The Biker's Diet

Diet goes hand in hand with any kind of exercise. Without proper nutrients, cyclists will not perform as well as possible. And without physical activity, nutrients are not well utilized. What makes up a good diet for cyclists is essentially the same as what's good for anyone, though an active cyclist may need more of certain nutrients than the average person.

Building a proper diet is a matter of figuring out what the body needs and supplying the right amount of it. There's no magical guide to perfect food intake-each person has different needs. In fact, because there are so many levels of cycling performance, the variation in bikers’ diets is especially great. There are, though, a number of dietary needs that each person must satisfy. And there are many suggestions that will help each individual define a suitable diet.

What Your Body Needs

Our bodies get three things from the food and drink we take in: energy, water, and nutrients. Energy, in the form of calories, we've already discussed earlier in the chapter. Water and nutrients relate to energy in that they enable the body to function: to build cells, to perform physical actions and processes, and to replace needed materials.


When you consider that a person's body is made up of more than 90 percent water, it's not hard to imagine what can happen to us when we are not properly hydrated. Just a minor deficiency can result in heat exhaustion or heat stroke. Though it provides no nutrients or energy, water is the single most important component in our diet—particularly crucial for physically active people. It not only keeps the body cool through perspiration, it also cleanses the body, enables metabolism, and ensures that the body stays chemically balanced. Without water, your body could not process nutrients into energy. For heavy exercise, in which the muscles build up lactic acid, water helps flush out the acid that can cause sore muscles.

Other liquids, including juices and special sports drinks such as Gatorade, provide minerals lost through perspiration and replenish glycogen levels. Most are somewhat helpful for cyclists, but they can be unnecessarily high in calories. While they may improve performance in serious training, they may not be needed for regular fitness workouts. Drinks with caffeine, such as coffee, tea, or colas, will give you a lift but will also cause you to lose liquid through urination. For pure hydration purposes you can't go wrong with water. Water is calorie-free, so you can drink as much as you want.

Drinking too much water before a ride can lead to stomach cramps, but a moderate amount about a half hour before your workout helps prepare your body. If you go on a long or particularly strenuous ride, bring along a bottle (or two) of cool water and drink regularly—at least every fifteen minutes. Don't wait until your body feels weak and dehydration sets in—by then it is too late. Drink slowly; gulping down large amounts only causes stomach problems. And make sure you drink plenty of water after a ride to replenish any liquid you've lost through perspiration.


Carbohydrates are the body's main source of energy. Because they are absorbed into the body faster than proteins or fats, carbohydrates are a great source of nutrition for active people. To keep the energy supply at a level suitable for physically active people, a diet should consist of about 65 percent carbohydrates. Without enough carbohydrate intake, blood sugar drops, causing muscles to tire and fail; in extreme cases, low blood sugar can cause dizziness, nausea, even collapse.

There are two types of carbohydrates (carbs): simple and complex. Simple carbs (monosaccharides and disaccharides) are sugars such as glucose, lactose (milk sugar), and sucrose (found in table sugar and honey). They are absorbed directly and are therefore good for quick and easy energy in training or as a snack during long rides. However, they are burned quickly and don't provide long-term energy. And unless you use the energy provided by simple carbohydrates for exercise, too much can make you fat.

Complex carbs (polysaccharides), including starches and pectins, are made up of chains of glucose. They are found in foods such as pasta, potatoes, bread, cereal, fruits, and vegetables, though in smaller concentrations than in simple sugars. Because these take longer to break down, they provide long-term energy and are better suited for regular daily meals between workouts. And because the foods that have complex carbs also contain other nutrients, they help provide a more balanced diet.

Four servings of fruits and vegetables and three servings of breads and cereals per day provide enough carbohydrates for most people. The more energy cyclists need, though, the more carbohydrates they should consume. While a steady diet is most beneficial, racers often load up on carbohydrates a few days before a race to maximize their energy. If you increase the amount of carbohydrates you eat, be careful not to overeat. Overeating can cause a loss of blood to the muscles (because more blood is needed in digestion) and, of course, an unhealthy gain in body fat.


While proteins are a necessary part of every person's diet, cyclists do not need much more of them than anyone else. Protein in food helps the body form muscles, bones, skin, red blood cells, and the many biochemical proteins (enzymes, hormones) that make up our body. However, they are not a particularly good source of energy.


The following recipe makes a perfect snack to take along with you on a grueling long-distance bike ride. Keep one or two carbo bars in your pocket, to eat whenever you need an energy boost. Modify the recipe to fit your own tastes.


  • 1 cup raisins

  • 1 cup dried apricots

  • 1 cup almond slices

  • ½ cup sugar

  • ¼ cup toasted wheat germ

  • 1½ cups whole wheat flour

  • ¾ cup nonfat milk

  • 1½ teaspoons baking powder

  • ½ teaspoon ground ginger

  • 1 cup oats

  • ½ cup shredded coconut 1 egg

  • ½ cup molasses

  • ½ cup margarine

  • ½ cup nonfat dry milk

  • ½ teaspoon salt

  • ½ teaspoon baking soda

  • Directions. Whip together the egg, margarine, molasses, and sugar. In a separate bowl, mix the dry milk, flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt, ginger, and wheat germ. Stir in the liquid milk. Add the egg mixture to the milk mixture and blend together. Chop the apricots, raisins, almonds (if desired). Stir the raisins, apricots, coconut, almonds, and oats into the mixture. Pour the mixture into a lightly greased shallow cooking pan. Bake at 350 degrees for 30 minutes. Let cool, and cut into individual bars. Makes about 30 bars.

    Proteins are commonly found in foods such as meat, poultry, fish, eggs, cheese, and other milk products. For people who don't eat meat, a mixture of foods like rice, beans, tofu (and other soy bean derivatives), whole wheat, and nuts can fill the body's protein requirements. Only 10 to 15 percent of our diet should be made up of proteins, so it's best to limit high-protein food intake to two servings a day.

    Getting enough protein is not usually something we need to worry about, for two reasons. First, the body doesn't need a large amount, and second, Americans tend to eat much more protein than necessary. However, because the body cannot store excess protein, a constant (though moderate) supply is necessary. Excess protein is either discarded or converted into glucose (for energy) and fat. And because high-protein foods also tend to be high in fat, getting too much protein also means you're getting too much fat.


    Unlike proteins, fats are a good source of energy because they are dense in calories (higher in calories even than carbohydrates). Fats, though, are not as easily retrieved for energy as carbohydrates, so they are used as a secondary source of energy after the glycogen from carbs has been depleted.

    Of the two types of fats—saturated and unsaturated—unsaturated fats are healthier. These are found in grains, corn, soybean, nuts, and some oils (such as olive, sunflower, and corn). Saturated fats come from meats, poultry, fish, dairy products, egg yolks, and some vegetable oils. Because they are high in cholesterol, eating too much of them can lead to heart disease. However, fats are a necessary part of the diet—they supply fat-soluble vitamins (A, D, E, and K), though not many other nutrients. They should make up about 15 to 20 percent of your total calorie intake, with three-fourths of it from unsaturated fats. Like proteins, though, most people eat plenty of fat. It's usually not a matter of trying to get enough fat, but rather trying to limit it. Most Americans are lucky if their fat intake totals less than 30 percent of their daily intake.

    Some amount of body fat is healthy; it helps insulate the body from cold and protect it from viruses. Plus, it's the fat in foods that tends to taste good. Too much fat, though, limits the amount of blood that reaches the muscles, sometimes leads to heart disease, and of course, makes you fat.

    Because fats can take a long time to digest, any fat intake should come long before—at least three hours prior to—your workout. Otherwise, it takes energy away from your muscles and could hurt your stomach. The good news for cyclists is that, because they burn so many calories, they can take in a little more fat without gaining weight.

    Vitamins and Minerals.

    Vitamins and minerals found in all foods are necessary in the diet. While they are not nutrients, they enable the body to break down nutrients. A well-balanced diet generally supplies all of your vitamin and mineral needs. However, a good way to make sure you get everything you need is to read the chart of recommended daily values on the side of food packages.

    Our bodies use vitamins to control enzymes during metabolism and to form bones and muscle. Water-soluble vitamins—B-complex, bioflavinoids, and C—are not stored in the body, so they must be ingested daily. B-complex vitamins, used to convert carbs, proteins, and fats into energy (therefore very important to cyclists), are found in meat, fish, vegetables, milk products, and eggs. Vitamin C—which fights sickness and builds tissue, among other things—can be found in citrus fruits and green vegetables. Bioflavinoids, which assist vitamin C, are found in fruits.

    Fat-soluble vitamins (A, D, E, and K) are stored in body fat and can be dangerous if held in large amounts. Vitamin A, which helps grow body tissue, is found in vegetables and meats. Vitamin D, found in dairy products, fish, egg yolks, and green vegetables, strengthens bones and teeth. Vitamin E, which helps cells remain strong, is in wheat germ, nuts, grains, and some vegetables. Vitamin K helps bones develop and clots blood; it is developed naturally in the body, but is also found in dairy products and egg yolks.

    Minerals also play an important part in metabolism. They activate chemical reactions in the body that enable the breakdown of nutrients and also regulate muscle contractions. In addition, minerals are used in forming bone and muscle. The major minerals found in the body include calcium, iron, magnesium, phosphorus, potassium, and sodium (the most abundant). Small amounts of minerals such as aluminum, boron, copper, fluorine, iodine, manganese, nickel, and zinc can be found in the body as well.

    Calcium, which forms bones and teeth, can be found in vegetables and milk products. Iron, which helps form hemoglobin (which carries oxygen in blood), is in meats, eggs, and many vegetables. Nuts, spinach, soy, and wheat germ are good sources of magnesium, which plays a role in many body functions. Peas, corn, and sprouts are high in phosphorus, needed in body metabolism. Bananas, citrus fruits, and vegetables provide potassium, which helps nerves and muscles function. And sodium, which serves many functions, is found in many fruits, vegetables, and grains.

    A group of minerals called electrolytes (chlorine, sodium, and potassium) are particularly important to cyclists. A lack of electrolytes will hurt physical performance and may lead to heat exhaustion or stroke. Sodium, potassium, and iron are lost through perspiration and need to be replenished by eating foods high in those minerals or by drinking special electrolyte replacement drinks and taking iron supplement pills.

    Though cyclists need more vitamins and minerals to replace those that are lost through physical activity and perspiration, an excess of them does not increase health or fitness. Too much of them, in fact, can be unhealthy, or at least counterproductive to fitness.

    Diet Guidelines

    A healthy diet includes food from all the nutritional categories. Ask dedicated cyclists, however, and they'll undoubtedly emphasize one category in particular: carbohydrates. While fats and proteins can be reduced in your diet, carbohydrates should be increased to at least 65 percent of total intake, or as much as 75 percent for those in intensive training. Proteins and fats should make up from 10 to 20 percent each.

    For cyclists in intensive training, the body may require a higher food intake. A practice known as carbo loading, in which cyclists overload on carbohydrates a few days before a race, has been somewhat in vogue since the 1980s. While it's been shown to increase performance in long competitions, there's no need to carbo load unless you are a professional racer (even then it may not be a good idea).

    Whatever you eat, allow about three hours before a heavy workout to digest a large meal. And be sure to eat another large meal within two hours of completing a heavy workout. Never try to deprive your body of needed nutrients in the interest of losing weight. If you plan to remain physically active, fasting will make workouts extremely difficult and possibly dangerous.

    As important as what and when you eat is what and when you drink. In cycling, it's often said, “Drink before you get thirsty.” A continuous, moderate intake of water, though, is much better than drinking large amounts at one time.

    The Best Foods for Cyclists.

  • Fresh fruits and vegetables

  • Pasta and noodles

  • Whole grain breads Cereals

  • Low-fat meat, chicken, and fish

  • Peanut butter sandwiches Potatoes

  • Nuts and legumes

  • Foods to Avoid.

  • Fatty meats and poultry

  • Fried foods

  • Whole milk products

  • Egg yolks

  • Saturated oils and shortening

  • Sugary foods and snacks

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