Logo
Since 1998

Preparing your diet

"Your training will be only as good as your diet, bike and accessories preparation".  As much as the aliments you favour in your diet is rather a historical and a personal choice, all choices should nonetheless rely on a single universal fundation.
This fundation is based on the following rules:
  1. Learn how to obtain a balanced diet.
  2. Eat the right thing at the right time.
  3. Before the effort, store complex sugars, i.e.  low GI carbohydrates (pasta, rice, semolina, all grains products)
  4. During the effort, it is better to eat little quantities more often than a large quantity at once.
  5. After the effort, immediately provide hi GI products and proteins to replace the depletions.

When and what?

Food diet

When?

Allow at least 2 hours between the time you finish eating and the time you start riding.
If your ride has some serious climbs within the first two hours, allow at least 3 hours after your meal.
If your ride is“flat”, as in fewer or less challenging climbs, it may work for you to finish eating just one hour before starting your ride, although you might feel a little bloated during the first hour.
If you prefer to ride early in the morning, this can make things a little inconvenient.   In this case, we recommend that you eat a good dinner the evening before, rich in carbohydrates such as rice, pasta, flour products, potatoes, and/or grains (often called carb-loading), and that you have a booster of carbohydrates in smaller quantity as soon as you get up for your ride in the morning.  If you prefer to train in the afternoon around 4-5pm, you may find that your performance is not at its best.  Afternoon training is probably the most inconvenient time from a biological perspective as your body has been in fasting mode all afternoon, and will likely be crying out for calories at around 4pm or 5pm (this is commonly referred to as the sugar crash).  If you must train at this time of day try to have as late and as carbohydrate-rich a lunch as possible at around 2 or 3pm (if its ok with your boss that is!).   You might have to follow-up with a strong expresso to get you going back to work after a heavy meal though!

In summer, you may prefer to ride later in the evening; in this case, have a solid meal at around 5-6 pm, even if that means eating while working.  Whole-grain sandwiches (not white bread) with more bread than salad should do the trick.
Finally, if like Fabien you are more of a“night rider” (understood as riding before going to bed), such as a midnight start for example, then read on . . . the next tip is for you.  For whatever reasons you prefer to train late at night, whether to avoid the heat, the traffic, the UV, or by constraint of working hours, then we advise that you have a solid dinner at about 7-8 pm and thi should get you through to the end of your training session.  A great benefit of this timing is that you can be with your family in the evening!

In all cases, you should have a high Glycemic Index food or drink intake about 60 to 20 minutes before setting out for your ride.  The timing of consumption of this snack will depend on the glycemic load of the food.  See below.

What?

First we will explain what this glycemic index is all about, so that you decide what is best for you individually.  
In short, the glycemic index represents the power of a particular food to raise the concentration of glucose in the blood in a given time.
A High GI load (fruit, jam, honey, milk chocolate, cakes) means that you will quickly absorb the sugar contained in the food to bring fuel to the working muscle cells.  High GI foods typically burn off quickly when used (i.e: during exercise); or are stored if they are not used up during activity.
At the other end of the scale are the low GI foods (wholegrain bread, rice, pasta, semolina, wheat, potatoes).  These contain long, or complex, molecules of sugars that are not immediately utilisable by cells.  In this case the body will take significantly longer to break down these long molecules into smaller, assimilable molecules.  These more complex carbohydrates create a slower release of energy that lasts over time, although are less powerful if an instant kick is needed.

So far you understood that each day we need to consume an appropriate balance of low GI foods vs high GI foods to keep the body going both immediately post-meal and also during the longer term.  The same applies to riding, particularly when there is a steep climb on the course.

The solid meal we talked about in the“When” section should mostly feature low GI foods in sufficient quantity to register "I’m full now".  To keep you awake after such a great intake of food, you should include a sweet dessert for that quick kick, and probably a coffee or tea for a caffeine hit at the end of the meal as you will likely feel sleepy!
I do not recommend that you have a huge intake of veggies as a pre-ride meal but just enough to allow for a normal transit.  Too much fibre could lead to intestinal discomfort during your ride, especially if sudden temperature changes are ahead, as is often the case during a long and varied ride.
e.g.  Starting at sea level in 32 C and then climbing to an altiplano at 1200 m with 23 C may make you feel a little sick.
So at this stage we recommend you put off the veggies and fibrous fruit intake till after your ride.

White meat (chicken, turkey, rabbit) is a good choice for your meal as your body will search for and tap into the protein stores available when you reach a certain distance and lack food.  So store up the proteins a bit beforehand to provide an additional fuel source and to rebuild those depleting muscles.

The short snack consumed immediately before you head out on your ride could be as simple as a cereal bar and a can of coke or fruit juice, or a fruit yoghurt with a few dry biscuits.  Dry as in shortbread, not covered in creamy topping or milk chocolate ( . . . sorry!).  It could also be a slice of white bread spread with jam or honey, or with peanut butter and jam (yum!).  Vegemite works really well too.

I favour natural foods over artificial energy food and supplements, as you may have gathered by now.   Wherever possible, we recommend you avoid the commercial power bars, gels, and electrolyte drinks as from a biological point of view, all you need for sport can be found in basic everyday foods.  Some of the sport foods on the market contain large quantities of chemicals that give you a kick but also leave unwanted side effects.
However, occasionally, and since you are not a professional rider it will be occasional, I must say it is convenient to benefit from all the nutrients and minerals found in a single package provided by these energy bars or gels, and they do act fast when you are really low and need a kick immediately.

A practical example could be that you favour a sweet drink such as a can of cola (or Orangina if you’re in France) as a quick kick snack just before riding with a pinch of salt and a sqeeze of lemon juice rather than a commercial, expensive, don’t-really-know-what’s-in-it, electrolyte drink.

How much?

Don’t dream, you cannot possibly eat beforehand ALL the calories you need for the entirity of your ride!
In theory you can, since a long ride will only use 2000 to 5000 calories; but in practice it is much more complicated as most of the calories you put into your body are not readily available for sustained effort, and not at the specific times that you need them.
During the pre-ride main meal, you could start by eating 50% more carbohydrates than usual, e.g.  150 g of pasta rather than just 100 g (pre-cooked weight).  Same rule applies for bread.
The quick snack immediately before heading out should not be too heavy so as not to make you feel uncomfortable in the forward-leaning position over the bike.  Too great an intake at this time will likely press on your stomach if it is too full.
An apple and a few biscuits, or a banana with a teaspoon or two of jam or other spread, and about 350 ml of sweet fluid should do the trick.
Experiment to see what works best for you, and aim at about 20% under next time if you find that you felt sick with the amount you consumed . . . its greatly a trial-and-error process until you find the best combos and quantities for you.

What snacks should I take with me?

Why eating what we say we should?

Chemical considerations

To push on the pedals, your muscles will need energy for hours, e.g.  glucose, the cellular petrol.  This glucose can be fed in slowly and regularly by reserves that your muscles, and the rest of your body, has stored in the past, including in the previous hours.  By eating a fair amount of carbohydrates, you stored slow releasing glucose in your stomach, intestines, but also around your muscles and under your skin during the previous days.
During your ride you will“only need” to adopt the best strategy to help your body to release this glucose slowly and regularly to your muscular cells.  To do that job, you must keep eating small frequent intakes of“rapid sugars”, i.e.  sweet stuff, poor in lipids (e.g.  power gels, gingerbread, fruit, sweet drinks).  These sugars will help the slow releasing ones to enter the energy producing cycles.  It is a bit like blowing air on burning wood to keep allowing the slow fire to live longer.

Physiological considerations

Your energy needs for the moment dictate the kind of fluid/food intake you need.  Although this is apparently essentially proportional to the time you are going to be riding for, there are some equally important factors, such as where, and how hot / how humid it will be.  The geographical place you place your efforts are essential: riding in the hills or the Alps will attract a different need to riding flat along the beach near altitude zero.
Equally influencing, and sometimes linked to where, is the {temperature, humidity} tandem factor, and, to some extent, your own capacity to endure heat without sweating abundantly.

Going up hills or mountains at a steady speed will attract the need for high power during all the time of the climb, which can be variable.  You then have the option of decreasing your speed to output the same power as on flat, but fit humans are capable of much better than this! You will generally choose to increase your power output because you have an idea of how much more distance and time is to cover, and you know from previous experience what zone to put yourself in.  If you don’t, you may do it to build a knowledge database.

Let’s use a figurative image, your body ships with a a sort of 3-channel mixing table with three sliders, that controls the production of energy in your muscle cells.
The first channel is the“immediately available high power source but very small tank”.
The second channel is a "soon available, quite high power source but medium size tank".
The third and last channel is the "not readily available, lower power, bigger tank".

This 3-channel mixing table metaphor being used, your body will control at what level it should place both sliders on that mixing table.

These sources are not incompatible, they can co-exist, depending on how warm you are, and the type of physical activity you are doing at every second.  But, the third channel can only practically exist after about 3/4 minutes of building efforts at a slow pace.  This period is typically called the warming up period.  On the contrary, channel 1 is readily available, from the first second of an effort, e.g.  when you have to lift a heavy suitcase to put in the car boot.  The drawback of this channel is that it can’t be used at its full potential for more than 30 seconds, whereas channel two fades in to take the baton, itself giving up after 2 ou 3 minutes, leaving the baton to channel 3.  The latter can be used over hours, and, possibly 24 hours in a row if you can pass a few sleep capes.

As you ride, the road may elevate at times, this is when your body chooses the right mix between the channels, looking at what quantity of energy is left in your tanks.
Luckily enough, with training, and eating, you can make the tanks fill up as you go, more or less efficiently.

Technically, channel 1 is called alactic anaerobic path.
Channel 2 is called lactic anaerobic path
Channel 3 is called aerobic path.

As you start to climb a hill, if you want to keep a high speed, you will have to slide up channel 2.
Beside its smaller tank, it shamefully creates a toxic waste called lactic acid, a real short term poison for the cells, sneakily used by your cellular mechanism to limit the output energy available, but hurting you so that you slow down.  After you slow down, it will get out of your cells at a speed that depends on your training level.

i.e. you just start your ride, channel 1 fades in, soon channel 2 will too, whereas channel 3 is still down at 0. This way you can at least ride down your driveway...
Minute after minute, channel 3 fades in slowly.  it is very efficient, in that sense it can produce a lot of energy from a little food.  You are warming up.  Indeed you feel warmer, and your heart rate progressively goes up.
You have been riding on flat for some time now, the aerobic slider #3 is somewhere near the top, and even more to the top if you have been keeping a steady pace, whereas the anaerobic sliders (#1 & #2) have faded out.
Further along, a 6% climb starts, hopeful, you want to climb it at 18 km/h: well, if it can’t find enough energy using channel 3 only, for example because you are either too heavy, or because your cells are not efficient enough because you are not trained enough, your body will need to progressively fade in channel 2 to top up that energy you need.
Remember we said the anaerobic tank was small? Well, quickly you will tap in the reserve.  Your thigh and calf cells will be crying because they will be full of acid, because you demand too much and your cellular cycle hasn’t got enough time to evacuate the acid it naturally works with.  This acid will act as a limiter, by decreasing the efficiency of the chemical reactions, and burn you, so hurt you to a point you have to slow down.  This preserves your cells in fact, so don’t be worried.

By chance, an extraordinary property of the system is that, despite the small size of the high power tank, that tank has the ability to refill slowly as it goes, and the acid has got the ability to diffuse out of your cells and be recycled.  With a bit of experience, you will automatically choose the best speed that allows your body to position the anaerobic slider #2 at the best position to use the high power source at its best, while letting its small tank refill and letting the poisonous pool empty off.

Unfairly enough, the small tank will refill even quicker than you are trained, and so will the poison tank empty off.  Basically, it will be harder to feel better if you are a beginner . . .

For the same reason, if you are a beginner, the unfriendly effects left by the acid will still be felt the next day, or next days, whereas they can completely clear off within 12 hours if you are trained.

In any case, you can help clearing this adverse affects by adopting the right strategy during and after your ride.
- don’t let your cells be filled in too long with acid.  They cry for help, listen to them and take action quickly.
- finish off your ride at a very slow pace to help eliminate the poison before unclipping your shoes.
- stretch and massage your muscles shortly after effort.
- don’t immediately stop after the effort.  go around your block a couple of times at a slow speed to help evacuate the acid.
- go for an easy fast walk, run or ride the next day to keep your regenerating process up and working for you.

This above was for the effort aspect.  Another major aspect is the ambient temperature and humidity where you are riding.  It determines how easy or difficult your body will evacuate the heat generated by the physical work inside your body.
Your body works best at 37 C.  Over this temperature, you will start to sweat.  Sweat will cool down your skin, eventually your body, provided that sweat evaporates.  What makes it take away heat away from your body is the evaporation transform.  You already know that decreasing the layers and opening your jersey at the front makes it work better, this was the physical explanation for it.  It is worth saying it, as your aim to maximise the cooling effect of each drop of sweat generated by your body.  This way you will save the water in your body to produce more sweat, as the one you are already producing works better.
The physical way that heat uses to be transferred to the sweat when it evaporates is called conduction..  At any time there is also radiation, which is a way that heat uses to already leave your skin.

Another factor that enhances evaporation is low air humidity.  If the air is loaded with water vapour, the sweat at the surface of your skin does not“feel like” evaporate, as the air already carries as much as it can take, or near.  Since you the cooling effect, conduction, will not really work, you have to rely only on the other way to make heat travel away from your body: radiation.  i.e.  expose as much skin as possible.  This way is not efficient enough, and your body will make you heavily sweat anyway.  e.g.  in summer in QLD or South of France.

Conclusion: depending on the amount of physical work that you produce, humidity, and your personal comfort zone for feeling temperature, you will have to replace more or less fluid as you ride.  Even more so if you suffer from intestinal disorder at that time, and you have diarrhoea.

In that process of producing sweat at the surface of your skin, the water that crosses your skin is not pure water.  Dissolved in it are the common electrolytes that play a role in regulating the functioning of cell material transfers.  They are Sodium (Na), Potassium (K) and Calcium (Ca).  The more you sweat the more you lose, and the less efficient you will eventually become.  After a few hours you must replace them to continue performing and recuperate after your ride.
To achieve this, you have a choice of having artificially loaded electrolyte drinks, or natural sources, such as a choice of fruit, fruit juices and sea salt.  Depending on your budget, your beliefs, and the availability, you can try more or less natural solutions.   Wherever you can, we advise you use a blend of 100% fruit juice, lemon juice, sugar, and sea salt.  e.g.  of quantities: 35 cl (0.35 litre), containing half a teaspoon of sea salt and the juice from half a lemon.

Physical considerations

Cycling is a sport that has the specific feature of not making you bounce up and down.  There are not regular shocks that make the fluid in your stomach bounce up and down.  Therefore you can afford greater or more frequent amounts of fluid intake.
Even when climbing, your heart rate is not maxing out, or if it is, it cannot be for a long time, or you will not go far up.  If you need that much power anyway and the finish is still a long way ahead, you should choose a lower speed or adapt your gear better to the slope.

In the other specificities of cycling is the fact that you generally don’t carry your weight, the seat does, and it’s free, i.e.  no energy is spent to support your weight.   However, a fraction of your weight is constantly carried a bit higher up every time when you are ascending, hence the immediate difficulty that you feel in your legs.  Particularly, you are mostly using the strongest muscles in your body: the ones in your legs, which are normally more than happy to do this for hours, as it is a part of normal life to use them.  As a consequence of all this, allied with all the rest moments you can get while descending of freewheeling, cycling can be done for extended lengths of time, in a zone when you would not think swimming or running: 3, 6 or more hours.

Conclusion: consequences of the above considerations on your diet.

These somehow non-too-technical physiological and physical approaches of cellular energy and physical aspects having been set, you can understand more easily why you should eat or drink what we say you should, and when you should have it.

Within an hour, you should feel comfortable in your energy production routine.  You will have to reach a zone where your heart can sustain the effort, providing just enough oxygen and blood to your muscular cells.  This is an endurance point.  Technically this is called aerobic mode, because your cells are still using O2 to help creating energy.  Your goal is to build your fitness enough to reach the maximum speed and stay“aerobic”, since this mode is comfortable and safe for your body.
If these cells do not receive enough nutrients and oxygen to help fuel the fire that liberates energy, transformed into motion that pushes the pedals, they will quickly tell your nerves that“it burns”, i.e.  they are using a path that use anaerobic chemical reactions, so not using O2.
The food you eat on the lead up to your bike session, and a few hours before, will be used as slow glucose releasing food.  It must be low-GI carbs.  The food you eat as you ride will be here to help the slow fire to be kept live, and also to top up your needs for all these times when you need more energy then you can release.

(1200 views)
created 10 September 2012
revised 17 February 2017 by
Would you accept our confidentiality policy? It is about cookies and personal data...