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Road Training

Cycling nutrition for everyday and before an event

Your best food for cycling? It may not be what the pros eat.

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Q: Dear VeloNews Training Center: Lately, I’ve been reading a lot of conflicting information about nutrition for cyclists. I read that RadioShack riders ate rice cakes made with eggs before the Tour! I’m a bit old school and have always followed the traditional wisdom of eating pasta and other carbs to fuel up before rides. Now I’m reading about carbs vs. starches, about incorporating proteins, and even about “good” fats. Is there a simple formula to follow for competitive cyclists? What do I eat and when?



Your dietary needs and intake will vary depending on your training, goals, and personal needs — so unfortunately there is no simple formula.  That being said, here is some background information and some pre-race recommendations to help you maximize your performance.  We advocate determining your specific needs with a registered dietitian with sports nutrition experience.  Below, we’ll split our answer into two basic categories – your needs for general healthy day-to-day nutrition, and then specific pre-race intake.

General nutrition for cyclists

The basics of healthy day-to-day nutrition revolve around macronutrient, micronutrient, and fluid intake.  Macronutrients provide calories and they are essential for numerous physiological functions in our body (e.g., growth, metabolism).   The three macronutrients are carbohydrates, fats and protein.

Carbohydrates (CHOs) can be categorized as simple or complex, and contain 4 calories per gram.

  • Simple CHOs consist of 1 sugar unit (monosaccharide) or 2 sugar units (disaccharides).  Examples of simple CHOs are glucose (sugar), fructose, fruit juice, soda, candy, most sport drinks and sport gels).
  • Complex CHOs on the other hand consists of many sugar units, monosaccharides or disaccharides, strung together, which is called a polysaccharide.  Starch (potatoes, corn, peas, rice, maltodextrin and pasta) and glycogen (stored form of complex CHO in the liver and muscle) are considered polysaccharides.

Simple CHOs get into your bloodstream faster than complex CHOs.

Fats come in three types: saturated, trans and unsaturated and contain 9 calories per gram.

  • Saturated fats are solid at room temperature — animal sources and tropical oils — coconut and palm
  • Trans fats are partially hydrogenated oils — margarines, shortening, baked goods, fried foods and many processed snacks.
  • Unsaturated fats are liquid at room temperature — vegetable oils, nuts, seeds and avocado.

Omega 3 fatty acids are an unsaturated fat and they are essential, meaning we need to get them from our foods or take dietary supplements. They are found in fatty fish such as salmon, lake trout, sardines, and albacore tuna and also found in walnuts, flax and soybeans. They are known to help with inflammation.

A decade’s worth of cycling nutrition articles from writers:

A high intake of saturated and trans fats has been shown to increase the risk of developing heart disease.  Therefore, replacing saturated and trans fats with unsaturated fats is beneficial to your “heart” health (usually 2:1 ratio of unsaturated to saturated fats).

Proteins are classified as either complete or incomplete protein, and contain 4 calories per gram. Amino acids are the building blocks for proteins.  Some amino acids are essential and we need to get them from our diet, whereas, nonessential amino acids our body can make.

  • Complete proteins have all the essential amino acids (animal sources – meat, poultry, seafood and dairy).

Quinoa and soybean are two plant sources that contain all the essential amino acids.

  • Incomplete proteins do not have all the essential amino acids (most plant sources – grains, fruits, nuts, and vegetables).

Gluten is a type of protein found in wheat, wheat germ, spelt, triticale, kamut, rye, barley, most grains, pastas, cereals, processed foods, durum flour, oat bran, bulgur, farina, wheat-based semolina, most crackers, brown rice syrup, caramel color, dextrin, modified food starch, and soy sauce.  Potatoes, rice, soy, and bean flours are acceptable replacements that do not contain gluten.

Micronutrients consist of vitamins and minerals, which do not provide calories, but which are essential in smaller amounts as compared to macronutrients.

Even though water is not listed as a nutrient our bodies need it daily and it’s physiologically essential for our overall well-being.

Pre-event nutrition

Pre-event nutrition demands will vary depending on the timing of your event, the intensity, and the duration of your event.  A typical grand tour rider is competing in a very different sporting event than someone preparing for a 30-to-60 minute long time trial or criterium. Even a several-hour long road race will be performed at a different intensity than a similar duration stage in the middle of a stage race. Keep in mind that just like the training of a professional athlete differs from a non-professional, the nutrition demands and intake patterns between you and a professional cyclist may be significantly different.

Neal Henderson and Taylor Phinney at the 2009 track world championships.
The author coaching Taylor Phinney at the 2009 track world championships.

Before your training bout and/or race keep in mind the following — your food choices should be high in carbohydrates, low in fat and moderate in protein; usually about 2/3 your regular meal size; 3-4 hours prior to competition (or 1-2 hours for a smaller snack); fluid meals may work better for some athletes (leave the stomach more rapidly); choose pleasing foods and foods that will not upset your stomach; and limit fatty foods (which delay stomach emptying), high-fiber foods (which can cause abdominal cramping), and caffeine (a diuretic that causes water loss).

The rice cakes with egg that the riders of RadioShack were eating before the Tour stages fits very well in a high complex carbohydrate, gluten-free, moderate protein meal that is low in fiber and fat. My personal favorite pre-race meal is risotto … another rice-based meal. If you enjoy pasta and are used to it, there’s no major reason to change — unless you are interested in experimenting and trying something different. We always recommend trying out something new before a training bout or low priority race, just so you know how your body will react.
Neal Henderson, MS CSCS is the Sport Science Director at the Boulder Center for Sports Medicine.  He is a two-time recipient of USA Cycling’s coach of the year honor and has coached many professional athletes, age-group, and masters athletes to national titles and world championships.

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