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Healthy Eating for Cyclists

Cycling Power Break

Generally for a long ride, eating before cycling helps to fuel your body.  It is suggested that your pre-cycling meal or snack be eaten 1-2 hours before you ride and that it consist mostly of carbohydrate, some protein that are low in fat.  Some examples of pre-cycling meals or snacks are:

  • A sandwich on whole grain bread with fruit, and a beverage of milk or juice
  • A bowl of whole grain cereal with milk and fruit
  • A low fat cereal bar with non fat or low fat yogurt and fruit
  • Pancake topped with fruit, non fat or low fat yogurt and juice

To help you stay hydrated, drink water, milk, soy drinks, unsweetened juices and even small amounts of diluted tea or coffee.  Aim for at least 500mL (16 ounces) of fluid 2 to 3 hours before cycling and an additional 250mL (8 ounces) 10 to 20 minutes prior to starting.

It's important to eat and drink during your ride.  It provides you with energy and rehydrates you.  Eating every 30 to 60 minutes during your ride will help you to ride longer and help you feel better.  At the same time, be careful not to overeat.  Pack foods that you can easily carry on your bike or stop at the rest stops to fuel up on small snacks such as:

  • energy bar
  • bagel with peanut butter
  • trail mix
  • fig or date cookies
  • fruit

During cycling, the rule of thumb is to drink approximately 150-350mL (5-20 ounces) of fluid every 15 to 20 minutes to keep you hydrated.  Tip: don't wait until you are thirsty before you drink. Especially if the weather is hotter than normal, you will need to increase your fluid intake to help prevent dehydration or heat exhaustion.  Some warning signs of dehydration iclude dark yellow urine, loss of energy, dizziness, loss of coordination, cramps, headaches, or unusal fatigue.

After cycling, it is important to replenish your body with fluids, carbohydrates and protein.  This will replace your energy stores and rebuild muscle tissues.  It will also help you for the next days' ride.  Have something to eat and drink shortly after your ride.  Water is great to rehydrate our body, as well as milk (chocolate or white), 100% fruit juice , sports drink or yogurt.  These fluids, together with a snack, will replenish carbohydrate stores.  Everyone is different and some sweat more than others.  If you sweat a lot during your exercise, you will need to drink a lot more fluids to rehydrate yourself. Tip: drink enough fluid until the colour of your urine is clear.

Sport drinks are not needed if you do not cycle for more than 60-90 minutes.  You can make your own sports drink by mixing 500mL (8 ounces) of unsweetened orange juice with 500mL (8 ounces) of water and adding a pinch of salt.  This will provide approximately 54g (5.4%) of carbohydrate and 0.5-0.7g of sodium.  It is important to avoid salt pills because they are too concentrated, require a lot of water for adequate dilution, and can lead to vomiting and diarrhea. (Information taken from keu messages for cyclist, Great Waterfront Trail Adventure, 2009)

The high-grade fuel that is required for muscles and the brain is carbohydrate - the starch and sugar in food.  Therefore, carbohydrate containing foods need to be the foundation of each meal and snack.  Sources of carbohydrate are Vegetables and Fruit, Grain Products, Milk and Alternatives, and Meat Alternatives. 

In addition to good sources of carbohydrate, cyclists need all the other essential nutrients such as protein, fat, vitamins and minerals.  Choose food from each of the four Food Groups to create your menu:

For breakfast include foods from at least 3 out of the 4 Food Groups
For lunch/dinner include foods from 4 out of the 4 Food Groups
For snacks include foods from at least 2 of the 4 Food Groups

Avoid trans fats by choosing fewer processed and packaged foods and reading labels.  Prepare meals using healthier, lower-fat cooking methods such as baking, boiling, broiling, barbequing, grilling, microwaving, steaming, roasting, sauteing, or toasting.  Reduce or elimate oils used for stir-frying and mayonnaise/dressing used in sandwiches or on salads.  Serve sauces, fats and spreads on the side such as margarine, jams, cream cheeses, gravy, and sauces.

Cyclists on a long haul need to start the day well hydrated and with a full tank of fuel provided by the evening meal the day before and breakfast the morning of the ride.  You need a steady supply of water on board and fuel throughout the ride provided by snacks and lunch.  Following the ride they need to refuel to prepare those hard working muscles for the next day's ride.  This is provided by a snack, immediately following the ride, and the evening meal (Healthy Eating Catering Guidelines for the Great Waterfront Trail Adventure, 2009)

Remember to keep your body fuelled-up and protected from the sun by wearing sunscreen and a helmet.

This information has been adapted from the Healthy Eating Catering Guidelines for the Great Waterfront Trail Adventure and the 2009 Great Waterfront Trail Adventure.

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