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Cycling performance: why proper nutrition is important

It is one of the recurring doubts among cyclists of all levels: what is the best diet to follow to improve performance when training and racing? Proper nutrition can truly make a difference. Let’s find out the basic rules that anyone can follow.

 

When we talk about nutrition for cycling, and for sports in general, we must start with two simple yet important concepts:

  • The body needs energy in order to perform physically
  • The body must reintegrate the energy consumed during physical activity

Since cycling is a sport which depends on resistance and exertion, nutrient intake during the activity is essential. Moving onto the specifics of nutrition for cyclists, there are three fundamental moments to distinguish:

  • the time preceding the race or training session
  • the time during which the activity is taking place
  • the time following the race or training session

Before moving onto the appropriate diet for these three phases, it is of the utmost importance to stress that, in order to achieve good results in sports, a balanced diet is necessary at all times, even on resting days.

 

Before the activity

In the world of cycling, pre-race or pre-training nutrition is a fundamental detail that has a large impact on the results and on the athlete’s performance. Failing to properly feed your body before starting a cycling session is like starting your car with barely any fuel in the tank: what happens? With a car, it is possible to travel a few kilometres without any issues, but then the engine starts to pick up the dirtier fuel at the bottom of the tank in order to keep running, and therefore the performance of the car decreases, with the additional consequence of ruining some components. After a few more kilometres, the car stops.

What happens to a cyclist? The same thing! At the beginning, everything seems normal, but after just a handful of kilometres we start to feel that the energy reserves are low, and there is a change in exertion. The body uses all the energy reserves, but these are not sufficient for the necessary muscular effort. So, our performance is disappointing and, worst of all, we risk putting our body in jeopardy. Lastly, this situation affects recovery time, which becomes longer and more difficult.

 

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What is the correct diet to follow?

Amateur cyclists don’t need to have the same eating habits as professional cyclists; rather, they should follow a complete and balanced diet, with simple ingredients. When we speak about pre-race or pre-training nutrition, we must consider the entire period of time preceding the activity. Let’s suppose that our outing will take place in the afternoon. It is good practice to start the day with a healthy breakfast, rich in fibre and energy: grains, jam, honey, bread and coffee are great options. During lunch, carbohydrates are necessary (pasta, rice), which are transformed into glucose during the digestion phase and then used by the muscles to produce energy. If the meal is too distant from the beginning of the activity (more than 4 hours), the body may need some extra energy, which can be supplied with rapidly digestible maltodextrin supplements that can be taken before hitting the road.

 

During the activity

Cycling takes effort… and produces loads of sweat! This is why reintegrating liquids is one of the most important factors for cyclists. Simply put, drink up! Not too much, because filling your body with liquids will make pedalling harder, but not too little either. Balance is key.

What should you drink to reintegrate all the liquids lost during training? Water, mineral salts, or both. It is ideal to always have two bottles, one with water and one with mineral supplements.

If the bicycle ride is especially long, it is crucial to replenish your energies: in this case, maltodextrin is once again a great ally, which is contained in classic rapid- absorption gels along with carbohydrates, fructose and caffeine. These are recommended for those who aren’t planning on taking any breaks and want to take in nutrients while cycling (just like professionals do when racing). For those who want to combine a quick meal with a bit of time to rest, an energy bar is perfect. If you don’t have any gel or energy bars, you can also stop at a roadside café and have a sandwich with some coffee. All that matters is that you properly refuel your body after travelling several kilometres.

 

After the activity

Finally, here we are at the moment when reintegrating and recovering are key factors. This phase affects the performance of the following days, as well as our personal well-being. The nutrient that is absolutely essential here is protein, which the body uses to repair tissue. As soon as your bicycle is back in its station, it is good practice to have a protein bar straight away, or alternatively a banana, which should then be integrated with a proper meal including meat, eggs or fish. Lastly, it is recommended to stretch and be well-rested in order to promote recovery.

 

Conclusion

It is fundamental to understand that each phase (pre, during and post) is inextricably linked to the other two. What we eat before considerably affects what we eat during the activity and how our body will recover. Post-exertion reintegration affects how we eat the following day. A cyclist’s diet is like a chain: it needs to always be perfectly oiled in order for everything to work impeccably.

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