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Best Diet for Cyclists: Foods, Drinks, and Nutrition Tips

When it comes to cycling performance, nutrition plays a crucial role in your energy levels, stamina, and ability to recover well after rides. To help you perform and feel your best, we’ve created this guide full of valuable information, tips, and recommendations. We’ll begin with some general guidelines to get you started.

What is the best diet for cyclists?

Cyclist eating a snack of dried fruits and nuts.

The best diet for cyclists is one with balanced macronutrients (carbohydrates, protein, and fat). Every cyclist fuels their body differently, depending on their age, gender, weight, body composition, goals, and other personal factors. There’s no one-size-fits-all diet for cyclists. Instead, each rider must figure out what works best for them.

Notably, you burn quite a few calories cycling, so you’ll need to increase your calorie intake a bit. However, you’ll want to make sure you don’t increase it too much and that you’re consuming the right kinds of calories. For instance, high-calorie, processed foods full of fat and sugar aren’t ideal. Instead, focus on getting those extra calories from whole foods.

If you want to lose weight cycling, aim to have a slight daily calorie deficit. Just keep in mind that if you’re not eating enough, your body won’t have the fuel to ride strong, and your performance and energy levels will suffer. As you learn to listen to your body, you can eat more intuitively and still lose weight. At first, you might benefit from working with a personal trainer or tracking your daily calories with a fitness app.

Basic nutrition for cyclists

Male about to take a bite out of an apple at the gym.

To help you establish a healthy and well-balanced diet for cycling, these are the primary food groups that will provide the fuel you need.

Lean protein

Protein is an essential nutrient for cyclists. It helps the body’s muscles repair and rebuild and supports your immune system and overall health. It can even help prevent muscle loss as you age! Over time, consuming adequate amounts of protein supports muscle strength and healthy body composition for cyclists.1

Protein is also very satiating, keeping your appetite under control. That way, you’re less likely to reach for unhealthy snack options or exceed your daily calorie goal.

So, how much protein do cyclists need? According to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, Dietitians of Canada, and the American College of Sports Medicine, athletes need about 1.2 to 2.0 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight per day, depending on their training.

However, instead of consuming large amounts of protein all at once, it’s better to space out your protein intake throughout the day. Also, make sure you’re eating some protein after each cycling workout.

Good examples of protein sources for cyclists include:

  • Whole eggs
  • Cottage cheese
  • Greek yogurt
  • Salmon
  • Beef
  • Chicken
  • Turkey
  • Nuts
  • Quinoa
  • Whey protein
  • Lentils
  • Beans 
  • Chickpeas 

Carbohydrates

Carbohydrates are important for cyclists because they’re the body’s primary fuel source. However, if you eat too large of a portion, you risk experiencing a sudden peak and drop in energy that may leave you feeling lethargic.2

Instead, cyclists should focus on eating small portions of “slow-burn” carbs (also known as low-glycemic carbohydrates) to provide consistent energy without the slump. Examples of low-glycemic carbs include:3

  • A piece of fruit
  • Whole-grain rice
  • Whole-grain toast
  • Oatmeal 
  • Quinoa 

Healthy fats

Good fats, or polyunsaturated fats, are great for endurance athletes like cyclists! Healthy fats help your body absorb essential vitamins, and your body will also use the fat stored in your muscles for additional energy. They’re also good for your joints, help prevent inflammation, and decrease your risk for heart disease and stroke.4,5

Regardless, it’s important to know that not all fats are created equal, and a little bit goes a long way. Unsaturated fats are good for your body in the right amount. Of course, too much of a good thing can also cause problems, so you’ll want to monitor your fat intake closely.

Examples of healthy fat sources for cyclists include:

  • Nuts
  • Avocado
  • Cold-water oily fish like salmon or tuna
  • Seeds
  • Olive oil
  • Coconut oil
  • Tofu
  • Soy milk

Experts recommend limiting your daily fat intake to 30 percent of your total calories. About one-third to half of that should come from plant foods and the rest from meat and dairy. Ultimately, how much fat you need in your diet will depend on how much you cycle and eat each day.

Fruits and vegetables

Fruits and vegetables contain essential vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants that all athletes need to support their overall health. These nutrients all help supply energy to your body’s cells and muscles.

Ideally, cyclists should aim to eat a rainbow-colored selection of fruits and veggies with plenty of dark, leafy greens. Eating a variety of fruit and vegetables will help ensure you get enough vitamin C, potassium, magnesium, fiber, iron, vitamin D, and other essential nutrients your body needs.

Experts recommend eating a total of five servings of fruits and vegetables daily. You really can’t go wrong eating all kinds of fruits and veggies, but some examples of great vegetable options for cyclists include:

  • Spinach
  • Broccoli
  • Garlic
  • Beets 
  • Sweet potatoes
  • Bell peppers
  • Mushrooms 
  • Brussels sprouts
  • Eggplant
  • Kale
  • Onions 
  • Carrots 
  • Radishes

Excellent fruits for cyclists include:

  • Blueberries
  • Watermelon 
  • Tomatoes 
  • Cherries 
  • Bananas
  • Dates 
  • Raisins
  • Figs
  • Cantaloupe
  • Mangoes
  • Peaches
  • Papaya 
  • Kiwi
  • Oranges
  • Strawberries

What should I eat before a bike ride?

Male cyclists standing next to his bike ready to start riding.

Before you ride, focus on eating easily-digestible foods that provide energy. It’s a good idea to eat a combination of protein and carbs, but make sure the protein comes from a light source like eggs, yogurt, nuts, or seeds. Combining these protein options with a “slow-burning” carb like oatmeal or whole wheat toast is the way to go!

If you don’t have time to cook a meal, you could also eat an energy bar with a good balance of protein and carbs.

What should I eat during a bike ride?

Female cyclists on her indoor bike using a smart trainer and fitness app.

You probably won’t need to refuel during low-intensity and short rides under 60 minutes. But it’s a good idea to refuel mid-ride with some carbs for high-intensity rides or rides that last longer than 90 minutes

Solid foods like an energy bar or protein bar are great options. Alternatively, an energy gel with some water will provide additional energy to complete your ride. Other options include:

  • A banana
  • A peanut butter and jelly sandwich
  • Trail mix

What should I eat after a bike ride?

Two female cyclists taking a break sitting in a park next to their bikes.

Aim to eat within the first 30 minutes after your bike ride. Eating a carbohydrate-rich meal or drink during this timeframe will help your body refuel its energy stores. Balance it with protein to help your body repair your damaged muscle fibers.

Good examples of post-ride snacks include:

  • A milk-based drink
  • A smoothie with whey protein
  • Pre-made specialized recovery shakes
  • A sandwich
  • Yogurt with granola
  • A hard-boiled egg with fruit

What are some healthy snacks for cyclists??

Bike helmet next to a granola bar and energy drink.

These snacks are excellent fuel for cyclists at any time of the day and can help support a well-balanced diet:

  • Dried fruit
  • Beef jerky
  • A hard-boiled egg with fruit
  • Cottage cheese or yogurt with fruit
  • Crackers and hummus
  • Carrot and celery sticks with dressing
  • Whole-grain crackers and cheese
  • An apple or banana with peanut butter or nut butter
  • Plain popcorn
  • Tuna with whole-grain crackers 
  • Smoothies 

What foods should cyclists avoid?

Man taking a bite out of a doughnut with an apple in the other hand.

If you cycle regularly, you’ll want to watch what you eat and also be careful to avoid certain foods. Try to limit or avoid the following foods which can harm your training routine:

  • Soda and other sugary drinks
  • Energy drinks
  • Alcohol
  • White bread
  • Highly processed foods
  • Candy
  • Baked goods and dessert
  • Excessive amounts of fried foods

How important is hydration in cycling?

Male cyclist drinking out of his water bottle.

As a cyclist, staying hydrated is one of the best things you can do for your body! You lose plenty of fluid during and after your ride through sweat and urine. So make sure you’re drinking enough water each day. Ideally, you should drink about six to eight glasses of water daily. And if you’re training intensely or the weather is hot, you might need more. 

Adequate water will help you digest your food and perform at your best. On the contrary, dehydration can make you feel dizzy or sick or give you headaches after a ride.

Key Takeaways:

Cyclists should take their nutrition very seriously, as it directly impacts their endurance, stamina, and performance. The best diet for a cyclist varies from person to person, but eating a well-balanced diet and staying hydrated will help you perform and feel better while you’re on the saddle.

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References:

  1. Atherton, P. J., & Smith, K. (2012). Muscle protein synthesis in response to nutrition and exercise. The Journal of Physiology, 590(5), 1049–1057. https://doi.org/10.1113/jphysiol.2011.225003 
  2. Infront, G. (2022, July 7). Carbohydrates – The Master Fuel. U.S. Anti-Doping Agency (USADA). https://www.usada.org/athletes/substances/nutrition/carbohydrates-the-master-fuel/ 
  3. Harvard Health. (2021b, November 16). A good guide to good carbs: The glycemic index. https://www.health.harvard.edu/healthbeat/a-good-guide-to-good-carbs-the-glycemic-index 
  4. Liu, A. G., Ford, N. A., Hu, F. B., Zelman, K. M., Mozaffarian, D., & Kris-Etherton, P. M. (2017). A healthy approach to dietary fats: understanding the science and taking action to reduce consumer confusion. Nutrition Journal, 16(1). https://doi.org/10.1186/s12937-017-0271-4 
  5. Segal, R. (2022, February 8). Choosing Healthy Fats. HelpGuide.Org. https://www.helpguide.org/articles/healthy-eating/choosing-healthy-fats.htm 

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