I have a friend who says the only reason he mountain bikes is to eat. He’s kidding, of course, but eating and mountain biking are two activities that may be more intertwined than you think. You shouldn’t eat just anything, either. Proper nutrition plays a large role in how well you ride or race your bike. Learn what to put in your body before, during and after a ride for optimal performance.
When to Eat
Depending on the time and intensity of the ride, mountain bikers should consider eating before, during and after a ride, according to Aimee Layton, MS, exercise physiologist on staff at FitPack.
For moderate to high-intensity workouts longer than about an hour, you’ll need to consume some amount of carbohydrates during the workout. You should also make sure to eat within 45 minutes after the workout.
Prior to long workouts, eat two to four hours before the ride to allow sufficient time for digestion in order to prevent muscle break down.
What to Eat
Prior to a long ride, eat a high carbohydrate meal like pasta, a bagel or pancakes (you can find a more detailed list here).
“It is important not to have too much protein prior to a long workout because protein requires a large amount of water to digest, which can lead to dehydration and muscle cramping,” explains Layton.
During the ride, make sure to eat high carbohydrate, easily digestible foods. And don’t forget to hydrate during your ride or else you won’t be able to digest the foods you eat.
After your ride, Layton suggests consuming a few hundred calories of food with a 4:1 ratio of carbohydrates to protein. Smoothies and chocolate milk are ideal—not to mention delicious—for this ratio.
Sports bars like Power Bars, Clif Bars, Bonk Breaker and a host of other products that have come onto the market recently will satisfy this,” says Layton.
Because of their makeup, energy gels and sports drinks are actually going to provide the best source of in-exercise carbohydrates, but most cyclists like to have something a little more solid in their stomach too.
Most sports nutrition products have two major benefits over “normal” foods, notes Alex Binkley, endurance athlete and CEO of FitPack. The first is that they are formulated to be high in easily-digestible carbohydrates.
“In fact, because research shows that a mixture of carbohydrates from glucose and fructose (two types of carbohydrates) will increase the ability of an athlete to absorb carbohydrates into his or her system, many of these products are formulated with exactly that mix,” he explains.
The second benefit is logistical.
“Energy gels are exceptionally easy to consume because you can tear them open with your teeth and suck in the gel, which will be sufficient carbohydrates for 30 to 60 minutes, depending on the individual,” he says.
When buying fitness-specific foods, consider whether the food will be consumed before, during or after the ride. Make sure your sports nutrition is high in carbohydrates with limited protein and fat before or during the ride, and has a good balance of protein and carbohydrates if consuming afterwards.
Beyond that, Binkley believes the most important factor in buying sports nutrition products is making sure you have something that you will want to eat. I second that sentiment. I still have nightmares about a certain flavor energy bar I ate by the case in college.
Planning on participating in a mountain bike race? Binkley encourages riders to not try anything in the race that you haven’t practiced.
“This sounds simple, but I work with a lot of athletes who think of nutrition as a race-day-only practice, when really it should be part of every workout,” he says.
Layton notes that a cyclist’s body cannot actually absorb the number of carbohydrates burned each hour. This means in order to keep from running out of carbohydrate stores, you need to eat and drink before you are hungry or fumble that log crossing because you're lethargic.
When asked specifically why it is important for cyclists to replace the energy they’ve burned off, Layton gets technical: “Carbohydrates are broken down into glucose that is stored in our muscles as glycogen. Our bodies can only store a limited amount of glycogen, so as we start to work out--particularly at higher intensities or for longer durations--our glycogen stores start to deplete,” she says.
If we do not replenish these stores, our muscles will stop working and we will “bonk.” Additionally, if we do not eat enough carbohydrates during exercise, our bodies will actually use the protein in our muscles as an energy source and therefore shrink our muscles.
Because our muscles are made of protein, we need to consume some amount of protein after each workout to rebuild the muscles, which is why studies have come to the 4:1 carbohydrate to protein ratio.