Three wedges under a cleat to assist this rider in optimising proprioceptive responses.

Fuelling to Step Up to the Next Level

According to sports dietician Rebecca Hay, a cyclist herself, nutrition is often an afterthought with any training program and is only considered when things like fatigue becomes a problem or riders are not seeing the results they want, particularly with weight loss.

“In my experience women are very weight conscious and therefore there is an aspect of weight management when I’m working with female cyclists. They are inclined not to recover properly because they have weight loss in their minds. However it’s like not putting petrol in your car and not servicing it, and expecting it to keep running.

 “I’ve heard of women cyclists who restrict themselves to 1,200 calories. This isn’t enough for most active women, let alone a cyclist in training. Often these diets are based on low carbs in the false belief that they will burn fat. It is true that at higher intensities you will burn fat but you will also burns carbs so you need to eat them, preferably straight after exercise,” added Rebecca.

Coach Donna Meehan also stresses the importance of nutrition in any training program and says if you don’t fuel your body with a balanced diet then it won’t perform at its best.

“I always stress the need for a holistic approach to nutrition. Supplements and things like gels can play a role but nothing replaces a diet of unprocessed ‘real’ food. When I work with a client I ensure that they are eating the right food in order to get the results they seek. I also make sure they stay hydrated because this is often overlooked,” said Donna.

Rebecca Hay says that there are a number of dietary areas where women particularly need to focus including their intake of iron and calcium. “There’s a trend away from red meat so women need to look for other iron rich foods like leafy green vegetables. In short, low iron equals poor performance.

“Likewise women should be having three to four serves of dairy per day and if they are avoiding dairy they need to look at other calcium-rich foods like grains, legumes, leafy greens and nuts.”

Tips for Recovery

“With my clients I often start with recovery because it’s frequently where people go wrong. Coming home from a morning they need to consume something quick and easy like a smoothie or even a glass of Sustagen Sport,” said Rebecca.

Here are a few recovery tips from Rebecca Hay:

  • Carbohydrate should make up the bulk of what you consume. It is used to fill muscles up again with glycogen – this is muscle fuel. You will empty almost all your muscle glycogen after an intense 60-minute exercise session or after 90 to 120 minutes of a moderate session.
  • A small amount of good quality protein must also be consumed in recovery to repair any muscle damage done while exercising. While fat is not an important specifically for recovery, a small amount will definitely make your recovery meal taste better.
  • On a practical level most bike rides are done first thing in the morning, so breakfast is typically the recovery meal. In this situation I recommend choosing a food based meal for recovery rather than a shake or meal replacement.
  • Some examples which would suit a female around 60 to 65 kilograms:
  • Wholegrain toast with baked beans and a tub of low fat yoghurt
  • Porridge (made with low fat milk) with sliced banana, walnuts and a dash of honey
  • Wholegrain toast with two poached eggs and a tub of low fat yoghurt
  • Commercial cereal with low fat milk and some low fat yoghurt plus a piece of fruit.
  • The timing of a recovery meal is also important. If you plan to train again within eight to 12 hours then you need to consume the recovery meal within 30 minutes of getting off your bike. The window for recovery is wider if training is not for another 24 hours or longer – getting the recovery meal in within two hours is sufficient in this situation.
  • A carton of chocolate milk or a commercial recovery drink can be used as the recovery meal if you are pressed for time.
Should I eat before a trining ride?

This is another area where cyclists are not sure which way to go. Here are a few simple guidelines from Rebecca Hay:

  • Even if you are exercising with weight reduction as one of your goals, you will find you train better if you have a little fuel on board before an intense session.
  • For safety reasons on a bike, I also advise that if you are riding first thing in the morning you do consume something so that you are able to concentrate and react quickly if necessary.
  • You may need to try a few different ways to get the energy in – solid vs. liquid form. Eating early in the morning can be very challenging so using a liquid may be the easiest option all round. Making sure that there is not too much fibre or too much protein is also important to speed up absorption time because you want the liquid or food to leave your belly pretty quickly if you are working with a short time frame between eating/drinking and riding.
  • Some of the easiest options are the pre-packaged breakfast drinks like ‘Up and Go’ or Sustagen. If you don’t mind eating solid food then the humble banana is a great choice or some toast with jam or honey.
What should I eat and drink during a ride or race?

“The length and intensity of a ride dictates how much and what you might decide to take with you on a bike ride.  Many cyclists choose to consume water only on their rides and for a short, moderate paced ride this may be enough. When the intensity kicks up though it is time to start thinking about adding some carbohydrate to top up muscle fuel,” said Rebecca.

Rebecca has a few tips for eating and drinking during a ride or race:

  • Muscles use glycogen for fuel which is stored in our muscles and liver. We have enough stored in our muscles for about 90 minutes of moderate intensity activity.
  • Thirty to 60 grams of carbohydrate per hour will meet most ride needs. For those going at a high intensity, for over 2.5 hours, up to 90 grams per hour can be beneficial.
  • Hydration is really important. You are far more likely to be under hydrated than over. You should have your bike set up to carry two water bottles.
  • Try packaged foods like gels and bars, but also make your own food like simple sandwiches.  If you plan further in advance you can cook great ride food like those featured in The Feed Zone by Thomas & Lim.

Even for riders like Belinda Diprose who’s been racing for many years, getting race nutrition right can be challenging, “In terms of racing it is something I often struggle with. Pre race I find porridge a good start as I often can’t stomach toast. I try and eat about 1.5 hours before a race and have a gel 15 minutes prior. I usually race with water and also electrolyte. I drink a lot of water on the bike, more than most people I know. I use gels while racing every 40 minutes or so, plus lollies as I find gels a bit hard to stomach in longer races. If I am doing a mountain bike team event I eat pikelets and jam or rice cream between laps. Post hard session training or a race I always have Sustagen.

Practice, practice, practice

Rebecca Hay also stresses the importance of practising eating and drinking before a big race. “It’s important to practise eating and drinking on training rides so that you feel confident during a race. So you need to practise the practical issues of pulling your drink bottle out and putting it back, as well as opening packets of food and eating while riding. You also need to practise what works for your body in terms of food and drink. Don’t wait until race day to find out what fuels your body best,” concluded Rebecca Hay.

It’s important to practise and plan your nutrition well in advance and not leave it until a couple of days before an important event. If you’re really serious about stepping up to the next level, nutrition must play a role in your plans.

Nicola writes a cycling blog called Women Who Cycle ( and works in the cycling industry in her home town of Sydney.


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