You've heard a gazillion times that breakfast is the most important meal of the day, and sports nutritionists agree that whether you want to burn fat, ride fast or both, front-loading your day is essential. But plenty of cyclists disagree on the particulars of a smart morning meal: Fat-phobic bonk trainers suggest skipping it until after you ride, long riders fuel up like lumberjacks, and racers search endlessly for the perfect winning fuel.
What you eat depends largely upon what kind of ride you're going to be doing. The idea is to keep your muscles energized, your brain focused and the rest of your systems firing on all cylinders no matter what. "You first need to look at the duration and intensity of the ride ahead," says Florida-based sports nutritionist Barbara Lewin, RD , who works with cyclists and triathletes at Sports-Nutritionist.com. "Then you need to take in foods that give you the fuel to perform your best." Here's how.
Calories: 200 to 300
Time before: Thirty to 45 minutes
Strategy: You don't need much for a sub-two-hour ride. But don't skip breakfast. "You'll go into deprivation mode, and risk overeating later," says Lewin. Just 200 to 300 calories will replace the glucose you lost while you slept and let you ride longer. Exercisers who eat a small breakfast are able to work out 16 percent longer before tiring, according to one study. Include foods with fiber. "Fiber can also increase the amount of fat you burn during exercise," Lewin says. It slows digestion, so your glycogen is harder to access, which forces your body to pull energy from your fat stores.
Meal Plan: One cup of oatmeal and half a banana
Time-Trial, Crit or Cyclocross Race
Time before: About two hours
Strategy: Most racers take in too many calories from the wrong places, Lewin says. A little fiber is okay, but too much can slow you down and make you sick. Aim for less than two grams by eating foods like bagels and white bread. "Watch for fat, as well," she warns. "Many athletes eat peanut butter, thinking they're getting protein and not realizing that it's 70 percent fat. Then they feel weighed down and can't race well."
Meal Plan: Two slices of white bread with jam, six ounces of fat-free vanilla yogurt, a small banana and a glass of orange juice. Eat an energy gel or block 15 minutes before the start.
Hard Shop Ride
Time before: Three hours
Strategy: A two- to three-hour hammerfest will burn more carbs than a long recreational ride or even a one-hour race. Consume about one gram of carbohydrate per pound of body weight. The harder you ride, the more glycogen (carbs) you require. "You need plenty of energy, which means more food and calories, so eat early enough that your body has time to fully digest them," says Lewin. "Top off with a gel or a few bites of a bar right before you start to ride." Research shows that athletes following this eating strategy can push 20 percent harder near the end of rigorous exercise than those who don't eat before, and 10 percent harder than those who have just a snack.
Meal Plan: A bowl of oatmeal, one slice of toast with a tablespoon of nut butter, a cup of yogurt and glass of orange juice. Have a gel, a few bites of bagel or some sports drink 30 minutes before you start.