What you eat before a ride depends upon a few factors including how much time you have before you start your ride, how long it will be, how intense it will be, how long between workouts you have had, and how fit you are (i.e. how quickly you can recover).  Before we get into what you should eat though, let’s talk a little bit about the science behind it…

Glycogen, as we remember from an earlier post, is the stored energy source found in our liver, muscles, and blood stream.  Of this stored glycogen, we have approximately 400 grams in our muscles, 100 grams in our liver, and 25 grams in our blood stream for a total of around 500 grams (1).  This equates to 1500-2000 calories (90-120 minutes) of stored energy before you even get onto the bike.  This storage amount can vary based on your previous workout and how well you did recovering and replenishing your calories and carbohydrates post-ride.  After a long and intense ride it can take up to 24 hours for your body to properly restore its glycogen stockpile.  This storage amount is also why people experience “bonking” around the 90 minute to 2 hour mark if they aren’t eating enough during their longer and more intense workouts due to their blood glucose levels dropping.  So, if you are frequently experiencing “bonking” symptoms, you need to be consuming more carbohydrates during your ride and recovering after workouts better!

How long you have before your ride is the biggest factor in what you should eat in my opinion.  The following are strictly guidelines on what has worked for me in the past.  Each athlete is different and some have iron-guts while others are very sensitive to what they eat before exercise.  You need to experiment and figure out what works for you, remember, NOTHING NEW ON RACE DAY!

3+ hours before

Basically I can eat anything I want if I have this kind of time and I try to wake up with 3 hours to spare if I will be racing >3 hours and riding >5 hours so I can get a large pre-meal in me.  Even though I have a lot of time, I will still stay away from foods that are high in fiber, unhealthy fats, and simple sugars.  Think of foods that will give you the “slow burn” and fuel you throughout the ride rather than burn up in the first hour.  I also don’t like to eat foods that I will “taste again” as they are being digested (ew!).

Ideas: Oatmeal, granola, yogurt, bagel, toast, rice, pasta.

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2 hours before

This is when the length and intensity of the ride play a role in what you should eat.  If I am racing a criterium or cyclo-cross event (high intensity/short duration), I usually will stick to liquids 2 hours pre-race to prevent any GI issues.  If I am training with low to moderate intensity and for a longer duration, I will eat a normal meal.  I ensure I have a recovery drink / post ride meal with me if I don’t eat much before the race/ride to keep my blood glucose levels from dropping too low.

Ideas: Bagel, rice, toast, fruit smoothie.

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1 hour or less before

Basically just liquids for me here.  If I am training in the morning before work I will just have a glass of OJ and hop on the bike.  If the ride is >2 hours I will make sure to pack a sandwich, rice cakes, gels, etc. with me to eat during the ride to keep my blood glucose levels topped up.  Then I will again ensure I get a decent recovery drink / post ride meal in me.  I always try to wake up with plenty of time to eat and digest if the ride is >3 hours long however, so no excuses on your next long ride, get your butt out of bed!

Ideas: Fruit juice.

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So, what you should eat before your ride depends on how long it is, how intense it will be, and how much time you have before you start your ride.  Fear not though, if you don’t have time to eat before and your ride will be <90 minutes and not too intense you will have enough glycogen stores to get you through it.  If you are riding longer or increasing the intensity, make sure you get up and eat something high in carbohydrates, low in fat, and low to medium in protein, and give your body at least 2 hours to properly digest it to avoid any GI distress.

Further Reading:

What should I eat during my ride?

What should I eat after my ride?

For more information on GC Coaching and how we can help you increase your fitness, please visit www.gaffneycyclingcoaching.com

References:

Carbohydrate. (2010, January 8). Retrieved December 4, 2015, from http://www.extension.iastate.edu/humansciences/content/carbohydrate

About the Author Shayne Gaffney

Shayne holds a bachelors degree in biology, is a USA Cycling Level 2 Certified Coach, USA Olympic Committee Safe Sport Certified, and a Category 3 road and cyclocross racer. He is the owner of GC Coaching and the creator and director of P2 Cycling. He can be contacted directly via info@gaffneycyclingcoaching.com

8 comments

  1. Are you testing your blood glucose to see what the impact is on your physiology, or are you using the glycemic load / glycemic index to determine impact to your own system?

    1. I have not done any formal testing myself, but can tell how my body feels when I eat certain things before I exercise. This is why I tend to consume fast burning food if I have <1 hour before I ride and slow burning food if I do have time.

  2. One thing that you should mention is what you use to replenish your glycogen stores. Glucose, galactose, and fructose are the main sugars used to replenish. With glucose being the best because it’s the easiest to assimilate into your body. Fructose works but is the worst of the three. It is the main cause for race gut. Important to look at what the main ingredients in the supplements you use has. Also important to note is sodium is a great vehicle for which nutrients get into the body.

    1. Hi Matt –

      Thank you for writing in. Please check out my “What should I eat during my ride” and “What should I eat after my ride” posts that discuss glycogen replenishment strategies. This article was strictly about pre-fueling.

  3. Hello Shayne. I have a favour to ask. I am using supplements for exercise. Coumd you maybe help me by checking them out and telling me which ones would best suit cycling exercises. Or any exercises. I’d like to share them with my friends as well. Just don’t know which ones will suit their needs.

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