Complete guide to Cycling Event Nutrition (+ carb calculator)26th October 2020
This guide is specifically aimed at getting you ready for your event.
It’s not about weight management which is a whole other area where nutrition plays a big part and is somewhere you can make big gains for your event - we found a really good guide here if you want to know more.
This guide also applies to all different types of cycling events, be it a road bike sportive or a mountain bike enduro.
The amount of nutrition required is more dictated by the length and intensity of the event rather than the type of event.
So we hope you find this guide useful - don’t forget our carb calculator at the end, this will help you determine your exact nutrition requirements!
TIP: Want to understand the nutrition requirements on your next event? Click here to skip to our nutrition calculator.
Use the links below to skip sections:
- Chapter 1 - What does the body want anyway?
- Chapter 2 - What if things go wrong?
- Chapter 3 - Real vs Fake - Banana vs Energy Gel...
- Chapter 4 - Training your nutrition
- Chapter 5 - Nutrition strategy - before, during and after the event
- Chapter 6 - Further reading
- Summary and call to action
What does the body want anyway?
Your body is a pretty special machine, evolved over thousands of years and therefore has a set complex requirements.
Find out what they are here...
During an event you are pushing your body beyond its normal rest state and asking it primarily to keep your legs turning!
To activate those muscles and also keep your brain working to help you navigate the course, your body needs water and food.
Here are the key things you body needs to perform at its best.
Why is it important: Water is used in almost every bodily process, it helps regulate your body temperature through sweating and helps transport nutrients to where they are needed.
How much do I need: You can sweat as much as 1 litre per hour during cycling which needs replacing. This can double in hotter conditions.
How to get what the body needs: Drink more! Obvious I know, but there is no way around it, you will just need to drink more water. Make sure to read the sections on carbohydrates and electrolytes before you dive in…
Why is it important: Electrolytes include sodium, potassium and magnesium and are substances that conduct electricity when dissolved in water. They regulate nerve and muscle function, hydrate the body and help rebuild damaged tissue.
How much do I need: Often you can get enough of all of the different electrolytes bar sodium from your normal diet with more than enough in your body stores for even the longest rides. Research suggests the “average” athlete loses about 1g of sodium per hour of exercise from sweating, so look for something to replace that
How to get what the body needs: There are a wide range of electrolyte drinks on the market often coming in powder or tab format to mix with water. Even some energy drinks include electrolytes allowing you to cover two bases with one drink
Why is it important: Carbohydrates are the body’s primary energy source when cycling and these carbs are stored in your muscles ready to use when needed.
Sugar is a form of carbohydrate as are starch and fibre, and some combination of these items is found in almost every food.
How much do I need: Carbs can be classified by their Glycemic Index (GI) - a low GI carb is something like porridge which releases its energy slowly across many hours, whereas a high GI carb is something like a chocolate bar that releases a quick burst of energy.
A good rule of thumb is to take on 1g of carbs per kg of body weight per hour of cycling.
This may seem like a lot since the average banana contains about 23g of carbs, but if you combine real food, energy gels and energy drinks its easy enough to reach.
How to get what the body needs: Carbs can of course be found in normal foods, but there are also a range of cycling specific carbohydrate bars, gels and drinks.
These bars, gels and drinks are great because they have a sole purpose and that is to get carbs into your body - you wouldn’t want them as part of your normal daily diet, but used when cycling they are perfect.
Why is it important: Although not essential, many of us swear by coffee and its definitely part of the cycling culture now. Caffeine has been shown to enhance physical performance and improve mental clarity.
How much do I need: Research suggests 3-6mg per kg of bodyweight is optimal for enhanced performance, which for a 80kg rider equals the difference between a single and double espresso.
How to get what the body needs: Caffeine can have some negative effects such as dehydration so stick with what you would normally do i.e. have a coffee in the morning about an hour before your ride if that’s what you normally do.
You can get caffeine products or see it included in other energy products too.
Why is it important: Your body requires a wide range of vitamins and minerals for optimal performance and if you eat a balanced diet you probably get what your body requires. A multivitamin can help fill in the gap for anything that's missing or you can take specific supplements based on their performance enhancing results.
How much do I need: Each vitamin or mineral has a recommended daily allowance which you can find here. There are many other supplements which claim to increase performance in various ways, you will need to do your own research to calculate the optimal safe amount.
How to get what the body needs: Eating a balanced diet is the primary way to get what your body needs including a good mix of all food groups with lots of vegetables and salad. If you are interested in specific supplements to aid your performance, check out this British Cycling article.
What if things go wrong?
It's important to know what can happen if you don't treat your nutrition with the care and respect it needs...
Even with all the best planning in the world, things can and will go wrong during your events.
The two biggest problems you are likely to encounter are “bonking” where your body runs out of fuel (energy) and gastric distress or a poorly tummy!
Bonking is a horrible feeling.
You might know it as “hitting the wall” or simply “running out of juice” but either way its not fun.
By definition, bonking is when your body runs out of / runs low on glycogen stores in the muscles and liver and therefore you feel like you have no energy to continue.
It usually occurs because you haven’t been fueling the body with carbohydrates before and during your event properly, maybe you didn’t bring the right food or maybe you just forgot to eat in the heat of the event?
Clearly the fix is to eat more carbohydrates, probably starting with a high GI carb to get some energy in your system quickly, followed by a low GI carb to replenish those slow-release stores for later in the event.
Gastric Distress is a fancy way of saying that you have an upset tummy.
There are a few key reasons why you might get distress:
- Eating too much - it can be easy to overeat when cycling but if you do, your digestive system will be working overtime, especially since your body is already under major stress from the pedalling.
Use our nutrition calculator to determine the right amounts.
- Not drinking enough - eating too much solid food without water makes it much harder to digest the food meaning it sits in the stomach longer causing upset. Try to keep sipping on water throughout the event.
- Eating something new - a big no-no. Don’t try new foods or drinks on event day. Perfecting your nutrition strategy and which products to use is a key part of your pre-event training.
Real vs Fake - Banana vs Energy Gel...
Ahh.. the age old debate, real food vs nutritional products.
Which is best?
It's up to you!
Here are some things to consider:
- Energy bars, gels and drinks are scientifically devised to just give your body what it needs and when it needs it and hence can be physically much smaller in size, allowing you to easily carry more
- Real energy foods such as bananas, fig rolls, jelly babies and jam sandwiches are tastier than bars and gels and will give you a psychological boost in looking forward to eating them
- Real energy foods tend to be cheaper
- Energy bars, gels and drinks are designed to be easy to use and therefore more suited to rides with intense efforts where its not practical to peel a banana on a steep technical descent!
- Some people suffer gastric distress with energy gels and bars, and some suffer with real energy foods… you need to test both during your training to see what works for you.
Training your nutrition
You wouldn't do your event on a brand new untested bike would you? (would you?)
So don't do the same with your nutrition!
With such a vast choice of real foods, energy gels, bars and drinks out there, it can be a bit of a problem to know where to start.
We suggest starting with real foods that you know and love, and add in the energy gels and bars as you progress through your training.
Take advantage of the free samples on the front of magazines or take recommendations from your friends on your first branded product, mixing it with real foods so that if it doesn’t taste nice or doesn’t work you have something to fall back on.
It’s important to train your nutrition whilst training your legs - the two things go hand in hand.
Use our nutrition calculator to give you a starting point, test it, test different products and tweak as you go, making sure not to try anything new come event day.
Another important consideration is what will be available from the feed stations (if there are any) at the event.
Most events will be sponsored by a particular brand of energy products, so you have two options:
- Choose that brand for yourself and use it during your training such that you can refuel from the feed stations
- Choose a different brand and be completely self-sufficient (there will probably be real food at the feed stations too!)
Nutrition strategy - before, during and after the event
Let's think about each stage in order.
What are the key tips and techniques at each stage of the event to get your nutrition right on track?
Before the Event
Other than training your on-bike nutrition as part of your physical training activities, the few weeks before your event are crucial to performance.
Here is our recommended pre-event nutrition strategy.
3 - 7 days before the event
- Eat well balanced meals, sticking to what you would normally have.
- Keep well hydrated
1 - 3 days before the event
- Continue eating well balanced meals, but try to up the carbohydrate content by about 30-50%. This will ensure that your carb stores are fully topped up ready for event day
- Keep well hydrated
On the morning of the event (about 2 hours before start time)
- Eat a hearty but simple breakfast with plenty of carbs and protein - stick to something you are used to eating but try to double up e.g. have a big bowl of porridge plus toast and jam
- Have your normal morning coffee
- Have a good drink, about 500ml will do it
During the Event
This should be easy.
You should have spent lots of time planning and tailoring your nutrition strategy as part of your pre-event training.
Stick with it!
In the heat of the moment it can be easy to forget what you have practiced and either eat/drink too much (you risk gastric distress or running out of food/drink) or too little (you risk bonking before the end).
The key thing is to eat and drink consistently in-line with your well trained plan.
Make sure to eat in the first hour, even though you won’t feel hungry as this will be the fuel your body is using further on in the event.
On certain Garmin watches and cycling computers you can actually set it to beep at set intervals - this might be a useful reminder to eat/drink every 20 minutes - see this page as an example or check out the manual for your device.
Remember to watch out for those feed stations, they can be useful as a backup but don’t try anything too radically new!
After the Event - the recovery period
Well done - you made it!
Now your legs are probably hurting so you need to think about getting some rest and in nutrition terms that means carbs, electrolytes and protein.
If you have fueled well throughout the event then your carbs and electrolyte levels should be pretty good.
Protein is the king here as it will help your body repair those damaged muscles and leave them in a stronger state than they were before!
Try to eat a well balanced meal with plenty of protein within about 2 hours of finishing your event, here are some examples:
- Chicken with wholegrain pasta and salad
- Tuna and vegetables
- A large omelette with sweet potato fries
But hey you have deserved so treat yourself to something sweet at the end of all that too!
There is loads of information online and in books about nutrition.
Here are our top 3 resources.
- British Cycling Nutrition Guide eBook by British Cycling
A useful and concise guide to nutrition with meal plans and a section specifically for those following a vegan or vegetarian diet, however obviously sponsored by SIS so you do get a lot of recommendations for their products. You will need to provide your email address to get access.
- The Cycling Chef: Recipes for Performance and Pleasure by Alan Murchison
Alan is a Michelin starred chef, a consultant with British Cycling and has many World and European age group duathlon wins to his name. Don’t let that put you off, the book is full of easy to follow recipes aimed at specific parts of the training cycle.
- Cycling Nutrition Guide by CORE
CORE is a nutrition planning tool, where for a small monthly fee you can give it data about you and the event you are targeting and it will give a science backed, personalised nutrition plan. Also has some really good free articles too!
Enter your key information to determine your event day nutrition requirements
Key points and your call to action...
So if you have to remember four things from our guide, then make sure it's these:
- Plan your nutrition and decide whether you are using real food, products or a combination of both
- Train your nutrition alongside your fitness
- Stick to the plan come event day and smash it!
A reminder that if you join Wheelie Good Tours for free you can get access to:
- Our Goals and Training calendar planner, allowing you to plan for your next event
- Our regular inspirational newsletter showcasing the world’s best Cycling Events, sharing amazing Competitions and access to more tools, templates and checklists
Once registered, leave us a comment below, we would love to know what nutrition strategy works best for you!