Intro to Cycling Blog #4 – Nutrition

By: PJ Kwong and Anne Guzman

October 3rd, 2020

In our last blog we spoke with Constable Matt Baker about the importance of cycling safely and following the rules of the road. This week Sports Nutritionist Anne Guzman talks about the role nutrition plays in preparing for a ride and what optimal training nutrition would look like on longer rides.

Sports Nutritionist Anne Guzman has worked with athletes such as Gunnar Holmgren and Molly Van Houweling

Exercise and nutrition are essential for optimal health. Fueling the body with proper nutrition so it can recover after exercise is one of the keys to performing optimally (not necessarily health related). Regardless of whether you are a beginner or an expert, the time and attention you take in ensuring that you are equipped in all aspects of the sport will go a long way to enhancing your enjoyment and your progress. These aspects include your equipment, your conditioning, and your nutrition.

Nutrition isn’t just ‘one size fits all’, everyone has different needs especially when it comes to strenuous workouts like cycling. We reached out to Sports Nutritionist Anne Guzman for some guidance on the specific nutritional needs for cyclists. Anne’s experience and wealth of knowledge is second to none and she agreed to answer a few of our questions regarding sports nutrition.

Question: Regardless of level of experience why is nutrition important for cyclists?

Cyclists are both athletes and human beings, therefore nutrition plays a role in their general health and in addition, performance related nutrition optimizes their performance. A healthy athlete is a consistent athlete and both are paramount to longevity in the sport. We can’t separate health and performance; they work in tandem.

Cycling can expend a lot of energy, of course depending on the duration and intensity of your effort. With longer duration and higher intensities, it becomes more important that cyclists have optimal glycogen (stored carbohydrates in the muscle and liver) levels to be able to complete their rides, optimal protein for muscle repair as well as healthy fats for overall health. The quality of nutrition is important because the quality is what determines the vitamins, minerals, fiber and other nutrients you get from your diet, all which contribute to your overall health (including mental health) and performance.

Everything you eat builds up some part of your body or factors into chemical reactions and the enzymes required for those reactions to generate and store energy. From a pure energy perspective, cyclists need to consume enough energy to perform, at any level. The higher the level of competition and harder and longer the race/event, the more vital nutrition will become from a performance perspective, compared to an easy one-hour pedal. Nutrition during the ride, in particular if it’s over 90 minutes in duration, can play an important role in sustaining energy, recovery for the following training session and contribute to having energy for every day life. Your body requires energy to operate its basic physiological functions (hormones, bone health, metabolic rate, immunity, protein synthesis etc.). For cyclists it’s important to meet those needs in addition to the energy requirements for exercise.

Question: If you are going on a long ride – what should you carry with you in terms of nutrition/hydration and why?

This would really depend on the intensity and duration. A long ride could be a 5-hour race pace, or it could be an easy slow ride. The race pace at an elite level, would rely very heavily on easy to digest carbohydrates such as a sports drink and gels/chews, bananas, jelly sandwiches etc. During a longer and easier paced ride your digestion could handle consuming some protein and fat along with those carbohydrates. So, the intensity of the ride will determine the type of fuel.

Anne Guzman said that learning to understand your hydration needs requires some attention to pre /post ride weight and water consumption

Hydration is very individual so that makes guidelines difficult to create. If you can focus on one bottle per hour (500-750ml) that is a good ‘general’ guide, but what is in the bottle will differ between cyclists. Some cyclists are heavy salt sweaters, some are heavy sweaters, some are both and some are very typical in their sweat losses and concentrations. Learning to understand your hydration needs requires some attention to pre/post ride weight and water consumption as well as keeping an eye out for salt stains on your clothes after long rides. Some athletes may need added sodium to their bottles, some may not. Some may need to drink more than others. Also, you can drink a sports drink, or you can drink water with sodium in it, however it’s easier to get your carbohydrates if you are combining food and a sports drink. In addition to this some athletes may have GI upset from fructose, a sugar found in some sport drinks. Like all sports nutrition, trial and error will help refine your individual needs.

Many cyclists already struggle to eat enough during long rides, so that it makes it a lot easier if you’re also drinking your carbohydrates. Additionally, if you like the taste you are more likely to drink more and therefore stay hydrated and which will help manage your body temperature. What you choose to drink is personal. Look for sports drinks without artificial sweeteners and colours, with at least 300mg sodium and as far as foods, again, anything low in fat and fiber and easy to digest for the ‘hard long’ efforts. Slower efforts are more forgiving on food choices.

Question: Are there any key things that people should do as far as their nutrition in preparing for a ride?

Again, the type of ride is important here. Let’s assume it’s over 1.5 hours. Arrive hydrated. Your urine should be pale yellow (barring any vitamins, beet juice or asparagus!). Arrive with good glycogen stores. This means you will have consumed enough carbohydrate to have stored carbohydrates to support quality training. Resting the day before an event will also help with glycogen stores, since you won’t be depleting as many on a long or hard ride. In addition to carbohydrates, you want to have consumed enough overall calories the day before a ride, especially if it’s going to extend over 1.5 hours.

Guzman said that the day before a longer ride you should stock up on carbohydrates such as rice, potatoes, pasta and oatmeal

I highly recommend testing a few pre ride eating strategies. For example, if you have a big weekend ride, perhaps the day before map out your carbohydrate intake between 5-8g/kg bodyweight and your protein intake around 1.2-1.6g/kg bodyweight and your fat can range between 20-40% of your daily intake. This is all individual and based on trial and error but, regardless, you’ll be falling in those ranges if you are riding in a manner that calls for intensity and duration. Depending on the person you may have to pull way back on the fiber the day before, and for some even several days before, a bigger ride and you may reduce your fat intake to accommodate for the higher carbohydrate intake. Salt your food and drink regularly the day before and rest up.

Great foods for increasing carbohydrate intake are rice, potatoes, dried fruit in moderation, fruit juice (typically I recommend this only for days like these), toast and jam, pasta, fruit, grains such as oatmeal/quinoa etc. There are so many great carbohydrate choices!

*One tip I recommend is never trying new foods on race day. Training is the perfect time to practice your race day nutrition.

Question: What about recovery?

Again, context is key. Let’s assume again that this is 1.5 hours or longer. If you do an hour ‘chill’ ride, there’s not much you need to do except eat your next meal and continue on your day with wholesome nutrition. After a longer harder ride however, you would want to be more timely about your post ride meal, in particular if you are training again the next day. In this case you would want to replenish your glycogen stores, aim for 1.2g/kg carbohydrates in this meal and depending on your age, 25-40g of protein. Recovery is important, however it’s more important that you meet your daily nutrition needs. For example, if you have a perfect recovery meal but you’re way below your calorie needs for the day, you won’t recover well. The recovery meal should be well timed and part of the larger daily nutrition goals.

Guzman said that if you sweat a lot during a ride you should include something salty, like pretzels, in your recovery meal

Older athletes want to increase protein intake in the recovery meal, although total daily protein intake takes priority as a protein goal. Meeting both goals is ideal. Rehydration is key for recovery. If you sweat a lot, and especially if it’s salty, recover with something salty. Pretzels, pickles or just salt your food. Think of the 3 R’s: replenishing, rehydrating and repairing. That calls for easy to digest carbohydrates lower in fat, quality protein, whey is great if you are having a smoothie and rehydration.

Question: Does the kind of exercise a person does influence what they should be doing in terms of nutrition?

DEFINITELY! Every question I answered above was focused on CONTEXT. Context is EVERYTHING. You can’t just give a cookie cutter solution that suits everyone. There’s a big difference between riding one hour a day and riding 3 hours a day. One hour won’t be as depleting as three, so you are working with very different strategies. The harder and longer the exercise, the more carbohydrates you’ll need to execute those high intensity efforts optimally.

If you are finding you are flying one day, flat the next and all over the place with your performance, it’s always a good idea to look closer at your carbohydrate intake as this will often be impacting the higher intensity efforts. Same with hydration. Those longer efforts are where the cracks in your hydration strategy will really start to show. If you’re cramping or your legs are not responding as well in the later hours of a ride, you have some investigating to do. Is it hydration? Fitness? Energy intake not meeting energy expenditure? Also, if you’re training often and longer/harder the deficits can start to add up as the week goes and your legs can start to feel depleted for this reason.

To answer your question, it’s all about the duration, type, and intensity of the exercise. These are the factors that will determine how much, how often and the timing of your nutrition both pre, during and post exercise.

Anne Guzman Founder/CEO NSAG.CA

Guzman articles and podcast – Imperfect Progress are also found on The Pro Kit here:


Follow Anne Guzman on Twitter: @guzmannutrition