Walk into any bike shop and you’ll be hit by the vast number of different sports foods and supplements that are available to you. Leaf through a cycling magazine and the adverts for nutrition products are plentiful. These sports foods often provide good quality nutrients in a convenient and, most importantly for cyclists, speedy way.
Ultimately though, many are made from everyday ingredients, the type that you’ll no doubt find lurking in your fridge or cupboard. The main difference is that the sports foods you’ll find in a shop have been slightly modified to make them as effective as possible at what they're intended to do.
A sports drink is really only sugar, salt and water put together in ratios to enhance sugar and water absorption, and a shop-bought product will get those ratios spot-on. But with a little imagination you can use real food alternatives. You just need to know how to do it.
Energy and recovery products
You can divide up the sports foods on the market into two groups – those which are for energy and those for recovery.
Energy products tend to consist of food and drinks that provide simple sugars for your body to use as energy and maintain blood glucose levels during training and racing. Examples would be carbohydrate-electrolyte drinks, gels, jelly beans and energy bars.
Recovery products generally have protein as their main ingredient, and from there the manufacturers add other nutrients such as carbohydrate, fat, vitamins and minerals depending on the product and what it is to be used for. Examples would be carbohydrate and protein recovery drinks and protein bars.
With the advice here you can make your own energy and recovery fuels. It doesn’t mean you should stop using shop-bought products, because the key to good sports nutrition is timing, and the convenience of shop-bought products means you can refuel when your body needs it most. But there’s nothing wrong with supplementing them with a few store cupboard alternatives.
Milk could be the closest thing we have to a sporting superfood. Research shows that milk replaces lost energy, is a fantastic source of protein and is as effective at helping you rehydrate as a sports drink.
It's the perfect recovery drink. To get the most out of the milk in your fridge drink a pint immediately after your ride to optimise recovery. If you want to give yourself an even bigger boost, make up some chocolate milk, as cocoa has additional recovering benefits.
Price: around 60p per pint / 25¢ per 8oz glass
Fig rolls are a fantastic source of quick and easy energy. You could take these on the bike to help you get some easy carbohydrate without having to use gels and sports bars. They're easy to eat, fit perfectly in the back pocket and taste delicious.
Price: about £1 per packet of 12 / $4 per packet of 24
Sports bars are excellent at providing quick, easy energy during a long bike ride. However, so is a flapjack, and if you make it yourself you can make sure you get the taste and consistency exactly how you like it. Make sure you have a good carbohydrate source by using jumbo oats and add dried fruit and honey for extra carbohydrates. If you want some protein add some chopped nuts into the mix. See the recipe below if you fancy giving this a go.
Price: approximately 79p / $1 per flapjack
- 125g butter or margarine
- 100g dark brown soft sugar
- 4 tbsp golden syrup
- 250g rolled jumbo oats
- 40g sultanas or raisins
- Preheat the oven to 180ºC / Gas Mark 4 / 350ºF. In a saucepan over low heat, combine the butter, brown sugar and golden syrup.
- Cook, stirring occasionally, until butter and sugar have melted. Stir in the oats and sultanas until coated.
- Pour into a 20cm square baking tin. The mixture should be about 2-3cm thick.
- Bake for 30 minutes in the preheated oven, or until the top is golden. Cut into squares, then leave to cool completely before removing from the tin.
You could also try this recipe for making your own organic energy bars.
A sports drink is just sugar, salt and water. Well, some sports drinks now contain caffeine to help boost your performance even further. A fantastic piece of research around 10 years ago found that drinking cola drinks late in exercise improved performance over a sports drink with the same amount of sugar in it. This was due to the caffeine content of cola.
To use cola as a caffeinated sports drink allow the cola to go flat first before adding it into your drinks bottle. If you like, you can water it down to make it less concentrated.
Price: £1 per bottle / ¢50 per can
If you think of a sports drink it's basically sugar, with a pinch of salt, some flavouring and water. Without a doubt the most important component of a sports drink is the sugar as it delays fatigue and supports the immune system during exercise. Fruit juice is a perfect alternative, plus you might get some additional vitamins along the way. To make your own sports drink using fruit juices just take your water bottle and fill half of it with fruit juice, and the other half with water. If it’s a hot day, add a pinch of salt to the mix.
Price: 60p / $1 per bottle
Over the past couple of years the sports nutrition market has been flooded by things like sports-specific jelly beans and blocks or other sugary sweets. These are great, but, if you just want to graze while you’re training then dried fruit will do the trick. If you’ve ever looked at the nutrition value of dried fruit you’ll know it's high in natural sugars. These will be effective at delaying fatigue and you’ll also get other nutrients such as vitamins while you ride.
Price: approximately 10p / ¢14 per handful
There are many low carbohydrate, high protein snack bars on the market. These are promoted as being an excellent way of helping increase your protein intake or as snacks. Well, a handful of mixed nuts will be just as effective and won’t have been processed. In fact, almonds are high in the amino acid leucine, which is key for muscle recovery, so using almonds or other nuts as snacks could be a very effective way of maximising your recovery. Have some mixed nuts along with your glass of milk after a hard ride to maximise recovery.
Price: approximately 20p / ¢28 per handful
Homemade electrolyte drink
So, you've trained hard and lost quite a lot of sweat. You need to replace this and make sure you replace it with a drink containing electrolytes, particularly sodium. There are plenty of drinks on the market to help you with this, but you could make your own. Simply get some ‘no added sugar’ lemon-flavoured squash, get half a teaspoon of sea salt and add to a sports drink bottle. Fill the rest with water and you have a rehydration drink. The lemon-flavoured squash helps to mask the taste of the salt as well.
Price: approximately 10p / ¢14 per bottle
Homemade energy gel
Energy gels are a popular choice when it comes to portable nutrition boosts during races or during long training sessions. Easy to consume, they're also expensive to buy – but surprisingly easy to make! Since the focus here is on producing an energy-rich product, the sugar provided by the dates and honey or maple syrup that make up the gel base will deliver a concentrated energy boost.
- 8 pitted dates
- 1 tsp coconut oil
- 1 tbsp maple syrup or honey
- Pinch of sea salt
- Other ingredients to taste
- Soak the dates for several hours.
- Mix the ingredients together and blend until they form a smooth paste or gel-like consistency.
- Decant out into storage containers.
- Refrigerate until use.
Alternative flavours: Apple juice and cinnamon, dried cherry and cocoa, lemon and lime, coffee. Look to add around 2 tbsps of fruit juices, 1tsp of dried ingredients, and ensure any dried ingredients are soaked beforehand.
The trick is how to store them on the go. There are a couple of options here, and one that works well are the travel-size squeezy bottles you can buy for your toiletries. The lids are removable so you can clean them too. Alternatively, get some small ziplock bags – though we recommend double bagging the gel as it'll form a sticky mess if it leaks.
Price: Approximately 40p / ¢57 per portion
Of course, as with any food source you need to ensure you balance what your body needs with what it's able to burn off cycling. Too little, and you run out of energy. Too much, and you can put on weight. Get the balance right, eat the right foods at the right time, and you'll make the most of the nutrition your food provides.
If you fancy getting creative in the kitchen, protein-rich post-ride meal recipes will maximise the benefit you feel from your training – and will taste delicious too.