Carbohydrates, simply put are the most important macronutrient for endurance athletes. Although modern obesity levels have led to carbs being branded 'bad,' they are a must for all people, but in particular athletes, both power and endurance.
Carbohydrates (and water) form glycogen which is stored in muscles and used for fuel during high intensity exercise (such as cycling). When these glycogen levels are low, an athlete's energy levels will be low and therefore must be kept at optimal levels at all times.
Although this article is not meant to bore you with a detailed theoretical look at carbs, at some point you will need to know. That is the difference between high glycemic carbs and low glycemic carbs. Basically high glycemic carbs are rapidly converted into blood sugar, providing a quick hit of energy, while low glycemic carbs digest more slowly and provide prolonged energy.
- High - sugar (glucose, dextrose), candy, white flour, cold cereals, potato.
- Low - oats, high fiber fruit and vegetables, bran cereals etc.
How Much Do I Need?
The amount of carbohydrates you need to consume as a cyclist will depend on many factors including:
- Your Bodyweight
- Your Workload
- Your Goals
However it is most important that you consume adequate carbohydrates for your daily needs. Low-carb diets are definitely a 'no-go' for cyclists like most other athletes.
Typically carbohydrates need to constitute 55-65% of your daily caloric intake. It is important to evaluate you daily caloric needs and to take into account all factors including activity levels off the bike as well as on.
When To Consume Carbohydrates?
Timing of carbohydrates is important just as with the timing of protein. There are five times when carbohydrate consumption is important.
1 / All Day, Everyday
As a hard training endurance athlete, carbohydrates should for the basis of your daily diet. Throughout the day you will probably eat 6-10 times. Carbs should be a part of every one of those feedings, with the only possible exception right before bed.
Those cyclists carrying too much weight in the form of fat are best to avoid late-night carb feasts for a body composition point of view rather than athletic performance.
That being said, carrying an extra 5kg of excess fat will hinder your performance on the bike greatly. Breakfast, like always, is the most important meal of the day. Try to get 100g of carbs at breakfast, and balance the rest across your other feedings.
2 / Pre-Training Or Event
It is vitally important to consume adequate nutrition prior to exercising, especially racing. Try riding on an empty stomach and you'll quickly see what I mean. Timing of the last 'proper meal' you consume is a strictly personal preference depending on how your body reacts. Three hours prior to the event should be the absolute earliest you consume this meal. I personally like to eat 90 minutes before participating in a competitive event.
This meal should consist of complex carbohydrates, such as oats or rice, and a small amount of protein to limit muscle catabolism (20g will do). If you are planning to each close to the even, such as 90 minutes, also consume a complex carb meal 2 hours prior. Over this period you will probably want to consume 200-400g of carbs plus adequate water.
Immediately before your race or event (e.g. just before you go to staring line) you will want to consume some high glycemic fast-acting carbs, maybe around 40g. This can be in liquid or solid form, such as a candy bar. Don't forget you will be eating during the race but this meal is important for energy levels; it does take time for food to be digested.
Due to the nature of road cycling (long rides anywhere from 3-7 hours in the saddle), means it is important to consume calories during a training ride or event. The majority of the calories need to come in the form of carbohydrate and these carbohydrates should come in the form of simple sugars (such as glucose).
Commercial sports drinks are good for this purpose but there is a huge variety in quality among them from brand to brand. How well these drinks are consumed is dependent on several factors.
- First, the concentration of carbohydrate. Gatorade was the first company to really discover the optimal concentration for carbohydrates in sports drinks.
Most sports drinks vary around the 6-8% mark, with 8% being the maximum you would probably want. However, some foods and sports gels are much more concentrated than 6-8%. If you find you can consume these products without gastric problems etc. go right ahead.
- The second factor is concentration of electrolytes. Often sports drinks will overcompensate for a lack of electrolytes with added carbs, this however will slow the absorption process. In the real world, when you ride your bike, this is unlikely to make a huge difference; you just need to find a carb source that suits you and your body.
When riding try to consume 50-100g of carbohydrate per hour depending on your personal nutritional needs; this will be impacted by your weight, work levels etc. Also strive to consume 800-1000ml of water per hour. If you consume all your carbs in liquid form you may need to increase the concentration of the liquid.
Remember from part one to add some protein (preferably branch chain aminos or essential amino acids to your dietary intake while riding).
A basic 'in-ride' nutrition plan could be 1.5 x 600ml Gatorade (or other sports drink) with 1 serve of SciVation's Xtend added to each bottle for each hour of the ride.
4 / Post Training Or Event
Consuming carbohydrates immediately after training or an event is essential to ensure maximal recovery. At this time glycogen stores will be low, even after consuming carbohydrates during the ride.
The aim of post-workout carbohydrates is to replenish those glycogen stores so the body can focus on rebuilding damaged muscle allowing you to recover as quickly as possible.
Most bodybuilders are aware of the 'post workout window' and athletes need to become aware of it also. In simple terms there is a 3-4 hour period after exercise where glycogen storage and recovery peak, nutrients are 'soaked up like a sponge'.
Starving oneself in this period would be detrimental to recovery from the ride and limit one's ability to perform soon afterward. Over this period you would probably want to consume 3 to 4 meals/feedings, each made up of carbohydrates and proteins while limiting fat.
For your first meal (immediately as the ride finishes): consume 1g/kg of a high glycemic easily digested carbohydrate plus a serve of protein (as discussed in article 1). You can use sports drinks, sweets, anything really.
A good homemade version would be dextrose (1g/kg) and a scoop of whey protein). Often cyclists will finish their ride at a bakery or such for breakfast. This is a great way to get the nutrition, especially carbs you need, but may be a little light on protein.
About 1 hour after that meal consume another meal with a similar nutritional profile, although you probably won't need as much protein being a cyclist. After this meal consume another 1-2g/kg of carbohydrate over the next 2-3 hours, however from this point on try sticking to complex, low-glycemic carbs.
Post Training Carb Intake
By now you've been consuming 'fast' carbs (sugars) all throughout your ride plus afterward, probably up to 300-400g+ of sugar. While this isn't a performance problem there are many health problems that can result in over consumption of sugar (e.g. Type II diabetes), so it's best to reach for the low-glycemic stuff.
5 / Loading Prior To An Event
Carbohydrate loading is a technique often adopted by endurance athletes to bring glycogen levels to their maximum. This allows the athlete to have more energy available for use during a competition.
There are many schools of thought on the best way, including a new technique discovered by Australian scientists involving a 3-minute bout of exercise followed by 24 hours of carb loading.
Traditionally, carb loading takes place over 3-4 days, while consuming a large amount of carbs, i.e. 9 grams per kilogram of bodyweight and keeping activity levels to a minimum.
For further information on carbohydrate loading tricks, techniques and a more detailed plan check out my upcoming article, tentively titled 'Carb Loading for Endurance Athletes.'
What Are Some Good Carbohydrate Sources?
There are numerous sources of carbohydrate, many more than protein. Common sources include:
- Sports drinks
To name just a few. While choices of carbohydrates are not as restricted as they would be for someone concerned with body composition, it is important not to eat high-glycemic carbs or sugars all day long.
It is not because of body composition or fat gain effects, although that may be a problem, but rather health issues such as type II diabetes. Stick to the high glycemic stuff in and around a training session and lower glycemic stuff the rest of the day.
Rice Vs. Bread
One study that is particularly interesting compared the effects of rice vs bread as pre-participation meal for sub maximal exercise. The researchers gave each participant the equivalent of 50g of carbohydrates from either rice or bread and had them exercise at 85% of their max heart rate until exhaustion.
Participants given rice (19.20 +/- 1.28 minutes) were able to perform much longer than participants give bread (11 +/- 1.03 minutes). A second study was conducted at the same time and the results were confirmed; 16 +/- 1.52 minutes for rice and 11 +/- 1.88 minutes for bread. This shows that rice is clearly a superior source of carbohydrate, to be consumed before exercise, when compared to bread.
- Consume adequate carbohydrates each and every day
- Pay attention to post workout nutrition
- Pay attention to pre-workout nutrition
- Keep carbs high glycemic immediately before, during and immediately post exercise
- Consume low glycemic carbs at all other times.