Had your fill of nutrition and diet guidelines online? There’s a ton of information about there – from the macros to the micros – but we’re going to focus in on one particular area; the humble carbohydrate.
It goes without saying that cycling – especially over lengthy distances – burns and utilizes a lot of energy and calories. Getting the most from your cycling requires taking a closer look at your pre-ride nutrition – and that’s especially true when it comes to carbohydrates.
Carbohydrates are your friend
If you look at your body as a car, then consider carbohydrates as the fuel in your tank. There’s no two ways about it; they are essential to you if you’re looking to maximise your athletic performance. Taking the form of glycogen, they are your direct energy source – and whether you’re embarking on endurance rides or taking on time trials, they’re the secret to optimising your output in the saddle.
Normal glycogen stores will last in a body for 12-14 hours, but two hours of sustained exercise will deplete the stores rapidly – which is why it’s not just important to eat before and during your cycling, but also afterwards.
So how can you get the most out of your carbs?
There’s two main approaches you can utilise when it comes to carbs…
- Carb cycling: A commonly used tool by athletes in almost every endurance sport, carb cycling involves staggering your carbohydrate intake across a week; eating more on days when you’re active and less on days when you’re not. It won’t result in your overall intake going up – instead, it ensures you’ll have the extra supply when you really need it.
- Carb-ing up: The thought of constantly changing your plans can be quite daunting, especially if you love routine. Another option, then, is to drop your carbohydrates across the board until you really need the boost – say, the night before a day-long ride. It might require a bit of thought in the kitchen and the supermarket, but you’d be surprised how easy lowering your average carb intake can be; alternatives to staples like rice are now widely available (cauliflower rice, to use one simple example), and using vegetables to bulk up meals in general can help too.
REMEMBER: There’s no silver bullet, so don’t be afraid to try both options and which one suits you best.
But what carbs will work best? Are all carbohydrates created equal?
A common question – for athletes and non-athletes alike – is what type of carbs are best for energy release. The truth is that different carbs are good at different times, so the most important thing is finding your perfect balance.
- Slow release carbs – Foods like oats, porridge, rice and potatoes are brilliant for providing a steady supply of energy over a long period of time. Be warned, though; they also make you feel very full, so things might be uncomfortable if you go overboard!
- Quick release carbs – These are your friends when immediate help is needed. Sweets and jellies are great for a quick sugar fix, while bananas, flapjacks and even sandwiches lathered in jam or honey are brilliant on-the-go options if a quick fix is required.
- But I keep hearing about energy gels? There’s a massive amount of energy gels on the market, all of which are easy to consume and provide a huge surge of carbohydrates. But while pros might wolf them down, these gels can take some getting used to; on an empty stomach they can leave you feeling sluggish, so take it easy when starting out!
The perfect combination for you, though, will depend on your body, your activity levels, your taste, and a whole lot more besides – so don’t be afraid to experiment to find the balance that suits you best!