How to Fuel Your Body Properly for Endurance Cycling
Nutrition for endurance cycling is unlike any other sport and requires planning and some trial and error. We will discuss goals you should be striving for based on what we know scientifically and through knowledge gained from years of working with ultra endurance athletes. Let’s take a look at what kind of calories will be needed for events that are longer than 5+ hours like Unbound Gravel. By the end you see why endurance cycling is more of an eating competition than you may think.
What to Eat Before a Long Ride
What you should eat before a long cycling event or training ride will largely depend on how early you wake up before the actual event. If you are starting at 6am then waking up at 3am just to eat a full size breakfast is likely not possible. Most cyclist will want to eat one to two hours before the ride and should be eating a small meal consisting mainly of carbohydrates with little protein and fat. You should have a goal of around .5-1 grams of carbohydrates per kg of body weight if you are eating within that window.
- 1 Hour or Less Before
- 0.5 grams of carbs per kg of body weight
- 2 Hours Before
- 1 gram of carbs per kg of body weight
- 3 Hours Before
- 1.5-3 grams of carbs per kg of body weight
- 0.25 grams of protein per kg of body weight
If you are able to be awake 3+ hours before your event without sacrificing sleep then a full size meal is ideal! This meal should consist of a much larger amount of carbs, upwards of 3 grams per kg of body weight, with the addition of protein, 0.25 grams per kg of body weight.
You should also take into consideration what you know your stomach can handle. The morning before a long 100 mile bike ride is not the time to experiment with a new protein pancake you just discovered. Stick with what you know works best for you and your stomach!
Basic Cycling Nutrition
Nutrition for endurance cycling doesn’t have to be complex. It can be broken down to a goal of 60 grams per hour of carbohydrates for most rides that go longer than an hour or two. However, as the time spent riding increases so does that amount you should intake, and the type of carbohydrates you consume changes.
What to Eat on Long Bike Rides
Consuming the right amount and types of carbs is key for longer events. A majority of athletes are under-consuming calories within the first few hours and set themselves up for failure later in the day. As you begin to approach rides longer than 2 hours you need switch from a single source of carbohydrates to multiple types to improve absorption. By intake a combination of maltodextrin and fructose with a 1:1 ratio the body can digest upwards of 2 grams per minute with proper training.
You should have a goal of 90 grams of carbohydrates every hour. This can sound like a massive amount but with brands like SiS and Maurten offering drink mixes close to this range the goal becomes easily within reach. Using a drink mix can help you accomplish your caloric goals, as well as providing 20-28 fluid ounces of water every hour.
Train Like You'll Race
A part of having Absolute as your cycling coach means helping you dial your nutrition, but that doesn’t mean you can’t set yourself up for success by practicing your nutrition strategy on long training rides on your own. If you know that during the event you will be having to stop at neutral feed stops or gas stations, then start practicing with eating those foods on training rides. Be sure to look up what nutrition brand is sponsoring the event so you can experiment with it to prevent any race day stomach issues.
Nutrition for endurance cycling isn’t one size fits all. Just because one thing works for a friend that doesn’t mean it will be the right fit for you. Take the time to figure out what works best for you. For some that may mean having to eat more solid foods, like a bar, compared to others who can eat gels for 14 hours straight with no problems. If you end up having to eat an energy bar on longer rides, be sure to keep the fiber content as low as possible! Your stomach will thank you.
Your goals for a long ride:
- Intake 90 grams of carbohydrates an hour
- Ideally a 1:1 ratio of maltodextrin to fructose
- Drink 20 – 28 fl oz every hour
- Eat or drink every 15 minutes
- Eat a properly sized breakfast before
- Start your nutrition immediately at the start of your ride. Don’t wait until it’s too late.
FAQ About Nutrition for Endurance Cycling
250 – 350 calories per hour should be your goal during rides longer than 3+ hours.
90 grams of carbohydrates per hour is a great starting point for most cyclist during endurance events. Depending on how you react to that during training you may need to go as low as 60 grams per hour or discover you can go as high as 120 grams an hour.
It’s personal preference. Most individuals have less GI issues using gels or drink mix but on longer rides the addition of solid foods is a nice break.
* O’Brien WJ, Stannard SR, Clarke JA, Rowlands DS. Fructose-maltodextrin ratio governs exogenous and other CHO oxidation and performance. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2013 Sep;45(9):1814-24. doi: 10.1249/MSS.0b013e31828e12d4. PMID: 23949097.
*Pfeiffer B, Stellingwerff T, Zaltas E, Jeukendrup AE. Oxidation of solid versus liquid CHO sources during exercise. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2010 Nov;42(11):2030-7. doi: 10.1249/MSS.0b013e3181e0efc9. PMID: 20404762.
*Jeukendrup AE. Carbohydrate and exercise performance: the role of multiple transportable carbohydrates. Curr Opin Clin Nutr Metab Care. 2010 Jul;13(4):452-7. doi: 10.1097/MCO.0b013e328339de9f. PMID: 20574242.