The cyclist’s diet

How to feed yourself during a bike ride? The answers can be many, as they depend on many factors: food preferences, food availability, places crossed. However, there are some basic rules we can apply.

A bicycle tourist spends most of his or her day in the saddle, and–trying to average it out–we can approximate the caloric consumption of a bicycle trip around 500 kcal/hour, which for 10 hours of pedaling makes 5,000 kcal/day. This is a decidedly large share of energy consumption that the body is not used to. Properly managing nutrition while traveling is therefore crucial, for a number of reasons:

    • Avoid suffering from gastrointestinal disorders;
    • Accelerates post-pedaling recovery;
    • allows us to optimize our caloric intake and provide the macronutrients we need;
    • reduces the risk of fatigue due to digestion.

In particular, the issue of digestion is crucial, as this is a process that requires blood flow, which would then be missed by the muscles. Therefore, it is necessary to diet properly during a bike ride. Let’s take a look together at what is the proper diet of the bicycle rider, understood as a healthy and varied dietary regimen to ensure that the body of the cyclist gets the right amount of calories as needed.

Managing macronutrients

Let’s start with the breakdown of the macronutrients which are: carbohydrates, fats and proteins. In general, bicycle travelers should base their diet on carbohydrates, since they are the body’s favorite macronutrients for support long-term efforts.

In addition, muscle glycogen (i.e., the form by which carbohydrates are stored in the muscle) is completely depleted at the end of a ride. The carbohydrate replenishment will be critical for our bodies to resynthesize muscle glycogen during the evening and night due to resting after the cycling leg of the day.

Another macronutrient that should not be overlooked is the protein. Cyclists are convinced that protein is only needed for power sports, but this is not the case. Proteins are the main constituents of muscle. Muscles are put to the test during an aerobic endurance physical activity such as a leg of a bike ride.

Once muscle glycogen is depleted (after 2-3 hours of cycling), the body begins to catabolize muscle protein in order to obtain available energy, sacrificing muscle mass. To understand this situation, just look at professional cyclists: they have lean but certainly not muscular physiques. In addition, protein promotes post-pedaling recovery.

Cyclist's diet
Cyclist’s diet

Finally, although it is not a macronutrient, let’s talk about thewater. Progressive dehydration occurs during a bicycle ride due to sweat, saliva expulsion, and by conduction. Dehydration makes the blood more viscous, so it is thicker to pump, requiring extra work from the heart (which usually increases beats). For this hydrating properly is crucial during a bike ride.

Let us now move from theory to practice and see what is the proper diet of a bicycle touring rider and how one should diet during a bicycle trip.

Calculate the caloric intake

Obviously we cannot expect to ingest 5,000 kcal a day to compensate for those burned. It would be unworkable and impractical. During a bike ride we will therefore be in a caloric deficit regime. But we can still optimize consumption of the macronutrients we need. We can do some simple calculations. Let’s say we want to introduce 3,000 kcal per day in order to sustain our daily caloric consumption. How can we determine the breakdown of macronutrients? In this way. First, let us remember what the caloric intake of the various macronutrients is:

    • 1 gram of carbohydrates produces 4 kcal;
    • 1 gram of protein produces 4 kcal;
    • 1 gram of fat produces 9 kcal;

With this scheme well in mind, let’s move on to calculate our caloric intake for each macronutrient. Let’s start with protein. To achieve proper replenishment, we keep daily protein high: roughly speaking, it should provide about 30 percent of total energy, with an intake of 2.5 grams per kilogram of body weight.

Imagine Luke, 37 years old and 70 kg in weight. He would then need 70 x 2.5 = 175 grams of protein per day. That multiplied by 4 kcal makes 700 kcal of protein per day.

Nutrition in bicycle touring
Nutrition in bicycle touring

Now let’s move on to fats. The rest of the daily energy share will be conveyed on fats, which will be at 20 percent of the total energy and thus 3,000 kcal x 0.2 for a total of 600 kcal. If we divide this figure by 9 kcal of energy (per gram of fat), we get 67 grams of fat per day.

Finally, the rest is all about carbohydrates. We have 1,700 kcal per day, which converted to grams-that is, divided by 4 kcal-makes 425 grams per day.

Summarizing Luca’s calorie management, each day should be:

MacronutrientsCaloriesGramsPercentage
Carbohydrates1700 kcal425 gr50%
Protein700 kcal175 gr30%
Fats600 kcal67 g20%
General caloric intake3000 kcal667 gr100%

The distribution of meals

When we talk about how to feed ourselves during a bike ride, it is not only the amount of food we ingest that matters but also its distribution throughout the day. Let’s look at how to distribute meals.

Breakfast: must provide a good energy quota, because it is the meal that will sustain the entire ride. It should be done at least an hour before getting on the saddle, so that the digestive processes are already advanced and do not go to sequester blood that needs to be sent to the muscles. In this phase we prioritize slow-release carbohydrates and protein;

Nutrients
Nutrients

Lunch: Lunch should be light. Lucrative lunches run up a far bigger bill than cheap. Let’s stay light and try to eat only a first or second course, then we’ll make up for it in the evening.

Dinner: The purpose of dinner is to replenish protein (then go to offset those missing from the tally). In addition, we need to take carbohydrates that will allow us to initiate glycogen synthesis. In this case we can dine on a slow-release carbohydrate first course (pasta or rice) accompanied by a protein second course (meat, eggs, or legumes).

Supplementation: During the travel day we should mainly ingest fast-assimilating carbohydrates, so that we have available energy once glycogen is depleted and keep catabolic processes at bay in the muscles. In this case the foods rich in fructose are optimal. Alternatively, we can take maltodextrin supplements.

Hydration: If the weather is cold, all you need is a water bottle with something energetic (such as maltodextrins, in fact) dissolved inside. On the other hand, if it is very hot, it is better to have a water bottle with maltodextrins plus mineral salts and a water bottle of just water so that you can cool your face and head.

We conclude with a series of practical tips on how to fuel yourself during a bike ride:

    • If you can (depending on where in the world you are) try to eat foods you are already used to, to avoid intestinal problems;
    • Limit alcohol. Alcohol is a toxin that slows post-pedaling recovery;
    • Do not allow yourself to obsess over nutrition but try to use common sense and manage meal distribution properly;
    • Hydration is important; do not underestimate it;
    • Try, as much as possible, to take “real” foods and use supplementation (bars, gels, and others) only when necessary.

 

Opening photo: Credits TS – Beer