How much should I eat before a ride?
Fuelling properly for exercise is vital to get the most from your workout. The main fuel for exercise is carbohydrate, which is stored in the muscles and liver as glycogen. The body is only able to store a relatively small amount of glycogen, which is why topping up your carbs is important.
It is well reported that the carbohydrate needs of elite Tour De France cyclists can vary from 8-11g per kilogram bodyweight (480-660g carbohydrate for a 60kg cyclist). Planning at this level is vital, as constant ‘grazing’ is the only way riders can meet such high energy needs and restore muscle glycogen. For recreational riders who train at a reasonably high intensity, a daily carbohydrate need of between 5-8g carbohydrate per kilogram bodyweight is not unusual.
Training diets also need to be varied enough to provide sufficient protein to support muscle repair, polyunsaturated fats to reduce muscle damage, and vitamins and minerals to aid cellular growth and repair.
The key consideration is the duration and intensity of your training session, with this knowledge you can plan your fuelling strategy accordingly. For example, for a weekend ride under three hours, a high-carb meal the evening before followed by a high-carb breakfast should be sufficient to start the ride with muscle glycogen levels adequately topped up.
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What should I eat before a ride?
When choosing what to eat, consider the Glycaemic Index (GI) – this is a measure of how quickly a carb-based food is digested and broken down into energy (glucose). Lower-GI foods give a more sustained release of energy and should be the focus of your main meals during training. High-GI foods are quickly broken down and are more readily available for energy, these make great snack options before, during, or after training and when ‘carb-loading’.
As a general rule, focus your main meals on low-GI carbs with moderate amounts of protein and fat.
Useful meal options include;
How long after eating a meal should I wait before getting on my bike?
Everyone has different levels of comfort regarding eating around exercise, so it is important to trial what works for you. In general, allow between two and four hours following a larger meal, and at least 30 minutes and up to two hours for a smaller snack.
Should I eat before an early morning ride and if so, what should I opt for?
Ideally, you should eat before your morning ride, especially if it’s a longer one (1 hour or more) or a high-intensity session. The body uses carbs and glycogen stores for high-intensity work, and if you train having not eaten breakfast you may not be able to maintain the quality of your exercise.
Given the body’s position on the bike, riders generally find it possible to tolerate eating close to cycling, though you should try a few strategies and see what works best for you.
Here are two ways to plan:
The early riser
If you wake up two hours before your ride, some good breakfasts include:
Straight out of bed
If you prefer to get straight out on the bike, the following, quickly digested options may work for you:
If you can’t tolerate any food before your ride, try increasing the carbohydrate portion of your evening meal the night before, as this will be stored in the muscles (as glycogen) ready for your morning session.
What should I avoid eating before a ride?
In order to provide sufficient fuel, you need to be choosing foods that are predominantly high in carbs, as well as foods you know you tolerate well.
In the two-to-four hours before you cycle, limit the following, as these are well known causes of gastrointestinal distress (diarrhoea, bowel upsets):
- High-fibre foods
- Fatty foods
- Spicy foods
- Excess caffeine
In the hour before a ride, focus on easily absorbed, high-GI snacks and minimise the amount of fibre consumed.
Can energy gels or sport drinks play a part in my fuelling strategy?
These products provide a convenient, concentrated source of carbs which makes them a useful alternative to whole foods when used by endurance athletes and for longer rides. This is because they help maintain adequate blood sugar levels and, as a result, maintain performance. However, when you are not training always opt for nourishing, whole foods for the wider nutrition they provide.
Most energy gels provide a fast-digesting source of carbs (about 20-25g) in the form of sucrose, fructose, glucose or maltodextrin. They may also contain caffeine, which may boost performance as well as branched-chain amino acids, which may relieve the soreness associated with low to moderate muscle damage. Some products also provide electrolytes that help replace minerals lost through perspiration.
One gel provides the energy for about 45 minutes of cycling, but don’t be tempted to take two gels at a time – they should be spaced about 45-50 minutes apart. The secret to successful fuelling is to take the gel just before you need it and learn when the right time is for you.
It’s important to always take energy gels with water and never on their own or with a sports drink – without water they take longer to digest and be effective. Energy gels are a form of concentrated sports drink, so taking them with a sports drink puts you at risk of taking on too much sugar at once.
Some people prefer sports drinks over gels, these carb-electrolyte based drinks may be useful for long duration rides. However, for shorter distances and time periods they are not necessary. Whichever strategy you adopt be sure to trial it in training, because digestive issues are highly individual.
Now you know what to eat before your cycle, get the rest of your training nutrition right:
What to eat during your cycle
What to eat after your cycle
What to eat before your swim
What to eat during your swim
What to eat after your swim
What to eat before your run
What to eat during your run
What to eat after your run
Are you training for an event or getting to grips with a new sport? Share your tips and experiences below.
This article was reviewed on 5 December 2023 by Kerry Torrens.
As a sport and exercise nutritionist, James Collins regularly provides comment and consultation within the media and maintains a role of governance within health & nutrition in the UK, where he sits on The Royal Society of Medicine’s (RSM) ‘Food and Health’ Council. He was heavily involved in advising Team GB in the run-up to the London 2012 Olympic games and towards Rio 2016.
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