Two Types of Nutrition For Cycling

If you’re a cyclist, you’re probably at least semi-conscious of the food you eat. Nutrition is an especially important strategy, especially as race season shifts into full gear. I’m not a doctor. I’m not you. So I am not qualified to tell YOU the specifics of what you should eat. That being said, I have long felt that YOU are the best person to optimize your nutrition in a way that makes you feel the best.

My only suggestions are:

  • Read different nutritional strategies
  • Try different nutritional strategies
  • Pay attention to what nutritional strategy makes you feel the strongest

When friends and fellow cyclists ask Bart, what do you eat for races? My reply is always Whatever makes me feel strongest. That being said, I have tried different diets over the years and here is a basic overview of the two major nutritional strategies, as well as what works for me.

The Ketosis, low carb diet for cycling

Ketosis is metabolic state that burns fat instead of glycogen as its primary energy source. You may have heard this diet called the Paleo diet, the carnivore diet, and the Bulletproof diet. When used as a long term strategy for living, rather than a short term strategy simply to lose wait, your body will reach a state of ketosis.

When in ketosis, your body:

  • converts fat into ketones, and
  • uses them for energy.

In normal diets, which tend to be rich in carbohydrates, your body:

  • breaks down the carbohydrates into sugar (glucose),
  • stores glucose in cells, and
  • uses that glucose for energy.

How do they differ? Well, in the Tour de France last year, most cyclist seemed to use a traditional high carb diet. However, there were several riders (by far the minority) who had you extreme success with the low-carb, ketosis focused diet. Chris Froome was one such rider (you may have heard of him), as he used the ketosis-focused diet to win 4 titles… Other successful riders used this as well.

In general, I stick rigidly to a low-carb diet. Then I will have a somewhat heavy load of carbs the night before a race to ensure that my bodies glycogen stores are full, eat a protein filled breakfast, and throughout a race will slowly fill up on a sugary, carby goo (dates, bananas, yogurt, and oatmeal soaked overnight) that ensures why glycogen stores are always full but never causing a spike in blood sugar. Blood sugar spikes in a race will make you crash (figuratively speaking).

I have found that the low-carb diet allows me to push harder and longer without hitting my wall. Moreover, it allows me to better manage my food intake over the course of longer rides. I miss out on a lot of good food, but I struggle much less trying to maintain a nutritional balance that keeps me at peak performance.

Traditional carb loading

The traditional approach to endurance sports is a high carb diet. This conditions your body to convert carbs (sugar) into glycogen, and then use that glycogen for energy. In general, glycogen is a good short term boost. I tend to use glycogen as my “reserve tank” during cycling.

However, if you are able to constantly keep your glycogen stores high while cycling, you will have a good amount of energy during your race – I always imagine this method as revving your engine during your race.

While this diet is used by a majority of cyclists, I turned away from it because:

  • I was having a hard time managing my nutritional intake during races, and was either eating too many or too few carbs (resulting in hitting wall)
  • I didn’t like having to constantly be eating more (high carb diets causes you to need to eat more because 1g of carbohydrate is 4 calories, whereas 1g fat is 9 calories)
  • I simply felt better not always carb loading

This being said, many rider successfully stick to a high carb diet.

Final advice of nutrition for cyclists

I only point out my success moving away from this diet because I used to think that the high carb diet was the only option. It’s not. I highly encourage you to try variations of both diets and see what works for you.

A word of warning, if you switch from a high carb diet the first couple of weeks will be rough. You will probably go through sugar withdraws, leaving you feeling totally drained of energy, crabby, and craving lots of carbs and sugar. I don’t’ recommend doing this during racing season. Do it in the off season!