Nutrition and hydration tips for cyclists

Nutrition and hydration tips for cyclists

The eternally puzzling question! What is the optimal nutrition and hydration strategy before and during a race? There are so many varying opinions regarding what to eat and drink.

And, there’s a reason for that. We all have different “engines” that process carbs and absorb electrolytes differently.

From experience, after dozens of Gran Fondos, I still haven’t perfected a routine and usually by mile 80, I’m pedaling squares. Finding the right balance requires experimentation to make sure you get the most out of each training session and race.


Nutrition and hydration – finding the sweet spot

I recently got back from my new favorite Gran Fondo – the Farm to Fork FondoThe night before the race, a couple of pro riders gave a clinic and answered questions about cycling nutrition and their approach before and during the race.

Each of them had a very individual approach to it. It kind of reconfirmed how challenging it is to optimize this consistently over many races and perform at a high level.

But, it helps to have a better understanding of how all this works. Listen to this interview with leading nutrition scientist Dr. Stacy Sims where she talks about why hydration is not black and white but very individual.

Use the below information as a framework to tackle your own personal nutrition and hydration. Included are several items that I use that helped me ride at my best. Tweak it to your specific needs.

A lot of this will involve trial and error. I’d recommend making a mental note or jot down what you ate before and during each event and assess how you feel – especially later in the race!



What to eat before a race

As early as 2-3 days out you should be loading up with carb heavy foods but eat in normal portions. There’s no need to “carb load” the night before thinking you’ll have built up energy sources. Often, your digestive system ends up working overtime to burn off all that food and puts excessive stress of your body.

I often feel very hurried eating right before the race. You’re up early, anxious to get to the race so a little preparation the night before is helpful.

I like to eat just enough to satisfy my hunger with foods that are easy to digest (i.e. peanut butter, avocados, a handful of almonds and blueberries).


What to eat during a race

O.K., it’s go time. You’re out on the bike, feeling good, just remember to eat and drink often and early. I cannot stress this enough.

It’s sooo easy to forget to hydrate early in the race and I make this mistake all the time. You feel fresh and adrenaline is high often tricking you into thinking your body is fine.

Don’t be fooled. Drink early and eat more than you think. I can assure you later in the race you’re far less likely to experience a sudden drop in performance.

As you get deeper into the race, there’s often a lot of talk about a loss of electrolytes. I was never sure exactly what they were and why they were important.


Here’s a quick primer:

There are 7 different electrolytes in our bodies and their main goal is to regulate fluid balance. The most common issue for cyclists is excessive sweat and a loss of sodium that often leads to cramping and dehydration.

The solution is to ensure you’re replenishing and getting those electrolytes levels back to normal.The easiest way to do so is through a sports drink. I’ve tried each of the below drinks and they all provide adequate amounts of electrolyte absorption into the body to maintain blood flow to the muscles.


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One of the pro riders before the race suggested eating whole foods/energy bars early in the ride and energy gels etc.. later to give yourself a caffeine boost and help you sustain energy levels when fatigue sets in.

As for food, it’s recommended you consume 200-300 calories an hour. I’ve tried lots of different energy bars and ideally you’re looking for bars with high carb/low fat.

Below is a sample of some of the cycling specific bars that I eat on every big ride:


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Helpful tip:

lightly tear open whatever bars you take with you. Some of those wrappers can be a real pain to open! Also, I recommend staying away from chocolate bars! They’re a mess to deal with. 

Experiment until you find the right mix for you. It’s worth the effort to fine tune this and dial this in to avoid late race problems. As one of the pro riders said, you know you’ve eaten properly throughout the race if you end it with very little appetite.

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