Eat right to improve endurance and strength with our cyclist nutrition guide.
Why cycling nutrition is important: beating fatigue
Did you know that 78% of mountain bike injuries occur between the middle and the end of a typical day out riding? Getting tired early on a mountain bike isn’t good, so you need to have your wits about you all the time on the trails, especially when you’re doing the day’s ‘one last run‘.
If you lose your focus even for a second you could suddenly find yourself suddenly face down in the mud with your leg bent in the wrong direction and your bike in three parts. How you feel about that will depend on how much of a gear junkie you are.
It’s not just enough to go to the gym, or push your legs to the max every time you go out to get in shape and stay on form longer. What you put into your body is as just as important as training, and should start long before you slip into your padded shorts and head out into the rain.
Why you need proper food:
Nutrition is just as important for professional athletes as it is for the semi-serious rider. What you consume and when you consume it can really influence your overall fitness level.
Eating and drinking the right things before, during, and after your ride will help you go longer and faster and increase your recovery times.
The great thing about all this though is that you don’t need to rethink your entire life to achieve what you want. Like most things, some small changes to diet can give a large boost to performance when riding.
There is no secret
The key is balance. Actually, if there was a secret, that’s probably it right there… That doesn’t mean you do Pizza Hut on Monday, McDonald’s Tuesday, KFC Wednesday…and so on.
Without getting too bogged down in the details, here’s a brief summary for the rest of us to help you get in shape, and improve performance on your bike.
Water and hydration
Forget everything else to start with, ensuring proper hydration is essential in every part of the body’s metabolism- it’s not enough to just pump up on fluids during your ride or when you’re doing other training.
You should ensure you have plenty of water when you’re not training, and when you are, unless you’re trying to lose weight, use a proper isotonic sports drink, that contains salts and electrolytes.
Whenever you do eat something while out riding, make sure you take a drink with it. If you don’t your body will pull essential liquids and energy away from your muscles and into your stomach to digest what you’ve just ingested and that leads to cramps, lethargy, the dark side, and dehydration.
Now, pay attention, because this is where it’s at for those riders who want to stay out longer, go further faster, and remain alert for their whole day out.
Carbs often get quite a bad press but if you’re training and trying to get stronger and fitter, then the right mix of carbs at the right could make the difference between you having fun in the mud, or day consisting of series of long uphill slogs followed by some less exhausting downhill sections.
Mountain biking nutrition is mostly for endurance
As such, a high carb diet is the way forward. In real terms you should be looking to make your diet about 60-70% carbohydrate. However, it’s not that simple because carbohydrates comes in two forms; complex/slow, and simple/fast. Actually, it’ a bit more complicated than even that, but that’s for another time.
Complex carbs are generally found in high fibre foods and breakdown into glycogen which is what gives you your long endurance type energy. Simple carbs are the exact opposite, and are what give you your intense but short burst of glycogen into your bloodstream.
On longer rides, it is these simple carbs that you replace via energy bars and bananas etc. For longer rides and training sessions you need to make sure your body has ready access to both.
4 good old fashioned complex carbs for endurance that are easy to eat:
Porridge/rolled oats/pinhead oatmeal: The cornerstone of the healthiest, best breakfast you could possibly hope to have. Every athlete needs and wants that slows glucose release into the bloodstream. As it’s a slow digester, it helps keep your energy levels up. Porridge also contains lots of B vitamin, and a fair amount of zinc, so it’s great for dealing with stress, and boosting your immune system.
Sweet potatoes: This is one of those vegetables everyone should eat more of. It tastes good, is very good for you by packed densely with nutrition, and it’s sweet, hence the name. Not that you’re counting, but it also has next to no caloric value, but is packed with carbs, and is easy to cook and serve on the side of just about anything going.
Whole wheat pasta: The go to source for simple quick to make meals, and has been for years. It’s a complex carb you can have ready in minutes, and because no one likes to eat it plain unless you’re a freak of nature it’s just begging to have lean protein rich meats, and other complex carbs like broccoli, onions, and tomatoes to turn it into tasty complete meal full of the 3 holy grails of a healthy training food; that’s carbs, protein, and good fats.
Brown rice (and full whole grains): Brown rice is one of the richest sources of carbohydrate available to you, and like pasta, is stupidly easy to turn into a nutritious tasty meal. Why whole grain, or brown rice? Because they contain more vitamins, fibre, and minerals. And they also have a low glycaemic index, (more on that later.) so again with the low absorption rate. You can of course mix the complex with the simple, and eat creamed rice, like Ambrosia etc. But this would be more for recovery than preparation.
And should you want a few more carbs then here’s a good list of other options: Body for Life: Food List.
This is the stuff that you use to build up muscles and produce enzymes that you use to help you release your body’s stored energy assisting fat in glycogen production and storing energy. Good protein is also essential in helping to rebuild muscle tissue fibre.
A deficiency in protein leads to muscle atrophy, and impaired functioning of the human body in general. High protein foods include meat, fish, cheese, tofu, beans, lentils, yogurt, nuts, and seeds.
In the same way you should only have quality people that add value to your life, you should only dine on quality proteins that contain a high amount of amino acids that can be easily digested by your system.
A rider who is really looking to get into shape should be looking to consume roughly 15-20% protein in their diet. While meat does contain protein, our bodies struggle to break it down easily so foodstuffs such as beans, cheese, egg, milk, nuts and vegetables should be considered as your mainstay.
If you want to build muscle for your riding and not lose it, protein is what you need. When you don’t have enough of it your body will actually start to metabolise your muscles, which doesn’t help if you’re trying to make yourself stronger.
The good news here is that most people get more than enough protein in their everyday balanced diet already, so it’s not something you should overly worry about.
The 4 best protein rich food types
Remember, the lower the fat in the meat, the more protein there tends to be. Pretty much every meat going contains protein, and as long as you remember the ratios above about 60-70% carbs/10-20%protein you’ll be doing ok. Generally speaking, red meat, with the exception of venison, will tend to have more fat, than say, a nice lean white one like chicken or turkey.
Fish is an excellent source of protein. Where possible, consume the oily ones like Mackerel so you also pick the good omega oils, which will help your poor joints after a day of punishment up on the moors.
Perfect for the non-meat eater, or if you want a little extra protein. Generally speaking, nuts will contain less protein than meat, but are still a great way to help fuel your body. However many nuts can be high in the wrong types of fats, so you know, watch what you’re eating.
Dairy products are great sources of protein and great for helping muscle recovery. But opt for the low fat versions of everything. That mean less Cathedral Cheddar and more low fat cottage cheese. I know, it sucks.
The Glycaemic Index as a guide line for your food
What has this got to do with you as a mountain biker? Energy foods are these days ranked by their place on a thing called the Glycaemic index (GI) The score for each food is based on the body’s levels of glucose as it digests food over a two hour time frame.
Having an idea of a food’s place on the index will help you to know which foods are appropriate for before, during, and after you ride. Here’s an example of how you can use the index to plan out what you should be eating when you go out.
What to eat before cycling:
Before you ride – Eat low GI/complex carb foods
Carbs that break down slowly drip feed energy into your bloodstream are the type of foods you want to be eating in the days before you head out on your bike and at around 2-3 hours before you saddle up. These are foods such as your pasta, breads, porridge, and muesli etc. They take a long time to digest and absorb water from your body, and if you head out while still digesting will cause cramps and lead to indigestion.
Around 15-30 minutes before getting on the bike – Eat mid GI foods
What you’re after here, is a mid-table GI snack, such as a banana, that is light and not in too big a portion.
During the ride – Eat high GI foods
This just makes sense. Most people in a reasonable shape or have a certain level of fitness, can do up to around 120 minutes worth of high impact exercise before they crash (figuratively, not literally.) You can’t wait for this ‘bonk,’ to hit, before attempting to top your energy levels up again.
As we’ve noted above, stopping off for a Carbonara will only result in pain, and lethargy riding, so here you want your simple carbs, (see above) that deliver glucose to your muscles fast. Isotonic drinks, dried fruits, and energy bars are the way forward here.
As soon as you finish riding – Eat high GI with high protein
You don’t want all that good work, and excellent exercise to go to waste, and you don’t want to walk like in pain for the rest of the week, so stretch, and eat some good dairy foods, like scrambled eggs, or decent serial with milk, because this will help the muscle fibres recover and strengthen up more quickly.
2-3 hours after your ride – Eat low to mid GI again
Imagine a perfect curve going up and down, that’s what the ride day diet should look like. Don’t just think pasta though; concentrate on eating stuff that’s good for you as well. So try grilled fish, with green veg. That way you also replenish the vital nutrients and vitamins you used up during your day.
Nutritional tips and tricks to keep you going
Get loaded with caffeine
Well don’t get loaded, but have some. Caffeine, in small amounts, and has been proven to increase performance, increase power, and improve focus. Typically, one cup of black coffee will do the trick. Larger doses will have no benefit and help dehydrate you. Also, don’t drink it if you have high blood pressure or a heart condition.
What’s the best kind of food to eat on the bike?
Try to limit yourself to carb based food, but if the idea of eating dried fruit doesn’t appeal to you at the best of times then there’s next to no chance you’ll want to munch on it when you’re soaking wet and knackered on the trail. The same goes for those awful tasting goo energy bars all the sports shops want to try and sell you. The easiest way to get past that is to make sure you bring food you actually like with you. If that means choc chip cookies, then bring choc chip cookies! (Low-fat) It’s better to get something than nothing at all.
Drink before you need to, and eat before you are hungry
Don’t wait till you feel tired, as once you bonk out it’s harder to get back in the groove of things. Eat small amounts a lot to keep your energy up, and always drink something at the same time.
What to take with you on the ride?
Try raisins, dried fruits, wholemeal bagels, and low fat biscuits. Unless you’re stopping for more than a five minutes, take one mouthful at a time.
When do you eat?
Start eating during your first hour on the bike.
So that’s it.
If you want to be stronger, faster and go for longer, no amount of energy bars, gels, or go faster stripes on your bike are going to help you. It all comes down to your overall diet. It’s all about building up your body so it has a long term ability to recover faster, and hand out energy when and where you need it.