By now we know that nutrition plays a massive role in athletic performance. It influences how much energy you have to perform on the bike and how well you recover after your training. In fact, food as fuel is so important that nearly all pro cycling teams now employ their own chefs and nutritionists to make sure that riders are getting exactly what they need to support training and race efforts. And by “getting what they need” we are largely talking about enough calories from carbohydrates.
Though carbs are heavily demonized in diet books, on social media, and by plenty of influencers, their role in fueling athletic success should not be understated. If you want to go hard and long, you better have some carbs on board, which is why it’s important to know the different types of carbs and which are best for you.
As a quick primer: Your digestive system breaks down the carbohydrates you eat into glucose (blood sugar). Your bloodstream absorbs glucose and then you use it as energy to fuel your cells, muscles, organs and brain. Glucose can be used immediately or stored in the liver and muscles, as glycogen, for later use.
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But not all carbs deserve equal attention. Determining the best types of carbs for cyclists can be both simple—and complex. Read on to find out why carbs remain an important part of an athlete’s diet and how you can tap into their full potential.
Why Cyclists Need to Eat Carbohydrates
Simply put, carbs are the premium fuel for your engines. “Carbs are the most efficient source of energy production for the body, especially during higher intensity training and racing,” says Kylee Van Horn, RDN, a registered dietitian and the founder of FlyNutrition in Carbondale, Colorado. “Yes, the body can use fat and protein for energy production, but it is a slower, more inefficient process.” That means having insufficient amounts of carbs in your system will make it much more difficult to power up those inclines, according to Van Horn.
Carbohydrates are also our body’s preferred source of energy for the brain. This is why going low on carbs can leave you with brain fog or feeling dizzy or moody.
A 2022 randomized controlled study published in the journal Nutrients showed that physically active people experienced greater improvements in various performance parameters, including time to fatigue and power output, when they followed a higher carb diet for three weeks compared to when they consumed a lower-carb, high-fat diet.
Despite what you may hear, if you look through the scientific literature over the last several decades, you’ll find that there is very little evidence to show that a lower-carb eating pattern can benefit endurance performance. Carbs are king when it comes to keeping up your performance.
Also, recent research shows it is the calories from carbohydrates that are most important when it comes to staving off the health and performance detriments that can come when calorie intake does not match the calorie expenditure of training.
It’s worth noting that many carb-rich foods like whole grains, vegetables, and fruits also contain an arsenal of vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants that we need for good health.
So eating an adequate amount of carbohydrates throughout your day at the appropriate times is key to maintaining your energy levels and keeping you performing like a champ. There are three primary types of carbs; here are the ones you need in your life.
The Best Types of Carbs for Cyclists
These are also known as “complex carbohydrates,” which Van Horn says are made of numerous simple sugars (glucose, fructose, galactose) strung together. During digestion, your body needs to break starches down into individual sugars to use them for energy.
Starches include grains, like pasta and rice, and also certain vegetables, like potatoes, peas, and corn. “I suggest that outside of the workout window of before and during exercise that athletes focus on complex carbs as their primary source of carbohydrates,” Van Horn tells Bicycling.
Not all starchy foods are as valuable to our health, though. Whole grains like whole wheat bread, brown rice, quinoa, and oatmeal, as well as whole starchy vegetables including potatoes, beets, and carrots are more desirable overall than refined grains like white rice and white bread, and highly processed versions of starchy vegetables, such as French fries, as they deliver a bigger payload of the vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and fiber you need for better health and exercise performance. “Less processed carbs will also promote better blood sugar control, which can impact hormones and inflammation levels,” adds Van Horn.
Some wrongly believe that refined grains are not complex carbohydrates, but they are because they are still made up of a long chain of sugar molecules. It’s just that they are not as nutrient-dense as whole grains, which still contain all parts of the grain—endosperm, bran, and germ.
The bran is the outer hard shell of the grain and is removed during the refinement process. It is the part of the grain that provides the most fiber and most of the B vitamins. The germ is the core of the seed where growth occurs and contains a range of vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants. This is also removed to make refined grains. The endosperm is the starchy middle of the grain and all that is left after processing.
A 2020 study published in Current Developments in Nutrition found that replacing 5% of energy from saturated fat with 5% of energy from low-quality carbohydrates, like refined grains and added sugars, was linked to a higher risk for type 2 diabetes. Meanwhile, swapping 5% of energy from saturated fat with high-quality carbohydrates, such as whole grains and starchy whole vegetables, was associated with a lower risk. Researchers say a higher intake of whole grains, in general, was associated with lower type 2 diabetes risk. When people follow a low-fat diet, they often replace fat with low-quality or refined starches, which is not a win.
Further, a recent investigation in the Journal of Nutrition has shown that adults who eat at least three servings of whole grains daily (a serving is a one-half cup cooked oats or brown rice or a slice of 100% whole grain bread) typically have slimmer waistlines along with lower blood pressure and blood sugar levels, compared to those who take in less than one-half serving per day and eat more refined grains.
The best starchy foods include:
- Potato (sweet, white)
- Whole grains (rolled oats, farro, whole grain brown rice, quinoa, millet, rolled oats)
- Legumes (beans, lentils, peas)
- Squash (butternut, pumpkin)
- Green peas
Van Horn says there is a time when it can be in your best interest to get more of your carbs from more heavily processed starches, like white pasta and white bread, and that is in the hours leading up to a big ride. “These starches are easier to digest resulting in a quicker source of energy and also less risk for GI issues during the workout,” she says.
Following a workout with refined grains can lead to a more rapid restocking of energy stores (glycogen), too, Van Horn adds. This is particularly important for athletes who are taking part in multiple training sessions where the time between workouts is short and there is less time for glycogen replenishment to occur.
Simply put, sugar is a form of carbohydrate and contains carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen molecules. They are also called “simple carbohydrates” because they are in the most basic form. Complex carbohydrates are formed from three or more sugar molecules, whereas simple carbohydrates are composed of either one sugar molecule (monosaccharides) or two (disaccharides).
Compared to starch, your body processes simple carbohydrates quickly. They can be added to foods, such as the sugar in candy and baked goods, or found naturally in fruits, vegetables, and dairy. Foods can also contain more than one type of carbohydrate as in the case of a dried plum, which will supply each starch, sugar, and fiber.
The four most common forms of simple sugars are:
- Fructose (a.k.a. fruit sugar)
- Sucrose (a.k.a. table sugar)
- Lactose (a.k.a. dairy sugar)
When it comes to health outcomes, this is where it can get confusing. It’s important to stress that it’s the sugars that are added to foods and beverages to enhance flavor and shelf-life that are most problematic, not the sugars that are already found in foods like the fructose in fruits or the lactose in milk.
For example, a 2020 study in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that it was mainly sugars added to foods and drinks that raised the risk of developing various cancers. Because added sugars are so ubiquitous in the food supply most people are getting more than they realize. American adults consume an average of 77 grams of added sugar per day, according to the American Heart Association—more than triple the recommended amount for most people.
Although the naturally occurring sugar in foods like fruit and dairy itself doesn’t provide much of a health benefit, it comes as part of a full nutrient package with vitamins, minerals, fiber, and antioxidants. But it’s important to know that certain foods that contain natural sugar can also have added sugar. An example would be vanilla-flavored yogurt, which will have both naturally occurring lactose and also sugar added during manufacturing.
On nutrition labels, added sugars (simple carbs) can go by a handful of different names, including brown sugar, corn syrup, high fructose corn syrup, glucose, maltose, malt syrup, sucrose, honey, agave nectar, and fruit juice concentrates.
So, overall, you want to aim to get most of your sugar carbohydrates from foods that harbor them naturally like berries, banana, squash, tomatoes, and plain yogurt.
Yet, there is certainly a time and place for added sugars in an athlete’s diet. And that is going to be during hard, long rides to help you sustain pace and delay fatigue. “The higher the intensity, the more we want quick access to energy, which can come from quick-digesting sugar sources,” says Van Horn.
Items like sports drinks and gels that supply all of the calories from sugary carbs are preferential here. Some athletes will also turn to items like dried fruit, honey, or ripe bananas to power their ride as they also supply predominantly quick-acting carbs that get into our bloodstream fast. Of course, you’d avoid eating beans or whole wheat pasta during a training session because they’re going to wreak havoc on our gut.
During workouts, it appears to be most beneficial to consume foods and drinks that provide different types of simple carbohydrates like maltodextrin and glucose. This allows for different sugar transporters to function in the body making it easier for you to absorb a higher level of carbs and, in turn, burn more of them for energy.
Having some simple, fast-digesting carbs shortly before hopping on the saddle for a hard ride can also help you maintain your blood sugar levels. This is another time when you don’t want to be eating slow-digesting starches.
Immediately following a hard workout some sugars in your recovery snack or meal can quicken the replenishment of your spent energy reserves. But this is more of a concern if you are performing exercise sessions in short succession. If there is a good amount of time between your rides then getting your carbs mainly from starches will suffice to restock your carbohydrate stores.
Outside these time frames, make the foundation of your diet a balance of complex carbs, proteins, and fats.
In layman’s terms, fiber is a form of complex carbohydrate that is the indigestible part of plant foods, including vegetables and grains. When you consume dietary fiber, most of it passes through the intestines and is not digested. Because of this, fiber contributes to digestive health, helps to keep you regular, and functions to make you feel full and satisfied after eating.
Additional health benefits of fiber—such as a reduction in cholesterol levels and improved blood sugar control—have been suggested by some scientists. Of late, experts recognize that a higher fiber diet is very important in fostering a healthier microbiome. “The microbiome is shaped by the foods we eat,” says Van Horn. “Fiber can act as fuel for the healthy bacteria in our gut, which allows them to flourish.”
Research findings published in the journal The Lancet suggests that high-fiber eaters have a 15 to 30 percent lower risk of heart attack, stroke, type 2 diabetes, colorectal cancer, and cardiovascular-related death, compared to people who eat much less fiber. Study participants whose diets contained the most fiber also had significantly lower body weights, blood pressure, and blood cholesterol levels. The analysis revealed that consuming 25 to 29 grams of fiber per day was protective, but the data suggested that pushing past 30 grams could be even more beneficial.
Two main categories of fiber include soluble and insoluble. Soluble fiber easily dissolves in water and forms a gel-like substance in the part of the gut known as the colon. On the other hand, insoluble fiber does not dissolve in water and is left intact as food moves through the gastrointestinal tract. Because each has different benefits, including soluble fiber lowering cholesterol and insoluble fiber improving bowel functioning, ideally a day of eating would provide a good mix of both of these.
Less than 10% of Americans get the recommended amount of fiber—which is 14 grams of fiber per 1,000 calories in the diet—making it one of the most prominent nutritional deficiencies in the country.
The best high-fiber foods include:
- Whole Vegetables
- Whole Fruit (especially those with edible skins, like pears, or seeds, including berries)
- Whole Grains
It is important that you increase your fiber intake gradually, to prevent GI issues, and that you increase your intake of water and other liquids to improve tolerance. And you want to go easy on fiber shortly before jumping on the saddle, as this can slow down digestion leading to stomach woes.
The Amount of Carbs Cyclists Should Eat
There is no one-size-fits-all amount of carbohydrates that people need to eat. The level of carbs that should be in a diet is highly individualized as it depends on several factors including body weight and intensity and volume of training. Certainly, a hard-charging cyclist is going to need to go bigger on carbs, both complex and simple, than someone who is generally sedentary.
As a general rule, Van Horn says most cyclists should aim for at least 3 grams of carbohydrate for every kilogram of bodyweight. That means a 150-pound rider should shoot for at least 200 grams of carbs daily. During periods of high-volume training, she says you could very well benefit by bumping this up to 12 grams per kilogram body weight. That allows for plenty of pasta on your plate. Don’t forget that the carbs you consume during a training bout count toward this total amount.
What does this level of carbohydrate intake look like? Here is how much of the various carb-rich foods you need to eat in a day to reach the 200-gram mark.
- 1 cup cooked oatmeal: 27 grams
- 1 large banana: 31 grams
- 1 apple: 25 grams
- 1 cup cooked spaghetti: 43 grams
- 1 cup carrots (strips or slices): 12 grams
- 2 slices whole wheat bread: 24 grams
- 1 medium sweet potato: 26 grams
The bottom line when it comes to the carbs you eat: It’s all about finding a balance between which ones you eat, how much of them you consume, and when you eat them.