Riding a bike requires a lot of energy particularly if you are riding for a longer period of time and/or at high intensity. Your body can do this because it converts the basic building blocks of food, carbohydrates, fat, and protein, into energy that your body can utilize. You need to give your body these energy sources at the right time to digest and convert them to energy so you can cruise comfortably down the road or trail. Any food, more or less, is going to have some sort of energy, or calories in it but not all calories are the same. Eating the right foods at the right times will give you the energy you need to complete a short or long ride with the speed you desire.
What to Eat Before Cycling
In any endurance sport you are going to burn a lot of energy to complete your activity. In cycling a lot of this energy comes in the form of carbohydrates as well as fat. In general at lower intensities of exercise, closer to that of walking, your body is going to burn more fat than carbohydrates. As you ride harder and harder your body switches over to mainly using carbohydrates for energy as they can be converted to energy more quickly. The point at which this occurs depends on you personally and how you have been training as this point can change over time.
Having both carbohydrates and fat in any pre-ride meal is essential along with having a percentage of protein. In general, the focus should be around having slow burning carbohydrates such as oatmeal, whole grain pasta, or rice. Fat and protein can then be added to these basics to form a complete meal prior to your ride.
Oatmeal is a great, easy pre-ride meal particularly for breakfast. It is slower burning so it can provide sustained energy. Add nuts or nut butters, seeds like flax seed, and fruit, to get a good ratio of carbs to fat to protein along with a tasty, easy to make breakfast.
Rice is largely the new “best” source of carbohydrates as gluten-free foods become more and more of a norm. Rice is easy on your stomach and converts quickly to energy, if white rice, and a bit longer if brown. Combining rice with protein options such as eggs or chicken, is a good way to include some protein in your meal. With rice, it tends to be more of a dinner option that is often served with vegetables. For a pre-ride meal, skip the vegetables as they don’t provide very much energy and can be more difficult to digest. Save them for dinner where their nutrient density can best be utilized. To get enough fat, throw in some olive oil or butter. Butter is often looked down upon but it can be a good fat option that is also tasty.
Pasta is the tried and true tradition of cycling. When people talk of “carbo-loading” or what cyclists eat, pasta is often the first thing that comes to mind. It is for good reason as pasta is packed with carbohydrates and has a bit of protein. Whole grain pasta is a great lower GI (Glycemic Index) food that provides more sustained energy over time. Like rice, adding a protein option will give a good, well rounded meal including protein and fat as well.
Grains and Seeds
A newer trend that cyclist’s flock towards are grains such as quinoa, farro, spelt, wheat berries, and chia seeds to name a few. These grains and seeds pack a punch of higher nutrient density as well as more protein along with the added benefit of differing taste from that of conventional pasta and rice. These can be made any number of ways and due to their higher protein content, a side of protein such as chicken or eggs can be optional.
When to Eat
Eating the right foods before a ride will help your energy levels but to maximize performance as well as comfort on the bike, timing is important. Cycling is less harsh on your stomach in that you could eat a meal and go ride right after, unlike that of running where the jostling of your stomach would make you uncomfortable pretty quick. However, you still don’t want to eat a large meal right before riding. Right around three hours ahead of time is ideal as it gives your body enough time to digest while not yet being hungry for your next meal.
The Morning Ride
The timing of when you eat prior to a ride can be extra tricky with a morning ride because there simply isn’t enough time to eat far in advance. It is a good idea to eat something to keep you fueled but it needs to be on the lighter side. A small bowl of oats with berries and an egg is a great balanced option. Keep it mainly carbohydrate based also, such as a bagel or toast with nut butter and a side of fruit. With less fuel before your ride, you’ll have to make sure you bring something to eat during the ride to keep you fueled properly. Granola bars are a good easy, to-go option.
Eating the right foods at the right time will help your cycling in that you will be able to ride longer and faster while also feeling full of energy. There is no one food or one solution to fueling properly for cycling. Everyone is different and everyone has different tastes so using the above guidelines along with a bit of trial and error will give you the best foods for you to eat prior to riding.
What do you eat before a ride?