Eating for success: nutrition advice for a 200km cycling race

If you’re planning to tackle a cycling race of more than 200 kilometres like the Santos Tour Down Under, you’re no doubt an experienced cyclist who knows your cycling inside and out! But achieving the right balance of food and drink before, during and after your race, could give you the edge you’re looking for. 

Nutrition is important for any sport activity, but it’s especially important when you’re planning to push your body to achieve huge distances.
Here’s some practical advice to apply before, during and after a ride to help you perform your best.

What should I eat before a 200 (or more) km ride?

The goal of nutrition before you jump on your bike is to set yourself up with a foundation to work from as you face the nutritional goals for the ride ahead.

This will give you a chance to top up your fuel and fluids before you set off. At this stage you want to feel comfortable and confident. 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 or porridge with low fat milk and fruit
  • baked beans or spaghetti on toast
  • a sandwich, wrap or roll with lean meat and salad filling, and fruit or yoghurt
  • a pasta or rice dish (avoid the creamy ones)
  • 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)
  • a cereal / muesli 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.
Should you carb load?
There are potential performance benefits of carb (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.
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. It can be difficult to eat the amount of carbs needed so you may need to use compact sources of carbohydrates such as sugary drinks and snacks. For a short period of one to four days you’re unlikely to gain unwanted body fat from these items. It’s also important to choose low-fibre foods to reduce the risk of stomach upset. 
For more on carbohydrate loading, check out our article.
You will also need to taper your training back as you carbohydrate load. Confused about tapering? Find out more here, 'what is tapering'.
The end of the Santos Tour Down Under - Blue Room - Bupa

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/butter)
  • 500ml sports drink
  • 1 large banana
  • 1.5 cereal bars
  • 40g sultanas.
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/food they provide.
Do you get sick of sweet foods after a few hours on the bike? Don’t suffer through flavour fatigue! Pack a Vegemite sandwich (use white bread, no margarine/butter) for a savoury hit.
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.

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 and 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 carbohydrates 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.
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 15-25 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 fruit
  • a bowl of cereal with low-fat milk
  • a can of baked beans on  multigrain toast
  • a sandwich, wrap or roll with lean meat and salad filling, with a piece of fruit
  • a bowl of fruit salad with low-fat yoghurt
  • a rice/pasta dish with lean meat, skinless chicken or fish and veggies.
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 1 kg. As each litre of water weighs 1 kg, and you need to replace 120-150% of the fluid you’ve lost, aim to drink 1.2-1.5 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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