Feeding the Cyclist

by Skylar Nelson, RDN
The most important nutritional need for cyclists is energy. The more intense, the longer the ride, the larger the total energy expended. It has been estimated that professional cyclist need to consume between 3,000 to 7,000 calories per day. The typical sedentary, normal weight human being consumes between 1,400 to 2,800 calories per day. This wide range only highlights the need and importance of individual assessment, but estimating energy your needs in daily practice simply requires satisfying your appetite and monitoring your weight. Not meeting your energy needs will lead to decreased performance, chronic fatigue, and weight loss.
The nutrient that is most important for cyclists and is the primary fuel for muscle contraction is, carbohydrate. The energy from carbohydrates is released 3 times faster than the energy from fat in exercising muscles. But the body only stores a limited amount of carbohydrate in the muscle called glycogen. When glycogen stores are depleted the level of training and racing diminishes and the cyclist will experience fatigue.
In order to accomplish daily glycogen repletion it is important to consume a substantial amount of carbohydrate—approximately 60 percent of your total daily caloric intake. For most cyclists this amounts to 500 to 600 grams of carbohydrate or 2,000 to 2,400 calories per day. Feeding and fueling a cyclist means consuming large amounts of carbohydrate foods. Always remember to consume a variety of different carbohydrate foods and to consume several smaller meals throughout the day. This will ensure that the carbohydrates are digested and absorbed properly for maximum energy utilization and minimal recovery time.
Recent research suggests that additional dietary protein may be beneficial to endurance athletes. The added protein may be necessary to repair damaged muscle tissue and to provide an alternate fuel source during long-term training.
Fortunately for most cyclists, major changes in diet are not necessary. If you consume 10 to 20 percent of your diet in protein, which most people do, your intake will be adequate. Remember to include high protein foods like low-fat milk, yogurt, lean meat, poultry, fish, eggs, beans, and lentils.
While it is true that cycling stimulates changes that increase your body’s ability to utilize fat as an energy source, there is no need to supplement. The recommended intake for healthy and active individuals is 20 to 25 percent fat. Adequate fat intake can be achieved by consuming a diet containing whole grains, dairy products, fish, and lean meats. Remember that fat aids in providing energy, helps to store and use fat-soluble vitamins (A, D, E, and K), and is essential to the movement of nutrients in and out of cells.
Most nutrition researchers and sports nutritionists and dietitians agree that the optimal ‘athletes’ diet contains 60 percent carbohydrate, 15 to 20 percent protein, and 20 to 25 percent fat. There are mountains of research and data to validate this recommendation. Experts also recommend the consumption of carbohydrate before and during exercise to improve performance, and the consumption after exercise to replenish glycogen stores and thus reduce recovery time.
Most people don’t think of water as a nutrient, but it may be the most critical part of a cyclists diet. Approximately 60 to 70 percent of the average person’s body weight is water, and it is lost in many ways. Through breathing, urinating, and sweating, the typical human being can lose up to 1 liter of water per day. Cycling in hot weather can easily double or triple that amount of water loss. Insufficient fluid intake and small changes in fluid levels will lead to fatigue and decreased performance. Even losing 2 to 3 percent of body fluid through sweat (3 to 4 pounds in a 150 pound person) will decrease cycling performance by 5 percent. Losing 4 to 6 percent of body fluid, and the cyclist risks cramps, heat exhaustion, heatstroke, and possible death.
It is best to drink 2 to 3 cups of water before exercise and to drink often during exercise. Also, remember to include a fluid source that contains carbohydrate to help supple vital energy to your muscles.