What to Eat Pre- and Post-Ride (or Race)

pancakes with berry syrup

One of the hardest things to figure out is what to eat before a race. During a race, you’re probably eating energy bars and gels, but before and after the race, what do you do?

There are so many options, but only some of them are smart, healthy choices. To make things worse, everyone is different. So what works great for your friend could be horrible for you.

With that in mind, I want to give you an idea of what foods you should be eating before and after your rides. Exact foods will vary by personal preference and type of ride, but this will give you a good overview.

Think Before You Eat

Before making a choice, there are considerations. The right meal choice will depend on ride duration, time of day, and ride intensity.

For example, if I’m riding early in the morning, I will eat nothing beforehand. I’ll just go straight into my during-ride nutrition consisting of energy bars, gels, and drinks.

Since you should have eaten dinner the night before, and your body will hold about 2,000 calories worth of energy in its glycogen stores, you technically don’t need breakfast. As long as you do start eating while riding, you’ll be fine.

If the ride is late morning or afternoon, I will eat a meal 3-4 hours before the start of the ride. That way my body has time to digest the food beforehand.

During intense rides, you don’t want food in your stomach. (Well, unless you want to puke.)

With longer, slow rides, I worry less about timing because I can still digest food at the slow riding pace. I can literally eat as I walk out the door.

What To Eat Before a Ride

apples

When I do eat a considerable meal 3-4 hours before a ride, I am looking for a balance of whole grain carbohydrates, healthy fat, and protein. The meal will be based on complex carbs (no steak and eggs,) but you don’t want to skimp on fat and protein.

This type of meal will take longer to digest than something based on simple carbs, but that’s fine, because you have 3-4 hours for that. Also, the protein and fat will supply longer-lasting energy and a feeling of satiety.

Just don’t consume too much fat, protein, or fiber immediately before or during the ride, because you need to focus on riding, not digesting!

Here are a few examples of what I might eat before a ride:

  • Hearty oatmeal.
  • Whole wheat toast + natural peanut butter.
  • An apple.
  • Hearty, natural granola (whole grains, almonds, etc.)
  • Cheerios without milk. (If I need something quick while walking out the door.)

What I would not eat:

  • Sugary cereal like Froot Loops, Cap’n Crunch, etc.
  • Pancakes with syrup.
  • White bread or bagels.
  • Yogurt.
  • Citrus fruits. (Acidic fruits could possibly disrupt digestion.)

You could also try to eat twice before a big ride. In this case you would have your big meal (i.e. oatmeal) four hours beforehand, then have a small snack (i.e. dry Cheerios or Nature Valley granola bar) at 45 minutes before heading out.

In this case my big meal would be roughly 800-1,000 calories, and my snack would be 90-200 calories.

What To Eat After a Ride

elvis peanut butter banana sandwiches

Immediately after a ride (ideally within 15 minutes of finishing,) I’m looking for a meal that will quickly replenish my energy but also rebuild my muscles. So I will go ahead and eat some simple carbs, but I want a little protein, too.

At this point, your body is most receptive to refueling, so the carbs will go towards replenishing muscle glycogen (instead of being stored as fat.)

Don’t forget protein though – you need to add some protein into this meal to aid in recovery, and a few studies have shown that you can actually absorb more nutrients with a carb:protein mixture.

Just be careful not to eat too much protein or fat just yet, since that could slow the absorption of carbs. (That’s good at other times of the day, like in the evening after the big ride, but not right now!)

Here is what I might eat immediately after a ride:

  • Peanut butter banana smoothie.
  • Toasted peanut butter banana sandwich.
  • A banana.
  • Whole wheat pasta with tomato sauce.
  • Specialty recovery drink.
  • A glass of Ovaltine.
  • Baked potato.

Just make sure you get something that’s high on the Glycemic Index right after the ride. (If you must have something sugary, like pancakes and syrup, do it now!)

What I would not eat:

  • A plate of bacon.
  • A huge steak.

I’d still avoid white bread and sugary cereal because I cut those foods out of my diet, but if you were going to eat that stuff, now is the time to do it.

Later in the evening I might have a meal consisting of whole wheat pasta, chicken breast, and some steamed vegetables. Or you could have your steak and baked potato.

Those are just some ideas from my kitchen. To find the right meals for your needs, keep experimenting. It could take a few years but eventually you should figure out what works best!

Eating Tip: keep all of this information in your food log so you can determine what works best for you! And when you find the perfect pre- and post-ride meals, remember them!

For more nutrition advice, stay tuned for What to Eat During Your Ride.

Photo credits: eyeliam | terren in Virginia | mollypop

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5 Comments so far

  1. matt on April 19th, 2009

    Thanks, this helped a lot. My new favorite post ride food is peanut butter and honey sandwich with a banana and a glass of chocolate milk. Pre ride I usually have a PB&J sandwich. Also, Graeme street fro Cyclocore said that NOT eating before a group ride will increase your performance and make you rider better. For my 50 mile group rides at around a 25 MPH pace, if I dont’t eat before, I will surely bonk. Have you ever heard of not eating before a ride?????

    :

  2. Levi on April 19th, 2009

    @Matt

    There is some interesting talk about not eating before big rides, but you always have to ask, “why?” and, “what do you mean exactly?”

    In this case, Hammer Nutrition put together some research about glycogen depletion rates. They found that if you eat within a couple hours of your ride, your body starts burning glycogen at an increased rate. This means you could potentially run out of glycogen sooner than if you abstained from any pre-ride food.

    So the conclusion gets boiled down and paraphrased as, “do not eat before your ride.” But that leaves out a couple key points from the research:

    1) If the ride is 90 minutes or less, you don’t run the risk of depleting glycogen stores, so it doesn’t matter if you eat before the ride.

    2) If you eat 4 hours before the ride, apparently that’s enough time to get back to the fasted state which preserves glycogen. So eating 4 hours before the ride is fine, despite the seemingly strict advice of “do not eat before a ride.”

    3) This “no food before riding” strategy requires you to consume quite a few calories once you begin the ride.

    As you can see, it’s nowhere near as simple and concrete as “do not eat before a ride.” There’s a lot more to the story.

    There’s also your gut instinct. That’s what’s telling you “I will surely bonk” and usually your gut is right.

    You have to consider other aspects too. For example, even though this research says you can eat right before a 60 minute ride and do just fine, I know I’d throw up if I ate a big breakfast right before an intense interval training session.

    The moral of the story: Question everything, and trust your gut.

    It’s worth testing multiple nutrition strategies, though. You never know when something that sounds crazy could work very well!

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