Cycling food

The food we eat before, during and after a cycle ride, especially a ride that is particularly long or arduous, can make a significant different to the result and to the pleasure we get from the ride. I'm not a nutritional expert and the article is based more on my own experiences than expert nutritional knowledge, but if you follow the guidelines below you should be on the right track towards success.

Before starting, and for all rides however long or short, remember the primary rule: eat before you are hungry, drink before you are thisty, and carry plenty of fluids. 'Bonking' from loss of energy will sap all your strength and dehydration is just plain dangerous for your health.

A couple of other key guidelines are:

(1) don't get obsessive but try to eat healthy natural products with few refined sugars or artifical additives. But you do that anyway I expect (don't try and avoid all proteins and fats, however, just strike a sensible balance)

(2) not to eat too much in the couple of hours before a ride - a bike ride on a full stomach is no fun at all

(3) eat for pleasure from time to time, porridge and pasta are not always very exciting!

Before the ride

Old favourites, mainly pasta, really are best - either the night before or an early lunch if you are riding in the afternoon. They release sugars slowly and continuously into your bloodstream, which is much more effective than a mars bar to throw enormous amounts of refined sugars into your bloodstream very quickly. Other foods derived from grains provide the same advantages - wheat, lentils etc.

Potatoes and pulses have a similar effect, and porridge or muesli is a good start to the day if you are cycling later in the morning.

For an especially tough ride or event you will ideally have a couple of days of this 'carbo loading' preparation before the ride.

One challenge is when you have a tough ride in the morning that starts too early to eat a big meal first and still have a couple of hours in between the breakfast and the ride. One suggestion i came across that might help: cup of tea or hot chocolate, rice pudding (made with skimmed milk) or fromage blanc mixed with honey; wholemeal bread with jam; a slice of ham and a glass of orange juice

During the ride

Rides less than about an hour long don't usually require food while cycling, but beyond this it becomes increasingly important. Personally I find that 1 1/2 hours is the maximum I can ride without food - after which my strength drains away very rapidly - an experience called 'bonking' that is due to the energy reserves in your blood becoming depleted.

A lot of people eat ready prepared energy bars or gels while cycling, which work very well but do sometimes taste slightly odd and can be rather expensive if you cycle a lot. They are a good way to get a quick boost of energy, so try a few different ones and see what you think.

There are also various powders that you can mix with your water to add energy - again these can taste a bit sweet, so I usually have one bottle of 'energy' drink and one bottle of normal water

Popular home made alternatives include flapjack, bananas and dried fruit eg prunes. Personally I prefer to eat a banana just before setting off but if you think you can carry one and eat it while you are cycling along give it a try, they are perhaps the ideal cycling food giving an energy boost and also potassium and a sprinkling of vitamins. Ripe bananas are more easily digested!

After the ride

Your body is depleted of carbohydrates after an arduous ride so you need to get them back up as soon as possible. it's often not practical to eat a meal immediately so have an energy drink or muesli bar to keep you going and get back on to pasta or another high carbohydrate meal as soon as possible.