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Performance food for racing and training

  • By Monique Ryan
  • Published May. 22, 2008
  • Updated Nov. 29, 2012 at 11:24 AM EDT

Eating before a ride, and the food choices and portions you consume can support your training efforts, especially for harder rides. With a little guidance and know-how for each type of training ride, your pre-ride meal can go towards providing you with the maximum performance boost.

Muscle glycogen and liver glycogen
Your pre-ride meal or snack works by topping off liver glycogen stores, and even muscle glycogen if you have the digestion time (several hours) for some nice sized portions. At any training intensity, muscle glycogen is an important piece of the fuel pie, with a larger slice needed for harder training intensities. In contrast, smaller but essential amounts of liver glycogen maintain your blood glucose levels, an important fuel used during training. Blood glucose keeps your muscles pumping when muscle glycogen run low (after about 60 to 90 minutes) and is also your brain’s only fuel source, helping to maintain focus and concentration during challenging rides.

In addition to these fueling benefits, starting out with optimal carbohydrate stores and maintaining blood glucose levels during a ride, can also lessen the stress that hard training inflicts upon your immune system.

Essential ingredients
Some of the essential ingredients for your pre-ride meal and snack should be easy to digest foods (the closer to the ride, the easier to digest), mainly from carbohydrate. If you have more time to digest, add in modest amounts of leaner proteins, and small amounts of fat as tolerated. Generally for more sensitive gastrointestinal systems and less digestion time, it is best to keep fiber intake low. Whole grains and higher fiber items can be included at less tricky times of the training day.

Different carbohydrate containing foods also have varying effects on blood glucose. Foods with a lower glycemic index (GI) such as whole oatmeal, fruit, whole wheat pasta, cause a slower and more sustained release of blood glucose, while high GI foods such as many sugary cereals, pretzels, white rice, bread, and bagels, cause a higher and more rapid rise in blood glucose. Some research has suggested that low GI carbohydrate foods are useful before exercise to provide a more sustained carbohydrate release. You can experiment to see what works best for you, but many lower GI foods such as lentils, whole grains, and large servings of fruit may not be as well tolerated close to exercise. You can also override the GI effect of any meal by steadily consuming a sports drink and maintaining blood glucose levels during the ride.

Most likely a mix of pre-ride meals and snacks works best for the varying pattern of your own training program. The key is to find what works best for various training times. Let’s take a look at some suggested pre-ride meals for the most typical training start times, upon which you can build your own platform for experimentation and fine-tuning so that you have your favorite meal dialed in for race day.

Generally, aim for more carbohydrates if there is more digestion time, for a more optimal performance boost. Three hours before training, you can consume as much 3 g of carbohydrate per kilogram of body weight (1.4 g per pound), or 225 g for a 165 lb. cyclist. If your digestion time is only two hours, decrease to 2 g carbohydrate per kilogram (1 g/lb) body weight, or 150 g of carbohydrate. For only one hour of digestion time, aim for less at 1 g per kilogram ( 0.5 g/lb), or 75 g of carbohydrate.

Break-of-dawn weekday ride
Life often asks us to get up in the early hours of the morning to fit in a training ride. Even if you are pressed for time, or not terribly hungry, fifteen to sixty minutes before an early morning ride aim for 50 to 75 g of carbohydrate along with 24 to 32 ounces of fluid. Liquids work well, so blend up a smoothie, or consume a high carbohydrate sports supplement. If early morning eating feels insurmountable, start consuming a sports drink on the bike within 10 minutes to raise and maintain blood glucose levels.

Some choices providing over 30 g carbohydrate or more per serving:
Energy bar, 1 medium
Gel, 1-2 packets
High carbohydrate drink, 16 ounces
Liquid meal supplement, 8-12 ounces
2 slice toast with 2 tbsp. jam

Example of 85 g carbohydrate: Energy bar (40 g), 24 oz sports drink (45 g)

Early morning rides are common but tricky. Most cyclists should tolerate carbohydrate at this time, though a small percentage may experience a drop in blood glucose and experience symptoms such as fatigue and dizziness. Experiment with foods and larger portions of carbohydrates to help offset this blood glucose drop. Lower GI choices could also work if tolerated. Consuming carbohydrate from a sports drink during the ride also raises blood glucose levels and off-sets the relatively small carbohydrate portions and blood glucose deficits that you may briefly experience.

Late afternoon/early evening booster shot
Two hours before an evening ride aim for a carbohydrate intake of 2 g/kg (1 g/lb) 165 g for a 165 lb. cyclist. Check labels for carbohydrate content, and keep protein amounts low, with virtually no fat. Some foods that you should tolerate two hours beforehand can include:

Milk shake or fruit smoothie
Breakfast cereal with milk and fruit
Fruited yogurt
Banana and other tolerated fruit
Energy bar and juice
Bagel with jam
Applesauce and pretzels
Graham crackers and a skim milk latte

Example of170 g carbohydrate snack: 8 oz fruited yogurt (30 g), 2 oz pretzels (50 g), 1 large banana (30 g), 16 oz juice (60 g)

Weekend hammer breakfast
Ideally, consume a fairly large size breakfast three hours before a challenging weekend ride. Aim for 3g carbohydrate per kilogram (1.4 g/lb) of body weight, or 225g for a 165 lb. cyclist. You can even have more carbohydrate if tolerated. A full breakfast meal works very well and some concentrated carbohydrate sources include waffles, pancakes, and higher calorie cereals.

Carbohydrate choices: Cereal, toast, waffles, pancakes, juice, fruit, maple syrup, jam, bagels, low fat muffins, rice, pasta, skim dairy products (also provide protein)

Protein choices: Eggs, egg whites, peanut butter

Example of 195 g carbohydrate: 2 cups cooked oatmeal (60 g), 16 ounces juice (30 g), 1 cup berries (15 g), 2 slices toast (30 g), 2 tbsp. jam(30g), 8 ounces of fruited yogurt (30 g)

You may also wonder about the effects of skipping a pre-ride meal if you want to lose weight. Training in a fasted state does result in a greater proportion of fat being used for fuel, but if your goal is to ride harder and longer, have the carbohydrates. Good fuel for training results in a higher calorie burning ride, which then tips the scales towards an energy deficit for the day and ultimately weight loss.

Georgia Gould’s favorite pre-ride meal:
“My husband calls my favorite pre-ride meal my gruel. I mix eight-grain hot cereal with soymilk, a heaping spoon of almond butter and currants. The currants keep it sweet. I like to eat this before a long hard ride because it keeps me full without making me feel gross. I find that it gives me pretty steady energy. If it is more than a few hours between my breakfast and my ride, then I will have a couple of pieces of toast or some fruit before I head out the door.”

Ben Day’s favorite pre-ride meal:
“My staple, easy to make meal is granola, yogurt, and chopped banana sometimes with a little bit of honey thrown in for good measure. I also like to have a glass of orange juice on hand. It is a great source of carbohydrates and easy to digest. Pancakes are another favorite choice, if I can find someone to make them. They fill me up without feeling too bloated or heavy. If I am serious about a particular race, I will eat plain pasta about three hours before.”


Monique Ryan, MS, RD, LDN is a nationally recognized nutritionist with over twenty-four years of experience and is owner of Personal Nutrition Designs, a Chicago based nutrition consulting company that provides nutrition programs for endurance athletes across North America (www.moniqueryan.com). Monique has consulted with the Chicago Fire Soccer Team for seven season, and was the nutritionist for Saturn Cycling from 1994 to 2000. She has also consulted with the Volvo-Cannondale Mountain Bike Team, the Gary Fisher Mountain Bike Team, and the Rollerblade Racing Team. Monique has consulted with USA Cycling, and was a member of the Performance Enhancement Team for the Women’s Road Team leading to the 2004 Athens Olympics. She has also provided nutrition consultation services to USA Triathlon for coaching clinics, athlete clinics, and for the resident athlete team and was a member of the USAT Performance Enhancement Team for the 2004 Athens Olympics. Monique is the author of “Sports Nutrition for Endurance Athletes,” 2nd edition (March 2007), from VeloPress, which provides sports specific nutrition for road cycling, mountain biking, running, triathlon, swimming, rowing, and adventure racing. She is also author of “Performance Nutrition for Winter Sports“(PeakSports Press), “Performance Nutrition for Team Sports” (PeakSports Press), and “Complete Guide to Sports Nutrition.” Monique is a regular contributor to VeloNews, Inside Triathlon, and Outside. She is a Certified Specialist in Sports Dietetics. As part of the FeedZone column, Monique will answer selected questions online. Please send your questions to RyanWebQA@aol.com.

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