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 are based on a 150-pound rider. Add or subtract portion sizes proportionally based on your body weight.
Easy SpinCalories: 200 to 300 | Time before: Thirty to 45 minutes 1 of 6
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 RaceCalories: 400 | Time before: About two hours 2 of 6
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 RideCalories: 600 | Time before: Three hours 3 of 6
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.
CenturyCalories: 400 to 500 | Time before: Two hours 4 of 6
Strategy: Century riders are often tempted by a Denny's All-American Slam (at 1,000-plus calories). It's better to have half that amount—about 500 calories—and eat throughout the day for an even stream of energy. Because you likely won't go full throttle, you can eat a wider variety of foods. Lewin suggests a breakfast rich in mixed carbohydrates, plus a little protein and healthy fat. This will give you an energy boost for the start of the ride, but will prevent bonking before the first food station.
Meal Plan: Two pancakes, half a cup of berries, one cup of fat-free yogurt and one slice of Canadian bacon or a scrambled egg. If you plan to ride easy, you can replace the egg with a slice of frittata (see Wild Mushroom and Gruyere Frittata recipe next).
Wild Mushroom and Gruyere Frittata5 of 6
3 tablespoons butter, divided
1 shallot, minced
1 cup coarsely chopped wild mushrooms (shiitake, morel or hen of the woods)
8 large eggs
1/4 cup whole milk
1/4 cup heavy cream
1/4 cup cream cheese
1 cup grated Gruyere cheese
2 teaspoons chopped fresh parsley
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/8 teaspoon pepper
Heat two tablespoons of butter over medium heat in a large nonstick skillet. Add shallot and cook for one minute. Add mushrooms and cook until lightly brown, about eight minutes; transfer to plate and set aside. Wipe pan clean with a paper towel. Whisk eggs, milk and cream in a large bowl until well blended. Add cream cheese to the mixture in dime-sized bits. Stir in Gruyere, mushrooms, parsley, salt and pepper. Heat the pan over medium heat, melt the remaining tablespoon of butter and add egg mixture. Cook for three to five minutes until edges start to look firm, then transfer to oven. Bake at 350 degrees for 15 to 20 minutes, until center is just set. Serves five.
Per serving: Calories, 342; fat, 28.6 grams; carbs, 2.8g; protein, 18.4g