Posted on May 26 2019
In the cycling community, there’s a lot of discussion surrounding how to best fuel your body. For elite athletes, a matter of seconds can make all the difference, and getting the right nutrients offers a competitive edge. But even for everyday cyclists, putting the right fuel into your body can be just as important, both in terms of your race times as well as in balancing the physical demands of cycling with your lifestyle and career.
To better understand how to fuel your body, it’s important to explore what it really means to get fitter. For cyclists, there are two major aspects of fitness that influence performance:
• the rate at which your muscles can use oxygen
• the availability of fuel sources for your muscles (carbohydrates, fats and protein)
Both oxygen and fuel are necessary to generate the energy that your muscles use to contract. And being fitter means that you are able to deliver oxygen and fuel to your muscles with greater efficiency.
How & Why We Get Fitter
The human body has evolved to be incredibly responsive to exercise. Today, we usually think of fitness in terms of our sport performance, but throughout evolutionary history, improving our physical endurance offered us a survival advantage.
Cycling leads to a great variety of adaptations in your body – some better known than others. We all know that endurance training improves the function of our heart, lungs and muscles. However, the way it affects our body’s fuel supply is less widely appreciated.
When you are cycling, your body uses a combination of carbohydrates, fats and protein throughout the race. And both the use and availability of these fuel sources changes drastically over time.
Your body relies most heavily on carbohydrates during the early stages of a race. This includes circulating carbohydrates (blood glucose) and stored carbohydrates (glycogen in the liver and muscles). However, as the race goes on, your carbohydrate reserve becomes depleted, forcing your body to turn to other fuel sources.
As you enter into the later stages of a race, your body becomes more dependent on fats for energy production. When your carbohydrate reserve completely runs out it can make you feel like you are “hitting the wall.” Part of becoming a better cyclist is being able to push through and finish the race. The other part, however, is getting fitter and delaying the onset of “hitting the wall".
Carbohydrates, Training & Endurance
So what differences can be observed between trained and untrained cyclists? Well, the fitter you are, the better your body becomes at sparing carbohydrates. In other words, if a trained cyclist and an untrained cyclist were racing side-by-side, moving together at the same speed, the trained cyclist would be burning fewer carbohydrates. They would make up for this by burning more fats.
Does this really make any difference? Yes. The trained cyclist is preserving the most valuable resource to an endurance athlete – carbohydrates. This means that it will take much longer before they “hit the wall.” As a result, the symptoms of fatigue will set in more slowly and the trained cyclist can keep up their race speed for even longer.
The take-home message is that your body responds to endurance exercise by developing fatigue resistance. And one of the most important ways this is achieved is through carbohydrate sparing.
Fuelling & Refuelling for Cyclists
The one thing that we can say with great certainty is that cycling performance is limited by the availability of carbohydrates for meeting the ongoing demands of exercise. If you really want to give your body the best shot at maintaining a high level of performance throughout the race, you need to eat in a way that helps maintain your carbohydrate reserve. With this in mind, here are some nutritional guidelines to consider.
Before the Race
• Carbohydrate-rich meals are recommended in the 24-48 hours prior to the race because they can increase glycogen storage in the muscles
(e.g. pasta, rice, bread, grains, oats, potatoes, sweet potatoes, lentils, beans, vegetables and fruits)
• Consuming carbohydrates with a low glycemic index (GI) is recommended 2-3 hours prior to the race for a gradual release of fuel into the bloodstream
(e.g. whole-wheat pastas and breads, bulgar, oats, lentils, beans and most non-starchy vegetables and fruits)
• This gradual release of carbohydrates from food may help sustain the body’s carbohydrate reserve during the race
During the Race
• Consuming carbohydrates with a high GI is preferred during the race because they are quickly released into the bloodstream from the digestive tract
(e.g. sports drinks or gels that are easy to carry and consume while cycling)
• When carbohydrates are consumed during the race, it preserves the body’s carbohydrate reserve
After the Race
• Consuming a mixed macronutrient meal (containing carbohydrates and protein) within 30 minutes following exercise is generally considered the fastest way to replenish carbohydrate stores
(e.g. any of the carbohydrates listed previously in combination with protein from meat, poultry, eggs, fish, beans, lentils, mushrooms and broccoli etc. is preferable to protein supplements)
• Consuming another high carbohydrate meal within 2 hours following exercise is thought to maximise carbohydrate replenishment
(e.g. any of the carbohydrates listed previously)
• Consuming adequate protein every 3-4 hours after exercise helps repair muscle damage and supports physiological adaptations in muscle cells
(e.g. any protein source listed previously is preferable, although protein supplements may be more feasible)
• The faster carbohydrates are replenished, the earlier the body will be ready to race again – this is especially important when cycling on back-to-back days
Note: the effects of protein consumption before and during exercise is still a topic of debate and there isn’t conclusive evidence to suggest whether or not it improves performance. Theoretically, however, protein availability may help preserve carbohydrate reserves and prevent muscle wasting.
Fuel with style
About the Author
Jeremy is a health and fitness writer with a PhD in molecular sciences. He explores the evolutionary biology of making better lifestyle choices and optimising exercise performance. You can find more of his work on The Industrial Evolution.