Walk into any bike shop and you’ll be amazed by the vast and varied range of sports foods and supplements that are available. Look online and the adverts for nutrition products are just as 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 find lurking in your fridge or cupboard. The main difference is that the sports foods you’ll see stocked 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 the sports foods on the market into two groups: foods for energy and foods 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 a protein source 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.
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 your jersey pocket and taste delicious. Go easy on them, though, as figs have laxative properties.
Sports bars are excellent at providing quick, easy energy during a long ride. But, so are flapjacks, and if you make them 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.
- 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.
As well as the usual sugar, salt and water mix, some sports drinks also contain caffeine to help boost your performance even further. A fantastic piece of research around 10 years ago found that drinking cola during the latter part of a period of exercise improved performance over a sports drink with the same amount of sugar in it. This was due to the caffeine in the cola.
In order to use cola as a caffeinated sports drink you'll need to let it go flat before pouring it into your water bottle. If necessary, add some water to dilute it to your preferred concentration/taste.
The most important ingredient of a sports drink is the sugar as that's what delays fatigue and supports your immune system during exercise. Fruit juice is a perfect alternative to a sports drink — and it may provide you with some additional vitamins alongside the sugar. To make your own 'natural' sports drink, just take your water bottle and fill half of it with fruit juice and the other half with water. If you're going to be drinking it on a hot day, add a pinch of salt to the mix.
The past few years have seen products like jelly beans, gel blocks and other similarly sugary 'performance treats' appear in the sports nutrition market. These are great but if you just want to graze while you’re training, then dried fruit will do the trick just as well. If you’ve ever looked at the nutrition information on a packet 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.
There are many low-carbohydrate, high-protein bars on the market, many of which are marketed as being effective aides to recovery or 'healthy' snacks that'll help you sated for longer. The thing is, a handful of mixed nuts will perform the same functions and won’t have been processed. In fact, almonds are high in the amino acid leucine, which is key for muscle recovery, so snacking on almonds or other nuts after exercise could help you maximise your recovery. Have some mixed nuts along with your glass of milk after a hard ride to help you and your body recuperate.
Homemade electrolyte drink
So, you've trained hard and lost a lot of sweat. You need to replace not only this fluid but also the electrolytes it contains, particularly sodium. There are plenty of drinks on the market to help you do this, but you could make your own. Simply add half a teaspoon of sea salt to some ‘no added sugar’ lemon-flavoured squash and pour the mixture into a sports drink bottle. Fill the bottle with water and you have a rehydration drink. The lemon-flavoured squash helps to mask the taste of the salt as well.
Homemade energy gel
Energy gels are a popular choice when it comes to portable nutrition boosts during races or during long-training sessions. They're easy to consume but they're also expensive to buy. They are, however, surprisingly easy to make with the following recipe! Since the focus is on producing an energy-rich product, the sugar provided by the dates and honey or maple syrup that form 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 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, use some small ziplock bags – though we recommend double bagging the gel as it'll form a sticky mess if it leaks.
Of course, as with any food source, you'll need to ensure you balance what your body needs with what it's able to burn off cycling. Too little, and you'll run out of energy. Too much, and you'll 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.