When you’re putting in several hours of work a week on the bike, it can be easy to justify eating a lot — or perhaps more than you normally would if you weren’t training. Food, after all, is fuel and you need it to get the most out of your workouts and recovery. But the truth of the matter is, most cyclists vary their workouts from one day to the next. Because of this there are many variables to consider when deciding how much to eat.

When taking into account variables like the time of day you train, how long you trained and the type of workout you’ve done or are preparing to do, there are a few situations athletes commonly assume they should take in more nutrition than they really need. Have you ever had one or more of these thoughts?

“I need a recovery drink after every workout.”

Many cyclists get into the habit of always having a post-ride recovery drink. There’s a lot of logic and good intention behind this behavior, but ultimately it’s not necessary one-hundred percent of the time. If you stay in your fat-burning zone for your entire workout, like you would for a recovery ride that puts you in zone 1 or 2, you probably don’t need to replenish your body’s sugar and protein stores right after your workout. You’ll be fine with normal food at a normal schedule.

Conversely, if you do sweet spot, threshold, Vo2 and above, you will probably benefit from a recovery drink after your workout. So the rule of thumb is this: Anytime you’re in an anaerobic, sugar-burning state, have a recovery drink. But anytime your workout stayed in the fat-burning zone, skip it.

“I train hard in the mornings therefore I need to eat breakfast before I get on the bike.”

If you’re the type of person who likes to get in a good structured interval workout in the early morning, keep in mind that the last thing you will have eaten is your dinner from the night before. That might sound like a “no duh” thing to say, but it provides evidence for an even greater point. Many people will take this knowledge and use it as rationale for eating a substantial breakfast before a tough workout. Their worry is that if they don’t eat they won’t have enough fuel to give it their best. Here’s why you shouldn’t worry about that.

Although it’s true that when you wake up your glycogen stores are slightly depleted, in almost all cases they shouldn’t be so depleted that your body can’t handle a 45- to 90- minute workout. However, if you anticipate your workout will be longer than 90 minutes — and your schedule can’t manage a 2-3 hour window from when you eat breakfast to when you do your workout — a good solution is take nutrition on the bike.

There’s one more option, too. If you decide you still want to eat breakfast before your workout and you have a runway of at least 30 minutes before you have to get on the bike, go for something small and super digestible. A ripe banana, maybe a gel and coffee, for example, will provide very quick fuel with limited sustenance to upset your stomach once you start riding.

“After a really long ride, my body requires more protein to recover.”

Recovery takes energy. All cyclists know this. That’s why in recent years talks of protein-rich recovery drinks and 4:1 ratios have become all the rage. Everyone wants to know the most efficient way to rebuild their depleted energy stores and develop stronger, more efficient muscles. In most conversations that happen online and/or among experts, protein seems to be pinned as a magical recovery agent for all. Why? Combined with a simple carb like almond milk or water with honey, a fast-acting protein like whey can quickly flood your bloodstream and jumpstart the entire recovery process.

As profound of an effective protein can have on the body during recovery, it has a defect — or rather your body does. There’s a limit to how much protein your body can effectively use. For this reason, the logic of doubling your protein intake because you’ve doubled the duration of your normal workout time does not hold up. Whether you’ve just completed a regular workout or a particularly extraneous one, you should consume the same amount of protein in both cases. On the reverse side of things, if you do less of a workout, you should reduce your protein intake. Remember: Always go down, never go up.

“I need to consume 200-300 calories for every hour I’m on the bike.”

Nutrition is a very personal topic. What works for another athlete, might not work for you. The responsibility is yours alone to discover the types and amounts of food your body responds best to during exercise. Just because it’s been recommended time and time again that you should eat between 200-300 calories for every hour you’re on the bike, don’t commit to a practice if it doesn’t work for you. Let how your body feels guide your decision making. Who knows, after testing you could decide you need far less, or maybe more, calories than what’s commonly prescribed.

Enter the fun game of trial and error. Leading up to your event, use your weekend rides as opportunities to test different types of nutrition at different times. If you think you want to carry this practice over into one of your shorter weekday workouts, I suggest rethinking your decision. Here’s why. For workouts lasting less than 90 minutes, it’s almost always unnecessary to introduce food during that time. Unless you haven’t eaten all day, you should have enough glycogen stores to get you through your workout.

The point is: Test your on-the-bike nutrition during longer workouts that require refueling — avoid testing your on-the-bike nutrition just for the sake of testing.

“I need to carb load the night before my race.”

It’s been preached in the endurance sports world for a long time that carb loading is, well, just something you do. Before you chow down on heaps of pasta the night before your race, consider these three things:

Race duration. If your event is less than 90 minutes, like say a crit race or time trial, you likely don’t need the extra carbohydrates to build up your glycogen stores like a multi-hour endurance sport athlete needs.

• Nutrition during the race. This is relevant to the above point, but it’s still a solid rule of thumb to mention: If you cannot eat during your race, it’s a sure sign that carb loading is not necessary.

There’s no guarantee. Carb loading, even for those would benefit from it, does not guarantee you won’t feel fatigued during your race. How well you trained for your race will ultimately determine this.

Got questions? Leave a comment below. Liked this post? Read our other articles on nutrition.

• Does Coffee Hydrate Just As Well As Water?
• 4 Steps to a Perfect Power Breakfast
• Should You Skimp on Training Fuel to Lose Fat?
• Eating to Lose Weight

Listen to Certified Cycling Coaches Discuss Measure Your Heart Rate

Training nutrition is one topic we covered in last week’s episode of the Ask a Cycling Coach podcast. Listen to the episode’s full recording below to hear this and other questions from cyclists get answered by our certified cycling coaches.

Additional Notes

TrainerRoad’s Ask a Cycling Coach podcast is dedicated to making you a faster cyclist. It gives you the chance to get answers to your cycling and triathlon training questions from USAC certified coaches Chad Timmerman, Jonathan Lee and special guests. Learn more about other topics we covered in the latest episode with our resources below:

  • How to set up your Garmin for triathlon
  • Is fasted training bad?
  • How to do hill repeats
  • How TrainerRoad structures their workouts
  • How important is weight in cycling
  • How to train with limited time
  • How to pace an Ironman
  • How to maintain fitness with a busy work schedule
  • How to not get dropped on a group ride
  • How to do base training for triathlon
  • How to shorten your training plan
  • How to lose weight during the base phase
  • How to train in between races
  • How to transition from one training plan to another
  • Is it normal to see your FTP drop in the off season?
  • How to use gravel grinding to train for triathlon
  • How to use commuting to compliment your training

If you have a question that you’d like to ask Coach Chad, submit your question here. We’ll do our best to answer them on the next episode of the Ask a Cycling Coach podcast.

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Jonathan Lee

Jonathan Lee is a Level II USA certified cycling coach and the host of the Ask a Cycling Coach podcast. His background in the sport of motocross has translated into a passion for cycling, mountain biking and all things training. If you have a training question, submit your question for Jonathan to answer on the next episode of TrainerRoad’s podcast.