The nutritional needs of women differ to men when it comes to cycling, and making a few small tweaks to your diet can help you perform and recover better. We speak to the experts and distill the scientific literature to bring you the essential info.
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There’s no shortage of female specific bikes and kit for women cyclists, but what you eat and drink can have a major impact on your performance — and the fact is that there are physiological differences between men and women, due to things like hormone levels and muscle/fat tissue percentages.
We all know that eating a healthy diet is key to a successful training session or race. Riding without sufficient fuel is a fast-track to a lacklustre performance and the dreaded bonk.
This of course applies for both sexes, but when it comes to the difference between the sexes, cycling coaches and brands have started to appreciate that there are differences and that it is important to tailor nutrition to the needs of the female athlete to enable them to reach optimum performance.
Consider those carbs
Several studies have found that women do have different nutritional needs to men.
A 2003 study by the University of Toronto found that women and men use fuel differently, with tests showing that women process carbohydrates more efficiently than men.
Supplying each rider with an energy drink after 90 minutes of cycling, scientists found that the female riders were processing 25 percent more carbohydrate from the sports drink than the men.
- (You can read the full study here:  Riddell, M.C et al (2003) Substrate utilisation during exercise performed with and without glucose ingestion in female and male endurance-trained)
But when it comes to loading up on carbs before an event, an earlier 2001 study suggests that women don’t gain quite the same benefits from carb-loading as men as they have a lower ability to store glycogen. Evidence suggests that for women, regularly eating a healthy diet with sufficient carbohydrates and topping up stores during a ride should be enough, although it is worth a bit of trial and error to see what works for you.
Endurance sports nutritionist Jo Scott-Dalgleish advises: “What you eat before competing in an event depends on the length of the race, your personal food preferences and how well you can digest and absorb certain foods. Always practice your pre-race meal in training. Your food choices should be carbohydrate-based for optimal energy production.”
Scott-Dalgleish adds: “Before a short training ride, have a carbohydrate snack such as a banana or a handful of dried fruit. Before a long ride, you need a larger meal. Porridge with honey, wholegrain toast with nut butter or eggs on toast, together with some fruit, would make a good breakfast. If it’s an afternoon ride, have a lunch that includes some starchy carbohydrate such as sweet potato, rice, quinoa, pasta or wholegrain bread.”
Put simply, add carbohydrate rich foods to your daily diet but don’t worry too much about carb loading for a significant performance boost.
Higher body fat percentage = an endurance advantage
A more recent South Wales study from 2009 found another difference between the sexes. This time looking at hormonal differences, researchers found that women store fat more efficiently than men, thanks to the role of fat in reproduction.
The study found that on average, women have between six to 11 percent more body fat, with higher oestrogen levels resulting in more fat being stored by the body and a reduced ability to burn energy after eating. While men may have a slight edge in strength and speed, this could explain why comparatively women often excel in endurance events.
Research into distance runners by RunRepeat found that women are on average 18.61 percent better than men at running with a controlled and consistent pace.
This could mean women are simply better at pacing, but science also suggests that body fat plays a part. A lean female athlete might have between 10 to 20 percent body fat, while for a male athlete this would be much lower at between 5 to 12 percent.
That said, competitive road cyclists have some of the lower body fat percentages in the world, with some women even dropping to 10 percent or lower in order to ride that bit quicker.
While reducing body fat can make you a bit faster on the hills, when it comes to long-term health, eating enough calories and fats to allow your body to heal and repair after training is important. If a woman’s body fat is too low it can lead to conditions such as oligomenorrhea (irregular or inconsistent periods) or amenorrhea (complete lack of periods), which in turn can lead to lower body mass and a loss of calcium from bones.
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Ensure you have the right iron intake
The general advice for women in the UK is to have 14.8mg iron per day, although very active women may need more.
“Women of menstruating age do require more iron than men, due to blood losses during their periods”, says Scott-Dalgleish. “You should include sources of iron in your diet regularly, however, not just during your period.
"If you don’t eat red meat, choose oats and other wholegrains, beans, lentils, chickpeas, tofu, dried apricots and figs, tahini, dark green leafy vegetables, cashew nuts and eggs,” she advises.
Eat protein to help recovery
When it comes to recovery, both men and women cyclists need to eat carbohydrates to replenish muscle glycogen used up while riding. Scott-Dalgleish recommends around 20g of protein to aid muscle recovery. “Greek yogurt and fruit works well, or a smoothie made with milk, fruit and nut butter. If you are having a main meal, try egg fried rice with chicken or tofu and some vegetables.”
If you happen to be a vegetarian female cyclist then getting enough protein to aid muscle repair is important but not difficult. Good sources of protein include eggs, cheese, yogurt, tofu, beans and lentils, walnuts, flaxseed, chia seed and pumpkin seed — all provide good sources of omega 3 fats, too.
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Take-home cycling nutrition tips for women
- Make sure you're getting enough iron in your diet — 14.8mg per day, though you may need more if you are very active
- Use carb drinks in training and riding session to aid performance
- Don't heavily carb-load before events. Instead, have carbohydrate balanced meals combined with good proteins and fats
- Eat around 20g of protein post-exercise to aid muscle recovery