Make no mistake: cycling is taxing on your body.
It stresses the cardiovascular system, builds dozens of muscle groups, and requires mental fortitude if you want to improve.
Your body goes through a rough process when you cycle, and if you aren’t fueling your body with the right nutrition, you will plateau in terms of physical health and cycling skill.
Cycling nutrition is just as important as your performance. Without the right nutrition to start you off, your endurance will suffer, your performance will lack, and your cycling progress will come to a screeching halt.
Your body is a fine-tuned engine; you just have to put the right fuel in to make it work the way you want it to.
Why is Nutrition Important for Cyclists?
Every single time that you pump your leg to move the pedal, or you dip down to push the bike into the ground to pop off a jump, you’re exerting energy. We all only have so much of it.
It’s true that a lot of your energy comes from sleep, and you shouldn’t underestimate the power of sleep if you’re a cyclist. But more than anything, that expendable energy comes from your nutrition.
What are you eating? How much of it are you eating? Macros, micros, and protein content? Nutrition has a lot to it, especially in the last decade or so with all the advancements, diet plans, and manipulated data. It can be dizzying.
However, if you stop and look around, avoid those morning shows that have clickbait titles like “Chocolate can make you lose weight” because of one obscure point in a study from 1997, and keep out all the fluff, you truly do know what you should be eating. Less fatty foods, l;;ess inflammatory foods like dairy, more lean protein like chicken, more vegetables, you get the idea.
You can find basic, “clean” nutrition programs that cut out all the garbage and filler foods out there. You’re going to need as much energy as possible if you’re going to be a hardcore cyclist. You still have to think that if you’re mounting your bike to ride home in your car, you need clarity and concentration for that ride home, for the rest of your day, and for other tasks.
You need enough nutrition to start, perform, slow down, and carry on through the rest of your day. Nutrition is one of the most important aspects of cycling, don’t let anyone tell you different.
How Many Calories Should Cyclists Consume?
Cycling isn’t just cardio, but that increased BPM is definitely going to force your body to burn through calories.
Mix that with the various muscle groups being worked out and the overall intensity that you’re putting your body through, and you absolutely need to have a heightened caloric intake.
But how much? Hold onto your seats.
If you’re getting into light-grade mountain biking, you’re going to bump up your caloric intake by about 500 to 1,000 per day. This is, of course, a very minimal increase and only used for light trailing and short amounts of time spent outdoors.
But for you, the hardcore cyclist, the one that wants to compete or cross intense trails that you’ve never been able to before, you’re going to want a ridiculous boost of three times the daily recommended caloric allowance.
Yes, that means anywhere from 6,000 to 7,000 calories in a single day (on the days that you ride). You’re going to burn through so much, and because of the afterburn effect that applies to your muscles, you’ll still be burning calories for hours after you’re done riding. That’s why it’s so important to have that increased caloric intake.
This includes pre-game food, snacks during your mountain biking excursion, and recovery drinks and food for the end of your travel. Basically, you need to stuff yourself with high-quality nutrition in order to continue your mountain biking effectively.
Without the proper caloric intake, even a fit person is subject to blood sugar drops, and you won’t really see any gains in your leg muscles. You’ll just throw your body into starvation mode.
In a little while, we’re going to talk about recovery drinks.
They contain macronutrients, which basically boil down to fats, carbs, and protein. We’ll talk about carbs later on, but for now you should realize just how fats are used by an efficient cyclists’ body.
Your body can, and should be using fat as fuel so you’re not burning important muscle or fat on your body. Fat intake can be used to make energy if your body is lean, your exercise habits are strong, and your nutrition is on-point.
We all know that protein is important for building your muscles and preventing any muscle loss after strenuous workouts. I don’t need to sell you on the idea that protein is good, but you may be surprised to find out that you’re not getting enough protein in any given day, even if it’s spent in a sedentary position.
Adult men of average weights need around 56 grams of protein per day, while women need about 46 grams per day. Doesn’t sound like a lot, but read the packaging on everything you eat and you’ll see how difficult it can be to ensure you’re getting your full amount every single day.
Vitamins and Minerals
Calcium, iron, zinc, magnesium. Vitamins C, E, B, A, D, and antioxidants.
Are these currently in your diet, and are they in your diet enough?
Your body burns through vitamins and minerals just by you being alive. If your heart is beating, you’re tearing through your stockade of these vitamins and minerals. The thing is, you don’t even hold onto all of them.
For instance, vitamin C isn’t housed in the body whatsoever. It actually has to be constantly acquired through diet, otherwise there’s none in your system. And we know how important it is for your immune system. You need to include it in your daily diet as a cyclist.
Vitamin D is partially gained from getting sunlight every single day (we’ll get into UVA and UVB rays at a later time, but using sunscreen still lets vitamin D come through). But a big portion of it should also come from your diet.
The list goes on and on. That’s why it’s still important to include supplements, which we’ll talk about in a minute, and why you should make sure it’s coming from food sources as well. To be a hardcore cyclist, whether it’s in the streets or on the mountain trails, you have to take a heavy, science-oriented look at your diet, and make changes where necessary or appropriate.
Don’t Forget About Water
Hydration. Man, this topic gets me down.
It’s estimated that half of Americans are dehydrated or not drinking enough water, so they’re not fully hydrated the way that they are supposed to be.
Water quite literally energizes your muscles, lubricates your joints, and turns you into an efficiency machine on your bicycle seat. Dehydrated muscles are also affected by the blood pressure issues that dehydration causes, so it’s a huge domino effect that continues to affect you.
When it comes to your heart, which is of course a muscle, it gets pretty grim. It actually makes it harder for your body to dispel or redistribute sodium, so your blood doesn’t travel as quickly as it could. When you’re pumping blood through your heart at an accelerated rate during mountain biking or even street biking, you want to have that maximum efficiency on your side.
That, and so you’re not damaging your heart more than you’re helping it. Hydration makes all the difference between causing problems and building muscle for your heart.
Should You Take Supplements?
Supplements aren’t a bad thing.
Many people benefit from them, but you have to realize that the digestive system is imperfect. Actually, maybe it’s too perfect at doing its job, because many nutrients never make it into your bloodstream.
Oftentimes, you’ll hear that it’s a waste of money to buy vitamin supplements. Someone will throw out a random statistic (because I swear nobody has ever agreed on the percentage) saying that something crazy like 90% of the pills never make it past the stomach.
Well, that’s still 10% more nutrition than you had before. You’ll quickly realize that in order to hit that calorie ceiling we talked about earlier, you’re going to need to stuff yourself to the point that you feel sick, and we don’t want that. Supplements can help.
Recovery drinks are designed to help your body recuperate after a long and serious mountain biking trek.
If you’re having a difficult time maintaining your energy levels after a ride, you’re not alone, but you do need to do something about it.
It’s normal to feel a bit of fatigue and even muscle soreness when you’re done on your mountain bike. In fact, without that, you might not have pushed yourself as far as you could have. But recovery drinks help to deliver nutrition and hydration to the parts of your body that need it the most.
Recovery drinks are primarily made up of proteins, fats, and carbohydrates. I know, carbs are everyone’s enemy for some reason, but that’s just because we live in a carb-rich, carb-focused world (in the US where I’m from, at least). It’s easy to demonize carbs… until you realize that they’re essentially fuel for your brain.
Plus, you just burned all those calories. You did a ton of work. It’s not like you’re eating an entire loaf of French bread or scoffing down half-a-dozen bagels or anything. There are good carbs and bad carbs. It all depends on the source.
So what happens when you mix all of these components together?
You end up with a pretty sweet concoction that helps your body more than you might imagine. You can find tons of recovery drink recipes depending on the severity of your workout, with calorie and nutritional information as well so you can gauge the appropriate serving.
Caffeine: Yes or No?
Yes, yes, and absolutely yes.
Caffeine is something we commonly associate with waking up in the morning, headaches, and sometimes even addiction, but it’s actually extremely powerful and useful for your body.
Caffeine actually increases activity in the central nervous system, which shouldn’t really be a shocker there since it’s in the world’s top two go-to morning beverage choices, but it also helps your muscles. Your blood vessels are actually restricted from caffeine consumption, increasing blood pressure and waking your body up. Yeah, it literally wakes your body up.
But it’s not just about caffeine, it’s about the source of caffeine. If you chug a Monster energy drink or a Red Bull, you’re doing a major disservice to your body (and your gut health, for that matter). Caffeine should come from coffee or tea. In tea, you’re getting a pretty clean substance.
That is to say that there’s minimal processing, and in some cases no processing at all. That means no additional chemicals entering your body that you didn’t want to be there in the first place.
Cycling the Smart Way
Make a nutrition plan, and stick to it.
We all have different tastes, but what matters is getting the right blend of nutrients and vitamins in your system so that your body is primed for your next cycling session.
Don’t skimp out—think of food as fuel for the body, and failing to fuel-up before a trip means you’ll eventually break down.