Eating for success: nutrition advice for a 100 to 150km cycling race

What you eat and drink can make a big difference to your performance during a long cycling race, like the Santos Tour Down Under. Learn more about the best foods to choose before, during and after your ride, if you aim to cycle 100 to 150 kilometres.

What should I eat before a 100 to 150km ride?

The energy demands for cyclists can be huge, particularly as you increase the distance you ride. 
 
Carbohydrates are your body’s main fuel source. The body stores carbohydrates in your muscles and liver as glycogen. As you ride your body will burn through your glycogen stores, using this to fuel your activity.  It’s important to start with full glycogen stores and top up during your ride by choosing carbohydrate-rich foods before, during and after you ride to help maximise your capacity while riding and to enhance recovery.
 
Before you jump on your bike, it’s important to make sure you’ve topped up your fuel and fluids to prepare you for the journey ahead. 
 
To fuel your exercise, look to include foods that are carbohydrate rich (preferably low-GI), low fibre, low fat, contain moderate amounts of protein, and something you’re familiar with to help avoid stomach upset.
 
Two to four hours before your ride is the best time to have your last main meal:
  • Cereal, low fat milk and fruit
  • Baked beans on toast
  • A sandwich, wrap or roll with lean meat and salad filling, and fruit or yoghurt
  • Pasta or rice with lean meat and steamed veggies
  • Fruit smoothie and a slice of toast
If you’re not eating until one to two hours before you head out, it’s important to choose something a little lighter that’s easy to digest:
  • Jam sandwich made on white bread
  • Banana and a small tub of low-fat yoghurt
  • Milkshake (made with low-fat milk)
  • Muesli or a cereal bar 
Don’t eat too close to exercise, to avoid stomach upset. If you’re exercising first thing in the morning and you don’t have any time, you may need to have a late supper the night before. You can also sip on water or sports drink before your ride.
 
There are potential performance benefits of carbohydrate loading for events which last more than 90 minutes – the purpose is to maximise glycogen stores prior to your event. However, it’s an often misunderstood concept. A pasta meal the night before your event isn’t necessarily effective carbohydrate loading. Check out more specific carb loading meal plans here. 
 
The amount you need is specific to your body weight, training, event duration and intensity. The carbohydrates need to be spread across meals and snacks for one to four days before the event. You’re unlikely to gain unwanted body fat from these items considering it’s only over that short period of time. It’s also important to choose low-fibre foods to reduce the risk of stomach upset. You will also need to taper your training back as you carbohydrate load. Confused about tapering? It's all explained here. 
 
Carbohydrate loading is achieved by consuming a high-carbohydrate diet (providing between seven and 12 grams of carbohydrate per kilogram of body weight) each day for one to four days before the event. In order to successfully carbohydrate load it is important to taper back your exercise at the same time.
 
The following carb-loading plan is suitable for an 80kg athlete in the one to four days before the race; it provides approximately 580 grams of carbohydrates.
 
Breakfast
  • 2 cups of low-fibre cereal (less than 1.5 grams fibre per serve)
  • 1½ cups low fat milk
  • 40g dried fruit
  • 1 glass of fruit juice
  • Morning tea
  • 200ml tub low-fat yoghurt
  • 1 cup tinned fruit (with syrup)
Lunch
  • Sandwich: 3 slices of white bread with 2 slices of lean meat, and salad filling of your choice
  • 1 piece of fruit
Afternoon tea
  • 2 fruit buns with 1 tablespoon jam
  • 600ml sports drink
Dinner
  • 2 cups of white rice or pasta, cooked
  • 100g chicken (skinless breast fillet)
  • Tomato based sauce
  • 1 ½ cups mixed vegetables (e.g. grated carrot/zucchini, chopped mushrooms and celery)
Supper
  • 2 crumpets
  • 1½ tablespoons of jam
  • 1 glass of fruit juice
Girl drinking water after exercise - Bupa Blue Room

What should I eat during the ride?

Fatigue during exercise is often a result of two key factors: depletion of muscle glycogen (fuel) stores and dehydration.

The advantage of cycling is that you can carry food and drink on your bike to prevent this from occurring.

The aim is to refuel with 30 to 60 grams of carbohydrates per hour. Not everyone will be able to tolerate 60 grams of carbohydrates per hour so start off with smaller amounts during training to see how you cope.

Plan ahead and pack some snacks from the list below. Here are foods that provide approximately 30 grams of carbohydrates:
  • 40g lollies (e.g. jelly beans or jelly babies)
  • 1 standard sport gel pouch 
  • half a jam or honey sandwich (white bread, no margarine or butter)
  • 500ml sports drink
  • 1 large banana
  • 1.5 cereal bars
  • 40g sultanas.
Cycle shirts with pockets are ideal for storing snacks. You can also use a strap-on pouch to carry snacks. If you’re concerned that you’ll be carrying too much weight on your bike you can combine your hydration and refuelling by filling your drink bottle(s) with sport drinks. It’s also important to check out where aid stations are located and what drinks or food they provide.
 
Dehydration can be a major cause of fatigue in endurance events. So it’s important to understand the amount of fluid you lose during a particular ride to know how much you need to stay hydrated. The simplest way is to weigh yourself before and after exercise (weight loss during exercise is predominantly fluid loss) as each kilogram weight you lose represents one litre of fluid.
 
The aim is to limit weight loss to less than two per cent (that’s a 1.2 kg loss for a 60 kg athlete). Try to match your sweat rate with your fluid intake as closely as possible. Click here to work out your sweat rate.

What should I eat after the ride?

Exercise can put your body under stress – but in a good way! This stress helps your body to adapt and grow to take on future challenges.
 
Nutrition plays a huge role driving your ability to perform better during exercise and to refuel, repair, and rehydrate during recovery.

Refuel/replenish

A long ride will burn through a significant part of your glycogen (fuel) stores. In order to prepare yourself for your next training session, you need to replace these stores. Carbohydrates are your main food source to replace your glycogen. Your body’s ability to replenish glycogen stores is greatest within the first hour after exercise, so it’s a good idea to eat a healthy, carbohydrate-rich snack or meal straight after your ride. After this, continue to consume carbohydrates as normal to fully replenish glycogen stores.

Repair

Prolonged exercise, such as cycling, causes a breakdown of muscle protein. So you’ll need dietary protein to repair muscles and help them grow. Again, it’s a good idea to have some lean protein within the first hour after exercise. The Australian Institute of Sport recommends including 15 to 25 grams of protein after your exercise.

Having protein and carbohydrates in the same recovery meal further enhances the refuelling capability compared to having carbohydrates alone. 

Some examples of good recovery meals include:
  • 600 ml low-fat flavoured milk and a piece of fruit
  • A large bowl of cereal and a glass of low-fat milk
  • A can of baked beans on 2 slices of toast
  • A sandwich, wrap or roll with lean meat and salad filling, with a piece of fruit
  • A large bowl of fruit salad with a small tub of low-fat yoghurt
  • A rice or pasta dish with lean meat, skinless chicken or fish
Rehydrate

Again, it’s important to understand how much fluid you lose during exercise to know how much you need to rehydrate after. But how do you know how much fluid you lose during exercise? As mentioned earlier, jump on the scales before and after you exercise. For example, if you weigh 62kg before and 61kg afterwards you have lost 1kg. As each litre of water weighs 1kg, and you need to replace 120-150 per cent of the fluid you’ve lost, aim to drink 1.2 to 1.5 litres of fluid over the next two to six hours.

Bupa has been supporting the community ride of the Santos Tour Down Under for 15 years, encouraging you to keep active by getting on your bike and having a go, while raising awareness of the significant health and social benefits of cycling. If you're interested in learning more or signing up for the 2017 Bupa Challenge Tour, click here.

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