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Cycling Hydration and Nutrition: Basic Guide

Just like an automobile, cyclists need fuel. But instead of stopping at the Chevron station and filling up, you need to take care of yourself, topping up with food and drink throughout your ride. Here at some tips and tricks to help you avoid dehydration or the dreaded bonk.

 

DRINK BEFORE YOU’RE THIRSTY

Water is crucial to the function of your body. Water-enriched blood carries oxygen and nutrients to your muscles and whisks away waste. Water is also expelled as perspiration, the process your body uses to cool itself. When you exercise, it’s essential to replenish water and other nutrients at regular intervals to prevent these all-important processes from breaking down.

As you ride, remind yourself to drink constantly, even if you don't feel thirsty. Plain water is generally sufficient for rides of an hour or less, although there are energy drinks on the market that can provide quick energy for shorter rides. For longer rides, bring along an energy drink. These products help replenish essential carbohydrates, electrolytes and calories expended during exercise. There are many type of energy drink available, including liquid, powder and tablet forms.

In general, sports nutrition beverages are developed for three purposes: pre-ride, during ride, and post ride. Pre-ride drinks provide a natural carbohydrate energy boost, which prepares your muscles for exercise. Energy drinks meant to be consumed during the course of your ride work to replace lost stores of essential minerals and electrolytes, while providing quickly absorbed carbohydrates. Post-ride drinks replenish protein and vital nutrients to help re-build muscles after extended activity, and ward-off post-ride soreness and fatigue. For optimal effect, post-ride recovery drinks should be consumed within 30 minutes of the culmination of exercise.

Finally, note that energy drinks vary in sweetness, and may give you an upset stomach if too strong. To avoid this, dilute with water until you find the right mix. Also keep your water bottles sanitary by washing them after each ride. Most bottles are safe to place in the top rack of a dishwasher. If you prefer to hand-wash, a bottle brush from the baby aisle of your local supermarket is the perfect tool.

 

OTHER KEY HYDRATION RULES

FOR RIDES LESS THAN ONE HOUR

    • Drink at least 16oz. of plain water before you ride.
    • Carry and consume a 16-24oz. bottle of plain water or energy drink.
    • Drink at least 16oz. of plain water or a recovery drink (per manufacturer recommendations) after your ride.

FOR 1-2 HOUR RIDES

    • Drink at least 16oz. of plain water or a pre-ride energy drink before you ride.
    • Carry and consume one 16-24oz. bottle of plain water, plus an extra 16-24oz. bottle of an energy drink. If your bike frame cannot accommodate two bottles, slip the extra bottle in a jersey pocket or use a hydration pack.
    • Drink at least 16oz. of plain water or a recovery drink (per manufacturer recommendations) after your ride.

FOR RIDES OVER 3 HOURS

    • Drink at least 16oz. of plain water or a pre-ride energy drink before you ride.
    • Carry and consume one 16-24oz. bottle of plain water, plus one 16-24oz. bottle of an energy drink for each hour on the bike.
    • Plan your route so that you have options to stop for water along the way. Carry a few dollars with you, in case you need to purchase bottled water, energy drinks or other supplies
    • Drink at least 16oz. of water after your ride, plus 16oz of a recovery drink (per manufacturer recommendations).

 

PROPER NUTRITION

While cycling is an excellent way to strengthen your body, without proper nutrition it can actually make you weaker. Eating the right foods before, during and after your ride helps replace the fuel your body needs.

The human body typically has enough energy stored as glycogen in muscles to support up to an hour of moderate exercise. If you are active for longer periods, it is important to consume carbohydrates, proteins and other nutrients that can be rapidly absorbed by hungry muscles. Energy bars and gels provide a good balance of healthy fuel to power your body. They come in a variety of flavors and textures, and are formulated to be easily digestible. It’s best to try them out before long rides to make sure you like the taste and that they don’t upset your stomach.

 

OTHER KEY NUTRITION RULES

FOR RIDES LESS THAN ONE HOUR

    • Eat a small, carbohydrate-based meal (cereal, fruit or toast) at least two hours before you ride. Allow food to fully-digest before you get on the bike.
    • You most likely will not need to eat anything during a ride of this duration

FOR 1-2 HOUR RIDES

    • Follow the same pre-ride meal recommendations mentioned above.
    • You most likely will not need to eat anything during a ride of this duration.
    • After your ride, eat a small carbohydrate and protein-based snack (cereal, lean meat, fruit, whole grains, nuts or vegetables) to help your body recover.

FOR RIDES OVER 3 HOURS

    • Eat a solid meal at least two hours before you start a ride of this length. Avoid fatty foods and concentrate on healthy carbohydrates such as oatmeal, yogurt, fruit, toast or bagels.
    • Carry enough energy bars and/or gels to ensure that you have something to eat at least once an hour.
    • To maximize post-ride recovery, it’s best to eat a healthy meal within 30 minutes. Protein rich meats and vegetables, coupled with whole grains will help to restore muscles, while keeping fat levels down.
    • Get a good night’s sleep. Rest is the body's natural recovery mechanism.

 

RECOVERY

For rides between 1 and 2 hours, eat a small carbohydrate- and protein-based snack (cereal, lean meat, fruit, whole grains, nuts or vegetables) to help your body recover. After a long ride, eat a healthy meal within 20-40 minutes. This will help you switch your metabolism from a "breaking down and using" state to a rebuilding state. The timing is important because the rate at which recovery and tissue repair can occur is at its highest immediately following exercise. This refueling process cannot begin until you make that metabolic switch by eating carbs and protein.

Protein rich meats and vegetables combined with whole grains will help to restore your muscles while keeping fat levels down. If you face a lengthy drive home following a long bike ride, be sure to have some protein bars and a recovery drink on hand to start the recovery process within the optimal time period. Also, be sure to get some rest, as sleep is the body's natural recovery mechanism and should not be avoided.

 

TIPS FOR ENERGY AND RECOVERY DRINKS

    • Energy drinks vary in sweetness, and may produce stomach upset if too strong. To avoid this, dilute with water until you find the right mix.
    • Keep your bottles sanitary by washing them after each ride. Most bottles are safe to place in the top rack of a dishwasher. If you prefer to hand-wash, a bottle brush from the baby aisle of your local market is the perfect tool for this task.
    • Even with regular washing, bottles will need to be occasionally replaced. When the inside of your bottle looks darker than the outside, it's time to say goodbye.
    • Avoid using hydration packs for energy drinks. Bottles are much easier to keep thoroughly clean.

 

DON’T FORGET THE KIDS

Little muscles work just as hard as those of adults, sometimes harder. A simple ride around the neighborhood can feel like 50 miles to a small child. Make sure that children drink plenty of water while they ride, and stop as often as necessary to rest and recharge. Plain water is usually fine for most young children. Energy drinks may be used for longer rides, but dilute them with at least 50 percent water and follow manufacturer recommendations.

 

Important Note: These tips provide a basic overview of cycling-related hydration and nutrition, but should not be considered exhaustive. If cycling is a major part of your life, or if you are dealing with a particular health issue, seek out a qualified sports nutritionist.

 

Nutrition and Hydration