Whether you opt for the road or a stationary bike, it’s easy to fall in love with cycling. The sport offers a host of benefits, from increased endurance to mood-boosting endorphins, that are only amplified by a healthy cycling diet.
Cycling nutrition is no different from most other healthy, balanced diets. It is based on whole foods rich in nutrients that provide energy to your body.
But there are some nuances to a cycling diet, both before and after a ride, that have to do with meal times, portion sizes and types of foods. We asked some experts to share their opinions and recommendations.
How should cyclists eat for a ride?
Cycling nutrition is as much about when you eat like that you eat. The time you are in the chair is also important.
Get on your bike for an hour? There is no need to worry about fueling before training. But, if you plan to ride for longer, food should be part of your strategy, he says. Stacey Krawczyk, MS, RDpresident of FoodWell Strategies.
“If the exercise is going to last longer than 60 minutes, you should eat a small meal a few hours beforehand,” he says.
If you don’t have much time before your trip, opt for a small snack. Eating too much food close to your workout could make you feel sluggish or dizzy.
Krawczyk explains that carbohydrates play a “crucial” role in a cycling diet.
“Active people (who exercise at this extreme level) should consume 50 to 65 percent of their total daily calorie intake as carbohydrates,” he says, so look for healthy, easy-to-digest carbohydrates as snacks and meals before the race.
Some pre-workout ideas include:
- Oats and fruit
- Cereal with milk
- Sweet potatoes
What you drink is also a critical component of a healthy cycling diet. “Always remember to consider hydration and electrolyte status!” says Lauren Sambataro, FDN-P, CHEK, IFHC.
“If you exercise for a long period of time or tend to sweat a lot, preloading with an electrolyte source that includes sodium and potassium can be extremely helpful in preventing cramps and fatigue,” he explains.
Can you lose weight by cycling?
Like any form of regular physical activity, cycling can help you increase the numbers on the scale.
“As a general rule, creating an energy deficit (more calories burned) could encourage weight loss,” says Sambataro.
And because cycling is low-impact and can typically be tolerated for an extended period of time, Sambataro explains, it’s a great option for people interested in losing weight.
One study published in the International Journal of Obesity found that previously inactive and overweight adults who began cycling to and from work lost as much weight as participants who exercised daily in their “free time.”
However, Sambataro cautions that weight loss is a complicated equation and exercise is just one variable.
In addition to workouts and diet, factors such as genetics, hormones, sleep, and stress also play an important role in weight management.
What should cyclists eat to lose weight?
A healthy cycling diet isn’t about excessive restrictions, says Garrett Seacat, CSCSAbsolute Endurance head coach.
“Trying to reduce [on calories] while exercise can lead to decreased performance during training, and you may even see worse results as you begin to deny your body the proper fuel it needs over time,” he says.
However, many cyclists encounter the opposite problem.
“Athletes make the mistake of finishing a long run (4 to 6 hours or more), burning up to 4,000 calories, then gorging themselves at a restaurant and replacing all the calories (and more) by accident,” he says.
Even if you don’t spend half the day cycling, the same principle applies: If you eat more calories than you burn, you’re likely to gain weight, not lose it.
“If your goal is to lose weight and you are making a great effort, on those days you should have a protein shake ready afterwards,” Seacat recommends.
A protein shake will not only quench hunger and prevent you from overeating, but it will also aid in muscle repair and overall recovery.
Cycling nutrition should be made up of as many real, whole foods as possible, including:
- Whole grains: brown or wild rice, quinoa, barley, oats, amaranth, corn, farro.
- Fruits: bananas, berries, pears, oranges, dates, apples, peaches.
- Beans/legumes: chickpeas, white/black/pinto beans, lentils, soybeans, split peas
- Lean meats: skinless chicken breast, white fish, pork loin, lean beef, tuna
- Vegetables: leafy greens, beets, broccoli, cauliflower, sweet potatoes, carrots.
- Healthy fats: avocado, olive oil, nuts, seeds, Greek yogurt, whole eggs, dark chocolate.
What is the best food to eat after cycling?
“Eating after a walk is important because it replaces your muscles’ glycogen (sugar) stores,” says Krawczyk.
Seacat recommends refueling with a protein shake or snack that provides protein for muscle protein synthesis and carbohydrates to replenish those glycogen stores.
Some examples of post-cycling snacks include:
- Banana with nut butter
- Egg and avocado toast
- Tuna Salad Sandwich
- Pita and hummus
- Greek yogurt with red fruits
While the consensus among most fitness professionals is that a meal or snack should be consumed within 30 minutes of exercise, a small studio indicates that the window to replenish glycogen reserves is much longer.
So eat when you are hungry. Just make sure you make healthy choices.