HomeAnswersWhat is the best nutrition for cycling?

What is the best nutrition for cycling?

This question is about Cycling
Elle Penner, MPH, RD
The best nutrition for cycling is a healthy diet that meets the cyclists’ energy needs and incorporates proper timing of nutrients [1]. The nutrients of extra importance for cycling performance and recovery are water, carbohydrates, protein, fat, electrolytes, vitamin D, and iron.

Water

The importance of hydration for cyclists cannot be stressed enough. Hydration needs will vary from person to person but a good rule of thumb is to aim for 2 cups of fluid (16 fluid ounces) 2-3 hours before you run, and another cup of fluid (8 fluid ounces) 15-30 minutes before you head out the door. Water is generally the best option for staying hydrated;, however, you may benefit from a sports drink for additional carbohydrates and electrolytes depending on the length of your run, the outside temperature, or type of sweat you produce.
For rides lasting 90 minutes or more, cyclists should consume 4 ounces of electrolyte water or a sports drink every 20 minutes (12 ounces fluid/hour) to keep hydration levels up [1, 2,].
To rehydrate after a ride, cyclists should consume one ounce of fluid (~30 mL) for every one ounce of body weight lost during exercise. 

Macronutrients

Carbohydrates

Carbohydrates are the body’s preferred source of energy during endurance exercise and are an important part of nutrition for cycling. Daily carbohydrate needs for cyclists fluctuate based on training load. Below are the reference ranges for carbohydrate intake per day, based on activity level [1]:
  • Normal activity level (general fitness): 45% - 55% calories from carbohydrates [3–8 g/kg/day]
  • Endurance athlete training (2-3 hours of intense training, 5-6 days/week): >60% calories from carbohydrates [5–8 g/kg/day]
Essentially, the greater the duration and intensity of your cycling rides, the more carbohydrates you need.

Protein

Protein is essential for cell regulation, nerve function, and repairing and synthesizing new muscle after a workout [3]. Many cyclists have increased protein needs to support muscle protein synthesis and glycogen repletion after a workout, which is especially true during heavy training. 
The recommended intake for protein ranges from 0.8-1.2 g/kg/day, but competitive cyclists or those training for longer races may need up to 2.2g/kg/day [4]. Cyclists looking to optimize weight and body fat percentage and increase lean muscle mass may especially benefit from hitting this protein target. 
In addition to consuming enough protein and carbohydrates, nutrient quality and timing also matter. Within 60 minutes of finishing a long ride, cyclists should consume 45-90 grams of carbohydrate to replenish depleted glycogen stores and25-40 grams of protein to promote muscle synthesis.

Fat

Choosing high-quality fats can support hormonal health and inflammation, both of which are a concern during prolonged, high-intensity endurance exercise like cycling [5].
The recommended daily intake for fat is 0.5–1.5 g/kg/day. Therefore, if you are getting 55% - 60% of calories from carbohydrates and 15% - 20% from protein, 20% - 30% of calories should come from healthy fat [1]
Omega-3 fats are a type of healthy, essential fat with big benefits for cyclists. They block inflammation early in the inflammatory cascade and have been shown to be beneficial for muscle recovery, heart health, liver function, metabolic health, and more [6, 7, 8]. Some research suggests that up to 6g of fish oil (2,400 mg EPA, 1,800 mg DHA) a day may be helpful for reducing muscle soreness after a vigorous exercise session, although this is an area of ongoing investigation [7].

Micronutrients

Cyclists also tend to have higher micronutrient needs than non-athletes since cycling requires higher rates of energy metabolism and puts intense physical demand on the body. The micronutrients that are particularly important for cyclists are the electrolytes —sodium, potassium, calcium, magnesium, and chloride— as well as iron, vitamin D, and antioxidants like vitamin E and C. 

Electrolytes: Sodium, potassium, calcium, magnesium, and chloride

Electrolytes (like sodium, potassium, calcium, magnesium, and chloride) are electrically-charged minerals that are critical for muscle and nerve function and help regulate fluid balance. Calcium is also important for the growth, maintenance, and repair of bone tissue, which increases with prolonged endurance exercise like cycling. 

Iron

Iron is incredibly important for cyclists as it is a key component of hemoglobin, a protein in red blood cells that transports oxygen to your working muscles when you run. Deficiency, with or without anemia, can impair muscle function and limit work capacity [9]. Athletes undergoing intense training need to take in an adequate amount of iron from the diet as losses from sweat, urine, and red blood cell turnover are typically greater [9]. 

Vitamin D

Like calcium, vitamin D also plays a key role in maintaining bone health as it regulates calcium and phosphorus absorption and metabolism [9]. Growing evidence also suggests vitamin D has a role in mediating muscle metabolic function and may support athletic performance [9]. Vitamin D can be challenging to obtain through the diet alone but can be synthesized from direct sun exposure. Depending on training location, the season, and amount of direct sun exposure while training, additional vitamin D may be necessary to support the demands of cyclists.

Antioxidants

Because exercise can increase oxygen consumption by 10- to 15-fold, it has been hypothesized that chronic training increases oxidative stress on cells. Antioxidant nutrients, such as vitamin C, E, and beta-carotene, can play important roles in protecting cell membranes from oxidative damage. The best source for these nutrients is a diet rich in antioxidant foods (like fresh fruit and vegetables) since there is little evidence that antioxidant supplementation enhances athletic performance, and taking high-dose supplements can be pro-oxidative [9].

Summary

Intense exercise, like cycling, puts increased nutrition demands on the body. The best nutrition for cycling can be obtained from a healthy diet that meets the cyclists energy needs and incorporates proper timing of nutrients. The nutrients of extra importance for cycling performance and recovery are water, carbohydrates, protein, fat, electrolytes, vitamin D, and iron.
assortment of salmon, vegetables, and whole grains

References: 

  1. Kerksick, C.M., Wilborn, C.D., Roberts, M.D. et al. ISSN exercise & sports nutrition review update: research & recommendations. J Int Soc Sports Nutr 15, 38 (2018). https://doi.org/10.1186/s12970-018-0242-y 
  2. Backes, T. P., & Fitzgerald, K. (2016). Fluid consumption, exercise, and cognitive performance. Biology of sport, 33(3), 291–296 https://doi.org/10.5604/20831862.1208485
  3. Daniel R Moore, One size doesn't fit all: postexercise protein requirements for the endurance athlete, The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, Volume 112, Issue 2, August 2020, Pages 249–250, https://doi.org/10.1093/ajcn/nqaa144
  4. Phillips, S. M., & van Loon, L. J. (2011). Dietary protein for athletes: From requirements to optimum adaptation. Journal of Sports Sciences, 29(sup1), S29–S38. https://doi.org/10.1080/02640414.2011.619204
  5. Williams, C. (1995b). Macronutrients and performance. Journal of Sports Sciences, 13(sup1), S1–S10. https://doi.org/10.1080/02640419508732271
  6. Office of dietary supplements - omega-3 fatty acids. (2020, October 1). Retrieved December 29, 2021, from https://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/Omega3FattyAcids-Consumer/
  7. VanDusseldorp, T. A., Escobar, K. A., Johnson, K. E., Stratton, M. T., Moriarty, T., Kerksick, C. M., Mangine, G. T., Holmes, A. J., Lee, M., Endito, M. R., & Mermier, C. M. (2020). Impact of Varying Dosages of Fish Oil on Recovery and Soreness Following Eccentric Exercise. Nutrients, 12(8), 2246. https://doi.org/10.3390/nu12082246
  8. Marshall, R. N., Smeuninx, B., Morgan, P. T., & Breen, L. (2020). Nutritional Strategies to Offset Disuse-Induced Skeletal Muscle Atrophy and Anabolic Resistance in Older Adults: From Whole-Foods to Isolated Ingredients. Nutrients, 12(5), 1533. https://doi.org/10.3390/nu12051533
  9. Thomas, D. T., Erdman, K. A., & Burke, L. M. (2016). Position of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, Dietitians of Canada, and the American College of Sports Medicine: Nutrition and Athletic Performance. Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, 116(3), 501–528. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jand.2015.12.006