Food is your fuel when you’re cycling to work. So what should you be putting in the tank - and when?
Cycling burns calories, so you might think you need to radically rethink your diet when you’re cycling to work. You don’t. Getting the right nutrition for cycling is easy. You can be a happy cycle commuter on most diets: omnivore, vegan, paleo, or pretty much anything else. The usual healthy-eating rules apply: eat plenty of vegetables and limit sugars and fats - especially at the same time. In other words, you don’t have to take up a punishing cycling diet – unless you want to!
Of course, you will use more calories when commuting by bike, although fewer than you might think.
Cycling is efficient!
Calories burned by cycling will depend on your effort level as well as your weight, age, and gender. A moderate cycling pace might burn 300 calories per hour, while energetic cycling can burn 600 or more. Flat-out racing can burn over 1,000 calories an hour. Typically, since most cycle commuting is at a more moderate pace, you’ll be burning closer to 300 calories on a half-hour each way commute.
That means if nothing changes in your diet, you’ll lose weight - gradually. A pound of fat stores 3500 calories. That’s nearly 12 hours of moderate cycling, or about two and a half weeks of 30 minutes each way commuting. And that assumes you don’t treat yourself because the exercise has made you hungry; a single chocolate digestive contains the best part of 100 calories.
Cycle commuting by itself is not a licence to eat anything. You can eat a little more, and if you want to maintain your weight, you’ll need to. But you don’t need to eat like a bike racer, shovelling in carbohydrates like there’s no tomorrow (unless you really are a bike racer – or you’ve got a gruelling, long-distance commute).
What to Eat When Cycling
When you start commuting by bike, optimum nutrition and food for cycling is likely to be something you’ll consider – but our cycling nutrition advice is this: within sensible guidelines, eat whatever you like.
There is no real ‘best food for cycling’, but rather lots and lots of really good foods. It’s fashionable now in some circles to condemn carbohydrates as bad, and as something that makes you fat. Take such advice with a pinch of salt. (But not too much; high sodium diets are associated with raised blood pressure!) Simply put, too many calories make you fat – it doesn’t really matter where those calories come from.
Low-carb cycling diets can help people lose weight by reducing how many calories they consume. However, carbohydrates are also high-octane fuel for exercise. That’s why bike racers hoover them up. Even for normal people, the NHS recommends that ‘starchy foods such as potatoes, bread, cereals, rice and pasta should make up about a third of the food you eat.’
There’s a difference between these complex carbohydrates and simple, fast-acting carbs in sugary foods like confectionary and fizzy drinks, however. Sugary treats can be okay in moderation during or immediately after a taxing bike ride, as they’ll top up your energy levels quickly. Energy products like gels, bars and sugary drinks do essentially the same job, without the fat of biscuits and cakes. But unless you’re cycling for more than about 90 minutes at a time, you don’t need them. Save those gels for that summer sportive when you might need a sugar hit to stop you hitting the wall.
Do you need to revolutionise your commute?
Fat isn’t all bad either (far from it, in fact). Some fat in your diet is essential. Trans fats, found in hydrogenated vegetable oils, and in low levels in some meat and dairy products, should be avoided - period.
Too much saturated fat is bad too, as it’s believed to raise your risk of heart disease. It’s found in sausages, pies, fatty cuts of meat, fattier dairy products, and pastries, but it’s not universally bad (and some studies have concluded it poses no risk at all). While it’s better to err on the side of caution, so long as you’re eating a balanced diet, you shouldn’t need to worry about your consumption of saturated fat.
Conversely, oily fish, nuts, seeds, olive oil and sunflower oil all contain unsaturated fats, which are good for you.
A lot of people (especially those that do a lot of exercise) think they need to eat more protein, but getting enough protein shouldn’t be a problem for most of us (in fact, very high levels of protein can be harmful). Meat, fish, dairy, eggs, pulses and nuts all contain high amounts of protein, and it’s present even in foods that you might not think had it: 100g of bread contains 12g of protein, for example.
When Should Cyclists Eat?
There’s a saying: ‘Eat before you’re hungry, drink before you’re thirsty.’
It might be useful for optimum performance when racing, but for day-to-day life, hunger and thirst are better guides.
Don’t try to override hunger or thirst. You may well get hungry mid-morning after cycling to work. Have a snack. This works better if you’ve brought some healthier snacks – e.g. fruit or an extra sandwich - from home. A handful of biscuits is a poor substitute, and eating nothing can increase cravings for unhealthy snacks later on.
Breakfast and Ride In
The day starts and you ask yourself what should I eat before cycling? Making time to have breakfast, digest it, and be ready to ride can be a push, so it can be better to just have a cup of tea or coffee to get going and ride on an empty stomach. As long as your commute is no more than 60 minutes and you ride at a relatively low intensity, riding while fasting can help you burn fat as fuel more efficiently.
If you’re riding longer in the morning, you might want to consider having an energy drink to sip at during the journey.
Once you get to work, porridge is an ideal way to start the day. It’s rich in quality carbohydrates to keep you fuelled throughout the morning, alongside B vitamins, protein (from the milk), and calcium. You can add some fruit such as blueberries to get an anti-oxidant and vitamin C boost, but go easy on the sugar and golden syrup.
Other good breakfast foods for cyclists include proper muesli topped with fruit, or scrambled eggs on wholemeal toast. It’s healthy anyway, and if you’ve got a long commute it’s vital. This is the fuel that will get you there.
Mid-Morning Snacks for Cyclists
It has been a couple of hours since breakfast and hunger can strike. It is important to keep your blood sugar levels up, as this will keep your concentration and motivation levels high through the working day and more importantly, for your ride home.
As we move through the day a lot of people fail to maintain good blood sugar levels; one mistake being that they often go too long before they eat. A mid-morning snack will maintain blood sugar and energy levels. Needless to say, the best snacks are healthy snacks. A banana and natural yoghurt or a handful of nuts and seeds with an apple are both great choices.
Lunch for Cyclists
You are far more likely to eat well if you bring your own lunch to work and avoid the canteen or the dash to the sandwich bar.
Try whipping up something like a Bolognese or risotto the night before, and save some for the next day’s lunch. This is very simple to do and it’s tastier, healthier and more interesting than relying on sandwiches from the local supermarket.
If you’re unable to do this, look for meals containing complex carbohydrates, such as rice, potatoes, bread, or pasta, along with some quality protein like chicken or another lean meat. Remember, this meal is providing you with your fuel for your ride home.
Mid-Afternoon Snacks for Cyclists
If you’re planning on riding home and either upping the intensity or adding some extra miles, a mid-afternoon snack is essential. Even if you’re planning a leisurely journey home, you should have something to avoid an energy crash.
Ideally you should aim to eat 90-120 minutes before planning to ride. Choose something that’s easy on the stomach. Again this could be a banana and some yoghurt or, if you had that in the morning and want to mix things up, a small piece of flapjack would be ideal. Look to consume about 250 calories.
What to Eat While Cycling Home
If your commute is under 90 minutes, you shouldn’t need any extra fuel but, if you’re going to be cycling for 90 minutes or longer, you might want to consume small snacks every 20-30 minutes from the start of the ride.
What Cyclists Should Eat at home
Before diving into the fridge, think about the ride you’ve completed and when you’re going to be eating dinner. If you have ridden too hard or too long and you won’t be eating dinner within 20 minutes of getting in, you might benefit from a recovery drink or something like milk and a banana.
If your ride was relatively short – under 45 minutes – a snack probably isn’t necessary, and water should tide you over until your main evening meal. A piece of chicken, fish or steak weighing about 200g is going to provide ample protein.
If you want to watch your weight then it’s advisable to keep pasta or rice accompaniments to no more than 100g raw weight. Substitute any extras for a side of vegetables or salad. Get in your brightly coloured vegetables like peppers and tomatoes; they’re high in phyto nutrients and anti-oxidants which help boost recovery, health and performance.
Cycling and nutrition is really important to make sure you feel energised and help you recover properly. If you don’t get the right cycling nutrition, you’ll really begin to feel it as the days pass. The same goes for getting good-quality sleep. Your commute doesn’t have to be gruelling when you eat the best food for cycling, and following a cycling diet plan doesn’t have to be gruelling either!
Learn about the scheme