Last winter, I was really struggling with my cycling workouts. I was finding that they were too hard, and I was actually completely unable to finish.
I don’t mean the “ugh, this workout is sooooo long! It’s so very hard!! I just want it to be over, I am not sure I can take one last second!” dialog or mental doubt creeping in.
Seriously, I kid you not, my legs would just stop.
Either I would be so exhausted they wouldn’t turn, or my right calf would cramp up so badly that it was just a big fat NOPE! I would get off the bike, walk around, get back on, try to finish (I was actually laser-focused on this), and it was simply not happening.
Honestly? It was awful. I felt terrible about myself. I felt like I was weak, and that I just needed to push harder.
Mind over matter, right?
Well, in a word, NO!
If your body quits before you’re mentally done (a lot of workout stamina is actually mental), then your body is trying to tell you something. Either you are trying to do too much too soon, or you haven’t given your body what it needs to actually complete your ride.
In this article I am going to share with you exactly which types of foods you should eat (and when you should eat them), to have a successful cycling session.
On the days when you are pushing yourself to complete a hard workout it is absolutely essential to fuel properly for your ride.
Now, at first, I kind of laughed at this. I am not what I would consider a serious athlete. Just thinking of that word in relation to myself pretty much sends me into a fit of giggles.
I am an amateur cyclist that doesn’t even race and has no real intention of ever racing. I just want to get a little faster so I can keep up with my friends! I just don’t want to hold up the group!
Not only that, when I mentioned my issues with my workouts to a cycling friend, she told me I had to eat. I looked her dead in the face and said “No one has ever ONCE accused ME of not eating enough.”
So then, what on earth was my problem?
Well, in addition to rather blindly following a workout that may have been too advanced for my level of fitness, I quite simply wasn’t eating the right things at the right times.
My problem was what I was eating before my workouts. Or really, what I wasn’t eating.
I mean, I was great with making sure I got my post-workout recovery in. I had that post-workout recovery shake ON LOCK. That chocolatey goodness was my freaking MOTIVATION!
Speaking of motivation check out my 9 Awesome Cycling Motivation Tips!
In terms of the fueling before, I made the mistake of thinking that because I was cycling indoors, on the trainer, that it wasn’t a “real” ride, and that it wasn’t necessary to really think about eating the proper things for those workouts, and I just went about my day not even thinking about what I was eating.
In reality, you actually can end up putting out a lot more effort and power in an indoor training workout because there are no stop signs, generally no breaks, and NO DOWNHILLS (well, you may get a downhill on Zwift but if you have ever gone downhill on Zwift it’s just not the same kind of break as an outdoor downhill).
Strenuous indoor workouts are REAL rides and they require REAL FUEL, and it’s important to be mindful of this all day long if you want to get the most out of your workouts.
So, with that in mind, here are my best tips to fuel well for your rides so you don’t feel like every single breath on your bike is going to be your last!
Repeat after me.
Intermittent fasting/fasted training is a trend that is super popular right now, but it’s really just not a good idea for female cyclists. Though it may work in certain training situations for male endurance athletes, and ones who are really interested in completely maxing out their potential as a mobile human, it really isn’t a good idea for women.
Womens’ bodies are simply different from our male counterparts. Our fat absorption is different, therefore we don’t see the same benefits.
If you are a morning cyclist and will be riding first thing, try to grab a quick, digestible carb like a banana before you head out on the bike.
If you aren’t riding until later in the day, then shoot for a powerful protein/slow release carb combo such as oatmeal with berries.
Never Underestimate the Power of Proper Hydration
Hey, Stacy. This article was supposed to be about FOOD!
I KNOW, but you need to drink. Allllll day long. Just downing a bunch of water right before or during a workout is problematic…it won’t necessarily hydrate you properly and could uncomfortably slosh around in there.
One rule is to take your body weight, divide by two, and drink that many ounces of water a day. So, if you weigh 150 pounds you should be drinking 75 oz a day over the course of the whole day.
Yup, I know. That is a CRAP-TON (totally a word!) of water. It’s a lot to get in…do you really need that much? Could it be too much?
Well, thoughts on this are mixed. There is such a thing as over-hydration, and you want to avoid this. Also, drinking to thirst while in some instances makes sense (I mean drink when you’re thirsty! Got it!) can be problematic if you don’t happen to be thirsty or recognize you’re thirsty when your body actually needs water because you’re preoccupied with other things.
My advice is to just be mindful of drinking water frequently, and even consider an electrolyte mix like NUUN or HYDRANT to make sure that you are well hydrated throughout the day leading up to your ride, especially if it’s a particularly strenuous one.
Consider the Timing of Your Workout and Plan Accordingly
This one is really important. When you are working out should absolutely be the key to determining your plan for your cycling workout fuel.
If you are cycling first thing in the morning, you will likely not have a lot of time prior to your workout. Grab a quick, digestible carb, like a banana.
If you are cycling later in the day and will be eating lunch at least a couple hours before your workout, then focus on getting a solid meal in with more complex carbs, a protein, and some fat.
If you have about an hour or two before your ride, focus on a carb/protein combo like some peanut butter and crackers, or these yummy protein energy bites from Ambitious Kitchen. I have mentioned them before, but I seriously just can’t get enough. They are so delicious, and are an easy grab and go snack.
Also, if you are actually struggling just to fit in your workouts and come up with a training plan, be sure to check out my article on Indoor Cycling Training Plans for Women!
Make Sure You Eat Enough
I get it. A lot of us, myself included, would love to lose a little weight when we embark upon this cycling journey.
We see all these lean ladies and gents in their cycling kits and figure that you just ride your bike a lot and then you look like that. BOOM!
Then we start riding. More and more. Longer rides, longer distances. And we are FREAKING HUNGRY darnit.
So we eat more.
And then we find that instead of losing weight and looking nice and lean in our fancy kits we have actually gained weight.
I would be lying through my teeth (and I wouldn’t do that to you!) if I said that I didn’t struggle with this every single day. Since I started cycling regularly I have put on about 20 pounds. And, let’s face it, I was pretty heavy to begin with.
What I am trying to say is…the struggle is real my lady friends.
“Wait, Stacy, didn’t you just say we had to eat ENOUGH? What’s all this talk about eating TOO MUCH?”
Well, because it’s a constant balancing act. I have never been great at counting calories (that 20 pounds clearly came from somewhere), but the rule of thumb is that you want to shoot for a calorie deficit of around 250 calories a day if you want to lose weight cycling.
Anything more than that can cause problems for a number of reasons. For me, the big one is eating too much afterwards, or feeling like I am entitled to overeat later because of all the hard work I did.
So, if you eat enough to properly fuel your workouts beforehand you won’t be quite so depleted once your workout is complete. I found it to be even sneakier than that…I would be fine after the workout, but since I often workout in the evenings I would be ravenous the next day and eat allll the things.
I would not make the best choices, and this would sabotage that day’s efforts. I have learned this is simple enough to avoid just by making sure I get the proper fuel before my cycling workout.
Eat Real Food
I have tried so hard to find quick convenient food at the supermarket that I can use for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Some things seem to work pretty well…like frozen protein waffles or protein pancake mixes. Many things fall short though, and are either full of extra sodium/sugar or just don’t have the combination of carbs and protein that I need to fuel my rides.
If you like protein bars, I am so jealous! There are some good ones out there in terms of nutrition, but I just find them all to taste weird, or just be a little too much for me to get the whole thing down. And, you do really need to read these ingredients carefully to make sure that your bar isn’t full of sugar, artificial sugars, or preservatives.
I find that foods in simple forms work best. We try to make the majority of our meals from scratch using whole foods and natural ingredients. It takes some extra time, but I consider it time well spent.
We also buy as many organic things as we can without spending millions of dollars (again, balance!).
The idea is to limit refined sugar, processed food, and fast food as much as possible. It simply doesn’t have the same nutritional value as whole foods, and you may find it sabotages your cycling goals.
Eat and Drink All Day Long
This last tip is crucial. Eat meals, snacks, whatever you need to be satiated, otherwise you run the risk of making bad choices.
When you eat consistently throughout the day you keep yourself from experiencing the highs and lows of sugar spikes. You don’t want your body to run out of fuel throughout the day any more than you would like your car to run out of gas on the way to work.
If you fail to eat and drink regularly throughout the day, you may find yourself trying to play “catch up” and get it all in closer to the workout. As a result you may experience GI upset or just feel sluggish.
Alternatively, if you simply try to power through the workout without the proper fuel you may simply not being able to continue. This is known as “bonking.” For anyone who has been there while cycling, it is not pleasant, and can be somewhat serious. Your body has used up all its available sugar stores and it just stops.
So, let me know what you think and leave a comment below! What do you eat before your cycling workouts? Do you have a favorite pre-workout snack? How do you make sure that you are able to sustain the amount of power that you need throughout a ride? I can’t wait to hear from you!