Arnie Baker, M.D. wrote a good column on Cycling Nutrition: How to Eat After Rides. I’ve coached at camps with Dr. Baker and have several of his books. His key points are:
- Refueling after exercise is a proven recovery strategy.
- The sooner the better. Refueling during exercise is best.
- Prompt refueling benefits both endurance and strength athletes.
- Prompt refueling benefits aerobic and anaerobic work.
- Aim to ingest at least 50 grams of carbohydrate (200 calories) within the first 30 minutes after exercise and again every hour for the next 3 hours, up to caloric deficit.
- Some fat and some protein with the carbohydrate is no problem.
- “Real food” is probably better than specialty sports products.
Refueling after exercise benefits all roadies whether you ride for fun with your friends, for better health, for greater endurance and for performance. How you should fuel depends on the kind of riding you do.
During a ride, your source(s) of energy will vary, depending on how hard you are riding. On an endurance ride fat contributes a significant fraction of the energy. As the intensity increases, carbohydrate provides more energy. When you are riding below your anaerobic threshold (AT), fat and carbohydrates provide approximately equal amounts of energy, and above AT the major energy source is carbohydrate. We all have enough body fat – even the pros – to provide energy. Carbohydrate is stored as glycogen in your muscles and liver, and your glycogen stores are limited.
If you are a recreational rider out for several hours, then you won’t exhaust your glycogen stores. If you ride a century or a hard multi-hour club ride, then you at least partially deplete your glycogen stores. How depleted you are depends on how hard or long you ride and how many carbs you’ve consumed during the ride. The Position Paper: Nutrition and Athletic Performance by the American Dietetic Association, Dietitians of Canada and the American College of Sports Medicine recommends eating 30 to 60 grams (120 to 240 calories) of carbs per hour. For more information see my column Ride, Eat, Enjoy.
Recovery Nutrition for Endurance Riders
Nancy Clark, MS, RD, CSSD in The Science of Fueling or Performance says, “Endurance athletes need three times more carbs than protein to optimally fuel their muscles. If you are on a high protein (or high fat) diet, you could easily be missing that goal. Poorly fueled muscles have a higher risk of becoming damaged during exercise.”
More specifically, “After an exhausting workout, a 155-lb (70 kg) athlete should consume about 450 calories of recovery food. The ideal target is 25-30 grams protein + ~85 grams carb as soon as tolerable.” A gram of protein and a gram of carbs each have four calories. So 30g of protein provide 120 calories and 85 grams of carbs provide 340 calories. Don’t get obsessed figuring out exactly what you should consume – just eat mostly carbs with some protein.
Protein for Older Riders
Clark says, “Muscle power starts to decline about age 30; strength at about age 40. By lifting weights, you can curb that loss; use it or lose it! To reduce muscle loss, do ‘protein pacing’ – eating protein evenly throughout the day. This is preferable to having a big chunk of protein just at dinner.”
My eBook Anti-Aging 12 Ways You Can Slow the Aging Process includes 24 different strength exercises illustrated with photos. The 17-page Healthy Nutrition Past 50 describes in much more detail what you should eat and drink.
Timing of Recovery Nutrition
Baker recommends starting to eat those carbs within 30 minutes of getting off the bike (the glycogen window). Eating in the glycogen window is critical for roadies working out twice a day or doing very long rides (for example, a multi-day tour) when there is limited time after a ride to recover for the next ride.
When you have eight hours or more until the next day’s ride, eating this much as soon as you get off the bike isn’t critical as long as you eat enough carbs over 24 hours. In order to get enough carbs Dan Benardot in Advanced Sports Nutrition recommends eating six smaller meals rather than the traditional three. One meal should be your recovery nutrition.
During a ride you should drink to satisfy your thirst rather than trying to drink so much that you don’t get dehydrated at all. The pros can’t drink enough during a race to stay fully hydrated but they can climb and sprint hard! After a race the pros drink 1.5 times the fluid lost so they’re replacing both the fluid lost and what they need for the hours post-race. They drink this much over several hours.
Drinking too much during a ride can be dangerous. See my column Ride, Eat, Enjoy.
When I started riding in the 1970s there were no sports drinks or bars. I drank diluted orange juice, ate cookies and rode quite well. One year I was doing a self-supported camping tour in the Sierra Nevada mountains in California. I’d climbed part-way up the west side of Sonora Pass (9,623 ft.) and had camped for the night. Another cyclist, Michael, rode up and I offered to share my campsite. He’d come over Sonora from the east and I asked him about the rest of the pass that I’d ride the next day. He pulled out a box of Wheat Thins, started munching on them as his recovery food and offered them to me.
As we chowed down he told me about climbing the 26% grade above Roadmaster curve on the east side. The brakes on cars descending the east side would give out and the cars would crash on the curve. On the east side he’d walked down the Golden Staircase (named for the granite), which had a maximum grade of 20%. The next day I managed to climb the Golden Staircase and then walked down the 26% on the other side.
Since then Wheat Thins have been my favorite recovery snack. A serving of 16 crackers has 140 calories: 88 calories of carbs, 45 calories of fat, 8 calories of protein (lower than Nancy Clark’s recommendation) and a whopping 230 mg of sodium. I’ve tried all the special recovery drinks and keep coming back to crackers, which are cheaper, tastier and more readily available.
I’m not recommending Wheat Thins. They’re just one example of the many kinds of real food that both Dr. Baker and I recommend. If you step into a team bus after a pro race the riders may drink a recovery drink but mostly they’re eating real food, too.
Here are several related columns of mine:
- Cycling Recovery Tips for Older Riders
- Ask the Coach: How Much Recovery Do You Need?
- What’s the Best Food for Cycling
- 14 Nutrition Tips for Endurance Riders
My eArticle Optimal Recovery for Improved Performance explains why enough recovery is critical to improvement. I describe how you can improve the quality of your recovery in the following ways:
- Replenishing nutrients.
- Relieving muscle tightness.
- Removing waste products.
- Reduce localized pain and acute inflammation.
- Relieve delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS).
I describe ten different techniques including what you should eat and drink after a ride, five different ways to stretch, how to give yourself a massage, how to ice correctly and whether compression garments and whirlpools really help. It’s illustrated with 14 photos. The 14-page Optimal Recovery for Improved Performance is just $4.99.
My eArticle Eating and Drinking Like the Pros describes in detail what they eat for breakfast, during a race, after the race for recovery and for dinner. What they consume may surprise you in terms of the variety and seemingly unusual nature of some of the food and drink. The findings hold lessons and benefits for cyclists at all levels. Eating and drinking like the pros offers you the same nutritional benefits, which you can customize to your own needs – typically at a fraction of the cost of commercial sports food and drink, if you choose to make your own. I worked with a professor of nutrition and an expert on hydration and electrolytes (both experts are cyclists). The eArticle includes a dozen recipes to make your own riding nutrition, each of which I tested with clients and friends. The 15-page Eating and Drinking Like the Pros is just $4.99.
Ride nutrition: The principles and recommendations for eating before, during and after a ride apply to all roadies. These are explained in my eArticle Nutrition for 100K and Beyond. Although written for roadies riding 100K and farther, all riders can learn from it. In addition to showing you how to estimate about how many calories per hour you burn I describe what to eat for endurance, tempo and intensity rides. I explain the difference between simple and complex carbohydrates and describe the glycemic index, which measures how fast your blood sugar rides after eating or drinking a specific item. I also discuss hydration and electrolytes. I conclude by discussing what you should eat every day to ride your best. My 17-page Nutrition for 100K and Beyond is just $4.99.
Coach John Hughes earned coaching certifications from USA Cycling and the National Strength and Conditioning Association. John’s cycling career includes course records in the Boston-Montreal-Boston 1200-km randonnée and the Furnace Creek 508, a Race Across AMerica (RAAM) qualifier. He has ridden solo RAAM twice and is a 5-time finisher of the 1200-km Paris-Brest-Paris. He has written nearly 30 eBooks and eArticles on cycling training and nutrition, available in RBR’s eBookstore at Coach John Hughes. Click to read John's full bio.