Are You Fueling Optimally? The Essentials Of Cycling Nutrition

January 3, 2023

If you consistently feel your energy levels crash during an endurance bike ride, then you probably aren’t fueling correctly.

Optimal fueling will provide your body with the easy access energy it needs for a better performance.

Optimal fueling doesn’t have to be complex. Once you understand the importance of carbohydrates and fluids, you can respond to the needs of your body and eat to optimize fuel reserves.

Let’s get started.

Understanding Carbohydrates For Fuel

The body stores huge reserves of energy as fat, and we can draw from this supply during exercise. However, the best source of fuel is carbohydrates.

Although the body only stores carbohydrates in small amounts, they are the quickest and most efficient source of energy.

Carbohydrates are essential if you want to fuel optimally. The body can break down and metabolize carbohydrates quickly, turning them into energy more efficiently than it can proteins or dietary fats.

For a long and particularly intense workout, carbohydrates become a vital energy source, as the body needs to draw energy quickly from its reserves.

At around 70% VO2 max, the body starts to use carbohydrates, rather than fats, as the primary fuel source.

To optimize performance, it’s important to eat a carb-rich diet before a ride. When you start exercising, the body will already have glucose stores to draw from.

On-bike fueling is also crucial. Consuming carbohydrates as you ride provides the body with an easy and efficient energy source.

The more intensity with which you train, the more carbohydrates you need to ensure your body can maintain homeostasis, or stability.

Simpler carbohydrates, such as sugars, offer a quick and easy energy source. For this reason, gels are often used by pros during an intense workout.

However, for a more relaxed ride, a complex energy source provides a slower energy release. Try a turkey sandwich.

Optimal fueling ensures your body is never striving for energy, allowing you to deliver a stronger performance.

If you neglect carbohydrates, the body becomes stressed, performance level dips, and you’ll find yourself becoming fatigued.

The Importance Of Hydration

Even low level training can lead to sweating. Sweat causes a loss of both water and salt, and these substances need to be replaced for optimal performance.

Cyclists should drink between 1.5 and 2 liters of water throughout the day, to maintain a base level of hydration. On top of this, it’s important to replace the water lost during riding.

You can take the guesswork out of hydration by weighing yourself before and after a ride. For every kilo lost, you should aim to drink one liter of water.

This will restore the natural balance within the body. Even a small dip in hydration level can affect performance, so it’s worth making this extra effort.

But water is only one part of the equation. When we sweat, we also lose salt.

Electrolyte infused drinks, energy drinks, and sports drinks can be used to replace the carbohydrates and sodium lost during a long ride.

Make sure to check the carbohydrate concentration of your drink, to ensure it’s providing you with a rich source of electrolytes and carbs, rather than caffeine and other stimulants.

The length and intensity of your ride will determine which drinks are best for optimal fueling. For a shorter ride, around an hour or less, focus on replacing water.

For a mid-length ride, roughly one to three hours, focus on replacing carbohydrates with a carb-rich drink. And for long rides lasting over three hours, choose a drink that can replace both electrolytes and carbohydrates.

Take into account the temperature and conditions of your ride. On a hot day, you’ll need to drink more.

How To Fuel On The Bike

Are You Fueling Optimally? The Essentials Of Cycling Nutrition

Fueling correctly can ensure a better ride, with reduced fatigue and improved stamina. However, it’s much easier to understand the importance of on-bike fueling than it is to put it into practice.

The key to successful on-bike fueling is all in the preparation. You need to consider how much you will eat before a ride, how much you will need on the bike, what fuels work best for you, and how easily accessible food and drink will be while riding.

So, how many carbohydrates should you consume on the bike? Estimates vary depending on the intensity of the ride and your performance level, with scientists suggesting anywhere between 30 grams and 120 grams.

The higher end of the spectrum, between 90 and 120 grams, might be necessary for high performance athletes. For the average cyclist, consider closer to 60 grams of carbohydrates per hour.

What about the form those carbohydrates take? Gels and sports drinks are popular with pros because they’re easy to access, and the carbohydrates can be absorbed quickly.

But for a casual cyclist, complex carbohydrates might be more enjoyable, and more nutritious.

The key is to take an individual approach, and to find what works for you. Fueling should be about responding to your body’s needs, rather than hitting a number target.

When choosing how to fuel on the bike, think about how your stomach responds to what you’re eating.

How To Fuel Post Ride

Once you’ve finished a ride, it’s important to refuel so the body can start to replenish its glycogen stores.

Within the first 20 minutes after a ride, aim to consume a carbohydrate heavy meal, enabling the energy stores to fill more efficiently. This will provide you with more energy for future rides.

Research indicates that during this post-exercise period you should consume 1 gram of carbohydrate for every kilogram of body weight.

The refueling effect can potentially be improved by eating small, carbohydrate rich snacks, roughly every 15 minutes for up to 4 hours.

It isn’t all about the carbs in this period. You can improve muscle repair and reduce the risk of injury by eating roughly 20 grams of protein with your first post ride meal.

Some good recovery snacks include cereal with milk, pita with hummus, bagels, banana, peanut butter, granola bars, fruit, and pasta.

What About Caffeine?

Studies do seem to indicate that caffeine can be beneficial for performance, but it isn’t the right choice for everyone.

Cyclists in hotter climates might not feel the benefits of caffeine at all, as fatigue is heavily affected by thermoregulation. So, the warmer the weather, the less power you get from a caffeinated drink.

Those who suffer from high blood pressure or heart conditions should also stay away from caffeine.

If you do find caffeine can enhance performance, roughly 3 to 6 mg of caffeine is all you need per kilo of body weight.

Vitamins And Minerals

Regular training can reduce the number of water-soluble vitamins and minerals within the body.

Multivitamins can be an excellent way to avoid a deficiency, but the best method for ensuring your body is getting the fuel it needs is with a varied diet featuring plenty of fruits and vegetables.

Creating your own smoothies can be an easy method for enhancing your diet, and fueling post-ride.


Successful fueling for a cyclist is about responding to the needs of your body, and ensuring it has access to energy necessary for enhanced performance.

Carbohydrates are key to this as they provide an efficient fuel source, and should be eaten before, during, and after a ride. Pay close attention to the needs of your body, and optimal fueling should follow.

Fuel For Rides Like A Pro

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