Cyclist’s Nutrition


Meals On Wheels

Keeping yourself hydrated and fed while riding is important. All cyclists soon learn that energy comes from food and to fear the dreaded ‘bonk’. Cycling Malaysia takes a look at why nutrition is important for cyclists.

The body stores energy in 2 main forms, fat and glycogen. Fat is something we are all familiar with. While fat can be broken down into glucose for energy, the process is slow, and requires energy to do so. This means that stored fat will take time to be converted, and will usually happen when the rider is performing at about 60-70% VO2 max. For proper energy, the body draws on the glycogen stored in the muscles, which is more easily converted to glucose than fat. Unfortunately, for most riders, the body only has enough glycogen for about 90 to 120 minutes of sustained effort. This is when carbs are needed.

Proper ride nutrition, which includes liquids, while riding is all about timing. As the glycogen in the muscles is drawn down, carbs should be consumed to replenish the glycogen in the body. Carbs are measured as High or Low Glycemic Index (GI). The higher the GI number, the longer the body takes to break down the carbs. For cycling, high GI foods should be taken before the ride, usually the day before, in a process known as ‘carbo loading’. Slightly before and during the ride, low GI carbs are consumed to sustain the body’s efforts.

Sugar has its place in ride nutrition, as the brain requires glucose in order to function, and is good for a quick pick-me-up and burst of energy. The old saying, “eat before you’re hungry, drink before you’re thirsty” bears some truth. The key to adequate nutrition before and during the ride is to consume fluids and carbs on a constant basis, not as one giant meal. This process is known as ‘foraging’, and should become a prime component of the ride or training plan.


Water and energy drinks are compulsory for rides longer than 30 minutes. For shorter rides, water is adequate for replacing body fluid lost to sweat, while for longer rides, energy drinks contain both glucose and carbs. Fluids should be taken 30 minutes after the ride begins, and sips at 15 to 20 minute intervals. Avoid over consuming fluids as it will give the body a bloated feeling and may cause nausea.


Energy bars are good for replenishing carbs. Remember that these carbs take time to digest, so time your eating accordingly. It is better to consume a small part of an energy bar every 15 minutes than to eat the entire bar in one go. Drink lots of water to help the body digest the bar. Bars will come as all natural, such as muesli bars which contain real fruit and nuts, or processed bars, where the consistency will be much like a chocolate bar.


Energy gels are lighter and easier to consume than bars. While their taste and consistency may take some getting used to, when consumed with adequate amounts of fluids, gels will give the body quick energy. Mix and match flavours to avoid boredom when eating gels. Do note that gels may cause gastric upsets for first time users, so get used to them early on in training, and not during the race or ride itself.


The old standby of a banana and peanut butter sandwich has served riders well over many decades, and continues to do so today. Other forms of race food can be things such as arborio rice in rice pudding in bite sized packets, or raisins and dates. Avoid spicy or strongly flavoured foods while riding to avoid gastric upsets.


When riding long distances, cyclists will, sooner or later, encounter “the Bonk”. Simply put, a rider bonks when the body’s glycogen stores are exhausted, and insufficient carbs have been eaten to replenish the blood glucose. The medical term for it is hypoglycemia, which is abnormally low levels of blood glucose.

The Bonk is pain and suffering personified, when the rider forces the muscles to work, but they don’t have the fuel to do so. The greater danger is that the brain runs exclusively on glucose and, as the bonk begins, the body starts shutting down the glycogen supply to the muscles to protect the brain. This leads to the classic symptoms of Bonk, which is lethargy, tiredness, dizziness, trembling, profuse sweating and light headedness. As the Bonk continues, the symptoms worsen, affecting the emotional and thinking processes. This will show as irritability and hostility, along with a feeling of hopelessness and loss of awareness. At its most extreme, hypoglycemia leads to coma and death.

Learn to recognise the symptoms of Bonk early, in yourself and your riding buddies. Keep some simple carbs, like sweets or energy drinks which contain glucose, handy to keep the blood glucose levels up. Then consume more complex carbs like energy gels or bars, which take time to digest, to maintain the blood sugar level.


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