Whether you are a competitive cyclist or enjoy exploring on two wheels, proper sports hydration and fueling play an essential role in performance, recovery, and overall well-being. But, if we asked 100 cyclists what to eat and drink during a ride, we might get 100 different answers. And not that there are any wrong answers since we have different preferences and needs. So, although sports nutrition and hydration are not one size fits all – there are general guidelines to consider when formulating a sports plan that meets your body’s needs.
Hydration should be your main priority when it comes to a sports fuel plan, regardless of your intention for or duration of the ride. Dehydration, defined as a fluid deficit of >2% body weight during exercise, is the most common cause of fatigue and poor performance, but fortunately, it is also easily preventable. Dehydration increases core temperature, heart rate, and perceived exertion. In addition, dehydration slows gastric emptying and gut motility. So, it doesn’t matter what or how much you eat; if you are dehydrated, that energy will likely get hung up in the gut, unable to be absorbed, and may lead to gastrointestinal distress.
Climate and temperature impact hydration needs and, ultimately, performance. On warm or hot days, in high humidity, altitude, or heat acclimatization sessions, hydrating from the start is critical – well before you feel like you need it. Bear in mind during exercise; water is not proper hydration for the body; fluids should contain electrolytes, namely sodium, to promote hydration.
The effort and duration of a ride dictate your fuel needs. Cycling is an intermittent-intensity sport meaning it includes both low and high intensity. A combination of carbohydrates (carbs) and fat fuels ALL efforts; the intensity dictates which is more heavily oxidized or burned over the other. Fat is utilized over carbs during low to moderate-intensity efforts but could be 50/50 carb/fat depending on the athlete’s fitness level and metabolic fitness. On the other hand, high-intensity efforts such as Strava sprint segments, interval workouts, or competition require a higher percentage of carbs to fuel the effort.
When glycogen stores are full, the body has enough energy (in muscles and the liver) to fuel approximately 90-120 minutes of moderate effort intensity. And the higher the effort, the faster you burn through glycogen (stored carbs in the muscle). Because muscle glycogen stores are limited, we should consume easy-to-digest carbs during an interval ride or race to support performance and avoid depleting glycogen stores and “hitting the wall.” Therefore, the longer the ride, the more critical fueling becomes to a strong finish and faster recovery.
To be clear, we measure fuel as carbohydrates in grams, not calories. We don’t use fat, protein, fiber, or sugar alcohols in sports fueling because they are not efficient energy sources during exercise. And they likely would slow down your system, not enhance performance. An exception includes an aerobically fit cyclist during a social ride fueling with a mixed macronutrient fuel source (containing carbs, some protein, and a small amount of fat) is appropriate. Examples are sports bars, peanut butter crackers, or homemade products such as trail bars, peanut butter-coconut balls, and raisin/date cookies.
Sports Nutrition Guidelines
Less Than 75 Minutes:
Water 14-28+oz/hr. In cooler temps, shoot for the lower end of the range; in warmer weather, shoot for the upper end of the range. If sweat rate is moderate to high, add 185-225mg sodium/8oz.
0-30g Carb/hr. – only to facilitate the absorption of sodium. Examples: LMNT, Liquid IV, BOA Nutrition, Precision Hydration, Drip Drop, NUUN.
Given this is a short ride and assuming it is the only workout of the day, muscle glycogen stores should be well stocked. With fully loaded glycogen stores, you have plenty of energy on board to fuel this workout, even a high-intensity session. However, if it has been more than 3+ hours since your last meal and the session includes high-intensity intervals, it may help to have a small low-fiber, low-fat, easy-to-digest CHO snack 30-60 min before the ride to top off blood sugars.
Less Than 2.5 Hours:
Water with electrolytes or electrolyte-rich sports drink. 14-28oz/hr with 185-225mg sodium/8oz
30-60+g Carb/hr. Examples: Gatorade Endurance, Skratch Sports Hydration, Tailwind, EFS, Gels, Stinger Waffles, Clif Bloks, Skratch Chews, Sports Bars
For rides up to 2.5 hours, aim for 30-60+g Carb/hr starting in the first 15-20 min of the ride, with little sips or bites frequently throughout each hour. The more aerobic the ride, fuel towards the lower end of the range, and for high-intensity rides, fuel at the top end of the range.
Greater Than 2.5 Hours:
Electrolyte sports drink, 20-24oz/hr. with 185-225mg sodium/8oz.
60-90+g Carb/hr. Examples: Gatorade Endurance, Skratch Sports Hydration, TailWind, EFS, Gels, Stinger Waffles, Clif Bloks, Skratch Chews, Sports Bars.
Rides lasting more than 2.5+ hours can substantially deplete glycogen stores; therefore, higher CHO intakes are associated with improved performance and recovery. Aim for 60-90g Carb/hr from the beginning of the ride. Recent research suggests we can absorb more than 90g/hr – although it needs to be implemented sensibly and over many training sessions to test drive before a key event or race.
How well you adapt and achieve fitness gains from the training session is determined by the quality of your recovery fuel. More importantly, your recovery directly impacts how well set up you are for tomorrow’s training session. If you are feeling sore, tired, fatigued, and struggling to focus, you are likely not adequately recovering from the breakdown of your workouts. The importance of recovery nutrition depends on the duration, intensity, type of exercise, body composition goals, and health considerations.
The goals of recovery nutrition are:
- Refuel and rehydration of the body
- Promote muscle repair and growth
- Boost adaptation from the training session
- Support immune function
The nutritional makeup of recovery nutrition includes carbs to replenish depleted glycogen stores, protein to repair damaged muscle tissue and rebuild new muscle tissue, and fluids with electrolytes to rehydrate.
For females, the optimal recovery window is within the first 30 minutes after exercise, as increased blood flow and insulin sensitivity help to boost cellular glucose uptake and glycogen restoration.
For males, the recovery window is up to 2 hours post-exercise.
A meal following the ride will suffice however if a meal is hours out, plan to have a recovery snack to optimize recovery and adaptations and so that you don’t overeat later in the day.
The recovery fuel should include 20-30g protein and 40-60g Carbs. If you weigh yourself pre-and post-training sessions, replace 75% of fluids lost gradually over the next 6+ hours.
For example – a 150lb (68kg) athlete would need:
20-27g protein and up to 65-80g Carb. Keep in mind that the intensity and duration of the cycling session dictate the importance of recovery fuel.
Post-workout/race meal/snack examples:
- 6oz Greek Yogurt, 1 English Muffin with 1TBSP nut butter, and a medium banana
- 20g Whey or vegan protein, 8oz milk, banana, and toast with butter.
- Grilled chicken breast, medium baked potato, one roll with butter
Proper fueling and hydration are critical to fitness, recovery, health, and body composition. Far too many train without fuel to “burn more fat,” when what is actually occurring is a more broken down, higher stressed, fat hoarding system. As counterintuitive as it seems, giving your body what it needs when it needs it offsets later day cravings, reduces systemic stress, and supports positive fitness gains, a stronger body, and a controlled appetite to support body composition.
Susan Kitchen is a Sports Certified Registered Dietitian, USA Triathlon and Ironman Certified Coach, accomplished endurance athlete, and published author. She is the owner of Race Smart, a performance nutrition and coaching company that works with athletes across the globe as they strive toward optimal health, fitness, and performance.