Cycling Nutrition 101: how to fuel your body for top performance

Plate of pancakes, bacon, syrup, and fruit

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When I was getting my Master’s degree in nutrition, one of my top interests was sports nutrition. While I didn’t ultimately choose a career as a dietitian, I’m still fascinated by how food is converted to energy that we can then use to fuel our adventures. For two-wheeled enthusiasts like me, cycling nutrition is an essential key to not only making it through a ride but also having fun along the way. I’m sure we’ve all felt the unfortunate effects of bonking on the road or trail when we don’t eat enough, right?

And it’s not just during a ride that we need good nutrition. How we eat on a daily basis and what we consume post-ride matter too. So as a mountain biker, a (mostly) healthy eater, and a nutritionist, I wanted to put together this guide on simple nutrition tips and ideas for bikers and cyclists.

Learn the basics about cycling nutrition from a nutritionist in this 101 guide

Start with a healthy diet

You’ve probably heard this before, but performance really does start with a healthy diet.

80/20 rule & macro counting

Having good cycling nutrition isn’t going to do you much good if you don’t have an overall healthy diet to begin with. I am a strong believer in the 80/20 rule where 80% of your diet is filled with healthy stuff like fruits, veggies, whole grains, unprocessed meats, sugar-free dairy, nuts, etc…

The remaining 20% of your diet can include more processed items like chocolate, bread, ice cream (my fave!), and other ‘less healthy’ favorites.

If you are looking for a bit more structure when it comes to creating a healthy diet, I recommend macro counting. This still allows you to eat your favorite foods and doesn’t limit anything, but it keeps your macros – which are fats, carbs, and protein – in a healthy ratio so you’re not overdoing it on protein and skimping on carbs (which, you’ll learn below, are essential for maintaining energy. Carbs are good!)

I really like Julie Ledbetter for her workout app, but she’s also a proponent for macro counting and has a lot of information on her website and a free ebook you can download.

Painted wall mural in Mexico that reads "Mala Nutrition" over an overweight person and "Buena Nutrition" over a slim, athletic person
This ‘public service announcement’ was painted on a wall in Mexico

Find what works for you

It’s important to keep in mind that there is no one right way to eat healthily. Some people thrive on a lower-carb, high protein diet while others do better with more carbohydrates. Experiment and see what works best for you.

I will say that if you’re a cyclist going out for long, aerobic rides, you will be better off with a higher percentage of carbs in your diet because our body’s primary fuel during exercise is sugar – aka carbs.

I’ll dive more into this below.

Avoid quick fixes

What you want to avoid are fad diets including the keto diet and paleo diet. “Diets” usually promise quick weight loss, rapid muscle gain, increased energy, etc… but the truth is that most of these diets are not sustainable and many of them are not healthy.

Are you willing to give up pasta for the rest of your life to follow a no-carb diet? I’m definitely not! It’s better to find a mostly healthy eating plan that works for you that you can follow indefinitely. Don’t get sucked into quick fixes or diets that promise rapid changes.

Cycling nutrition basics

Alright, let’s get into the basics of what you should prioritize eating pre-, during, and post-ride. Keep in mind that this information is not meant for competitive athletes. If you want a more in-depth dive into sports nutrition, I highly recommend the book Advanced Sports Nutrition by Dan Bernadot. It’s very well-written, easy to understand, and has everything you could possibly want to know about sports nutrition and fine-tuning your diet for optimal performance.

Pre-ride nutrition

If you eat a mostly healthy diet full of complex carbohydrates, healthy fats, and unprocessed proteins you shouldn’t really need to focus on any pre-ride nutrition or supplements. It’s better to focus on eating during your ride and post-ride recovery.

That being said, it’s probably not the best idea to eat a big meal or something particularly high in fat or protein right before you head out. Both fat and protein are slower to digest than carbs and can leave you feeling sluggish.

If you know you will be heading out for a big effort ride, eating or drinking easy-to-digest carbohydrates about 30 minutes before you start can help keep blood sugar levels high early on in your ride.

What to eat during a ride

This is where cycling nutrition gets important.

Your body stores carbohydrates in your liver and muscles. This stored energy is called glycogen and it’s what your body primarily uses as fuel during exercise to keep you upright and pedaling. When your glycogen stores are depleted and you haven’t eaten any carbohydrates to turn into energy, you bonk. We all know that feeling and it’s really not very fun.

Mountain biker wearing helmet and knee pads lying on ground with eyes closed after big climb
Eat carbs during your ride so you don’t bonk!

Luckily, sugar (aka carbs) isn’t the only way our bodies can produce energy, but it is the fastest and most efficient way. We can also use stored fat as energy (yay!), however, higher glycogen stores improve the body’s ability to metabolize fat. So if you’re glycogen stores are already depleted, it’s going to be harder for your body to metabolize fat stores.

The solution? Eat carbohydrates while you ride.

High-intensity cycling, like road cyclists doing sprints, will use up glycogen stores and blood sugar faster while lower-intensity and endurance athletes will use a combination of fat and carbs.

  • High-intensity rides = your body will use glycogen stores and blood sugar faster, which results in lower proportion of fat metabolism
  • Low-intensity rides = your body will use a combination of fats and carbohydrates, which results in a higher proportion of fat metabolism.

So how much carbohydrates do you need to consume during a ride? That really depends on how hard you’re going, how long your ride is, your individual metabolism, among other factors. But keep in mind that the longer and more intense your ride is, the more carbohydrates you need to consume.

If you feel like you bonk easily or you just don’t have enough energy on rides, try eating more carbohydrate-rich snacks.

Carbohydrate-packed snack ideas:

Unlike ‘normal’ eating, fueling your body with simple and easy-to-digest carbohydrates during exercise can actually be beneficial since simple carbs (i.e. sugar) are digested and absorbed into your bloodstream faster. This will help reduce the rate at which your glycogen stores are depleted and keep your blood sugar elevated so your body can turn that sugar into energy.

  • Dried fruit
  • Bars (I like Lara Bars and Bobo’s Bars becuase they have simple ingredients and a bit of protein as well)
  • Hydration powder like Skratch or Tailwind. If I’m going on a longer ride (more than 2 hours) or it’s particularly hot out, I’ll bring a water bottle filled with Skratch or Tailwind, both of which contain a good amount of sugar. (Read more about hydration powders below).
  • PB & J. Cut it up into fours so that you don’t eat the whole thing at once, which might cause discomfort.
  • Energy blocks or chews like Skratch Sport Energy Chews or Clif Bloks
  • Crackers
  • Gels like Gu Energy Gels
  • Anything high in carbs and low(ish) in protein and fats that you enjoy eating while in the saddle!

Post-ride nutrition

Post-ride cycling nutrition is actually a lot more important than many recreational riders think. After exercise, your body’s levels of glycogen synthase (the enzyme responsible for replenishing glycogen stores) are elevated. This means, the more carbs you consume right after riding, the better chance you have of replenishing your glycogen stores before tomorrow’s ride.

If your goal is fat-loss, remember that more glycogen stores improve your body’s ability to metabolize fat. So, wait for it, eating carbs can help you burn fat!

Now, don’t run off and guzzle a liter of soda. Unless you did a high-intensity or particularly long ride, you probably don’t need to consume more than a simple high-carb snack like a banana with peanut butter or a small serving of leftover pasta.

But if you did have a big, sweaty ride, you will benefit from some post-ride supplementation. I was recently turned onto Tailwind Recovery Mix by a friend and I have actually noticed a big difference in recovery time and post-ride soreness.

It’s formulated with easy to absorb and digest carbs (in the form of sucrose and dextrose), as well as a complete protein profile, and essential electrolytes. I use one scoop after a medium-intensity ride and two scoops after a high-intensity ride. The chocolate flavor is delish and it’s vegan-friendly.

Black bag of Tailwind nutrition recovery mix in chocolate flavor

Check price: REI / Amazon

If you feel like your body is taking longer than it should to recover between rides, focus on eating and carb and protein-rich snack immediately post-ride so that you can take advantage of elevated glycogen synthase levels and aid in muscle recovery.

Carbohydrate & protein-rich post-ride snack ideas:

  • Banana with peanut butter
  • Pasta salad
  • Smoothie with yogurt or protein powder (a note about protein powders. I actually don’t like most protein powders because they 1. provide way more protein than we actually need and 2. they’re typically sweetened with artifical or zero-calorie sweeteners which I think are gross. If you want to use a protein powder to boost your smoothies, I recommend going with a no-frills whey powder or straight-up pea protein powder.
  • Fruit and yogurt parfait with granola
  • Anything quick and easy to put together that provides a good does of carbohydrates and a bit of protein
Bowl of pasta on picnic table with setting sun going down behind mountains in the background
Carbs are the most important fuel for mid-ride and post-ride cycling nutrition!

Cycling Hydration

Like for all sports, it’s important to stay hydrated while biking or cycling. I always wear a hydration pack when I’m mountain biking and I’ll bring a water bottle or two if I’m on my road bike. I find that taking small sips of water throughout my ride is better than guzzling a bunch of water at once.

So how much water do you need to drink while cycling? That depends on a number of factors like intensity, temperature, length of your ride, your individual make-up, and how well hydrated you are before you head out.

It’s recommended to drink:

  • Before: 17-20 oz. of water at least 2 hours prior to exercise
  • During: 7-10 oz. of water for every 10-20 minutes of exercise (about .8 L per hour in normal temps for regular-intensity rides)
  • After: 16-24 oz. of water for each pound lost due to sweating

Hydration powders & sports drinks

For most rides, a hydration powder or supplement isn’t really necessary. Drinking water and eating snacks to keep blood sugar levels steady are sufficient for preventing dehydration and keeping energy high.

That being said, hydration powders are a good idea if you are heading out on an extended ride and/or you expect to be sweating a lot. The most important ingredient in hydration powders is sodium – aka salt. When you sweat, you lose salt and other electrolytes. If they’re not replenished sufficiently, it can result in cramping, dizziness, irregular heartbeat, among other symptoms of dehydration.

In extreme cases, electrolyte depletion can lead to a life-threatening condition called hyponatremia where sodium levels in the blood are dangerously low.

For longer or sweatier rides, I like to carry a water bottle filled with Skratch hydration powder or Tailwind Endurance Fuel. Both of these hydration powders contain quite a bit of sugar (which, remember, we need!) and help keep blood sugars levels steady on long, hard rides without the need to stop and eat too often.

They also both contain good amounts of sodium and other electrolytes to replenish what is lost in sweat. I sweat a lot, so I feel like I need the extra salt!

What about beer?

I’m not a beer drinker, but I do like a nice, cold cider especially after a big ride. Unfortunately, alcohol isn’t your friend when it comes to hydration (or recovery). Alcohol is a diuretic, which impedes rehydration efforts and since alcohol is metabolized in the liver, it also impairs glycogen replenishment among a host of other windfalls.

I’m not saying you need to be a saint and cut out all alcohol, but it’s probably best not to drink immediately after a ride to give your body a chance to rehydrate and replenish nutrients.

Sign post in Bentonville, Arkansas that has "Coffee" "Beer" and "Tequila" pointing to the right and "Trails" pointing to the left

Supplements for cyclists

Honestly, I’m not a huge fan of supplements or ‘performance enhancers’. For one, the supplement industry is a multi-billion dollar industry that is not well-regulated. Furthermore, companies really don’t need to prove that their supplements work or even that they’re safe. It’s shocking.

I think Dan Berandot says it best in his sports nutrition book: “There is no ergonomic aid that is a substitute for proper fluid intake, a solid nutrition intake, an appropriate training regimen, and sufficient rest.”

But that being said, there are a few supplements that I use that I feel make a difference for me. Two of them I’ve mentioned already.

Multivitamin

I do notice a difference in energy, sleep, and recovery when I take a multivitamin. I’m not a proponent for everyone taking a multivitamin because I think that a healthy diet should provide the body with everything it needs, but as I said above, I do notice a difference when I take them, so I’m including it here.

Multivitamins typically include a full panel of vitamins and minerals, which you may or may not need. Most multivitamins are packed with WAY more than your body actually requires, so I typically only take one capsule a day versus the recommended two.

Multivitamins are a much bigger topic than I want to go into here, but if you’re feeling like you’re lacking energy and your diet is mostly healthy (remember the 80/20 rule!) and you’re eating/drinking carbohydrates before and after you ride then you may want to try adding a multivitamin to your routine.

Not all multivitamins are created equal, though. Stay away from gummies and anything with added colors, artificial flavors, or anything ‘fake’. You also want to look for B-12 in the form of methylcobalamin, which is better absorbed by our bodies and signifies a higher quality product.

Hydration powder

Having a hydration reservoir or water bottle filled with a hydration powder mix can be a life-saver on long rides or particularly sweaty days. I sweat a lot and I notice a BIG difference when I have a hydration powder mix to sip on.

Hydration powders (should) provide a mix of carbohydrates to keep your blood sugars steady and replace electrolytes that are lost in sweat like sodium, magnesium, potassium, calcium. Calcium isn’t just needed for your bones, it’s also required for muscle contractions!

Skratch Labs and Tailwind Nutrition are both good options. They have about the same amount of carbohydrates per scoop, but they differ slightly in the amount of electrolytes they contain.

Recovery powder

I only recently started using the Tailwind Recovery powder as part of my cycling nutrition strategy thanks to the recommendation of a friend and honestly, I notice a difference. I’ve never been a bit supporter of protein powders because they always taste terrible and most people get enough protein in their diet as it is. That being said, if I drink a scoop or two of this stuff mixed with water after a ride, I feel much better recovered the next day.

Tailwind Recovery provides a cocktail of easily digestible carbs, complete proteins, and electrolytes. Remember, post-exercise is a super-sensitive time for your body since glycogen synthase levels are elevated and your body is looking for carbs to replenish glycogen stores and protein to aid in muscle recovery.

Sports nutrition resources

If you’re interested in learning more about cycling nutrition, here are a few of my favorite resources.

Nutrition Science Books

  • Advanced Sports Nutrition – This was my favorte sports nutrition book I used during my master’s program. It goes into a lot of detail about how the body processes and uses fuel and how you can optimize your diet for better performance. It is a text book, though, so be prepared to get into the nitty gritty details of nutrition.
  • Sports Nutrition for Young Adults – If you have a kid who is interested in cycling nutrition, this book is a great resource. It includes a detailed overview of the nutritional needs of young athletes as well as tasty recipes including a homemade sports drink.

Cookbooks & Recipes

  • The Feed Zone – The Feed Zone is actually a cookbook put out by the founder of Skratch Labs. It includes a ton of great recipes from energy packed breakasts to recovery meals and much more. All of the recipes are delicous, simple, and nutritous.
  • Feed Zone Portables – A second book published by the founder of Skratch Labs, this one includes dozens of recipes for easy, portable snacks and meals. No more endless monotony of bars and gels that cyclist typically devour!
  • Fuel Your Body: How to Cook and Eat for Peak Performance – Written by a Registered Dietitian specializing in sports nutrition, this cookbook is chock full of delicious, whole foods-based and energy-packed recipes. She’s includes a ton of substitutions in her recipes, so it’s great for everyone whether you’re gluten-free, vegetarian, or other.
  • Half Baked Harvest Super Simple – This isn’t a sports nutrition cookbook per se, but I included it because Teighan Gerard of the recipe blog Half Baked Harvest is by far my favorite recipe developer. Her dishes are amazing and most of them are healthy and whole-foods based.

What questions do you still have about cycling nutrition? What tips or advice would you give to someone who wants to improve their diet or eating habits? Leave a comment below!

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Learn the basics about cycling nutrition so you can improve your performance out on the road or trail. Learn what to eat, when, & more!
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