Today, I want to discuss my approach to nutrition as a professional cyclist, including my pre- and post-race fueling strategies, how I manage my hydration and electrolyte levels during a race, and the role of carbohydrates and protein in my diet. I will also share some of the challenges I have faced regarding nutrition and how I have overcome them.
I hope that my experiences and insights will be helpful to aspiring and experienced cyclists and anyone interested in the role of nutrition in sports performance. So, let’s dive in and explore some best practices for cycling nutrition.
Ensuring proper fuel means starting the pre-race meal two days in advance
In cycling, your ‘pre-race meal’ actually starts a couple of days before the event. That means we stop eating fruits and veggies (reducing fibre in our diet) and focus on carboloading. In other words, I switch from a diverse diet to overloading my plate with rice, pasta or bread, and simple carbs that turn into energy I will need later in the race.
We also focus on proper hydration, followed by more pasta and rice for dinner. I consume rice pudding with banana and honey the morning before the race. It sounds pretty simple and, in some ways, boring, but the truth is that all you need is just simple carbs to ride fast. Of course, sometimes it’s tough to come to terms with it—especially when I’m racing every week and start missing greens and fresh fruits. I have accepted it, though. I just focus on the fact that it is an essential element of training.
Managing hydration and electrolyte levels is crucial, especially in hot or humid conditions
When it comes to hydration during a race, I make sure I drink at least 1.5 of water mixed with electrolytes after the race and focus on oversalting my meals. That said, everyone is different, and some people adapt well to heat. In my case, though, if I don’t pay close attention, I end up with cramps and empty legs. Generally, I also supplement magnesium and sodium before the race and stay mindful throughout to drink two bottles of sports drink per hour. This keeps me from encountering any problems.
Any good nutrition plan needs to be adaptable and accessible
Naturally, my nutrition needs change according to the race. The longer the race and the more challenging the weather conditions are, the more I fuel beforehand. This is because it might be hard to intake a good amount of carbs due to the mental fatigue caused by crazy sun or pouring rain. It’s always better to store more energy in your body than dip into a glycogen deficit. That can cause slow recovery and potential fitness loss.
I also started quite recently to put my food not only in my jersey pockets but also underneath my shorts and sleeves, so I am constantly reminded about taking more food in. In the past, I would write a little note like “eat, drink, breath” and stick it on my handlebars.
Prioritise carbs, but be mindful of gluten
Fortunately, I don’t have any dietary restrictions, and that means I can easily monitor and adjust the variety of food I need to consume before the race. Generally, I only pay attention to making sure that I don’t eat too much gluten day after day, as it requires more for the body to process and can cause some power loss.
It is about listening to your body and adapting your approach over time. For example, I used to think that to recover I just needed to eat protein. To some extent I was right, but only partially. Many people forget that to recover, your body needs more carbs, and then it is ready for protein. We always pay attention to the 30min-60min window after the race or intensive workout. It’s cool cause you can consume anything you like, and your body will burn it immediately without saving for later. In that window, it’s essential to refuel with fast energy, which is sugar, and that’s also why most of the recovery shakes contain a high percentage of simple sugar. Once this is done, we just focus on proteins like meat, yoghurt, cottage cheese or tofu at dinner time.
A few calculations can go a long way
Getting into the numbers can be a helpful strategy to figure out exactly how much food you need. Working with my nutritionist, we estimate the amount of kJ I burn in the race and transfer that into the grams of rice or pasta I need. It is commonly known that women should consume around 80g of carbs per hour during the race, which could be as much as three rice cakes, energy gels, or two energy bars. For those who preferred fueling in liquid form, it would mean two bottles of highly concentrated sports drink.
Ultimately, the best advice I can give is to be in constant dialogue with your body. By fueling right before and during the race, you are more likely to make it to the end feeling relatively fresh and ready to expend even more energy. Although it can sometimes feel uncomfortable eating so much, it does pay off. Getting a blood test to see your electrolyte levels so you know how much of what needs to be supplemented is also a super helpful place to start.