What to eat before, during, and after a bike ride?
In collaboration with Caribou Magazine and Isabelle Morin, dietitian-nutritionist
Like any vehicle, a bicycle needs energy to move forward. But unlike gasoline or electric motors, cyclists' legs run on nutrients. Here are some guidelines for proper nutrition before, during, and after a bike ride.
Of the three main families of nutrients (carbohydrates, proteins, lipids), carbohydrates are the number one fuel for athletes. A kind of super fuel!
"During an endurance event, such as cycling, the body will use carbohydrates as the main fuel to power the muscles," explains the sports nutritionist, also a graduate in sports nutrition from the International Olympic Committe, Isabelle Morin. “The more sustained the effort, the more carbohydrates represent a premium fuel for the body."
Carbohydrates – often referred to as carbs – are divided into three main families: fibre, starch, and sugars. They’re found in a variety of foods, such as breads, cereals, pasta, fruits, and vegetables.
Proteins are also very important in sports, especially before and after physical activity.
"Proteins are associated with recovery, rebuilding muscle fibres damaged by physical exertion," specifies Isabelle Morin, who was a member of Université Laval’s Rouge et Or track and field and cross country team. "Proteins also have a satiating effect and help stabilize our energy during the day, which is why it’s important to ingest them at least two hours before a workout."
There are many sources of protein: dairy products, eggs, fish, legumes, meats, nuts, and more.
The sports lover’s ideal spread, consumed three to four hours before the big push, is made up of a sensible mixture of proteins and carbohydrates; approximately a quarter is composed of protein foods and the remainder, starchy foods (bread, cereals, pasta) and vegetables.
Those who are planning an outing of several hours are advised to prepare in advance, in the days leading up to the activity.
"To optimize glycogen reserves [which allow the body to store carbohydrates], it’s preferable to have a higher intake of carbohydrates in the 36 to 48 hours preceding departure," insists Isabelle Morin.
For Vincent Malo, road and mountain bike pro, this approach is now routine. "I have my little ritual the day before a long ride or a competition: I eat a mega plate of pasta, with a bit of sauce, to fill up on carbs, followed by a breakfast rich with oatmeal and bread."
During the big push
So much for the recommendations before hitting the road. Now, what should you eat and drink during the ride? Again, carbohydrates are at the heart of a winning strategy, but everything depends on how long the big push lasts.
For a ride of less than 90 minutes, water to quench your thirst will do the trick. After 90 minutes, snacks become essential to maintain your energy level and fuel your muscles.
"You shouldn't wait to eat, hoping to make up for your energy deficit; instead fuel up according to what you’re doing and what lies ahead," advises Henri Do, a cyclist specializing in ultra‑distance events.
“If you’re doing a 200 km ride, you should whip out your granola bar well before the 100 km mark. It's important to snack often, even if you're not necessarily hungry at the time," cautions the man who last summer completed the TransCanada Bike Race, a 12,500 km journey between the Yukon and Newfoundland.
It’s generally recommended to ingest 30 to 60 g of carbohydrates per hour. "Some athletes go up to 90 g per hour, but there’s no need to hit that level for a recreational activity," stresses Isabelle Morin.
There are many carbohydrate-rich options: fruit, granola bars, energy balls, fruit pastes, energy gels, even candy and sweetened drinks! But you still need to have room to carry them on two wheels. The banana, which fits in the back pocket of your jersey, is a must.
A principle to keep in mind? The more prolonged and intense the effort, the more you should turn to simple carbohydrates, which are easier to absorb.
"For a family bike ride, I can eat a granola bar; it won’t be all that hard to digest. But if I’m doing an Olympic triathlon, I’m going to prioritize carbohydrate sources that are very, very easily digested, essentially sugars," adds Isabelle Morin.
Obviously, water is essential and there’s no need for skimping! You should drink whenever thirsty, respecting the signals that the body conveys. Drinks with added electrolytes can also help you hydrate or rehydrate after exercise, especially when the temperature is on the rise.
Sugary drinks should only be included in the routine when exertion lasts longer than 90 minutes. During a shorter push, water is all that’s required.
Foods to avoid
It's not just what we consume that matters. The way our bodies absorb the intake also weighs into the mix. The time it takes to digest some foods makes them very bad riding companions.
Fats, in the form of fried foods or saturated fats (red meat, cream, butter), should be avoided just before or during exercise.
"If you have a three- or four-hour digestion window, peanut butter toast shouldn't be a problem. But a piece of cheese right before you head out to limber up is not the best choice. Fat will cause more digestive problems than anything else," warns Isabelle Morin.
Similarly, chocolate isn’t the ticket for cyclists. Not only is it high in fat, but it can melt during transport!
Protein‑rich foods such as protein bars, smoothies, and red meat may not work too well either.
"The day before and the day of a ride, I avoid meat as much as possible, except for chicken the day before. I abstain from all red meat and animal fat, because it provides little fuel and causes a heaviness that slows down the pedal cadence,” explains Vincent Malo.
Also beware of foods that are too fibrous, which provide little energy and are only partially digestible. While they contribute to good digestive health, they may also hinder physical effort. So a long bike ride is not the ideal time to try out your new legume salad recipe!
Caffeinated energy drinks should also be avoided at all cost. Vincent Malo can attest to this. Nervous before his first fixed gear (fixie) bike race a few years ago, he made the mistake of chugging one of these drinks just before the start. A really bad move!. "I didn’t know about these products at the time. I did five laps and was knocked for a loop by a massive stomach ache. I couldn’t put any weight on the pedals anymore, I had to drop out of the race. You have to stay away from those kinds of products before any physical effort."
For your pleasure
The post‑race is not only an opportunity to savour the effort and the distance covered, but also to recharge your batteries.
After a medium or long outing, it’s recommended that you eat a meal rich in carbohydrates, proteins, and fats within 60 minutes to build up your strength and get your muscles back on track.
"It’s super important to eat within an hour of finishing an activity," contends Henri Do. “Often, folks will go take a shower or do something else, but the recovery window needs to be exploited before it slams shut. Everything ingested at that time is going to contribute directly to muscle recovery."
If you're far from home or a restaurant, a chocolate milk or protein milk can be just what the doctor ordered for a quick and effective recovery.
Otherwise, it’s time to fire up the barbecue and enjoy grilled fish and meat or any other food that you like but may have avoided before the ride. Because even though sports nutrition requires some planning, the fare doesn’t have to be dull as dust!
“The bottom line is that you’ve got to love what you eat,"argues Isabelle Morin. “Eating in a healthy way is also a great source of pleasure. The key is to find a balance."
For Henri Do, a great lover of ice cream, food is a source of reward and delight after an event.
"Enjoying a hit of ice cream after a strenuous ride makes me ever so happy. Eating is good for our bodies, but also for our minds. And the mind is what keeps us going when we face a big challenge."
About Isabelle Morin
For as long as she can remember, Isabelle has had a passion for science, cooking and food. Nutrition proved to be the perfect career path for her. A graduate of Université Laval's Bachelor of Nutrition program and a member of the Ordre des diététistes nutritionnistes du Québec (ODNQ) since 2014, Isabelle is also an avid runner and endurance sports enthusiast. Over the years, she has completed several continuing education courses in sports nutrition, including a two-year course with the International Olympic Committee. She was awarded the IOC Diploma in Sports Nutrition in December 2019. Isabelle therefore has the pleasure of working on a daily basis with sportspeople and athletes keen to achieve their goals and improve their performance.
Since 2014, Caribou has reflected and witnessed Québec's culinary, gastronomic, and agri-food culture as it asserts its identity, driven by passionate chefs, producers, and artisans. The magazine tackles the sociological and historical aspects of food by combining reports and design in the two print issues it publishes each year, as well as in its special issues. The magazine is also very active on the web and social networks. Caribou won a silver medal at Canada’s 2021 National Magazine Awards for its Eating 100% Local special issue and was also a finalist in the Best Magazine of the Year - Service and Lifestyle category. In 2022, Caribou won the Prix du rayonnement de la culture culinaire at the Lauriers de la gastronomie québécoise gala.