Cycling Nutrition: Eating After the Ride

Post ride recovery in Ireland

I’ve seen this happen time and time again.  Laura and I have had the good fortune to go on several bicycle tours that last one to two weeks.  The tours are advertised for advanced or experienced riders and typically feature hilly or mountainous terrain and daily rides in the 60 to 125 mile range.  You ride from place to place and a van carrys your luggage.  The other riders on the tour are almost always experienced cyclists, at least in the sense that they have been riding for many years and are used to riding long miles.  These tours usually schedule a day or two off when the riders are free to do whatever they want.  This has always puzzled me.  Why would experienced cyclists pay the steep cost of going on one of these tours, go through all the hassle of getting their bike to some exotic location, and then spend a day or two not riding in terrain that provides spectacular cycling?  The people who run these tours obviously know more about it than I do because by the third or fourth day of the tour almost all of the riders are noticeably lacking in energy and enthusiasm, are irritably fretting about why they feel so tired, and are looking forward to the break.  Meanwhile, Laura and I are riding extra miles every day because we’re having so much fun, are fresh and ready to go every morning, and are typically the only ones out on our bikes on the day off.

What’s going on?  Why are we riding more miles with less overall fatigue than almost all of the other riders?  I don’t know for sure, but I’m fairly certain the answer lies in post-ride nutrition.  Many of these other riders are active members of their local cycling clubs.  They shine on organized centuries and long weekend rides with members of the club.  After the ride everyone goes out for ice cream or pizza and beer.  They are clueless about post-ride nutrition and have given no thought at all to how what they eat when they get off the bike can affect how they will ride the next day and the day after that.  They finish the first day in glycogen debt and fail to adequately replenish their glycogen stores before the next day’s ride.  Every day the situation gets worse and the riding becomes more unpleasant until by the third or fourth day their blood sugar levels are so low they’re grinding it out with their head down and need a day off to physically and mentally recover.  All of this can be avoided if you pay attention to what’s happening in your body when you get off the bike and take advantage of the opportunity your body gives you to prepare for strenuous activity on the following day.  Most of it comes down to what you eat in the first 30 to 40 minutes after you get off the bike.

When you finish a long ride your glycogen stores are exhausted and you are very likely to have low blood glucose.  Your body responds to the glycogen debt by going into overdrive to replace the missing glycogen.  Excess glucose in the bloodstream is converted to glycogen and stored in the muscles and the liver.  Under normal circumstances insulin is used in this conversion process.  However, after an extended period of exercise when the muscle glycogen stores are exhausted an abbreviated and accelerated glycogen-storage process kicks into gear that converts glucose into glycogen and stores it in the muscles without the need for insulin.  This period of intense glycogen production and storage lasts for 30  to 60 minutes.

In order to take advantage of this brief period of accelerated glycogen storage the system must have blood glucose that can be converted to glycogen.  And there’s the problem.  When you finish a long or intense ride you are almost certainly low on blood glucose.  Your system is ready to rapidly and efficiently replenish your empty glycogen stores but it doesn’t have the glucose it needs to make the glycogen.

The solution is to flood your system with carbohydrates that can be quickly converted to blood glucose which will in turn supply the accelerated glycogen production and storage mechanism with the glucose it needs.  Although the enhanced glycogen production mechanism will operate for roughly 60 minutes after exercise has stopped, keep in mind that it takes time for carbohydrates in the stomach to be broken down into useable blood glucose.  Food you eat during the second half of that 60 minute window may still be in the stomach being digested when the enhanced glycogen-storage process ends.  The first 30 minutes after you get off the bike are critical.  If you are going to fully replenish your glycogen stores for the next day’s ride, you must ingest enough carbs during those 30 minutes to flood your system with glucose.  If you don’t, it doesn’t matter what you eat for the rest of the day; you will be building on a weak foundation and you won’t have the glycogen reserves you need to ride with strength day after day.  This cannot be stressed enough; you have to reload your system with carbs during the first 30 minutes after you get off the bike.

How many carbs do you need to eat during the critical 30 minutes?  Current thinking holds that you should aim to ingest one half gram of carbohydrate for each pound of body weight during the 30 minutes after you get off the bike.  This is easy to figure out; simply divide your weight in half and eat that many grams of carbs.  For example, I weigh about 160 lbs so I need to eat 80 grams of carbs within 30 minutes of getting off the bike.  There is also some evidence that combining these carbs with protein may facilitate the glycogen production and storage process.  The recommended ratio of carbs to proteins is 4 to 1.  Thus, at 160 lbs I need 80 grams of carbs and 20 grams of protein.

Eating enough food to provide this much carbohydrate in the first 30 minutes after you get off the bike can be very difficult.  The 30 minute part is much more important than the specific amount of carbs and protein part.  If you can’t manage to choke down the full recommended amount, eat as much as you can, but make absolutely certain you do it in the first 30 minutes after you get off the bike.

You can eat any kind of food you like as long as it’s high in carbs.  Simple carbohydrates that can be more quickly broken down into blood glucose are better than complex carbohydrates that take a longer time because you need to get the glucose in the blood stream within a short window of time.  There are two key factors that will end up driving your 30 minute carbohydrate feast; the food has to be available immediately when you get off the bike, and you have to be willing to eat it.  The carb sources you’ve been eating on the bike will work equally well during this critical 30 minute window but you may be sick and tired of sports drink, energy gel, low-fat fig newtons or whatever you’ve been eating by this time.  Laura and I drink a Endurox - picture from accelsport.comrecovery drink called Endurox that contains carbs and proteins in the recommended 4 to 1 ratio.  We find it’smuch easier to drink a large number of carbs than eat them immediately after a long ride.  It’s also very easy to have the drink ready at the end of the ride.  Endurox comes in a powdered form that you mix with water.  We premeasure the powder, put it in a baggie, and carry it with us on the ride.  Water is almost always available at ride’s end and we simply mix the powder with fresh water in our water bottle and chug it down.  Although the manufacturer would have you believe otherwise, there’s nothing special about Endurox other than that we like the way it tastes.  A number of companies make recovery drinks that provide huge carbohydrate loads for immediate post-exercise glycogen replacement.

After the critical 30 minute window, try to continue to ingest carbohydrate at regular intervals throughout the remainder of the day.  Eat small amounts steadily rather than eating nothing and then pigging out at dinner.  Avoid alcohol because it will interfere with the uptake of glycogen and will also dehydrate you.  Avoiding alcohol is especially important immediately after the ride when the body is in the critical glycogen restocking period.

What you eat during the 30 minutes after you get off the bike is probably the single most important factor affecting how you will fare if you’re riding more than 90 minutes a day for more than 2 days.  If you get the carbs you need during this 30 minute window, you can ride for days and days without problems; if you don’t, you’re most likely going to be tired and out of energy by the third or fourth day.

For more information about what to eat (and what to avoid eating) after a ride, see Eating After the Ride Part 2.

41 thoughts on “Cycling Nutrition: Eating After the Ride

  1. Pingback: Cycling Nutrition: Eating on the Bike « Tuned In To Cycling

  2. You’re right on the mark about refueling after a long ride. Enabling your body to properly refuel, along with sufficient rest, will ensure that the next day’s ride will be comfortable. Equally important is making sure you get enough fuel during the ride. Take along gels or easily digestible carbs to ward off the bonk. Once the hunger knock hits, you have a problem. Always “eat before you’re hungry” on a long ride.
    http://www.cyclingnutrition.blogspot.com

  3. yeah, but WHAT should i eat?
    you said carbohydrates and protein, but what exactly are the best kinds of foods that offer energy and whatnot? and i’m not going to mix myself a drink to refuel, i want something natural. should i just eat a banana, or what?

  4. You can eat anything that’s high in carbs. The problem with solid food is that you usually have to eat a lot of it to get the amount of carbs you need. For example, a banana has roughly 17.5 grams of carbs, 40 grams if you eat the skin (ugh). Do the math. If you weigh 175 pounds you have to eat 10 bananas in the first 30 mins off the bike, a little less than 4 banans if you eat the skin too. If that’s appealing to you and you can do it, go ahead.

    Basically you have to do your own math. Find something you will eat or drink in the first 30 mins after the ride that is high in carbs. Calculate how much of it you’ll have to eat in order to take in carbs in the ratio of 1 gram of carb for every pound you weigh. You want the food or drink to be low in fat and contain no alchohol. If you can also get it so that the grams of protein are one quarter of the grams in carbs, so much the better.

    The easiest way to do this is eat or drink something that is specifically designed to fill this need but if you don’t want to do that, you can find a solution that makes you happy. Just do the math.

  5. I happen to mountaineer as well as cycle. After a long climb, I noticed that if I ate a large energy bar immediately after stopping, that my soreness the next day was minimized. Granted this bar didn’t have a 4:1 ratio of carbs:protein, but it did do some good. Very interested to try out a recovery drink with the correct ratio and see what it does to my ability to move day after day.

    Awesome post.

  6. Thank you for the advice! I have now started implementing this into my training and am always feeling great for the next ride.

  7. What about the contradicting rule not to eat anything during 2 hours after the load for not to affect HGH release process, that will stop as soon as glucose level grows? HGH is needed for grow and repairing muscles, tissues and other health benefits.

    • This is an important question. I’m digging into the research literature and will have a regular blog post up about it by the end of next week.

  8. Pingback: Eating After the Ride Part 2 « Tuned In To Cycling

  9. Pingback: Human Growth Hormone and Cycling « Tuned In To Cycling

  10. These seem to be excellent and very informative articles. Confusingly, Gatorade’s recovery product has a ratio of 4:1 of protein to carbs and not the other way around, as propagated here.

    Does the “one half gram of carbohydrate for each pound of body weight during the 30 minutes” apply to all recovery situations? The basis of this article seems to be 60 to 125 miles of a reasonably challenging routes. So if I am doing 50 miles of even terrain would I need a lot less?

    • Thank you for the kind words. With regard to Gatorade, keep in mind that they are more about marketing product to consumers who often have little knowledge or understanding of sports nutrition than they are about providing well designed nutrition for athletes that is based on reliable research. Gatorade products can often be very useful for athletes but not always for the advertised reasons.

      The recommendation to consume carbs in the first 30 minutes after riding is based on the time spent exercising, not the distance traveled. The body can store enough glycogen to fuel approximately 90 minutes of exercise. The distance covered during that 90 minutes can vary a great deal depending on factors like terrain, weather conditions, and the rider’s strength and level of conditioning. Gauge your glycogen replacement needs based on time rather than distance.

      A second important factor to take into consideration is whether or not you will be riding the following day. Glycogen replacement during the first 30 minutes after exercise is essential if you are going to ride the next day. It becomes even more essential if you are going to ride multiple days in a row. If you are going to take a day off between rides, the system will have more time to restock glycogen supplies based on the typical insulin-using process rather than the high- efficiency insulin-free process that kicks in during the 30 to 60 minute window after exercise.

  11. Excellent article really useful. I am doing the Jogle with my work colleagues in a few weeks and could do with a little help with working out the Carbs we will need. Can you recommend the daily intake, we are doing 90 miles a day.

  12. how about if you have type II diabities and have to consume certain amounts ofcarbs per meal or snack?

  13. Thank God I found this information I’m a beginner and 3 days of intense 65 min cycling and I couldn’t figure out why I felt so drained cus normally after cycling you feel more energy. You are awesome! I stopped smoking and found cycling. Thank you any tips are very welcomed.

  14. Just found this blog and have enjoyed reading the articles. A big question seems to be exactly “what” to eat after cycling. I’ve read a lot about the benefits of fat-free chocolate milk lately. It has a good balance of carbs and protein that you talk about in this post. And its less expensive than Endurox and easy to find at stores and on the road. Might be an option for some people to try out.

  15. I know this article is on the stale side of a year old, but I was wondering if you’d run across any modifications of this rule for type 2 diabetics. I’m not sure if my glycogen stores as depleted as non diabetics or if it just hangs out in the blood instead of being stored, but when my blood sugars drop to normal rates my body acts just like yours does when hypoglycemic. Hopefully bicycling will be what reverses the disease for me.

  16. I do like the information, thanks, but I have one question, at one point you say for every 1/2 lb body weight 1 gm carb is recommended but as you reply to one question if you weighs 175lb you can eat 10 banana and each banana weigh 17.5gm what I don’t understand is how do you get 10 banana? 175lb body weight divided by 2 gives 87.5 lb. if one banana weighs 17.5gm to get the amount of banana I divided 87.5 by 17.5 and it comes out 5 banana…did I miss something if I do correct me.
    Thanks

  17. Glad I read your article as I could not understand how drained after I felt after a long run .now I know thanks to you that post feeding is a must for recovery . I am looking forward to my next long run to try out my feeding during riding and feeding when complete.

  18. Good info! But what if you’re already refueling along the way….such as gels, gatorade, cereal bars, bananas, etc….

    • Most of the glucose you derive from the carbs you eat during the ride is used to fuel your muscles during the ride. The period of time when the system is extracting and storing glycogen in a highly efficient manner starts more or less when the exercise demand on the muscle stops. You want to make absolutely sure you have plenty of carbs available for processing into glycogen during this brief enhanced glycogen storage period. Suck down the carbs during the 30 mins after the ride.

  19. Thanks for the info! My uncle and I are taking this to heart as we prepare for a long cycling trip this summer.

    Just to clarify, when you say that you would need 80g of carbs and 20g of protein, does that mean then that you need to drink 100g of the mix? Considering how much the mixes cost, that seems to be a lot.

    • The goal is to try to consume 0.5 grams of carbs for every pound you weigh. This is easy to calculate: divide your weight in pounds in half and that’s your target number. Optimally you will try to consume your target number in grams of carbs and .25 of your target number in grams of protein in the 30 minutes after you get off the bike. To work out how much of the food or drink you’re consuming you would have to take in, you’ll have to do the math. Look at the nutritional info for your preferred food or drink. It will give you an estimate of the amount of carbs and proteins contained in each “serving”. Use those numbers to work out how many servings you will need to hit your target number of carbs and proteins.

      Don’t worry about being super exact with the numbers. For one thing, the nutritional info you have to work with is an estimate. For another, it may be very difficult to actually choke down the volume of food or drink required to hit your target number within 30 mins of getting off the bike. Get as close as you can.

  20. Pingback: Pre, During, Post Cycle Ride Nutrition | 280 Dude

  21. Thanks for the great info! I already have some inexpensive protein powder that I got from Costco. Instead of going out and purchasing something like Endurox, could I just take the protein powder and mix pure cane sugar with it? I’m also trying to lose fat, and it seems counter-intuitive to consume refined sugar after doing something healthy like going for a long ride.

    In other words, if I consume exactly enough pure cane sugar immediately after a workout to replenish my glycogen stores, is my body smart enough to use all of it to replenish those stores and not store any as fat?

    • Thanks for the kind words. Remember with all nutritional/exercise/weight loss advice there is no “exact”. Too much is unknown and there are too many variables affecting nutritional processes for anyone to give exact answers. If someone is telling you they have an exact recipe, it’s a good reason to doubt what they are saying.

      For carbs and proteins after exercise lasting more than 90 mins the recommendation is about one half gram of carbs for each pound of body weight and about one quarter the amount of carbs in protein. If you read the nutrition labels and do the math, it’s not going to matter a great deal where the carbs and proteins are coming from. More important than the exact amount is that you choke it down within 30 mins or so after getting off the bike.

      For weight loss, take a look at our first post on weight loss and cylcing. The basic recommendation is to stop worrying about how much of what to eat and when to eat it and start thinking about how to enjoy riding more so that you ride longer, harder and stronger while having a good time. You need to replenish glycogen stores by consuming carbs in the first 30 mins after a ride if you’re going to go out and ride the next day. if you’re taking a day off between rides, it’s not as important. However, if you’re riding the next day, you can focus on burning more calories by riding harder, longer or stronger the next day. If you burn more calories and you do it 4 to 5 days a week or more, you’ll lose weight whether or not you have an extra couple of calories during or after your ride.

  22. Pingback: An Appetite Insatiable « Bike Bliss

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  24. Hi and thanks for this. I weigh 135 pounds (60 kg in Australia). How about I just drink a cup of low fat chocolate milk after a ride. I don’t really like processed stuff. I ride long but not as hard as I probably should.

    • Just do the math to find out if the chocolate milk has the right amount of carbs. At 135 lbs you’d ideally like to get about 68 grams of carbs down in 30 mins. In the US food comes with a nutrition label which tells you (among other things) how many grams of carbs are in a “serving”. Is chocolate milk sold like that in Australia? If not, you can get the info from the net. Figure out how many servings you’ll need to drink to get 68 grams of carbs and chug it down. If you’re concerned about calories, take a look at how many grams of fat the chocolate milk has.

    • I have done the choco milk as a recovery aide, however there is something to be said about a bowl of pasta with some canned tuna added to really give you the hard core fuel needed for the next ride. I have tried many mixtures and recovery drinks, and dense carbs by far are the best post ride recovery foods. remember drinking choc. milk contains tons of sugar which might not be the best option. I have done rides in Canada with groups in both amatuer and race tempos-some of which were over 100-120 mile rides. I always and without fail eat this 2-3hrs before hand: quinoa boiled for 15 minutes (Low glycemic index) allows for sustained energy over a long period, add the quinoa to gently boiled banana pieces and instant oatmeal (Complex carbs needed for raw energy). Add a generous spoonfull of peanut butter, top it off with blueberries and some walnuts. Man this is diesel fuel and I swear by it. My last race I came first on a team that won the Niagara Falls Grandfondo, (125 miles at 37km/hr average with three decent climbs) and there’s my proof that it works. 44 years old and feel like a twenty something! Did my first time trial and came 6th out of thirty riders all of which have had previous race experience and I even beat a 23 year old! Try these food tips-my entire team constantly asks me what and when to eat-I am not an expert however, I am in tune with my body and know what does and doesn’t work. Good luck and remember to properly hydrate (electrolytes) the day before during and after a ride.

  25. Does anyone else worry about their teeth when chugging lollies and gels during a ride? The first thing I do when I get back is brush my teeth.

    • You are a cyclist not a super model so don’t worry about it. Seriously though-rinse with fresh water which you should always have on board to lessen the intensities of gels and mixes like gatorade or HEED sports drinks.

  26. I haven’t had any issues with during/post ride energy, maybe I’m just lucky. On a 4-6 hr gravel MB ride up Mountain I’ll eat 4x ClifBars and a piece of fruit. I drink Tang and I drink a lot of it. I’m 205 lbs and on a 4 hr ride I’ll drink about a quart/hr. I should probably find a replacement for the Tang. Thank you, great tips!

  27. Brilliant, you have helped me a ton, mentally feel better, I am looking forward to my Lands end to John O Groats ride in 16 weeks 1000 miles in 14 consecutive days, I feel as though you have cut the mileage down with your information of post riding nutrition, thanks

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