Diet therapy

Sports nutrition for cycling

Road cycling is gaining popularity in New Zealand as more events emerge such as Le Race, The Grape Ride, Tour of Northland etc.

Characteristics of the sport

Races vary in length from 40-200km or more depending on whether return courses are offered.

Cycling tests an athlete’s strength and endurance capabilities as well as their anaerobic energy systems during breakaways, hill climbs and sprints to the finish. For this reason cyclists are generally muscular, lean with low body fat levels in order to keep their power to weight ratio high.


At an elite level, athletes train on a daily basis often clocking up 400-1,000km per week.  At a recreational level, cyclists often gain fitness by biking to and from work each day with longer 4-6 hour training sessions at the weekends and can average between 300-400km of training per week.


During competition elite athletes may rely on support teams to carry extra fluids and food supplies while recreational athletes tend to take their own supplies with them or try to pick up supplies from drink stations along the route of the race.

Good nutrition provides “The Edge”

While some athletes rely heavily on dietary supplements, these will not replace a healthy training diet that is high in carbohydrate, with moderate protein and low in fat.

Elite Cyclists (600km/wk) Recreational Cyclists (300km/wk)
Kilojoules > 250kJ/kg per day 150 – 200kJ/kg per day
Carbohydrate 8 – 11g/kg per day 5 – 8g/kg per day
Protein 1.2 – 1.6g/kg per day 1-1.6g/kg per day

Hydration needs

Athletes should allow 0.7 – 1 litre per hour depending on their sweat losses. See Food to fuel the Speights coast to coast for more details.

Meal planning

The pre-event phase

This relates to nutritional intake up to 8hrs before the race so the dinner eaten the night before can make a difference to energy levels the next day.  Athletes should avoid high fat foods (such as fish and chips) and choose high carbohydrate, low-fat meals such as chicken with pasta or rice.  Alcohol should be avoided in the last week of the race as this has a residual effect and can alter mental functioning such as memory, decision-making  and perceptions of time for up to 48hrs after ingestion. See Alcohol and sport for more details.

Around 2-4hrs before the race cyclists should have a normal meal such as breakfast or lunch with a snack ½ to two hours before the event and 300-400mls of water. Ideally this meal should include low GI foods with low-fat protein as these provide a slower release of energy over a 2-4hour period. E.g. cereal, fruit and yoghurt  plus toast with honey; or rolls/sandwiches and fruit with yoghurt and water.

For athletes that are too nervous to eat a meal supplement such as Sustagen Sport®; creamy rice or a fruit smoothie may help.

During competition

Athletes should allow around 50g of carbohydrate per hour although more may be needed in the latter stages of the race when glycogen stores maybe running low.

Examples of 50g Carbohydrate:

2 cereal bars; 2 gels; 750mls sports drink; a honey or jam sandwich (toast slice); 70g dried fruit; 2 large bananas or 50g jelly lollies.

Post exercise recovery

Within the period of around 30min-2hrs post exercise an athlete’s muscles are receptive to nutrition that aids the re-synthesis of glycogen. If this phase is ignored athletes will experience fatigue the next day. Allowing 1g of carbohydrate per kg of body weight (around 50-100g see the list of ideas above) along with some protein e.g. yoghurt; smoothie; creamy rice or custard as this can aid tissue repair and speed recovery. Paying particular attention to re-hydration during the first hour or two post-exercise is important. Drinking water or a sports drink will speed recovery and should be taken before drinking alcohol.

Problems affecting Cycling Performance


This can be due to a number of things:

  1. Poor fitness, lack of training or insufficient stretching before the event.
  2. The depletion of calcium and magnesium , while this is often promoted as a cause the actual loss of these minerals during exercise is usually quite small. An inadequate normal daily intake is more likely the cause and can easily be corrected with a healthy diet so contact us if you are concerned.
  3. Dehydration and a lack of salt are often stated as causing cramp however research of marathon and ultra-endurance athletes does not back up this viewpoint.
  4. Poor recovery techniques after a hard training or competitive session can result in muscle fatigue so athletes should allow time for this.
  5. Sudden changes in workloads can be a factor and so cyclist need to allow sufficient time when moving from low to high intensity, such as when beginning a hill climb, as tired muscles can take longer the adapt to heavier work loads and this may lead to cramp.

Iron deficiency

This can affect female athletes, see Iron makes us happy for more ideas.

Sore knees and joints

See nutrition for tendons and ligaments for more information.

Lack of energy

If you would like to check your training diet for energy and nutrient adequacy along with your nutrition plan for competition then contact us for an appointment or discussion over skype.

About the author View all

Lea Stening

Lea is one of New Zealand’s leading paediatric dietitians and also specialises in Sports Nutrition. She has specialised in Paediatric Nutrition for 31 years and in 1985 was the first paediatric dietitian to enter private practice in New Zealand. Lea helps families through her private consultations, public lectures, newspaper and magazine articles as well as television and radio interviews. Read more »

View all posts by Lea Stening »


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