By Laurel-Lea Shannon
Cycling burns a whopping number of calories. Because of that you need adequate fuel so you have the energy to power up steep hills and to battle headwinds on the flats—often for hours at a time. It may sound counterintuitive but if you’re trying to lose weight, you’ll burn even more calories by filling up before a ride than heading out on an empty tank. Why? When you eat a meal, it takes time to digest the food before the energy from it is available to you when you exercise. When you’re properly fueled you have more energy, and you’ll pedal with more power during your ride.
You want to begin your rides with your muscles pumped up with glycogen. That’s where you get your energy from. Start out on empty and you’ll play catch-up all day, which often leads to overeating at the next meal.
The best way to keep your glycogen stores at an optimal level is to eat a balanced diet every day—50 to 55% of your calories from good carb sources (vegetables, whole grains and fruit), 25 to 30% from healthy fat (olive oil, avocados, nuts and seeds), and 15 to 20% from protein (lean meats, poultry, fish and eggs).
If you’re trying to lose weight, cycle closer to meal times. Starting two hours after a main meal will ensure that you’re well stoked for your ride.
If you cycle after work but before dinner, have a snack 60 to 90 minutes before your ride. Make sure your snack includes carbs, protein and a little fat and is no more than about 200 to 250 calories. The following are a few healthy pre-ride snacks:
- Peanut butter (or almond butter) and honey on one piece of bread or on crackers
- Plain yogurt, with honey and a banana
- Raisins and trail mix
- A small bowl of granola or muesli and milk
If you’re doing a moderate ride, under 90 minutes, you won’t need to eat during the ride. For rides over 90 minutes, you need to top up your glycogen stores every hour. This is the time to refuel with faster burning carbohydrates, either with energy bars or snacks from home like fig bars, oatmeal cookies and bananas.
Beginner cyclists often make to the mistake of waiting until they’re hungry to eat. If you do that during a bike ride you can tank before you’ve digested the food and replenished your energy. Eat every hour and you can ride all day.
But don’t eat too much. You need between 30 and 60 grams of carbohydrates each hour. That’s between 120 and 240 calories. If you’re not certain what works best for you, start with half an energy bar (about 100 to 120 calories). If that doesn’t provide enough energy, eat a little more until you find the optimal amount for your body.