Regardless of your expertise level on the bike, nutrition can make or break your ride. Factors such as hydration status, carb/protein/fat intake, nutrient timing, and length of exercise all play a role in how you perform (and recover). Add different environments, distances and intensities into the mix, and it’s no wonder that fueling can be a challenge.
However, all is not lost–with careful consideration and optimal nutrition, you can mitigate negative side effects, boost performance, and improve recovery. Here's what science has to say about the best pre- and post-workout nutrition strategies for cyclists.
What to look for in pre-and post-workout nutrition
Nutrition is going to look different based on when you fuel. From dosing recommendations to dietary sources, here’s what you should look for in pre- and post-workout nutrition.
Carbohydrates are the most efficient macronutrient group for working muscles because they provide quick, usable energy and help load and replenish muscle glycogen stores.
Blood glucose and muscle glycogen (stored carbohydrates) are the most important substrates for contracting muscles in endurance activity [1
]. Since fatigue during prolonged exercise is often associated with a depletion of muscle glycogen, consuming carbohydrates to increase pre-exercise glycogen concentrations has been shown to be beneficial for optimal performance [1
Eating carbohydrates pre-workout helps top off glycogen stores and provides readily-available fuel for working muscles when you get on the bike, so here are some general recommendations to consider before heading out.
1 to 4 hours before exercising:
To increase muscle glycogen concentrations before exercise, aim to take in 1-4 g of carbohydrates/kg of body weight 1-4 hours before exercise [4
]. This means that a 150 pound (68 kg) person would need between 68 - 272 g/carbohydrates before a ride. However, this range can differ based on each cyclist, so the amount you eat should depend on how you feel [12
In events lasting more than 90 minutes:
Super-compensated muscle glycogen levels can be achieved through carbohydrate loading in the day(s) leading up to a race or intense workout lasting more than 90 minutes. Studies have found that athletes who did carb loading showed improved performance by 2-3% compared to those who didn’t [2
While experts debate about the “window of opportunity” for refueling after an endurance ride, research shows that the ratio of glycogen resynthesis is much higher if carbohydrate intake takes place within 2 hours of finishing exercise [4
]. Since carbohydrates replenish lost muscle and liver glycogen stores, it’s recommended to consume them as part of a post-workout nutrition strategy to help with recovery and future workouts.
For optimal glycogen replenishment, aim to consume 45-90 g/carbohydrates (or 1 g of carbohydrates/kg/h) within 2-4 hours after training, depending on your body weight and the intensity of your ride [4
In total, cyclists should aim to match daily carbohydrate intake to the energy requirements of their training, which can range between 5-12 g/kg of body weight/day [2
However, research indicates that excessive carbohydrate intake may adversely affect performance, so gut tolerance should be practiced and taken into consideration before, during, and after a ride [2
Sources of carbohydrates.
Carbohydrates are classified as either high-glycemic (rapidly digested and absorbed) or low glycemic (slowly digested and absorbed), and both can be helpful in a cyclist’s diet.
While high fiber, low glycemic carbohydrates offer more health benefits than refined, high glycemic carbohydrate choices, the latter may be beneficial closer to exercise–especially for those with sensitive stomachs. For instance, high glycemic carbohydrates (such as sports drinks, juice, and gels) can be useful immediately before, during, and after exercise to minimize GI distress, speed up recovery and provide quick energy [2
Carbohydrate-rich foods include:
Whole grains (rolled oats, rice, farro, barley, quinoa, sprouted grain bread, granola)
Starchy vegetables (sweet potato, potato, squash)
Nutrition bar with >25g carb and <5g fiber per serving
Higher glycemic refined grains (white bread, bagels, pasta, cereals, and juice)
Protein is an essential macronutrient composed of 20 different amino acids, nine of which must be obtained from the diet because the body can’t produce them on its own. Amino acids are considered the primary building blocks of your body since they are found in muscles, tendons, bone, skin, hormones, tissue, enzymes, red blood cells, and more.
Dietary protein provides the amino acids your body needs to heal wounds and injuries, synthesize hormones and enzymes, and even store and carry oxygen throughout the body. It can also help with weight management, muscle growth, and recovery, all of which are important for cyclists.
The role of amino acids and/or protein consumption before exercise is inconclusive. While some studies have shown increased muscle protein synthesis rates, more research needs to be done to identify the potential impact and role of protein intake before endurance exercise [10
]. As such, a cyclist’s pre-workout nutrition priority should be focused on appropriate carbohydrate intake.
The ingestion of protein after an exercise session is one of the core principles of nutrient timing for athletes. Protein plays a large role in post-workout nutrition, as it contains leucine, an amino acid that is responsible for muscle protein synthesis. Leucine helps to stimulate muscle growth and repair, while reducing the rate of muscle protein breakdown and enhancing overall recovery [10
To optimize muscle synthesis and promote recovery post-ride, studies have found that it’s best to consume 25-40 g/protein(0.4 to 0.5 g/kg or 0.9 to 1.1 g/lb) from high quality sources [2
]. This amounts to approximately 10 g of essential amino acids, usually paired with carbohydrates [9
Additionally, research shows that consuming 2-3 g of leucine post-workout–either in the form of protein powder (like whey or soy), or leucine-rich foods
(such as salmon, peanuts, milk, yogurt, cottage cheese, eggs, chicken, beef or tofu)--can promote recovery [10
Research shows that ingesting a 20-40 g dose of high-quality protein (0.25-.40 g/kg of body mass/dose) every 3-4 hours is associated with improved body composition and performance outcomes [10
]. Furthermore, consuming 30-40 g of casein protein prior to bed can acutely increase muscle protein synthesis, metabolic rate, and postexercise recovery throughout the night [10
Sources of protein.
Good protein sources include eggs, dairy, lean meat, poultry, fish, beans, lentils, soybeans, and tofu, as well as supplements (such as protein powder) and protein-fortified foods.
Caffeine is a common supplement used in endurance sports to reduce the perception of fatigue and allow exercise to be sustained at optimal intensity for longer times [2
Many studies have reported an enhancement of prolonged, submaximal exercise after caffeine ingestion, while some have even shown improved cognitive processing, especially among athletes experiencing sleep deprivation [2
For optimal performance results, it’s recommended to consume 3-6 mg caffeine/kg of body weight between 30-90 minutes before you get on the bike [2
Recent studies indicate that lower doses of caffeine (1-2 mg/kg) taken later during endurance exercise may lead to increased performance [2
]. Additionally, some research suggests that adding a large amount of caffeine (8 mg caffeine/kg of body weight) to a post-workout carbohydrate meal may improve the rate of muscle glycogen synthesis [38
Generally speaking, you can consume between 400-500 mg of caffeine/day (roughly 4-5 cups of coffee) to enjoy performance-enhancing benefits without unpleasant side effects [2
However, high doses of caffeine can have adverse effects on the cardiovascular system–including heart palpitations, arrhythmias, and elevated blood pressure–and may cause anxiety, insomnia, restlessness, nausea, headaches, and diarrhea [13
Sources of caffeine.
You can consume caffeine from various foods, beverages, and supplements.
Coffee and tea are the most commonly consumed sources of caffeine. The caffeine content in beverages can vary significantly from cup to cup depending on the variety, roast, and brewing technique, but here’s the caffeine you can expect to get from an 8-ounce mug [37
Coffee: 95-200 mg
Green tea: 30-50 mg
Black tea: 25-110 mg
Caffeine can also be consumed through certain sports food and beverage products--including energy drinks, gels, chews, gum, powders and bars, as well as in supplement form.
Cyclists should be especially cautious with energy drinks and caffeine pills, as these supplement forms can contain higher concentrations of caffeine than coffee, which may lead to negative side effects if consumed in excess. Energy drinks also often contain other sources of caffeine, such as guarana, which may not be appropriately labeled [37
A single exercise session can leave you parched, foggy, and nauseous if you don't top-off your fluids. Dehydration can compromise exercise performance, as well as lead to dangerous health consequences, so it’s important to make sure that you stay hydrated throughout your ride.
Not only does adequate fluid before, during, and after cycling help regulate body temperature, but it can reduce cardiovascular strain and improve post-ride recovery. While water is best, sports drinks can prove beneficial during and after longer endurance activities, since they contain a combination of water (for hydration), carbohydrates (for quick-burning fuel), and electrolytes (to offset those lost in sweat).
Hydration needs will look different for everyone, but a general recommendation is to consume 5-7 mL of fluid/kg body weight at least 4 hours before exercise, and another 3-5 mL/kg body weight about 2 hours before getting on the bike [2
After exercise, the goal is to replenish fluids and electrolytes lost on the bike. There are a few ways to do this:
Step on the scale. One easy way to measure fluid losses during a long ride is to weigh yourself before and after a workout. Aim to take in roughly 16 oz. (2 cups) of fluid for every 1 lb. (0.5 kg) lost.
Monitor urine color. If there’s no scale nearby, you can always use urine color as an approximation of hydration status. Urine that is lemonade-colored or lighter generally means that you’re hydrated, whereas dark yellow urine is a sign of dehydration.
While maintaining adequate hydration in and around exercise is important, staying hydrated throughout the day also contributes to optimal recovery and performance.
It’s recommended to consume ½ oz. fluid per pound of bodyweight. For example, if you weigh 190lb (86 kg), you should drink 95 oz. (3 L) of water a day, plus additional fluid before, during, and after a workout [45
When it comes to hydration, water is best, but sports drinks are available in ready-to-drink bottles and can provide some electrolytes.
Dissolvable electrolyte tablets and powders may also be beneficial if you sweat heavily during exercise or are exercising in hot and humid conditions but do not need the additional carbohydrate from a traditional sports drink.
Other ergogenic aids for pre- or post-workout nutrition
Nitrates are inorganic compounds that increase nitric oxide levels in the body and help blood vessels to expand and relax; as such, this improves the uptake of oxygen and blood flow, and may even boost performance among endurance athletes [22
]. Studies also show that taking in nitrates before exercise reduces inflammation during and after the activity [42
The recommended dose of nitrates for endurance activity is 300-600 mg (or 0.1 mmol/kg of body weight) 2-3 hours before exercise [22
]. Beets (and beet juice) are naturally rich in nitrates; for context, one cup of beet juice contains approximately 250 mg of nitrates [22
Tart cherry juice
Tart cherry juice is teeming with antioxidants and polyphenolic compounds, and may even help athletic performance.
Some evidence suggests that taking 8-12 oz. of tart cherry juice (or 1 oz. of concentrate) twice/day for 4-5 days before an event, or for 2-3 days after, may help promote recovery and reduce muscle soreness, although research is inconclusive [15
Curcumin, the main compound in turmeric, has an array of anti-inflammatory benefits that may be beneficial in the recovery period.
Studies indicate that 150-1,500 mg of turmeric/day may improve post-exercise recovery and reduce muscle soreness. One study found that ingestion before exercise could attenuate acute inflammation, and after exercise, it could reduce muscle damage and facilitate faster recovery [16
Additionally, studies show that combining turmeric with black pepper can enhance the absorption of curcumin by up to 2,000% and increase its effectiveness [16
(a dietary amino acid) is one of the most widely studied supplements for athletic performance and helps the body with power activities and recovery. Research indicates that supplementing with creatine–regardless of when you take it–may improve muscular strength and body composition, enhance recovery, increase glycogen resynthesis, and boost speed, although the precise impact on cycling performance is still being explored 17
To start supplementation, look for creatine monohydrate and begin with a loading dose of 20 g/day for 5 days, followed by 3-5 g/day thereafter [17
]. You can obtain creatine through supplements or dietary sources like fish, meat and other animal products.
Beta-alanine is a compound found in muscles that may help buffer lactic acid production. Some evidence shows that beta-alanine may help improve performance and reduce neuromuscular fatigue, although the impact on longer-lasting endurance activities (like cycling) is not yet well-understood [18
]. Beta-alanine may also have antioxidant-like properties, and mitigate the accumulation of free radicals when combined with aerobic exercise [18
The optimal dosage of beta-alanine appears to be 4-6 g/day, split over 2 doses, for 2-4 weeks [18
]. Some dietary sources of beta-alanine include meat, poultry and fish.
Omega-3 fatty acids
Emerging research indicates that omega-3 fatty acids
(specifically in the form of DHA and EPA) may enhance recovery and repair from muscle-damaging exercise and help with injury prevention [17
The common recommended dose for taking DHA and EPA omega-3 fatty acids is 2 g/day, with fatty fish (such as salmon, trout, tuna, and sardines) and fish oil being excellent sources [17
]. You can also use a fish oil supplement to fill in the gaps.
Vitamin C is a natural antioxidant and water-soluble vitamin that may enhance immune function and your natural antioxidant defense [17
]. Vitamin C is also necessary for optimal absorption of collagen, which is a structural body protein that may play a role in improving joint health and reducing joint pain for athletes [44
While supplementation may not definitively help performance, having suboptimal vitamin C levels could hurt performance, as deficiency can impair the immune system during heavy training, and result in reduced working capacity, a lower VO2 max, and weakened antioxidant systems [22
]. Deficiencies or suboptimal levels can normally be fixed through supplementation or increasing vitamin C in the diet, through foods such as citrus fruits, broccoli, strawberries, bell peppers and kiwi fruit.
Pre-workout snack and meal ideas
When you eat can often play as large a role as what you eat before a ride. Here are some pre-workout snack and meal ideas that may help enhance performance on the bike.
2-4 hours before your ride.
Aim to eat your last full meal 2-4 hours before your ride. Your goal should be a balanced meal that includes carbohydrates, protein, and fat, with carbohydrates being the main focus. Some examples include:
Oatmeal with banana, berries, nut butter
Eggs with toast, fruit, and juice
Sandwich on whole-grain bread with turkey, avocado, lettuce, tomato
Rice bowl with choice of protein and veggies
15-30 minutes before your ride.
Higher glycemic carbohydrates that are easily digestible can be useful immediately before exercise to minimize GI distress and provide quick energy. Some examples include:
Post-workout snack and meal ideas
What and when you eat after your ride matters, too, so don’t forget about refueling. The optimal time for refueling is 15-60 minutes post-workout, with an emphasis on protein, carbohydrates and fluids [1
Here are some examples of post-workout snacks and meals that may help boost recovery.
Chocolate milk + a banana
Omelet with toast and fruit
Sandwich on whole-grain bread
Yogurt parfait with fruit, nuts and cereal or granola
Protein shake or smoothie
Other pre-and post-workout strategies to enhance performance and boost recovery in cyclists
Aside from nutrition, here are some other pre-and post-workout strategies that may play a role in performance and recovery.
A small research study in runners found that 3 weeks of post-training sauna treatments for ~30 minutes can lead to physiological adaptations that may enhance endurance performance [46
]. Sauna treatments were able to increase run time to exhaustion by 32%, as well as boost plasma and red blood cell volumes, which may enhance high-intensity endurance performance by improving cardiac output and delivering more oxygen to working muscles. However, more published research is needed on sauna treatments in athletes, specifically cyclists [46
Cold water immersion.
Cold water immersion may help reduce heart rate and core temperature after cycling. Studies have found this to be a safe and effective intervention for maintaining repeat cycling performance in the heat, especially in warmer conditions [7
Adequate sleep and rest.
The importance of sleep (and rest days) cannot be underemphasized when it comes to performance and recovery, as it is one of the main ways the body recovers. Poor sleep quality is associated with poor mood, impaired motor skills, decreased alertness, pre-training fatigue, impaired performance over long durations, and increased perceived exertion during exercise [34
]. Moreover, adequate rest days are important to give your body a chance to rejuvenate, heal, and prepare itself for the next ride.
Experts recommend sleeping 7 hours each night, but if you have trouble falling (or staying asleep), here are some safe sleep supplements
that may help.
Training periodization refers to sequencing the duration and/or intensity of workouts into specialized training cycles which contain highly concentrated workloads directed to a minimal number of targeted abilities [29
]. The goal is to help increase the effectiveness of the training plan to enhance fitness. While there may be promising effects for periodization on training cycles, the studies have been small and more research is needed [29
Sports psychology represents the use of mental skills training within the sport and exercise domain [31
]. It has been praised for its ability to improve mental training, overcome mental fatigue, and can even be used to overcome injuries, all of which may correlate with better performance and recovery [32
]. Goal setting, positive self-talk, and relaxation or mental imagery are psychological interventions that can help athletes cope with stressors [32
Gastrointestinal complaints among long-distance endurance athletes are quite common, with studies reporting a prevalence of between 10% and 95%, depending on the event [8
]. Increasing the absorptive capacity of the gut (otherwise known as “training the gut”) by gradually increasing the amount of carbohydrates in the diet can be a potential ergogenic strategy for enhancing carbohydrate oxidation [2
Staying hydrated and modifying your pre-workout snack or meal can also help improve symptoms, as GI problems are more likely to occur if you are dehydrated.
What you eat (and when) can play a significant role in your performance on the bike, as prioritizing optimal nutrition and hydration leads to steadier energy levels, lessened fatigue, improved endurance, reduced GI issues, and a quicker recovery. You can also improve cycling performance through other lifestyle strategies, including cold water immersion and getting enough sleep.
Disclaimer: The text, images, videos, and other media on this page are provided for informational purposes only and are not intended to treat, diagnose or replace personalized medical care.