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The dietary needs of cyclists should aim to meet the physiological demands of the sport. Road cycling is predominantly an endurance sport that utilizes aerobic methods of energy production. The nutritional needs of cyclists will vary according to their level of participation, the length and intensity of training sessions and the fitness goals of each session or training period. The primary goal of a successful nutrition program should be to provide sufficient energy for performance and recovery.

Secondary to this, the dietary distribution can be manipulated to improve or maintain an ideal weight. Power to weight ratio is a key indicator of performance and can be enhanced by manipulating body fat and lean mass levels. In addition to these aspects a successful race day nutrition plan can assist performance. Practicing correct refueling should be part of the training program. Special considerations must also be made for multi-day events where nutritional requirements and logistics are unique.

Total Food Intake

The volume of food required by elite cyclists is quite significant and can often only be achieved with a regular intake of energy dense foods, sometimes 5-6 meals and snacks per day. A high carbohydrate diet provides fuel for the muscles, assists immune function and helps prevent over-training symptoms. The amount of carbohydrate required is dependent on body weight and the exercise load. Cyclists riding 200-300 km per week may need around 5 g/kg/day where elite cyclists covering up to 1000 km per week will need 10-12 g/kg/day. Lean protein sources should accompany most meals and snacks, endurance athletes have one of the highest protein requirements and 2kg/day is not uncommon. Sufficient protein allows recovery and muscle adaptation to occur, as well as assisting immune function. 7-9 portions of fruit and vegetables should be consumed daily, which will add toward carbohydrate goals and provide vitamins, minerals and other plant nutrients that may contribute to improved recovery, immune function, inflammation and muscle glycogen repletion.

Training Nutrition

There are 2 nutritional approaches that can be considered for any training session which is dependent on the physiological goal of that session.

For performance measures (time trial, speed/power assessments)

  • Start each session well hydrated and properly fed
  • For sessions longer than 70 minutes top up with carbohydrate, 30-60 g per hour
  • Energy drinks/gels/bars, sweets, fruit, sandwiches and baby potatoes are common choices
  • For sessions longer than 3 hours up to 90 g of carbohydrate may be required
  • This must be in the form of a multi-transportable carbohydrate (glucose/maltodextrin and fructose mix)

For long, slow distance sessions and enhanced fitness gains:

  • Start your session hydrated but fasted (glycogen depleted) i.e. no food or energy containing drinks for 8-10 hours
  • This can enhance the physiological (fitness) adaptation to the session
  • Do not train this way more than once or twice per week
  • A low carbohydrate dinner after an evening training session, before a morning ride can facilitate this
  • Alternatively refraining from carbohydrate replenishment after a high intensity session early in the day prior to a second low intensity session later in the day will provide a similar outcome
  • For sessions longer than 70 minutes top up with carbohydrate, 30-60 g per hour


Fluid requirements should be determined on an individual basis by comparing pre- and post exercise weights where possible. Any weight loss during a session can be assumed to be equivalent to fluid loss and this should be replaced with an electrolyte and carbohydrate containing drink. A sports drink usually contains sufficient electrolytes and will also provide carbohydrate to assist glycogen replenishment. There is some conjecture in this area and an alternative approach is to drink to thirst. Each cyclist should find a solution that works for them. Both over and under hydrating can have a negative impact on performance and health.


Recovery nutrition is vital, particularly for those with a high training load or minimal time between exercise sessions. Post exercise meals or drinks should be a combination of carbohydrate (1-1.2 g/kg or 60-90 g) with a high leucine source of protein (at least 20 g). This can be in the form of recovery shakes if necessary or food sources such as combinations of flavored milk, fruit juices, sports drinks, sweets, cereal bars, yoghurt, sandwiches with egg, lean meat or fish filling or biltong.

Competition Nutrition

In the days leading up to a race, training should naturally begin to taper to a light load. This should occur in conjunction with maintenance of a high carbohydrate, nutrient dense intake, to maximize fuel (glycogen) stores. Nitrate loading with dietary nitrates in the form of beetroot, beetroot juice, spinach, rocket, lettuce and cabbage can also assist performance. All races should be started well fed and fully hydrated. If you have the time before your race aim to have a high carbohydrate breakfast with some fiber and protein 4 hours before the start. A carbohydrate snack 1-2 hours before the event should provide a quick top-up of blood glucose. If your time between waking and competing is limited, then focus on the snack only. The type of carbohydrate will not necessarily impact performance and it is best to experiment during training to see what works best for you and what is well tolerated. Ensure that you consume small volumes of fluid with each meal and snack, to assist hydration. Liquids may also be better tolerated when nerves are high.

Good ideas for breakfasts or snacks include cereals or porridge with low fat milk, fruit and yoghurt with toast, a sandwich with a low-fat filling, crumpets or muffins with fruit and yoghurt, a baked potato with a low-fat filling, a liquid meal replacement or a smoothie.

During the race the same concept for carbohydrate replenishment, as mentioned in Training Nutrition, should be followed. These are elements that should have been practiced to allow the gut to be trained to absorb a high level of carbohydrate. DO NOT TRY ANYTHING NEW ON RACE DAY.

Multi-stage event athletes must ensure that their carbohydrate requirements are met during the event, along with a strict focus on recovery nutrition. See Training Nutrition for comments on recovery snacks. These should be consumed as soon as possible after the stage and subsequently every hour until the next meal. The multi-stage cyclist should not ignore the importance of consuming protein or other nutrient-dense foods (fats, fruit and vegetables) between each stage. Protein-containing foods or drinks can be used while on the bike, to preempt recovery too.


Whole food sources should provide for a majority of the nutrient needs discussed here. However, it is well accepted that certain supplements may assist in achieving nutritional requirements or benefit performance. Carbohydrate sources are the most common and beneficial. Certain other compounds, such as caffeine, blood buffers, nitrates or vitamins and minerals overcome deficiencies, as described earlier. It is vital that athletes choose both SAFE and EFFECTIVE supplements where necessary, and consult with a specialist in the area to make the correct decision on supplement use.

We recommend the following supplements:

  • GU Energy sachets
  • USN Pure Fit Pro Enduro
  • 32GI
  • PVM Octane and Reignite

Our sports nutritionists are always available to assist you with particular nutritional needs or more information regarding your activities of choice and related nutritional needs. Please don’t hesitate to contact us in any event. Whatever blows your hair back, we are here to help ensure optimal health and wellness, from beginning to end.

Adventure is out there, so let us help you get there sooner, safer and stronger!