Food as Fuel

The Basics Food as Fuel: Do we know enough?

Trying to understand what and when to eat and drink to optimize your training and racing performance can be confusing. Everywhere you look you can find conflicting advice and complicated formulae telling you how much carbohydrate to consume per kilogram of weight!

In reality a cyclist doesn’t need a dramatically different diet from anyone else who has a balanced healthy sensible diet. Compared to non-athletes, cyclists need to take additional carbohydrate on rides of more than 1 hour or/and after training sessions to replenish glycogen (carbohydrate) stores in muscles they have spent.

Protein is key to achieving a good cyclists diet, helping to repair damage caused during intense training. Taken either on long rides or during a post ride recovery meal/drink, it will help get you ready for your next session sooner rather than later and keep the rider in tip top condition. This can take the form of a lean meat sandwich, a carbohydrate and protein sports recovery drink or chocolate milk (which has been shown to be just as good). The advantage with a drink-based recovery is that you will also be re-hydrating.

Glycogen synthesis in muscles is enhanced for about 2 hours after a ride; during this time it is a good idea to eat high glycemic index foods (foods that give you lots of energy quickly), but these should be avoided in the rest of your meals.

Finally, don’t be afraid of fat – everyone needs to obtain at least 25% of their calories from fat and it has been shown that having a diet containing a higher fat content (35%) can train your body to become a better ‘fat-burner’ in the base period of training. Be sensible, eat lean cuts of meat and fish and don’t worry about eating chips every now and again! Remember its all about balance!

Try these questions to see how much you know about a cyclists’ diet.

  1. Which of these food groups are stored in our bodies for use as fuel?
    1. Carbohydrate
    2. Protein
    3. Fat
  2. Which of these food groups can be used as fuel?
    1. Carbohydrate
    2. Protein
    3. Fat
  3. How long can a cyclist ride steadily on their stores of
    1. Carbohydrate
    2. Fat

    3. Choose from 1 h, 3 h 10 h and 40 h for each one.
  4. When should you eat high glycemic index foods? (foods that give you lots of energy quickly)
    1. All day – they should be the mainstay of a cyclists diet
    2. During exercise
    3. After exercise
    4. Never
  5. How many grams of protein are there in 100g of the following foods?
    1. Whole egg
    2. Sirloin steak
    3. Tomatoes
    4. Tuna
    5. Baked beans
    6. Almonds

Choose from 1, 5, 12, 20, 23, 30, 50, 100

  1. After exercise, what is the best thing to eat or drink to help you recover?
    1. Mars bar
    2. A carbohydrate-based sports drink
    3. A carbohydrate and protein-based sports drink
    4. High glycemic index food
    5. Chocolate milk
  2. What is the best fluid to drink between workouts?
    1. Fruit juice
    2. Water
    3. Sports drink
  3. When cyclists ride hard for a long time, they run out of energy. This is called ‘bonking’ and is due to running out of:
    1. Protein
    2. Fat
    3. Carbohydrate
  4. What is the best time to eat sweets?
    1. Anytime you like
    2. After a meal
    3. As a mid-morning snack
  5. Put these foods into the table below as either High, Moderate or Low glycemic index foods.

    Apples, Bananas, Cornflakes, Ice cream, Lentils, Muesli, Pasta, Peanuts, Potatoes, PowerBar, Rice, Soft drinks, Tomato soup, Watermelon










  1. Carbohydrate is stored as glycogen in muscles and to a lesser extent in liver. Fat is stored in special cells called adipocytes and both of these are important fuels for cyclists. Protein is not stored in our bodies; all protein in our bodies is present in muscles. (One point each for (a) and (c)).
  2. All of these can be used as fuel. Fat and carbohydrates are used on all cycle rides; on higher intensity rides, the proportion of calories coming from carbohydrates increases. Protein in the diet can be easily converted to carbohydrates for use as fuel. Under extreme circumstances of starvation or long intense exercise muscle protein can be broken down for fuel. (One point each for (a), (b) and (c)).
  3. Riding steadily carbohydrate stores can last about three hours, but this would be reduced to about 90 minutes when exercising intensely. Even the thinnest cyclist can ride steadily for 40 hours on their stores of fat. (One point for 3h for carbohydrate and one point for 40h for fat).
  4. High glycemic index foods provide energy through carbohydrates very quickly and should be limited in the diet to during exercise and after exercise. (One point for (b) and one point for (c)).
  5. One point for each correct answer:
    1. 12
    2. 30
    3. 1
    4. 23
    5. 5
    6. 20
  1. All of these will help recovery of glycogen stores, but for best recovery include protein and carbohydrates. (one point for either (c) or (e))
  2. Fruit juice and sports drinks have moderate to high glycemic indexes, so (b) water is best for drinking between workouts (One point for (b)).
  3. Bonking is due to running out of carbohydrate, so it important eat or drink carbohydrates on rides of longer that one hour. (One point for (c)).
  4. Sweets have a high glycemic index; if you want some sweets it is best to eat them after a meal as having other foods in your stomach will reduce the speed at which the sugar goes into your bloodstream (One point for (b)).
  5.  One point for each that you get right (maximum 14 points).





Ice cream
Soft drinks

Tomato soup

Maximum score 33 points.

Score 20-33. Excellent – you really know what to eat to maximize your cycling performance.

Score 10-19. Very good – You have the right basic knowledge about food as fuel.

Score 1-9. Good try – review your answers and pick up some important tips on food for cycling.