A cyclist’s diet: when and what to eat

How much you need to keep you sustained before, during and after the big race

As you may have realised, cycling is one of our favourite sports. With many of us at Spinneys (employees and customers alike) competing in the Spinneys Dubai 92 Cycle Challenge, we thought it would be useful to give the lowdown on what to eat before, during and after the big race:

Before

In the days leading up to the race, stick to carbohydrates and lean proteins such as chicken or fish; foods rich in fat and fibre are more difficult to digest and can sit on the stomach. Then, the night before, and on the morning of the race, switch up the gears for a higher percentage of low-GI carbs like whole grains or oats – these release energy more slowly, keeping you fuller for longer.

And plan accordingly: eat 2-4 hours before cycling if you’re having a bigger meal such as porridge, granola or muesli; if you’re a late riser and making do with a snack such as a smoothie, 30 minutes-2 hours is sufficient.

During

Save high-GI snacks for the actual race – they are broken down into glucose more quickly, which will give you bursts of energy when you need it. A banana, a handful of jellied sweets or a carbohydrate-based energy bar are all great choices. Here’s our guide to staying sustained for rides of different lengths:

  • 1 hour or less: your focus should be on hydration – aim for about 1 litre per hour. You shouldn’t need food during the ride but take a snack such as a banana in case you start to flag.
  • 1-3 hours: as well as staying hydrated, you will need to keep topping up your carbohydrate intake. About 30-60g per hour is recommended, best eaten in stages, rather than as one snack.
  • 3 hours or more: keep replenishing your fluids; while two electrolyte drinks should be enough over three hours, your water intake should increase because of the length of the ride. Food becomes more difficult to digest over a longer period, so limit your snack intake to the first 90 minutes approximately and switch to gels later on.

After

Aim to eat a full meal within an hour of cycling but preferably in the first 20 minutes, as the nutrients in the food will help your body repair. Opt for lean proteins and carbohydrates – remember that some fruits like oranges, apples and bananas and some vegetables like sweet potato, carrots and green leafy varieties count towards this.

3 quick questions

Do I need to carb-load?

Yes and no. Your body can only store so much glycogen, so while increasing your carb intake before the ride is beneficial, you shouldn’t go crazy as eating more carbohydrates than you need will only cause you to feel bloated and heavy.

After 90 minutes on the bike, you’ll need to replenish lost carbohydrates quickly. However, leave it too long without eating and the body will struggle to maintain sugar levels.

Should I up my water intake just before a cycle race?

The key is to drink water consistently. Some riders try to make up for their lack of fluid intake by consuming vast amounts before a ride, but this only serves to sit on the stomach and causes a few too many pit stops during the cycle.

As an older cyclist, what do I need to do differently?

You’ll probably need fewer calories than someone in their 20s (although this is dependent on the person, so consult your GP), but take this into consideration when devising your diet plan.

With age, skin becomes less efficient at utilising UV light for vitamin D production, which is vital for building bones, maintaining muscle and speeding up metabolism, so include foods such as oily fish and egg yolks in your diet. And up your protein intake, as this will help with muscle growth too.