Diet Tips for Cyclists & Endurance Athletes [Four Complete Fueling Plans for Success]
Nutrition can make or break an athlete’s performance. For the best chance of success in cycling and other endurance activities, different eating regimens are appropriate at different times. Athletes will utilize the following four basic eating plans:
Different foods and quantities are appropriate to each of these four plans. Understanding what and when to eat will help you reach new peaks of athletic excellence.
Components of the Four Fueling Plans
Main Eating Plan for Endurance Athletes
This plan is for endurance cyclists and racers, Olympic distance and 70.3 triathletes, marathon and shorter-event runners and others whose event outcomes depend on efforts near or above lactate threshold as well as aerobic efforts.
This all-the-time plan is a healthy, balanced diet. More complete details are included later in this article. The Main Healthy Eating Plan for Endurance Athletes has these components:
- Low in highly processed foods.
- Includes little or no processed sugar or white flour.
- Avoids sweets, cakes, cookies, candies, sodas, sugared beverages and white breads. (Even if the candies are labeled as athletic energy foods or drinks.)
- Includes adequate but not excessive amounts of protein. The amount of protein depends on desired body weight and sports goals. To find your daily grams of protein, multiply your desired weight in kg or lbs by the appropriate number:
- Athletes looking to add maximum muscle mass: 1.8g/kg/day=0.8g/lb/day.
- Heavy endurance trainers looking to maintain muscle mass: 1.2g/kg/day= 0.6g/lb/day.
- Light endurance trainers: 1 g/kg/day= 0.5g/lb/day, Sedentary: 0.8 g/kg/day = 0.4 g/lb/day. Protein is distributed so that you get a little in every meal or snack.
- Includes a lot of fruits and vegetables.
- Includes starches (whole grains, pasta, whole-grain bread and potatoes) when needed to fuel exercise. The amount of starch depends on how much you exercise: very little on days with one hour or less of exercise, up to huge quantities if you exercise 6+ hours.
- Fat makes up 15-30% of daily calories generally, more on low exercise days when total carbohydrate consumption is lower and less on high-training days when more carbohydrate is consumed.
Eating in this way all the time will help make you lean no matter how much or how little you exercise.
Main Fueling Plan VARIATION: for ULTRA Endurance Athletes
This plan is for 24-hour racers, randonneurs, Ironman triathletes, ultra-marathoners, mountaineers and others whose events depend almost entirely on aerobic performance to the exclusion of performance at or above lactate threshold.
The daily eating plan for these athletes is as above with one optional exception:
- Fat can make up as much as 40%-70% of total calories consumed except during events and the longest training sessions. This is an optional adjustment. Consuming this much fat leads to “fat adaptation,” a physiological adjustment that allows the muscles to use fat as the primary fuel source at higher power outputs than are typical with the higher-carbohydrate diets usually recommended for endurance athletes. Note that a fat-adaptation diet impairs training near or above LT and so is not appropriate for athletes whose event outcomes depend on higher intensity performance.
Pre-Event Fueling Plan
Followed starting a day (short event) or two (longer event) before the event, the pre-event fueling plan is like the main eating plan, but with ONE added serving of pasty foods (pasta, brown rice, whole grain bread, yams, oatmeal or potatoes) in each meal. “An extra serving” does not mean “as much as you can eat.” The body’s ability to store carbohydrate as glycogen is limited to ~1000 calories, and your tanks are probably not empty before you start your pre-event eating. Consuming massive quantities of carbs beyond what you can store as glycogen builds fat. Also, the rate at which carbs can be incorporated into glycogen is limited, so eating a large amount of easily absorbed carbohydrate in a short time leads to fat formation even while there is still room to store more glycogen.
The pre-event fueling plan is lower in protein than the main eating plan as a percentage of total calories, but not in absolute amount of protein. In the final 10 hours, the pre-event menu should be rich in easily digestible foods so you won’t have to carry a bowel-load of partially digested food during the event.
Training and Event Fueling Plan
Consists of very high carbohydrate foods with a little protein and almost no fat. This is where your athletic energy foods, bananas, fig bars, yams, gels and sports drinks come in. If you eat enough during an event or hard training ride, you won’t be ravenous immediately afterwards. If you drink enough you should need to pee within the first half hour after exercise. Your urine should be pale unless you are taking vitamins or eating foods, such as beets, that can darken urine. Otherwise, lemonade colored urine indicates adequate fluid consumption. Apple juice colored urine indicates that you need to drink more under similar conditions.
Gel-type energy foods give you a big rush and a big crash, so be sure to carry enough for the whole race or session, roughly one every 25-30 minutes from beginning to end, or start using them later if you choose to use them. Carry enough food that you can begin eating about 45 minutes in and have a big bite every 15-20 minutes throughout the event or session. Larger and fitter athletes will consume more calories during exercise and athletes who are working harder will need more as well. A total of 175-350 calories per hour works for most athletes but you’ll have to find your own level. More is better so long as you don’t end up feeling full or bloated. See the details later in this guide for a list of recommended foods and drinks.
Post-Event Refueling Plan
Serves to recharge you physically and psychologically. If you are racing or training hard again the next day, eat or drink some easily digestible carbohydrate with optional protein and drink a lot of water immediately after a race or hard training session. If the next day is a rest day, you don’t need to hurry to your recovery food. Either way, don’t worry about the ratio of protein to carbohydrate in your recovery drink so long as there is plenty of carbohydrate. Recovery drinks, whether they are laboratory-based mixes or yogurt/egg/banana/fruit juice smoothies, can really help you get back-in gear for the next day.
Avoid high glycemic-index foods (mostly sweets and products made with white flour) long before or more than 20 minutes after exercise. After your warm-down and getting into clean clothing, go for some food you crave. This is the only time of the week (and year) that we’re okay with eating a double-bacon cheeseburger with fries (and a malt shake, if you exercised five hours or more). If you’ve stuck to your other three eating plans and raced three hours or more, you’ve earned it!
Main Fueling Plan Details
The Leaning-Out-and-Generally-Healthy Eating Plan
This plan consists of a number of rules, some of which will be important in losing unwanted weight. Athletes who need to gain muscle mass or who have trouble maintaining weight can follow these rules to become lean, but will want to avoid cutting total calories, and to be sure to get enough protein. I can’t say for sure which of these rules are most important to you, so you’ll need to experiment. Try the ones that look easiest first. If your body composition shifts in the right direction, stick with what you are doing. If not, pick the next hardest rules and follow them. The underlying concepts are discussed before the recommendations so you will understand why you are doing what you are doing, which should help maintain motivation.
If you restrict your food intake such that the calories you eat are less than you expend in your daily life, you will lose weight. This is true whether you eat bizarre combinations of foods, liquid foods only, vegan foods or a healthy variety of wholesome foods. To achieve a weight-losing condition you can increase your activity level, or decrease your food intake, or both.
It should be noted, however, that many hours of hard exercise are needed to use the calories ingested in a single large meal. Therefore, it is much easier to lose weight by reducing calorie input while maintaining activity than by maintaining calorie input while increasing activity. Any eating plan that decreases your food intake, whether it is by eating only grapefruit or only butter, or counting and restricting total calories, or carefully counting and balancing fat, carbohydrate and protein, will result in weight loss if it reduces caloric intake below expenditure. Only a good, healthy eating plan will result in extensive fat loss while maintaining performance and health, however. The foods you eat also determine how long you will go before you are very hungry again, so choice of food can affect how easy or hard it is to cut total calories.
Two Important Questions:
Can you stick to the regimen long enough to get to your target weight and body composition?
And can you adopt a lifestyle that will allow you to stay at your targets?
Once you have lost weight, if you return to your old eating habits, you will return to your old weight. Weight loss must be achieved through changes that you can sustain.
Hunger is your body’s way of letting you know that you are losing weight, that you are in a mode of metabolism in which you are metabolizing your own fat and muscle tissues for fuel. YOU MUST EXPERIENCE SOME HUNGER TO LOSE WEIGHT OR FAT. However, if you experience tremendous hunger you will probably binge overeat, so this eating plan is designed to keep you from experiencing tremendous hunger. I’d like you to be neutral or a little bit hungry and lose weight slowly.
On super restrictive diets you may lose weight rapidly for a while, but you will also experience more hunger and be more likely to go off the diet. Most people who have more than 10 pounds to lose can safely and comfortably lose between one half pound and one pound per week while maintaining energy levels for exercise and a sunny disposition. As you approach target weight, the rate of possible weight loss decreases. People who are dramatically overweight can safely lose somewhat faster. No one should lose more than 2 pounds per week for an extended period.
You experience hunger when your blood sugar drops as well as in some other situations. Here’s a short and simple biochemistry lesson. After a meal or a sugary snack, your blood sugar rises as food is digested in your gut and absorbed through your intestine. Insulin is a hormone that signals your body tissues to pick up sugar from the bloodstream. When you have a large meal or sugary snack, insulin levels quickly rise to control the rise in blood sugar. Fat tissue stores extra sugar as fat. Muscle tissue stores extra sugar as glycogen as well as intramuscular fat. Both are exercise fuels, though you need glycogen specifically for high-intensity exercise.
As you complete digestion of a healthy meal, the insulin level drops along with the absorption of food from the intestine. After a sugary snack or other high glycemic-index meal that is very quickly absorbed and gives you a burst of energy, insulin remains high after the absorption is completed (see below for a list of glycemic indices of some common foods). Since insulin tells tissues to scavenge sugar from the blood, blood sugar levels drop below normal and you feel hungry again. Foods that rapidly raise blood sugar are known as “high glycemic” or “high GI” foods. High GI foods cause more of their glucose to be made into new fat and less into glycogen than lower GI foods. Oops. Protein, complex carbohydrates, fibrous foods, acids and fat, all of which are absorbed more slowly than sugar or starch, tend to keep the blood sugar and insulin levels relatively stable.
Enough biochemistry! On to the rules (Remember that these rules are for most of the time, but not for during or just before challenging training or competition)
Main Fueling Plan Rules
- Cut out all processed sugars.
This is the most difficult rule to follow, but also the most important for many athletes. Do not eat white table sugar, cookies, cake, donuts, sports drinks or sports energy foods (except during exercise), jam, jelly… Avoid sweetened bread, and anything else that tastes sweet from added sugar.
Learn to read labels. Look out for:
- corn syrup
You need not avoid things that have some sugar but don’t taste sweet. Sugar is addictive. If you have the addiction, you will feel tired, draggy or ravenously hungry for up to a week as you adjust to a sugar-free lifestyle. The worse you feel, the more addicted you were. Feel free to eat lots of fresh fruit. Research shows that while fatter and thinner people often get similar total amounts of sugar, fat people get it as added sugar while thin people get it in fruits.
#1A: Reduce your consumption of dense carbohydrates and high glycemic index foods if you want to lose weight and you are exercising seven hours per week or less.
Cut out the potatoes, grains, bananas and other starches except to the extent that you need them as exercise fuel. This does not apply during exercise. During exercise, emphasize dense carbohydrate sources.
- Balance in every meal.
Every meal should include some protein (fish, poultry, pork, tofu, tempeh, beans, yogurt, cottage cheese…), some low or moderate glycemic index complex carbohydrate source (if losing weight, fruits and vegetables. If stable in weight and exercising more than 7 hours per week, pasta or whole-grain bread, beans, lentils, brown rice, oats, corn…), and some fat. Don’t be afraid of fat. The more fat-free-products become available, the fatter Americans become. Could there be a connection? Fat has a powerful appetite reducing effect, so eating fat actually helps you be comfortable eating less. Fat reduces appetite after it reaches the intestine, so fat at the beginning of a meal will do more to help you eat less than fat at the end of the meal.
- Drink water and lots of it.
If you are aiming to lose weight, drink a large glass of water before you eat to help you feel full sooner. Urine would ideally be pale most of the time and copious at least once per day, after exercise on exercise days. If you have trouble sleeping through the night due to a full bladder, avoid drinking much fluid in the evening. For health and performance as well as weight loss, avoid both sugar waters (sodas, lemonade, sports drinks) and fruit juices. Orange juice has about as many calories as Coca-Cola. Drink water and eat fruit. If you must drink other than water, drink teas or diluted fruit juices. Add as much water as won’t ruin the flavor. (This does not apply during training. During training use a sports drink or juice that includes both carbohydrate and electrolytes.) Avoid diet soft drinks and other artificially sweetened beverages. Research shows they make people fat, probably by triggering an insulin response, which triggers a drop in blood sugar leading to hunger and more eating.
- Lots of vegetables.
Eat a balanced mix of protein, fat and carbohydrate foods from the beginning of the meal, but if you’re still not comfortably full after having eaten enough of those, complete the meal with raw, steamed or boiled vegetables and salads. Adding a drizzle of olive oil or butter is okay. Avoid over-consumption of raw spinach however. (Raw spinach contains oxalic acid, which will chelate calcium preventing it from being absorbed from your gut into your bloodstream. A spinach salad now and then is okay, but a daily bag of spinach will eventually cause cramping.)
- Limit alcohol intake.
A small amount of daily alcohol consumption may have some heart-health benefits, which can be gained equally well in other ways, such as by exercising and following a healthy diet. Alcohol also enters metabolism at the same place as fat, so each calorie of alcohol blocks the metabolism of one calorie of fat. A typical drink has 150-200 calories as alcohol. One drink per day you can burn off. Multiple drinks per day are harder to work off. Each extra alcoholic drink per day adds up to 15-20 pounds of fat not burned over a year.
Tips for Dealing with Eating Behaviors and the Psychological States that Trigger Them
In the long run, weight loss or weight maintenance is about behaviors, so the rest of these rules are about eating behaviors and the psychological states that trigger them. These guidelines are especially valuable to those who seek to lose weight or to keep weight off, and they may not be relevant to those who naturally arrive at a good performance weight.
- No matter what your mother said, you don’t have to clean your plate.
Never eat to the point of uncomfortable fullness. Always leave the table still able to eat more.
- No monster salads or monster plates of veggies.
A whole head of lettuce may have only 75 Calories, but that doesn’t make eating one a good idea. A bulky meal that stretches your stomach makes you less sensitive to the bulk of later meals. Your stomach then has to be fuller before you feel satisfied so you stay hungry longer and eat more.
- Eat in courses.
Take a small amount of food on your plate at one time. After you eat it, ask yourself if you are still very hungry. If you are not hungry or barely hungry, be done eating. If you are still hungry, take another small serving of something else. Don’t take the whole loaf, package or pot of anything to the table or couch with you. Put some of whatever in a bowl so you’ll have to be conscious about refilling it. Don’t put yourself in the position of being full but having to eat more because there is some dish you haven’t tasted yet.
- Don’t eat to be polite.
You don’t need to try a little bit of everything that someone makes when you are a guest or “do your share” at a restaurant. Heap on the praise for what you do eat and then declare yourself full.
- In restaurants, assemble a meal out of salads and appetizers.
Given the huge portions in many restaurants, you can get enough nutrition from salads or appetizer-sized portions. In Mexican restaurants, pick one thing you like rather than the four-item combo. You can always come back again and try the other items. Order the smallest pizza that might satisfy you and always get a salad to fill you up.
- Athletes need salt.
Athletes need some salt. Unless you have a diagnosis or family history of high blood pressure, you don’t have to go out of your way to avoid salt. Salt to taste, but don’t go overboard, either.
- Think about nutritional needs as you plan your meal but before you begin to eat.
Don’t eat to the point of being comfortably full and having eaten enough calories and then realize that you’ve left something out, like your protein or fiber. Plan variety in every meal and cover all your bases on the first go-round.
- Savor your food and stop eating when it doesn’t taste great.
Take the time to enjoy each bite of food. Pay attention to what you eat. They say that hunger is the best seasoning. The flip side of that is that when your body no longer needs more food, the food stops tasting as good. If the food doesn’t taste good, don’t eat it.
- Weigh yourself daily, average the weight weekly.
Your weight will fluctuate by a few pounds from morning to night and from day to day, especially when heavy training is affecting hydration. Rather than being concerned about your weight each morning, keep track of your average weight for each week. That will be a good indication that you are really gaining or losing weight. If a bad weigh-in might trigger a binge, talk to a dietician about other ways to track weight.
- Identify your triggers.
Many people diet well until some emotional situation comes up and then seek comfort in food. Do you eat in response to stress? Boredom? Relationship troubles? Fatigue? Try to identify what’s happening before you finish a whole box. Go for a walk or call a friend instead of overeating.
- Get Adequate Sleep
Inadequate sleep literally makes you hungry f0r calories you don’t need. It boosts ghrelin, the “hunger hormone” which tells your brain to find food. It suppresses leptin, the “satiety hormone” which tells your brain you have eaten enough. Finally, inadequate sleep reduces motivation and will power so you are less likely to stick to your diet. \
17. Don’t go overboard.
Anything that makes your diet difficult to stick to increases the chances that you won’t be successful in losing weight or keeping it off. It’s better to lose ½-1 pound per week until you reach your target weight than to lose 2 or 3 pounds a week for 2 or 3 weeks and then eat back up again. If you lose more than one pound per week, (half a pound for some people) you may experience decreased strength and power, so reduce slowly.
Closing Comments About Eating Rules
Adopt these rules as lifestyle changes. You can’t think of them as something you are just doing now to lose weight. We are trying to get you onto a sustainable regimen of healthy eating. When you reach your target weight, you can relax the rules a little, but you’ll have to be vigilant not to regain the lost weight. For people who need to lose weight for their riding, all the rules are supposed to help you eat less. It is quite possible to follow all the rules and still eat more. If you do this you will gain and not lose weight. Take control of your eating.
Recommended Training and Racing Foods
Training and racing foods can be sweet or savory, so long as they are high in carbohydrate and low in protein and fat.
- Fig bars
- Boiled potatoes (in plastic bag with salt)
- Yams (Microwaved until very soft)
- Dry fruit
- Pretzels or Crackers
- Sandwiches (PB & J, jam and cheese, meats only on cooler days when the won’t go bad)
- Energy bars (but not protein bars)
- Energy gels (but plan to use one every 20-40 minutes once you start)
- Fresh fruit (tends to be low-calorie so combine with other foods)
- Banana/Zucchini/Carrot or other bread-cakes
Recommended Training and Racing Drinks
Test drinks in training several times before using them in a race. Race drinks need to contain carbohydrate and electrolytes and taste good enough that you will drink them with enthusiasm. On hot days you will need to dilute your drinks more than on cooler days so you can get enough water without getting too much carbohydrate, causing a tummy-ache, or carry one bottle plain water as well.
- Any athletic energy drink (but not recovery or protein drinks)
- Diluted fruit juice or lemonade with a small pinch of salt
- If you are tired of sweet, try one of the non-sweet energy drinks, or even diluted mashed potatoes
Recommended Pre-Race or Pre-Training Breakfasts
Test any possible pre-race food in training several times before using it in a race. Pre-race meals should be easy to digest, low in fat, high in carbohydrate, moderate in protein, easy to prepare and available anywhere you travel. Practice with several possible pre-race meals in case your favorite is not available at a particular race.
- Unsweetened Oatmeal/whole grain cereal (1-2 servings) w/ yogurt/cottage cheese/milk/nuts and dry or fresh fruit
- Whole grain toast with butter, 1-2 scrambled, boiled or fried eggs and fresh fruit
- Bagel w/ cream cheese, bowl of cottage cheese and fruit
- Meusli (not sweet granola) with milk and cut fruit
- Rice gruel with peanuts, feta and olives
Be careful with fatty breakfast foods such as pancakes, sausages, bacon and muffins. They can sit in your belly and make you feel uncomfortably full when exercising for several hours but then maintain your energy later in multi-hour events. Experiment in a hard training session before risking these in a race.
High glycemic index foods consumed in the hours before exercise reduce endurance. Avoid them.
Recommended Non-Exercise-Day Breakfasts for Weight Loss
(Lower in carbohydrate than exercise day meals)
- Cut fresh fruit with yogurt and walnuts (optional fresh or dry mint)
- Half grapefruit or slice of cantaloupe with cottage cheese or a soft-boiled egg
- Greens lightly fried in a small amount butter, bacon fat or other oil and flavored with soy sauce and seasoned rice vinegar
Foods to Avoid
Foods to AVOID as Pre-race or Pre-Training Breakfast
These are foods to avoid before hard exercise.
- Bulk amounts of bacon, ham, sausage or other fatty meats. (Using them to flavor other dishes is okay.)
- Pancakes (except before very long rides where you don’t need to be strong early in the ride)
- Sweet stuff including energy bars and drinks. (These are okay but not great before sessions of an hour or less, and are okay once you start warming up for longer sessions or races.)
Foods to Avoid EXCEPT DURING TRAINING
These are high glycemic index foods that will decrease your endurance in your next training session and also cause your body to store more fat if you consume them while NOT exercising. During exercise they help maintain blood sugar and energy. During exercise, use these ONLY after warm up and before cool down.
- Energy drinks
- Energy bars
- Highly processed dry cereals (Rice Crispies, corn flakes, oat flakes…)
- White bread
- “Juice drink” products that contain more sugar than fruit
Recommended Snacks for Athletes to Get or Stay Lean
These snacks are low and moderate glycemic index.
- Salted but not sweetened nuts, but only if you are good at having a few and stopping: pistachios, almonds, walnuts
- Raw Veggies: carrot sticks or baby-cut carrots, celery sticks, cherry tomatoes, snap peas
- Turkey lunch meat
- Whole grain crackers with cheese in moderation
- Fresh Fruit: apples, peaches, pears, kiwis, oranges, strawberries and berries generally but not watermelon or bananas
Recommended Snacks for Those Wanting to Gain Weight
These snacks vary in glycemic index but are calorie dense for those who have trouble eating enough to maintain weight.
- Peanut butter
- Ice Cream
Your body will use muscle protein for fuel in the absence of other sources of energy so athletes who want to maintain or increase muscle mass or who have trouble eating enough to maintain weight should first make sure they are getting adequate total calories, especially carbohydrates as exercise fuel. An extra couple of dozen grams of protein per day is also helpful, so if you are looking to add muscle and your normal protein intake is on the low side, consider some protein snacks:
- Dairy: Low fat milk, yogurt or cottage cheese
- Meat: Turkey or chicken lunch meat; beef, salmon, elk or other jerky; tuna salad
- Vegan proteins: Tofu, beans, unsweetened soy milk
No matter your athletic goals, these ideas and rules can assist you in moving closer toward them. Have questions or challenges for these guidelines? Write to us at firstname.lastname@example.org with your questions, and we will respond or possible cover your question in a future article.
This article and handout have been created and maintained by Head Coach Scott Saifer. Scott is available to work with all levels and ages of endurance athletes, relishing his work in particular with those facing unusual challenges and obstacles in their training.