Some of the best news you’ll get as a cyclist is that while riding you can burn upwards of 500 calories per hour. Exceptionally hard rides can cause you to burn as much as 1,000 calories per hour. Low-cal is a phrase you are allowed to strike from your vocabulary.
Endurance athletes in general and cyclists specifically do not have significantly different dietary needs from the rest of the population. Done right, you’ll eat all the same foods you’ve been eating; you will just increase the serving sizes for some foods.
Don’t be Afraid of Carbs
In short, carbs are your friend. Carbohydrates are the basic fuel your body uses to create glycogen, which is the fuel your muscles burn as you exercise. Glycogen (sugar) is to your body what gas is to your car. It is stored in your muscles and your liver, and your body generally holds about 2,000 kilocalories—enough energy to sustain about two hours of continuous activity. What happens when you ride for more than two hours without replenishing is called “the bonk.”
Glycogen is essentially a starch. To produce it, you must eat bread, pasta, rice, and other foods classified as starches. Each gram of carbohydrate contains 4 calories.
Dietary recommendations for cyclists generally advise them to consume somewhere between 45 and 65 percent of their daily calories in carbohydrate. An easy rule of thumb for carbohydrate consumption is to multiply your weight by between 2.72 and 4.54.
Example: a 168-pound rider
168 x 2.72 to 4.54 = 457 to 763 grams of carbohydrate per day
Not all carbs are created equally. Complex carbohydrates, such as whole wheat breads, rice, and potatoes help prevent spikes and crashes in your blood sugar that can cause you to grind to a halt as suddenly as a car that has run out of gas. For quick energy, foods containing the simple sugars glucose and fructose will bring you around like fresh batteries.
To top off the tank while riding, sugary sports drinks meant to replace depleted carbohydrate stores have been shown to be effective at solution rates around 6 percent; think of how Gatorade tastes—that’s a 6 percent solution. Some people can tolerate higher concentrations, but many people will begin to experience gastric distress (burping and stomach upset) at solutions above 8 percent. If your drink tastes sweet, it is too strong.
Be aware that not all carbs are consumed equally, either. Post-ride refueling is unusually efficient and converts carbs into glycogen at three times the normal rate. For up to four hours after the ride, your body works to replace lost glycogen with the ferocity of a Wall Street trader taking advantage of a down market. Those first two hours following a ride are something of a dietary get-out-of-jail card. Almost anything you consume will be used to replace depleted glycogen stores. Get out the chocolate chip cookies!
Get Plenty of Protein
Protein’s primary role in the diet of a cyclist is to help build new muscle and repair muscle tissue damaged in training. It also has two additional roles in the diet of a cyclist; protein helps the body metabolize carbohydrates and serves as a secondary fuel source during prolonged endurance events, meaning events long enough to cause your family to question your sanity, better known as centuries.
Endurance athletes need more protein than couch jockeys, but not so much more that they must resort to protein-packed shakes. The vast majority of riders will do fine with a well-balanced diet.
Dietary recommendations for cyclists generally advise them to consume somewhere between 20 and 25 percent of their daily calories in carbohydrate. An easy rule of thumb for protein consumption is to multiply your weight by .54 to .64.
Example: a 168-pound rider
168 x .54 to .64 = 91 to 108 grams of protein per day.
Consuming protein with carbohydrate can aid digestion of the carbohydrate, but research also shows that the protein is used as a fuel source, as well. Most research points to a 4:1 mix of carbs to protein. Carbohydrate/protein drinks have been shown to increase performance, decrease fatigue, and reduce post-exercise muscle soreness. There are a variety of drinks, bars, and gels that provide a mix of carbs and protein at or near this ratio.
Don’t Fear the Fat
Forget about eliminating fat from your life. While it’s often cast as the villain in any diet, the cause for every weight loss scheme since the Great Depression, fat serves an important role in a healthy diet.
Fat is an important energy source, giving you staying power between meals. It helps prevent your blood sugar from crashing and causing you to suddenly feel hungry. It is also necessary because some vitamins are fat soluble and fatty acids are essential for a balanced diet.
Dietary guidelines generally suggest that anywhere from 20 to 35 percent of your daily calories should come from fat.
Example: a 168-pound rider
168 x .54 to 1.0 = 91 to 159 grams of fat per day
Some fats are definitely preferable. Choose olive and canola oils, as well as nuts, seeds, beans, and avocados to be good to your heart. Other fats, such as those that come from bacon and French fries, should be kept in check.
Proper hydration is essential for optimal performance as a cyclist. An adult human being is composed of 55–65 percent water, with men at the higher end and women at the lower end of that range.
Dehydration begins when you have lost 1 percent of your body weight in fluid. Unfortunately, you can’t wait for your body’s sense of thirst to guide hydration, as it isn’t activated until you have lost 1–2 percent of your body’s weight in fluid. Worse yet, with a 3 percent loss of fluid, your muscles begin contracting more slowly, limiting performance. A 4 percent loss of fluid causes a decline in performance of 5 to 10 percent.
So you must drink the way dictatorships vote: early and often. Even conservative estimates for cycling indicate that a cyclist should consume 5 ounces of water every 15 minutes while riding. That’s one 20-oz. bottle per hour. On hot and humid days and during particularly hard riding, that number rises rapidly. A fast ride on a day with a heat index in triple digits requires 40 oz.—two bottles—per hour.
Be Wary of Alcohol
While a great glass of wine or beer can make a good meal more memorable, alcohol is as good for cycling performance as arsenic. Its presence suppresses the secretion of the hormone ADH, which acts as an antidiuretic. To offset the loss in fluid, you will need to drink an additional glass of water for every two drinks you consume. The calories contained in alcohol constitute a second problem. Unlike the calories found in carbs, proteins, or fat, the calories contained in alcohol are essentially “empty”—they have no nutritive value.
If you ride for more than two hours your body will need more calories than can be supplied by a sports drink. Bars and gels are the two most popular forms of sports nutrition after sports drinks. Bars, such as those by PowerBar and Clif Bar, offer a healthy dose of carbohydrate along with some protein. They are excellent for longer rides at low to moderate intensity.
Gels don’t have the caloric wallop of a bar—generally, they have about half the calories, so you must consume more of them. Because they come in liquid form and most contain no protein, they are quick to digest and are easier on the stomach. This makes them ideal for high-intensity rides that last for several hours.
Weight Loss and Cycling
Cycling’s low-impact nature makes it an excellent vehicle for any weight loss goals you have. Even though you may be able to expend 3,500 or more calories in a day, you can’t actually lose a full pound each day, not unless you burn actual muscle mass.
The proverbial pound of flesh is equal to 3,500 calories. This is a reasonable amount to try to lose each week. It requires a 500-calorie deficit each day of the week, which is very achievable with a little eating discipline and a one-hour ride per day. Those who try to push beyond this can push the body into catabolism, a state in which the body consumes muscle protein to meet its caloric needs. This is the same thing that happens when you bonk and as a weight-loss strategy it is counterproductive in the extreme. Catabolism is like burning your house down instead of having a barbecue. What you want to achieve is a calorie deficit, not starvation.