How often have you considered that what you eat straight after riding is as important as what you eat before and during exertion? Most often a tasty pastry from the nearest bakery will do, or anything at all, really, as long as you can choke it down in one bite. Next time make it scrambled eggs on toast or a chicken pie. Here’s why.
All too often cyclists think their performance depends on the amount of carbohydrates they consume. While they are essential before and during exercise, numerous studies also suggest the importance that protein plays, too.
Carbs might be the best riding fuel, but skimp on protein when the ride is over and you’ll suffer fatigue, muscle soreness and slower recovery.
Why you need protein
Prolonged and intense endurance training like cycling increases your protein requirements for two reasons. First, you need more to compensate for the increased breakdown of protein during training. When muscle glycogen stores become low (around 60-90 minutes of endurance training) certain amino acids known as branched chain amino acids which make up a substantial proportion of muscle protein (see box below) can be used for energy.
Second, and perhaps more importantly for cyclists, protein is vital for the repair and recovery of muscle tissue after a ride. It’s in this post-recovery phase that you may need to rethink what you’re eating. Not only should you be rebuilding your fuel stores immediately after a ride, but you also need to repair damaged muscle ﬁbres as soon as possible.
Eat the wrong foods after training and you’ll end up exhausted with sore, aching legs. If you eat right then your body will get stronger, ﬁtter and recover faster.
Protein-rich foods have additional beneﬁts, too – they are involved in producing neurotransmitters, chemical messengers in the brain keeping you alert, focused and energised. They also slow down the release rate of glucose into the bloodstream, helping stabilise blood sugar between rides, and containing energising nutrients such as B vitamins, iron and zinc.
How much protein do I need?
Depending on the amount and intensity of your cycling, the recommended range is 1.2-1.4g protein per kg of body weight per day.
This compares to 0.8g/kg of body weight per day for the average person. So if you weigh 70kg you would need between 84-98g/day. In practical terms, a 100g (3 1⁄2 oz) piece of meat or ﬁsh contains between 25-30g protein and vegetarian sources around 15-20g. So depending on your choices you would need 3-5 servings a day.
Good protein sources
When to eat protein
To meet your protein needs you’ll need to include some protein with most meals and snacks, the exception being just before and during rides when carbohydrates are more valuable.
It should also feature as part of your refuelling immediately after a ride and later in your post-training meal.
Including a little protein with your carbohydrate speeds glycogen recovery, helps minimise protein breakdown, reduces muscle soreness and boosts muscle repair. Aim for a ratio of three parts carbohydrate to one part protein (about 20-25g protein and 60-70g carbohydrate depending on body weight).
Ways to get protein into you
Protein shakes, milkshakes and smoothies are all good choices, especially if you can’t stomach solid food straight away. Alternatively, try a protein/energy bar, rice cakes with raisins and peanut butter, or some pieces of fruit and a glass of milk.
After you’ve showered and dressed, eat something more substantial to prepare your body for your next ride. Depending on the time of day and individual calorie needs, here are some good options:
- Scrambled/poached eggs on wholegrain toast and orange juice
- Cereal and fruit with yogurt or milk
- Muesli, topped with berries and yogurt
- Fresh fruit and wholegrain toast with baked beans
- Porridge, raisins and milk topped with seeds
Lunch or dinner
- Jacket potato, chicken breast and salad
- Chilli or vegetarian chilli and rice
- Grilled salmon, potatoes and steamed vegetables
- Pitta breads with falafel and salad
- Pasta with tuna and tomato sauce
- Bean burrito and salad
stir fry and noodles Turkey
While ideally you want to obtain all your protein needs from diet alone, there may be times when you can’t stomach lots of food, especially during intense training or prolonged rides.
Protein supplements are a convenient way to make up for any shortfalls. Protein shakes or bars tend to be based on whey, casein or soy protein, and many contain additional nutrients, vitamins and minerals.
Whey protein is the most popular and contains a high concentration of essential amino acids including the branched chain amino acids in an easily digested form. A single serving (1 scoop) contains between 15-25g protein. Make it into a drink, and combine it with some fresh fruit, for a good post-training snack.
Know your amino acids
Amino acids are the small components of protein and are used by the body to repair and build muscle. There are eight essential amino acids that must be provided by the diet, while the body produces the others.
All these essential amino acids are required for your body to use proteins effectively. Animal proteins as well as soya, quorn and quinoa contain a good balance of these essential amino acids.
Plant sources such as beans, pulses, grains, nuts and seeds lack certain essential amino acids. So the key for vegetarians and vegans is to combine plant proteins to provide your body with complete protein (beans and toast, or dhal and rice, for example).
Branched chain amino acids (BCAA) comprise three essential amino acids – valine, leucine and isoleucine – and make up one-third of muscle protein. During intense aerobic exercise they can be used as fuel by the muscles particularly when muscle glycogen is depleted.
Studies suggest that supplementing with BCAA during and after exercise may help reduce protein breakdown, preserving muscle and reducing muscle damage.
Available as capsules and included in protein powders, they could be of value if you are restricting your calories or if protein intake is too low.