eating regime. A poor cycling session cannot be blamed on a cookie or steak. By staying flexible with nutrition, your body will know how to use whatever tools it is given. A good example of nutritious foods to eat within two hours before a rides are a peanut butter and banana sandwich on whole grain brown bread;  thick crackers with slices of cheese and tomato; or a cup of nuts and dried fruit.

On the Bike

Cyclists typically eat during a ride, especially if the ride lasts longer than an hour or is a race. Proper nutrition on the bike depends most on the individual’s needs. When queried about his riding intake, one racer had this to say: “I can tell you what I eat, and it might help. But, universally, you have to decide what your body needs and stomach will take.” While cyclists do well to eat more carbs and sugars than people who do not exercise, it is still important to eat mostly unprocessed foods. On and off the bike, whole foods provide the most vitamin-packed, fiber-rich cycling meals.

Most cycling jerseys come equipped with small, tight pockets along with their lower back for easy-to-reach snacks. Sugary carbohydrates like figs are perfect when the body needs quick-acting caloric boosts that do not require much energy to digest. If fruits are tricky to eat while pedaling, choose packaged snacks that pack more punch, like cereal bars, nuts, and chocolate-coated seeds. Honey is a complex carbohydrate that lasts longer than normal sugars. Try to choose bars that use honey instead of sugar to bind and sweeten treats.

Protein is another riding ally. Many cyclists enjoy protein bars, beverages, and gels for easy to digest on-bike protein. Remember that protein will only work if you are already properly fed with carbohydrates and calories, otherwise, the body will turn protein into carbohydrates (rather than using it to line the muscles).

The best option is to find snacks that combine protein and carbohydrates for easy digestion. For a short boost when you are very tired, try half of a Snickers bar. To propel longer rides, try roasted chickpeas (they are packed with folic acid, complex carbohydrates, protein). Quinoa bars and peanut butter oat biscuits are other yummy treats.

The length of the ride largely dictates a cyclists’ on-bike intake. “The longer the ride, the more I try to front load protein snacks little sugar and simple carbs. As the ride progresses, that shifts. Only on the last push should you be loading simple carbs and sugar snacks like gels,” says cyclist, Dan Harrison.

After the Ride

Proper eating after a ride makes every subsequent ride stronger. If the body thinks it might not get the sustenance it needs after exerting considerable energy, it goes into starvation mode. The cyclist’s metabolism slows completely, meaning their body will not adequately use energy on or off the bike. They will become prone to weight gain.

One of the best protein and carb-rich post-workout fuels is chocolate milk. Not only is milk soothing to jittery bellies, but it also replaces calcium, protein, and carbohydrates. “Fake” protein like shakes and bars are okay to consume after exercise, especially if there are no whole foods available or you are eager to add branched-chain amino acids. Still, plant-based whole proteins or lean meats are the best options. Enjoyable post-workout meals include whole-grain sandwiches with egg, olive tapenade, and vegetables; big salads with lentils and soft white cheeses; and Mexican chili with avocado and grilled tortilla.


When considering cycling nutrition, think about food as more than quantities of carbohydrates, sugars, and fats. Effective nutrition is that which is satiating to the individual rider. Truly nutritious food tastes good, is easy to eat, feels good in the belly, and all over a longer period. Yes, a cyclist benefits from monitoring the values of their intake. Nevertheless, the highest priority for a cyclist is fueling their ride.



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