Cycling Nutrition 101: Essential Tips for Beginners
Maximizing performance and avoiding the dreaded 'bonk' with smart hydration and diet choices.
Feb 13, 2023
Hydration & Nutrition Tips for Beginner Cyclists
If you’ve just started cycling, figuring out what to eat and drink can be a pretty daunting task. If you look online or even ask around at your next group ride, you’re likely to get loads of conflicting information on everything from nutrition plans to product advice. So how do you figure out what’s really best for you?
When figuring out your nutrition and hydration needs, remember to take everything with a pinch of salt - including this blog! What’s best for you will come down to your fitness level, age, gender, weight, how hard you train, and a million other factors.
If you’re a beginner, you probably don’t need to see a sports nutritionist while you’re just getting started unless you have an illness or specific dietary requirements. But if seeing a nutritionist helps you feel more prepared and confident about getting into cycling then by all means book an appointment!
What is Sports Nutrition?
If you’re just getting into cycling, you’ll probably hear a lot of things you’ve never heard in mainstream diet culture - the dreaded bonk, carbo-loading, energy gels, and so on - it’s enough to make your head spin.
Remember, sports nutrition is a whole different beast to daily nutrition or diets optimized for weight loss. Instead of making you look a certain way, sports nutrition is designed to make you perform a certain way.
For pro-level athletes, this will mean careful eating plans focusing on macronutrients at specific times of the day, but for beginners, it may just mean taking an energy-dense snack along on a ride. While knowledge is power, sports nutrition is a complex science so you don’t need to overwhelm yourself by trying to go from zero to hero in a week.
Rather, learn as you go, see what helps you feel and perform at your best, and forgive yourself readily if you eat or drink something that’s not in your plan. As you become more experienced and knowledgeable, you’ll get a good feel for what works best for you.
Basic Nutrition Tips for Beginner Cyclists
If you dislike a specific type of food, it’s going to be difficult to stick to an eating plan that contains a lot of that food, so start by creating a list of all the foods you enjoy from the following categories:
Fruit and vegetables (e.g. avocado, tomatoes, spinach)
Protein (e.g. chicken, seafood, eggs)
Carbohydrates (e.g. bread, rice, pasta, potatoes)
Other (e.g. chocolate, granola bars, sweets)
You’ll want the majority of your daily diet to fall into the first three categories, and less that fall into the ‘Other’ category. When it comes to your cycling, what you should eat depends on how long you’ll be riding for.
For example, if you’re going on a one-hour early morning ride you’ll wake up in a fasted state.
Whether or not you should eat something depends completely on how you feel - if your stomach is already grumbling, you can eat a banana or some nuts. If you’re bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, you can wait until after your ride to break your fast and eat. For easy rides one hour and under, you don’t need to drink anything but water. Remember, don’t eat a heavy meal before a ride!
If you’re going on a two-hour ride with some challenging climbs, you should eat a snack 1 - 2 hours before your ride, and bring water and an electrolyte-rich drink with you. For rides that are longer or more grueling, you’ll want to bring some snacks (e.g. energy gels, granola bars, nuts) along too.
For beginners, it’s recommended that you bring along a small snack for any ride lasting over an hour. If you don’t feel that you need it, you don’t have to eat it but it’s a great way to learn how long you can ride before you need an extra boost of energy.
What Does ‘Bonking’ Mean?
If you’ve been reading up on cycling nutrition online or talking to cyclists, it’s likely that you’ve come across the term ‘bonking’. It sounds funny, but can be quite serious and even dangerous.
Bonking happens when your body has depleted its glycogen stores, leaving you feeling weak and fatigued. You may feel dizzy, your legs may start to cramp, and you may feel overwhelmed. In short, it’s every cyclist’s worst nightmare!
Because bonking comes down to not having enough carbohydrates for your body to run on, the natural answer is to increase your carbohydrate intake. Here’s the tricky part: It’s not quite realistic to cycle with a Tupperware of rice or pasta. This is why cyclists often carry energy gels and sports drinks along on a ride, or sometimes even a sandwich or pretzel.
If you experience the dreaded bonk, the most important thing to do is ingest some food and liquids. If you’ve forgotten to bring along a snack, don’t be embarrassed to ask another cyclist - bonking has happened to almost everyone! How long it’ll take you to recover depends on a lot of factors, and the answer is anywhere from “A few minutes” to “Call a friend or family member to come fetch you.”
If you’ve eaten and drank something and still don’t feel quite right, don’t push yourself to keep pedaling. A safe recovery should be your main priority; sometimes you just have to throw in the towel and tackle the ride another day.
Before you pedal off into the sunset (or sunrise) armed with our nutrition and hydration tips, is your bicycle also covered for your next ride? Sign up with Sundays Insurance for cover against theft, accidental malicious damage, optional worldwide and racing & event coverage and more so you can ride with ultimate peace of mind.