However, the other key piece of the health puzzle is your diet. A poor diet can not only compromise your rides and limit your performance in workouts, but it can also detract and undo much of the hard work you’ve done in the saddle to boost your health and fitness.
A healthy cycling diet provides your body with the energy and nutrients you need to fuel and recover from your rides, increase lean body mass, and support overall health. It should be satiating, nourishing, and sustainable, so that you feel satisfied rather than deprived.
Meeting these needs can feel like a tall order. Cycling is already technical and time-consuming, so many cyclists don’t have the time or energy to devote to determining what makes a healthy cycling diet or what a healthy cycling diet even entails.
That’s where we come in!
To simplify the process for you, this guide to a healthy cycling diet will look at:
- What Makes a Healthy Cycling Diet?
- What to Eat On a Healthy Cycling Diet
- Determining Macronutrients for Cyclists
- How to Lose Weight While Cycling
- Sample Healthy Cycling Diet Meal Plan
Let’s jump in!
What Makes a Healthy Cycling Diet?
Nutrition for cyclists isn’t significantly different from nutrition for overall health. Cyclists need a balance of all three macronutrients (protein, fat, and carbohydrates) along with micronutrients (vitamins and minerals) and water.
However, cycling burns a lot of calories and endurance exercise requires deliberate care to nutrition timing relative to your workouts. Moreover, high-mileage cyclists usually have higher carbohydrate and protein needs.
Carbohydrates are the body’s preferred fuel source during high-intensity rides. Pre-workout meals and snacks that are rich in carbohydrates ensure glycogen stores are optimized for longer, faster rides, so that you have a ready source of quick-burning energy for your muscles.
Protein helps refuel and repair muscles after training. Post-cycling meals and snacks that contain a 3:1 or 4:1 ratio of carbohydrates to protein have been shown to best help your body recover from time in the saddle.
That said, healthy fats are also important. Fat increases satiety and is the body’s preferred fuel source during low-intensity rides.
Therefore, if you’re doing lots of base-building Zone 2 training, you’ll want to consume a higher percentage of your calories from fat and reduce your carbohydrate intake accordingly.
Fat also provides more calories per gram than carbohydrates and protein, so increasing your intake is a good way to feel fuller on a smaller volume of food.
While this probably doesn’t sound ideal to cyclists trying to lose weight, if you’re looking for energy-dense snacks to take on longer rides (or want to maintain or gain weight on a high-mileage training plan without having to eat vast amounts of food), increase the percentage of calories coming from fat.
What to Eat On a Healthy Cycling Diet
The following food groups will provide you with healthy sources of each macronutrient:
- Vegetables: spinach, kale, artichokes, beets, carrots, Swiss chard, Brussels sprouts, broccoli, zucchini, cucumbers, onions, cauliflower, radishes, turnips, peppers, cabbage, parsnips, celery, asparagus, sweet potatoes, squash, onions, etc.
- Fruits: apples, bananas, pears, peaches, oranges, grapefruit, berries, cherries, pineapple, kiwi, plums, mangos, star fruit, grapes, nectarines, papaya, melon, guava, clementines, pomegranates, apricots, figs, etc.
- Whole Grains: whole, unprocessed oats, whole wheat, quinoa, buckwheat, rye, barley, brown rice, oats, quinoa, teff, farro, arameth; pasta, bread, oatmeal, healthy cereals, etc.
- Legumes: beans, peas, lentils, peanuts, soy, etc.
- Cycling-Specific Sport Performance Food: energy bars, sports drinks, dried fruit, etc.
The following nutritious foods also contain some carbohydrates, along with other macronutrients:
- Low-fat dairy
Carbohydrate sources to limit your intake of include:
- Sweetened beverages: sugar-sweetened tea and juice, packaged chocolate milk, soda, etc.
- Refined grains: croissants, biscuits, white bread, white pasta, white bagels, muffins, packaged pizza dough and pie crust, sugary cereals, etc.
- Snack foods: packaged chips, pre-made popcorn, etc.
- Processed sweets: danishes, cookies, ice cream, pies, doughnuts, etc.
- Sugary foods: jams, jellies, processed condiments and sauces, jello, pudding, artificial popsicles, fruit snacks, frosting, etc.
Fat sources to include in a healthy cycling diet include:
- Seeds: squash seeds, chia seeds, flax seeds, pumpkin seeds, sesame seeds, hemp seeds, sunflower seeds, etc.
- Nuts: almonds, macadamia nuts, pistachios, Brazil nuts, kola nuts, walnuts, cashews, pecans, etc.
- Healthy Oils: olive oil, flaxseed oil, coconut oil, avocado oil, etc.
Fat sources to limit include the following:
- Hydrogenated oils: palm kernel oil, soybean oil, cottonseed oil, etc.
Protein sources to include in a healthy cycling diet include:
- Lean Meat: lean beef, pork, venison, bison, emu, etc.
- Fish: halibut, salmon, sardines, mackerel, tuna, bass, tilapia, cod, etc.
- Seafood: scallops, crab, shrimp, lobster, mussels, squid, clams, etc.
- Poultry: turkey, chicken, duck, quail, etc.
- Legumes: beans, peas, lentils, etc.
- Low-Fat Dairy: low-fat milk, cheese, yogurt, cottage cheese, kefir, buttermilk, etc.
The following nutritious foods also contain some protein, along with other macronutrients:
- Whole Grains
Protein sources to limit include the following:
- Processed meats: Deli meats, sausages, hot dogs, salami, pepperoni, etc.
- Fatty meats
- Highly-processed protein powders, unless organic and natural
Determining Macronutrients for Cyclists
When considering the caloric content of food, each gram of fat contains 9 calories, while every gram of carbohydrates or protein contains 4 calories.
This information can be used to help you determine how many grams of each macronutrient you want to eat per day.
For example, let’s say you are following a 2,000-calorie diet to maintain your weight with your cycling and support your training.
For endurance performance, if you want to consume a recommended ratio of 55% of your calories from carbohydrates, 30% from protein, and 15% from fat, you can determine the grams of each macronutrient as follows:
Carbohydrates: 2000 x 0.55 = 1100 calories
1100 calories / 4 calories per gram = 275 grams
Protein: 2000 x 0.3 = 600 calories
600 calories / 4 calories per gram = 150 grams
Fat: 2000 x 0.15 = 300 calories
300 calories/ 9 calories per gram = 33 grams
Note that you’ll find variations in the recommended macronutrient ratios for endurance athletes and cyclists. You can play around with different ratios to find what works best for your body and dietary preferences.
How to Lose Weight While Cycling
Weight loss comes down to creating a caloric deficit. In other words, to lose weight, you have to consume fewer calories than you expend.
Cycling factors into the expenditure side of the equation, along with the calories you burn at rest—your basal metabolic rate—the calories you burn in the other activities in your day, and the calories you burn digesting food.
To lose one pound of stored body fat, you have to create a caloric deficit of roughly 3,500 calories, which equates to 500 calories per day. This caloric deficit can be generated by consuming fewer calories, burning more calories, or a combination of both.
Sample Healthy Cycling Diet Meal Plan
Curious what a day following a healthy cycling meal plan might look like? Below, we share three different days following a healthy cycling diet:
Day 1: Long Zone 2 Ride in the Morning
- Pre-Ride Snack: whole wheat English muffin or whole grain toast with peanut butter and sliced banana.
- Four-Hour Ride: consume 60 to 90 grams of carbohydrate with some fat and protein throughout such as trail mix with dried fruit, nuts, and dark chocolate or whole grain tortilla with almond butter and honey.
- Post-Ride Recovery Snack: protein smoothie with banana, spinach, blueberries, pineapple, hemp seeds, Greek yogurt (or coconut yogurt if you are vegan), and protein powder.
- Late Lunch: brown rice with grilled chicken or tempeh, roasted Brussels sprouts, kale, walnuts, and sesame seeds.
- Dinner: roasted salmon or tofu steaks with baked sweet potato, Greek salad, and asparagus.
- Snack: cottage cheese with sliced almonds, strawberries, and cocoa nibs.
Day 2: Rest Day (No Cycling)
- Breakfast: omelet with eggs, cheese, and veggies.
- Snack: peach or plum.
- Lunch: large salad with spinach, arugula, cucumbers, tomatoes, sprouts, chickpeas, sunflower seeds, snap peas, broccoli florets, and craisins.
- Snack: tuna or hummus with carrots, celery, pepper strips, and cucumbers.
- Dinner: roasted turkey breast or grilled tofu over quinoa and lemony wilted greens. Broccoli on the side.
- Snack: blueberries and pistachios.
Day 3: Hard Evening Ride With Intervals
- Breakfast: overnight oats made with almond milk, chia seeds, flax seeds, hemp protein powder, blueberries, cinnamon, and unsweetened coconut flakes.
- Snack: apple and string cheese.
- Lunch: hummus with whole-grain crackers, carrots, pepper strips, celery, and cucumbers; red grapes.
- Pre-Ride Snack: rice cakes with peanut butter or natural energy bar.
- Hard 60-90 Minute Workout of Intervals: water or sports drink, then a banana with nut butter after the workout.
- Dinner: fajitas with chicken or tofu, black beans, brown rice, peppers, lettuce, onions, tomatoes, corn, salsa, and vegan or regular cheese. Spinach salad on the side.
- Snack: Greek yogurt with low-sugar granola and raspberries.
Time to build your own cycling diet!
Now you’ve learned the essentials of a healthy cycling diet, it’s time to build your own and put it to use!
Not only will your new cycling diet build a platform for improved performance on your bike, it will also help keep you feeling healthy in general!
But remember, cycling is a sport that requires you to be strong and healthy to thrive. For cyclists – and for anyone really – the healthiest diet is not necessarily the one which makes you lose the most weight!