Achieving Optimum Nutrition for Cycling

By Keoni Cabral, flickr Creative Commons

By Keoni Cabral, flickr Creative Commons

Guest post by Evelyn Pearce

Whether you cycle for fun, use it as a way of keeping active or for transport, eating well for cycling in these instances is just as important as if you were participating competitively. While you don’t need to consume extra food if you are not cycling a distance or for extended periods of time, the right balance of nutrients in your diet is still crucial. Here we take a look at the vital components of a balanced diet for cycling, the potential benefits of dietary supplements and ensuring you meet your fluid needs for the Spanish climate.

A balanced diet

Eating a balanced diet, which includes foods from all five groups – carbohydrates, protein-rich foods, dairy produce, fruit and vegetables, and fats – ensures that your needs for energy and nutrients are met.

  • If you have taken up cycling to aid your attempts to lose weight, be cautious of overly restricting your dietary intake. It is often the case that carbohydrates will be significantly cut when someone has their sights set on weight loss, but these are your body’s preferred source of energy; if you don’t consume sufficient, you will soon know about it when you get on your bike, as you will quickly experience fatigue. Equally inadequate carbohydrate doesn’t just lead to the loss of body fat, but loss of muscle mass often accompanies this; bad news for anyone who wants to take part in exercise. Therefore, include a portion of cereal, bread, potato, pasta, rice or an equivalent with each meal.
  • Adequate protein isn’t just needed to maintain the amount and strength of your muscles, but a number of protein-rich foods – notably red meat, oily fish, eggs, nuts and pulses – also supply iron, which is vital to supply your muscles with the oxygen they need to facilitate the extra release of energy required while you cycle. Additionally, protein helps to support the immune system, which can be hampered when the supply is inadequate, particularly if this is combined with intense exercise; keen cyclists who ride a number of times each week and push themselves could be at risk of this. Having two or three protein containing foods each day will provide enough to meet your needs.
  • Dairy foods don’t just provide additional protein, but are rich in calcium to maintain bone strength; to obtain sufficient of this mineral, have three portions daily of a combination of a third of a pint of milk, a small pot of yogurt or an ounce of cheese.
  • Fruit and vegetables are rich in antioxidants which help to neutralize the effect of free radicals, which are a product of metabolism and generated in greater quantities after exercise; if allowed to accumulate they can damage body cells. Consume in generous quantities every day.
  • While fats are often frowned upon, they are needed for the supply of essential fatty acids; these have a range of roles within the body, but omega-3 fatty acids – derived from oily fish, but also walnuts, linseeds and their oils – can help to reduce inflammation, which is often a feature of injuries.

Medium chain triglycerides

There has been much interest around the use of medium chain triglycerides (MCTs) as a dietary supplement amongst sport enthusiasts and those who take part in endurance activities such as long distance cycling. This particular type of fat is a smaller size than the regular fats that we obtain from our diet and provides a number of advantages above this.

  • Firstly it is more easily absorbed by the body, making it ideal for anyone with digestive disorders such as celiac disease, crohn’s disease and certain disorders of the liver and pancreas, but can benefit the general population who can experience a degree of fat malabsorption.
  • Secondly, they provide fewer calories per gram – closer to 8Kcal compared to 10Kcal – so are a good option for those conscious of preventing an increase in fat stores; while this is little consequence for recreational cyclists, for those who compete, carrying extra fat can hinder performance especially when cycling uphill or along more rough terrain.
  • A related benefit for fat burning is that MCT oil promotes the metabolism, aiding fat burning; but it is important that they replace your usual dietary intake of fats rather than being an extra addition to your diet or this won’t be achieved.
  • While they encourage fat loss, MCTs preserve lean muscle mass, which maintains your muscle function for cycling.
  • Another advantage is that like carbohydrates they are used by the body immediately as a source of energy. This allows the conservation of muscle glycogen – a store of carbohydrate – which allows you to cycle for longer; though to see significant results in excess of 60g of MCTs daily is required.
  • While they are not suitable for use in cooking, MCTs work well in salad dressings and can be added to fluids.

Fluid needs

Increased perspiration during an activity such as cycling causes losses of both water and body salts, which not only can lead to dehydration, but also disturbances within your body’s blood work. Low body sodium can be a particular problem, with reduced levels causing fatigue and muscle weakness, but if allowed to progress can lead to loss of consciousness and seizures, and at its worst can be fatal. Drinking according to thirst during and after cycling ensures that you don’t take too much fluid on board, which can itself dilute your body salts. Additionally, if cycling for an hour or more at any point in the year, water won’t be sufficient to replace your body salts; instead take a sports drink, which typically contain additions of sodium, potassium and magnesium to replenish losses. With temperatures reaching the mid to high twenties in many parts of Spain during the summer months, paying close attention to how much and what you drink is particularly important at this time of year.  Although the humidity is higher during the summer – particularly in the north-west of Spain, where it can rise as high as 80% – which reduces sweat evaporation, we still sweat according to our exertion and temperature. In the hotter months consider using a sports drink whenever you cycle, as it is surprising how quickly dehydration and electrolyte imbalances can set in.

Eating well and hydrating appropriately throughout the year helps you to remain in good health and condition, allowing you to enjoy the many opportunities for cycling that Spain has to offer.

“Evelyn Pearce is a freelance writer and mother of two. Born in Bloomington, Indiana, she first went to Paris to study French, failed, then went to England to do art history and photography. While love and kids got in the way of that, she retained an interest and has slowly begun to write on many subjects, but her favourite ones are always about art. Someday she hopes to take up photography again, well, beyond baby photos that is.”