Cycling is a demanding activity that burns lots of calories and can get tough on lanes or uphill. If you plan to cycle a long distance or have a long-ride competition ahead, fueling up with the right foods and drinks is key to keep your engine roaring.
Here are the 12 best foods to eat when cycling long distances:
- Peanut butter and jelly
- Low-fat sandwiches
- Sports gels
- Energy bars
- Protein bars
- Sports drinks
- Energy drinks
Read the rest of the article to learn what nutrients you need for cycling. You will also learn how to choose the right kind of food before, during, and after cycling long distances. No matter if you’re a pro with a race coming or only an enthusiastic cyclist, this article is for you, so keep reading.
Bananas act like natural energy bars. They’re full of healthy carbohydrates and fibers that slowly release energy (especially when they’re not too ripe).
Bananas also contain vitamin B6, essential for protein metabolism. They are high in potassium, which helps restore your lost electrolytes. They’re also easy to eat and digest and also don’t leave trash or damage the environment.
You can eat bananas as they are or use them in smoothies, shakes, or porridge. They’re good foods to take before, during, and after a long bike ride.
2. Peanut Butter and Jelly
This combination (PB&J) makes a perfect snack for cyclists who want to pedal a long distance. It contains carbs, proteins, and fat all at the same time.
Just spread them on toasts or tortillas and make sandwiches or rolls with them. Easy peasy!
An average PB&J has per serving:
- 15 g (0.53 oz) of protein.
- 13 g (0.46 oz) of plant-based unsaturated fat.
- 5 g (0.18 oz) of fiber.
- 12.5 g (0.44 oz) of carbs that immediately boost a cyclist’s energy.
Peanut butter digests slowly, and its fat content provides a steady energy supply for the following hours. You can incorporate it in your pre-cycling meal or eat during the ride. If you’re allergic to peanuts, try almond butter instead.
With 80% sugar content, dates are like energy bombs that provide a natural and healthy source of carbohydrates. This sugar is mostly glucose, fructose, and a little bit of sucrose and maltose.
This combination of different types of sugars can enhance your performance; they give you immediate bursts of energy and provide a steady flow of it. Besides, they contain high amounts of potassium, magnesium, and copper, which help replace the lost electrolytes.
Dates are also great for satisfying the sweet tooth. But just one or two dates at a time would suffice during cycling.
Pistachios are high in protein and minerals like potassium, manganese, copper, phosphorus, and vitamin B6. Combined with low-fat content, these nutrients make them great for improving muscle strength.
These delicious nuts are high in antioxidants which fight cell damage and inflammation, which is responsible for muscle soreness and swelling.
They also include high amounts of electrolytes—290 mg (0.01 oz) per serving, about half of the content in a large banana.
Just remember to use the shelled version to save you time.
Potatoes are loaded with low-burning carbs that provide plenty of energy during a race or long ride. According to a study, potato purée can appear as effective as energy gels.
Every 2 sweet potatoes provide about 100–120 calories, so close to a gel sachet. But they can keep your stomach full longer and prevent hunger pangs. That’s why they’re so popular among pros.
They’re also full of beta-carotene, beneficial for recovery. Just peel some boiled potatoes and salt them to make a great energy booster for your next long ride.
6. Low-Fat Sandwiches
Sandwiches are also a good choice. They’re easy to make and can fill you for a longer time.
In addition, they’re real food rather than snacks and much tastier compared to gels or bars. You can make various types of sandwiches according to your needs using different kinds of bread and ingredients.
You may add some turkey, ham, or egg for supplying protein intake, and cream cheese, avocados, and peanut or almond butter for enjoying the benefits of fat. The last thing you need is sprinkling a pinch of salt to make up for your lost electrolytes.
Remember to use ingredients that are less likely to spoil; you have to carry sandwiches for a long time in your backpack under sunlight or in your sweaty jersey’s pockets.
Alternatively, you can make them the first thing you eat during the ride.
Not exactly a snack, but we can’t ignore coffee’s great benefits. Caffeine boosts your alertness and concentration while also reducing fatigue. So, your endurance increases, and you can pedal easier for a more extended period.
According to Mindy Millard-Stafford, Ph.D., former president of the American College of Sports Medicine, around 3 to 6 milligrams of caffeine each kilogram of body weight is enough for most people to see a performance improvement. And higher doses may have side effects.
Caffeine takes about 60 minutes to affect your body, so the best time for drinking a cup of coffee is one hour before the event. It’s even better to incorporate it into your morning meal.
8. Sports Gels
Sports gels are the best sources of energy for cyclists and are very popular among them. Gels are easy to digest and easy to carry in your jersey’s pockets. They contain high amounts of carbs that can boost your energy immediately and restore the used glycogen in muscles.
They may also contain electrolytes or caffeine (but not fat, fiber, or protein).
Most gels have around 15–25 g (0.53–0.88 oz) of carbs, meaning you need to eat 2–3 sachets per hour on a long bike ride.
An important note here is to hydrate well before and after consuming gels to prevent problems like nausea, bloating, cramping, and diarrhea.
9. Energy Bars
As the name suggests, energy bars fuel you up through intense exercises. Energy bars are high in calories, and like energy gels, provide your required carbs.
But their energy release almost happens slowly. Hence they’re more suitable for longer rides.
Energy bars usually contain oats, seeds, nuts, dried fruits, granola, and honey. So, besides the high and low-GI carbs, they’re super nutritious.
The best time for consuming energy bars is 30–45 minutes before the event begins.
10. Protein Bars
Protein bars are similar to energy bars but with an emphasis on protein intake. They’re not meant for an immediate boost of energy but will energize you more than other supplements. You can consider them a replacement for actual meals.
So, when you feel hungry on the saddle and can’t stop and eat a portion of real food, having a protein bar would be wise as it can fill your stomach for a longer time.
Protein bars typically contain:
- 5–10 g (0.18–0.35 oz) of fat.
- 25–35 g (0.88–1.23 oz) of carbs.
- 5–10 (0.18–0.35 oz) g of fiber.
- 10–20 g (0.35–0.71 oz) of protein.
- Their total calories can be between 150–400.
These bars are also great post-cycling snacks. As a protein-condensed food, they can help in repairing the damaged fibers and accelerate your recovery.
It’s better to use them within 30 minutes after your long ride.
11. Sports Drinks
This type of drink contains electrolytes—minerals like potassium, calcium, sodium, and magnesium that maintain the body’s balance of fluids. When you sweat during a long bike ride or any intense activity, you’ll lose electrolytes, but sports drinks help compensate for it.
Sports drinks also contain lots of carbs in the form of sugar that can replace the carbs you’ve lost while cycling.
12. Energy Drinks
Energy drinks are primarily for elevating your energy levels and alertness. They contain ingredients like sugar, B vitamins, amino acid derivation, herbal extracts, and above all, caffeine.
Their sugar content acts as an immediate energy source for cyclists when you’ve used all your body stores.
Primary Nutrients Needed for Long Bike Rides
Long bike rides will require a proper intake of carbohydrates, fats, proteins, and water.
You don’t want to get overboard with these nutrients, so keep reading as I discuss how much of these nutrients your body needs for cycling long distances.
Carbs are the main source of energy for all physical activities. They store in muscles, liver, and blood as glycogen. However, since they start to burn as soon as you start pedaling, you need to refuel them regularly.
A fit, professional biker can store around 450 g (15.87 oz) of glycogen, enough to produce almost 1800 calories. This amount would only suffice for a few hours of intense riding.
Therefore, you have to consume carbs also during the event.
The more external carbs you can take in per hour, the better because the fewer glycogen stores you’ll use. However, don’t overdo it since your body can’t absorb more than 60 g (2.12 oz) per hour.
Foods like pasta, potatoes, rice, and bread contain high carbs. They can supply the energy you need for a long cycling period.
Besides, they’re high-glycemic carbohydrates that burn slowly, providing a steady flow of energy. Use them in meals before your event and in breakfast.
You can also get carbs from energy gels, snacks like dates, bananas, and even pastry during the ride. The glycemic index of these carbs is low, despite pasta and rice, meaning they’ll boost your energy very quickly.
Fats are another essential energy source that starts burning after you use up all the glycogen reserves in the body. Although they can provide high energy levels, they burn slowly and hence are not as efficient as carbs.
Judith Haudum, BMC Racing’s nutritionist, says, “the average fat intake of our riders is 20–35% of total energy. Despite that, many riders try to limit their fat intake to less than 20%. That’s wrong and can have health implications.”
Notice that when we talk about fats, we mean the healthy unsaturated ones like omega 3 and 6 fats. They include nuts, seeds, avocados, fish, and flaxseed oil.
Don’t use saturated fats found in meat and processed foods, as they can increase the risk of some diseases.
Proteins are also vital for any athlete as they’re the building blocks of muscles. They’re responsible for repairing tissue fibers that get damaged in training. So, they can alleviate your muscular pain.
In addition, intake of protein can increase your glycogen storage, boosting your energy to pedal.
A cyclist, on average, needs 1.2–1.5 g (0.04–0.05 oz) of protein per kilogram of body weight every day. Although their primary role isn’t energy provision, according to Ilana Muhlstein, RD, proteins are key to long-lasting stamina.
Muhlstein says keeping blood sugar levels controlled and steady helps maintain your energy, and since protein does so, she always recommends pairing carbs with proteins.
Some of the best protein sources include different types of meat, beans and pulses, low-fat dairy, and egg whites.
Hydrating is another requirement for cycling long distances. During a long ride, you may lose 4–8 L (1.06–2.11 gal) of water through sweating. And you need to replace it by drinking enough fluids.
This can prevent the loss of energy and dizziness.
Although water is usually the best option to drink, you need something more than just plain water on long rides. For example, you can add electrolytes like sodium—300 mg (0.01 oz) in a bottle of water.
Sports drinks are another useful option, available in different brands and types (we’ll talk about them later).
Snacks For Long Bike Rides
It’s important to stay fueled, especially when you have a long bike ride ahead of you. Food is more abundant today, so it’s understandable why deciding on what to eat can sometimes be a challenge.
When you want to take your bike out for the whole day, you’ll need to plan your snacks ahead and remember that what you eat before, during, and after the ride will affect your energy levels differently.
What You Should Eat Before Cycling
When you have a long-distance ride ahead of you, pre-fueling becomes more critical. And carbs are your best energy reservoir. A sufficient amount of carb pre-cycling is enough for at least 90 minutes of high-intensity pedaling.
Experts recommend starting your carb-loading 48 hours before the event.
Wondering how much to eat? It differs depending on your weight.
Generally, you should eat about 8–10 g (0.28–0.35 oz) of carbohydrates per kilogram of your body weight each day.
So, eat a generous amount of slow-burning (high-glycemic index) carbs like pasta the night before your race. They’ll burn slowly during this time and load up your muscle to fuel your energy.
You need to eat a great breakfast, too, on the day of your long bike ride.
Again, it would be best to have lots of high-glycemic carbs such as cereals, rice pudding, toasts, or croissants and jam.
These Sun Tropics Coconut Milk Rice Pudding Snack from Amazon.com come in individual portions for an easy and fast breakfast option. They’re vegan, gluten-free, low in sugar, and available in chocolate, cinnamon, and caramel.
Note: Don’t eat something you’re not used to on the event’s day. Stick to what you know your body can handle; otherwise, you might need to make an unplanned stop in the bathroom.
What You Should Eat During Cycling
Whatever you consume before the ride would vanish after one or two hours of cycling. So, you need to make up for that deficit during the exercise.
However, your body’s absorption capacity is limited during a bike ride: it can only absorb around 30–60 g (1.06–2.12 oz) of carbohydrates an hour.
So, you need to provide that energy gradually and don’t wait until you use up all your stores.
Although the pre-cycling nourishment gives you about 90 minutes of fuel in the tank, you shouldn’t postpone the refueling process to the last minute.
Professionals recommend having 60 g (2.12 oz) of carbs per hour or 20 g (0.71 oz) every 20 minutes of cycling. Follow this simple rule, and your engine wouldn’t fail.
This CLIF BARS Energy Bars Variety Pack from Amazon.com is a top choice for athletes on the go. They offer long-lasting energy in a variety of different flavors, such as peanut butter and blueberry.
What You Should Eat After Cycling
Once you finish that long ride, your mission won’t end. Post-cycling nutrition is as important as fueling pre-cycling and during it.
You need to eat within 30–60 minutes after the event. It helps your body recover and reduces muscle pain and soreness.
The most significant part is protein intake: After such long and intense events, your muscle fibers tear (known as micro-tears), and your body needs protein to repair them.
Carbs also matter. You’ve used up all the glycogen stores in your muscles and liver, so you need to restore them.
According to experts’ advice, you should eat 20 g (0.71 oz) of protein and 20–30 g (0.71-1.06 oz) of carbohydrates within that time.
Most athletes opt for recovery drinks like protein shakes and smoothies, as they’re easier to use and digest.
This Garden of Life Raw Protein & Greens (from Amazon.com) is a vegan, plant-based protein shake full of spinach, kale, and broccoli. It’s available in vanilla, chocolate, and “lightly sweet.”
But you can also have some solid food like a burger and chips, steak and mashed potato, or pizza. They all contain a good amount of protein and high-GI carbs, ideal for post-workout refueling.