A review of physiological, logistical and nutritional requirements of a cyclist

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 A review of physiological, logistical and nutritional requirements of a cyclist

Since cycling is a rigorous physical activity, it affords increased physical fitness and cardiovascular health to athletes but optimal performance requires high energy output which would be very taxing to an athlete’s body. Therefore the body of the athlete must be fuelled by sufficient amount of calories to provide the required energy for the sport. The amount of calories needed by a cyclist usually depends on the body size of the athlete, the type of cycling activity, duration and the intensity of the exercise (Miller & Washington, 2012). The type of cycling activities such as road cycling, track cycling and mountain biking requires varying amount of calories. Professional and competitive cyclists may engage in the sport for a long duration up to 16 to 25 hours every week and therefore they burn a lot of calories because one hour of active cycling burns about 370 to 600 calories (Suárez, Valdivielso & Ravé, 2011).

The maximum uptake of oxygen is a physiological variable among various athletes which influences the energy consumption during exercise. More oxygen intake means that the oxidation of carbohydrates to produce energy will be facilitated hence more CHO will be required. This means that the amount of nutritional intake especially for CHO varies depending on the physiological activity of the athlete. During long distance cycling, athletes consume a lot of oxygen to produce sufficient energy for pedaling. A faster cycling speed is possible when there is a high uptake of oxygen which leads to generation of sufficient amount of energy hence more power (Richman, 2010). The variables in perspiration among cyclists also contribute to the varying fluid requirements of various athletes but in general, plenty of fluids are recommended for cyclists.

Since the nutritional requirements of cyclists are different from the general health requirements, cycling activities should focus on a diligent plan for nutrition and supplementation so that the physiological and logical needs of the sport can be met in order to reach maximum performance (Hallihan, 2009). Carbohydrate and electrolyte formulations are thus used by athletes so that sodium in the electrolytes helps the athletes to maintain the fluid balance while obtaining enough supply of energy from CHO oxidation. This is a sport focused nutrition approach that is not the same as the normal nutritional needs. Strenuous cycling sports requires CHO-protein blends at 6% CHO and 2% protein at a rate of at lest one liter per hour.


During the training period, simple sugars and refined food carbohydrate sources are not recommended for cyclists because they offer very little nutritional value (Heaney, O’Connor, Michael, Gifford, & Naughton, 2011). For trainee cyclists, CHO from whole grain breads, vegetables, fruits, rice and pasta and a small amount of fat and lean protein are ideal (Richman, 2010).  On the other hand, for the period of vigorous cycling refined carbohydrates such as glucose are necessary to attain recovery from depletion of glycogen during active liver oxidation. It is however important to note that the time when the athlete takes the meals is as important as what is eaten and therefore a cyclist should fuel up with CHO about an hour before the ride. A small meal or a large carbohydrate snack is recommended before cycling. A whole grain toast with fresh fruit can also be taken before the ride to provide the athlete’s body with enough calories for the ride (Robinson, 2010).

A high carbohydrate diet of about 1.5 g per Kg body weight is recommended 50 at least one hour before the ride and about 50 grams of CHO at thirty minute intervals of long distance cycling. Energy bars can be used by the athletes to provide enough calories for their energy needs during the sporting events. In addition, high CHO energy drinks which contain about 200mg of sodium are recommended during cycling for appropriate fluid balance (Spano, 2010).

Cycling poses many physiological demands on the body including muscle strength and cardiovascular endurance. During cycling, the muscles in the lower part of the body experiences prolonged periods of aerobic and anaerobic functional activities (Parker, 2005). Therefore is important for cyclists to note that despite the level at which they are involved in competition, exercise or leisure cycling; there are important considerations they must put in mind. These include maintenance of muscle fuel, managing muscle breakdown, recovery and dehydration (Spano, 2010). All these factors can be addressed via proper nutrition which utilizes appropriate amount of diet, composition and correct timing of food and fluid consumption. Logistics of racing may include cycling in hot weather with intensifying temperatures.  Since bike races involve a lot of sweating, huge amount of fluid is lost hence prevention of dehydration becomes very important to all cyclists (Hallihan, 2009). This shows that there is need for proper electrolyte replacement as a measure of rehydrating the athlete’s body. Rehydration supplements are taken in addition to intake of plenty of water.  Therefore peak performance and recovery by cyclists is made possible by sufficient intake of electrolyte replacement electrolytes (Parker, 2005).

Energy systems support sports and exercise by ensuring that the body receives sufficient energy for the exertion related to strenuous activities.  The various energy sources available within the energy systems are important in powering the production of ATP (Franchini, Matsushigue & Artioli, 2011).  Cereatine phosphate is one of the energy sources that replenish ATP in the body even though it exists in limited concentrations.  This energy source is active within the muscles of cyclists which combine with ATP to form high energy sources for the strenuous exercise (Ganio & Armstrong, 2010). Athletes actively use fat as an energy substrate especially when the level of CHO in the body is limited. Fat is an energy reservoir within the adipose tissue and energy release from this substrate is very slow as compared to proteins and carbohydrates. This is the reason why a carbohydrate rich diet is recommended as a major source of energy for cyclists. Since carbohydrates release energy more fast that proteins and fat, its stores within muscles and the liver be depleted quickly during a bike race hence dietary intake of CHO must be monitored closely before during and after cycling (Robinson, 2010). On the other hand proteins act as a source or energy during prolonged exercise but the rate at which it is broken down by the body to release energy depends on the availability of carbohydrates in the body, a phenomenon called mass action effect (Crittenden, Davey & Hobman, 2009).

The goal of active and endurance cyclists is to take more CHO and limit the amount of fat. 6.8g CHO per kg of body wait is thus recommended for this category of cyclists. This amounts to about 2000 Cal of CHO. There are two categories of carbohydrates: simple and complex (Ganio & Armstrong, 2010). Simple carbohydrates such as those found in baked food, chocolate, fruit juice, table sugar, biscuits, honey and jam are quickly broken down by the body into ATP. On the other hand complex carbohydrates such as those found in vegetables, apples, milk, potatoes and plums take longer to be broken down into energy by the body energy systems. During prolonged cycling, complex carbohydrates are ideal because they are full of fiber and therefore are broken down into glycogen at a slow rate. This means that the body of a cyclist involved in prolonged or strenuous cycling is supplied with energy for a long period of time. It is also argued that a mix of both types of carbohydrates in a cyclist’s diet is best so that immediate needs for energy are attained through simple carbohydrates while the complex carbohydrates act as an energy reservoir to cater for prolonged exercise (Parker, 2005).

A cyclist undergoes overheating and the cooling mechanism through sweating leads to loss of a large amount of fluids from the body. Therefore it is equally important for a cyclist to take plenty of water before, during and after cycling. Loss of 700ml of body fluids by a cyclist decreases performance by 7% (Pfeiffer, Hodgson & Jeukendrup, 2011). Therefore energy drinks are the most appropriate measures against dehydration because in addition to supplying the body with fluids, they also boost energy through carbohydrates. Electrolytes in the energy drinks are used as isotonic fluids during cycling so that the body is enabled to absorb the fluids quickly so that the risk of dehydration is prevented. Recovery drinks which contain carbohydrates are suitable after the race to enable the cyclist recover from the energy and fluids lost during the race (Suárez, Valdivielso & Ravé, 2011).

About 20-30% fat composition is recommended in a cyclist diet (Desbrow, Minahan & Leveritt, 2007). A cyclist can obtain fat from butter, milk, cheese olive oil and yoghurt which aid in food breakdown to produce glycogen and the storage of necessary energy in the body. Vegetable oils are recommended because they are neither hydrogenated nor saturated. In addition to the fat diet, about 15-20% of protein is recommended for athletes (Hallihan, 2009). Proteins are especially appropriate for recovery because they assist in the rebuilding of muscle tissue. In addition there are further nutrients that are ideal for a professional cyclist such as fresh fruit and vegetables which provide the body with essential minerals, vitamins, micro nutrients and electrolytes (Dietitians Association of Australia). These also promote recovery by assisting proteins to repair body tissues and also improve the immune system. Energy bars that are quick to digest are usually used by cyclists before, during and after racing to supply the body with sufficient calories, proteins and vitamins to promote body functioning hence prevent premature exhaustion.


Cycling competition

If you could like to compete in a cycling event there are specific characteristics of the competition and nutritional requirements that should be familiar with you. First of all, you can compete as an individual or as a group of cyclists depending on your preference. The competitions are usually held in various stages within many days but they could be held in a single day which is determined by the level of the competition or championship.

The competitions are normally held on road or track hence you are given a choice that will be influenced by your ability and competitiveness. Moreover, the tracks could be either indoor or outdoor (Australian Institute of Sport, Fact Sheets). The outdoor tracks are suitable for you if you do not prefer indoor games but it is important to note that the sporting activities, distance and physical exertion are the same in both indoor and outdoor competitions.

The racing distance varies hence you could choose to compete in games that range from a few kilometers up to 250 kilometers depending on your level of training and experience in the sport. You need strength and endurance in the cycling competition at whichever level of the sport hence there is need to have a proper prior training period and sport focused nutrition plan.

In major championships such as the World Championships, World Cups, Olympic Games and Commonwealth Games, elite and recreational cyclists are allowed to participate. If you want to compete as an elite cyclist, be prepared to compete within one or more days of the competition. On the other hand, if you prefer to compete as a recreational cyclist, the championship provides weekly competitions. Whether recreational or elite, you will be required to compete in various heats and finals (Australian Institute of Sport, Fact Sheets). This will give you physical and nutritional challenges hence the need for commitment in the competitions.

In the road cycling events, you are most likely to meet muscular and lean competitors while endurance track cyclists are normally lean and lighter in physique. Therefore it is important to know that various physical characteristics makes cyclists suited for different competitions.

Nutritional needs

A lot of calories are required especially during a prolonged cycling competition (Dietitians Association of Australia). Therefore during the competition it is recommended that you take a normal meal at least four hours before the race which should include sufficient carbohydrates, proteins and vitamins. Ensure that the meal is low in fat to ease your digestion during the competition so that carbohydrates are efficiently broken down into energy which you require most during the competition. A pre-race snack is also essential which would include a sports energy drink, chocolate bar, cereal bar, yoghurt and a fruit bun. As the race goes on, you should fuel up your energy stores by taking energy bars such as chocolate so that the energy balance is maintained within your body. Moreover, adequate fluids must be taken before, during and after the race to avoid dehydration.

Remember that you should not wait till you feel thirst so that you would take fluids because you need to replace the fluid loss during perspiration whether you feel thirsty or not. To gain an edge over competitors, you would use supplements as an addition to your good dietary practices.  However, it significant to note that some supplements are not supported by scientific evidence in terms of their advantages during the competition (Australian Institute of Sport, Fact Sheets).


Caffeine is a stimulant that is legally accepted in endurance activities such as cycling as long as the dosage is within the required concentration. This stimulant aids sport activities that occur in time periods of more than 30 minutes and those that require intense exertion (Ivy, Kammer, 2009). Caffeine is naturally found in tea leaves, coffee beans, chocolate, cola nuts and cocoa beans and artificially prepared as a sport supplement in various drinks and foods. During prolonged cycling, there is depletion of glycogen stores especially if is not sufficiently spared through a proper sports diet. When the level of glycogen decreases, free fat acids (FFA) are metabolized as an alternative energy source. Caffeine acts by increasing blood FFA (Starling, 2006). Studies demonstrate that 300mg of caffeine increases blood FFA by 50% within a period of 3 to 4 hours (Spano, 2010). This shows that the supplement is fast in action hence can be used by cyclists to enhance performance immediately before and during riding. Some assertions claim that the enhancing effect of caffeine in cycling is due to its central nervous system’s stimulant effect and a direct positive action on muscle fiber to stimulate its activity (Ivy, Kammer, 2009).

In cycling, caffeine has been a major supplement aimed at enhancing riding activity. A recreational rider should take a caffeine dose of 5mg per kilogram of body weight about an hour before the ride (Parker, 2005) but intense effort riding may require a higher dose of caffeine supplementation. However some riders prefer to take small amounts of caffeine throughout the riding session. Road cyclists should limit consumption of caffeine to a single bottle of coke. The coke should be diluted with water by cyclists engaged in longer races to avoid the side effects of heavy consumption of this stimulant. Most riders know that caffeine helps them to train harder and belief that it reduces pain during exercise but many do not know its mechanism of action, the right dosage for various riding activities and the effects of using this stimulant as a sporting supplement (Ivy, Kammer, 2009). Caffeine is a good ergogenic aid that improves cycling performance especially in high intensity, short term cycling events only if used correctly. Time to exhaustion during a high intensity cycling effort is greatly increased by caffeine intake. In addition, the supplement works for a relatively long period hence frequent doses may not be necessary during sprint cycling.

Cyclists should be aware of the risks and potential side effects related to the use of the caffeine supplement before, during and after the race. Caffeine may cause nervous instability, headaches and even insomnia (Ivy, Kammer, 2009). Though, it is vital to know that caffeine affects various people in different ways. Since it is a diuretic, caffeine also causes increased urinary water loss leading to dehydration. Furthermore, a high concentration of caffeine is considered as a drug and thus banned in some cycling bodies such as the US Cycling Federation (Parker, 2005). Caffeine’s stimulant effects decrease with usage and therefore it may necessitate a cyclist to use larger doses leading to habituation (Ivy, Kammer, 2009). Therefore it is necessary that for cyclists to take caffeine only before and during races in order to avoid addiction.


Caffeine is the commonest supplement in various sporting activities especially cycling. Although this supplement has various benefits such as enhancement of performance, there are issues associated with the use of this stimulant that cyclists must be aware of to ensure that it is used for the right reasons so that it would result into the desired effects. Caffeine acts by increasing the level of fatty acids in blood which act as a supplementary energy source when glycogen has been depleted by vigorous activity. Even if it is legally accepted as an ergogenic agent for cyclists, excessive amounts are prohibited by some cycling federations. In addition, too much use of caffeine leads to dependence. This supplement is recommended for high intensity and short cycling events to improve the performance of the riders.  The risk of addiction to caffeine especially with excessive use and the related side effects such as headaches, insomnia and nervous instability calls for careful use of this supplement in cycling. The cyclists should use the right dosage of the supplement during the training and competitions so as to avoid addiction.  Long distance cyclists should reduce the amount of caffeine taken to a single bottle of coke that is mixed with water to prevent dehydration that results from the diuretic property of caffeine. 


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