Cycling Nutrition: What to Eat and Drink During Bike Rides of Any Length

Tuesday, February 13th, 2024

Marine Lenehan, Sports Nutritionist, Massage Therapist & Yoga Teacher

When you ask your group of friends on social rides what they eat and drink on their ride, you’ll get almost as many answers as there are riders in the group. Everyone fuels rides a little differently, which is perfectly normal. We are all unique. However there are some key principles cyclists should use as starting points.

Once we discuss the main concepts, I’ll give you recommendations for short, medium, long, and extra-long rides.

General Cycling Nutrition Concepts

HYDRATION

If your hydration strategy is not on point, it doesn’t matter what you eat or how much. Dehydration slows down gastric emptying and slows gut flexibility meaning that energy will either make it to working muscles more slowly or even worse stay in your gut. At first, you won’t notice much but it gets worse the more dehydrated you become. Hydration Is proportional to temperature, intensity and sweet rate, so it is very difficult to give an exact number of how much you should drink per hour on the bike.

CARBOHYDRATES : THE BODY’S ROCKET FUEL

It is hard to stress the importance of carbs for cycling performance. Mitochondria use this simple sugar in our cells to produce ATP (the energy source for all activity). All forms of carbohydrates we eat are converted to glucose. When the body has more glucose than it needs, it is converted to glycogen and stored in the muscles and liver.

When glycogen stores are full, the liver converts the glucose to triglycerides, which are stored as fat.

Endurance performance is about managing these energy stores, highlighting the importance of the amount and timing of your cycling nutrition.

If you don’t have carbohydrates available, your power output will be low. Cycling is an intermittent-intensity sport, meaning there are periods of low intensity that are primarily fueled by fat, but all  higher intensity efforts require carbohydrates. Cycling nutrition during rides is affected by not only the length of the ride, but by the intensity of the ride also.

CARBOHYDRATES : HOW MUCH DO I ACTUALLY NEED

If we take the general rule that most of us can only absorb 1 gram of carbohydrates per hour of aerobic exercise, 30–60 grams of carbohydrates per hour is the general recommendation. Some of us can train the gut to absorb up to 120 grams per hour when the body glycogen stores are depleted. This is just a general rule and not very precise or personalised.

For a more precise rule, the focus should be on the rider’s hourly kilojoule output.

Let me explain myself. If you are using a power meter, you will be able to know the kilojoules of work you are doing per hour. Based on that, the goal is to replenish 20-30% the kilojoules of work per hour by carbohydrate intake. 

For example, if you burn 400 kilojoules per hour, you should aim for 80-120 calories of carbohydrate (20-30 grams) per hour.

FUELLING ON BIKE RIDES OF ANY LENGTH

Let’s get practical.

The key to a performing body is a balanced food intake. You don’t want to eat too little, otherwise you will bonk out or too much giving you nausea.