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Fuel Your Ride: Performance Nutrition for Female Cyclists

From the Nutrition Presentation for the Fort Follies Cycling Team

Cycling is a sport that involves many different types of competitive events. This includes road, mountain, and cyclocross. Within these types of cycling there are varying lengths and intensities. There are also different levels of competition. Nutrition strategies will vary depending on the type of cycling involved, level of competition, and length of event. This blog post is to provide some basic guidelines and considerations for women cyclists, but if you are interested in making changes it might be wise to work with a sports dietitian or nutrition expert and get a more individualized nutrition plan.

The objectives of this blog post are listed above. It is important to define sports nutrition and why nutrition is important. Sports nutrition is the focus on what you need to eat and drink to fuel and hydrate properly for a workout and what you need to eat and drink to promote rapid recovery after a workout. Sports nutrition also includes what you are eating and drinking during times when you are not training. Nutrition is important for training and racing, but what you eat can also impact your health. If you are fueling your body well you will be able to continue to enjoy your sport for years to come.

Female athletes are very similar to their male counterparts, but there are a few important thing to consider. Many female athletes compare their food intake and nutrition needs to their sedentary friends. This can be a big mistake because female cyclists need more energy and need to be fueling adequately for their workouts.

Female athletes have a greater need for iron because of their monthly menstrual cycle and associated loss of blood. This is even more of a concern for vegetarian and vegan athletes because they may not be getting enough iron in food. There are two forms of iron in the diet and iron from animal sources such as red meat is the most absorbable form. Some athletes may need to supplement with a small amount of iron daily. If you suspect iron may be a problem, get a blood test.

Another important consideration for female cyclists is the need for bone supporting nutrients. Women are at greater risk for osteoporosis. Calcium is important for bone health, but there are other nutrients including vitamin D, magnesium, and vitamin K2 that need to be considered. It is important to eat food sources of these nutrients and to supplement only if necessary.

Calculating fluid needs and be tricky because there are a lot of factors that contribute to fluid needs. Keep in mind that research has shown that just a 2% loss in fluids during a race or workout and lead to a 5% loss in performance. For a 132 pound cyclist this is 2.5 pound of weight. During a 2 hour competition this could mean a decrease in performance by up to 6 minutes!

I use kilograms for most of my calculations so if you are interested in figuring out what your needs are you will want to take your current weight in pounds and divide this number by 2.2 to get your weight in kilograms.

To figure out basic fluid needs you will want to multiply this number of 30-35. This will get your needs in milliliters. Keep in mind that 1 ounces is approximately 30 ml. So if your basic needs are 2000 ml than translates to about 66 ounces. This fluid calculation does not include fluid needed for exercise. That amount will be added as additional fluids.

If you are interested in knowing if you are well hydrated or not you can look at urine color. If your urine is clear or very lightly yellow you are hydrated. If it is a darker yellow you are in the beginning states of dehydration and dark yellow/orange is dehydration.

To measure sweat rate you can take your weight before and after exercise and the amount of fluid consumed during exercise. This will give you an idea of how much you are sweating during workouts and how much fluid you will need. In the above example the cyclists would need to consume 32 ounces of fluid per hour to keep up with hydration needs during a long ride. This may not be possible, so make sure you are well hydrated before your rides by following the suggestion listed in the table. Your fluid needs during your ride may differ so keep in mind that 8 ounces per 15-20 minutes may be aggressive. This is why figuring out your unique fluid needs during rides is important.

After your rides make sure to hydrate well. A good rule of thumb is 16-20 ounces per pound lost during the ride. If you are not monitoring your weight you can drink 16-20 ounces immediately after your ride and then another 16-20 ounces per hour and monitor your urine color to determine hydration status.

The sports drink that works best is whatever sports drink you can tolerate. The table in this slide is to give some guidelines for drinks and possible suggestions. There are a lot on the market so it is important to experiment and figure out what will work best for you.

Some athletes are salty sweaters. You can do a sweat sodium testing, but that may not be practical. Salty sweaters often have salt crusted on their face or gritty feeling skin after a long or hard workout. Another sign is if you have sweat that tastes very salty or burns your eyes. For these athletes it may be important to get additional electrolytes even during shorter duration rides. This may include salt tablets or a more concentrated electrolyte beverage.

Hydration is important, but most people want to know about the food. As I mentioned in the first part of the post, fuel is important. Just like a training plan is different for every athletes, nutrition can differ as well. Fueling strategies may differ from one athlete to another and fueling strategies will differ depending on the goal of the athlete. With that being said, the information I am providing is to give some guidance. There is no single approach that works for everyone. Be very cautious if you hear the phrase "you should try it, it worked for me" or any dogma surrounding food or fueling.

I have provided some general guidelines about calculating calorie needs. This equation is just an estimate. There are ways to measure resting metabolic rate using indirect calorimetry in which expired gases are measured to determine the amount and type of fuel being utilized at rest.

Most people get too concerned with calories and macronutrient needs. If you are fueling for your rides, honoring hunger and fullness, and eating a diet rich and fruits and vegetables, you may not need to worry. If you are interested in keeping track of your food you can use apps such as MyFitnessPal.

Fueling before, during and after rides could be the difference between a good ride and a great ride. Pre-workout fueling will ensure that you have adequate energy to get you through a ride, especially if it lasts longer than 90 minutes.

Eating too soon before a ride can cause gastrointestinal distress so try to wait at least an hour after eating to ride if possible.

Eating before a shorter ride lasting less than 90 minutes may not be as critical, especially if this ride is easy or of moderate intensity. Fueling before a longer ride or higher intensity ride is highly recommended. This is to prevent "bonking" or "hitting the wall." Keep in mind that that higher the intensity, the more our body relies on carbohydrates for fuel.

The image above provides some general guidelines for fueling during rides. It is important to practice fueling during rides. Keep in mind that 90 grams/hour may be aggressive and you will want to gradually increase your carbohydrate intake to "train" your body to tolerate more carbs during a workout. Start with 30-60 g/hour and then gradually increase to 60-90 g/hour. Not all athletes will need as much as 90 g/hour. Smaller athletes will need closer to 60 g/hour during longer rides. If the ride is less than 2 hours it is not as critical and 30-60 grams/hour should be adequate.

Just like in training, practice makes perfect with nutrition. Try different products and even try making your own fuel. Go out for a ride and see what works best. Don't wait until race day to try out your nutrition strategy.

I discussed gastrointestinal distress (GI) earlier in the post. There are a few things to keep in mind if you are experiencing GI problems during your rides. Over fueling or not taking in the right kind of carbohydrates on rides might be one culprit. Hydration status can also cause GI distress. Another thing to consider is pre existing food intolerances.

If you suspect a food intolerance you may want to consider working with a dietitian. An elimination diet protocol is one way to determine food intolerances and can be a great tool for athletes wanting to learn about how certain foods make them feel.

Use this image to help you with refueling after a ride. Don't skip this step, especially if you are in the middle of a high volume or high intensity training week or getting ready for a race.

After a ride it might be tempting to grab a beer and relax. A beer after a ride is a nice way to unwind, but not the best thing for refueling. Make sure you are getting plenty of fluids through water or an electrolyte drink and make sure to eat something with carbohydrate and protein to refuel and provide nutrients for muscle building and repair. If you have completed all of these steps then go ahead and enjoy a beer.

The plate method can be a great way to eat for every day fueling. Make sure a quarter of the plate is protein, and half the plate is veggies/fruit. The carbohydrates will change depending on the training volume. When you are doing a long ride you will consume more carbohydrates because you are consuming them before, during, and after a ride.

Here is a sample fuel and hydration plan. Keep in mind that everybody is different so this is only to be used as a template. You may need more or less fuel and have different needs. It also depends on where you are in your training plan or training cycle.

Some ergogenic aids might have some benefits. Keep in mind that there is no substitute for fueling properly and none of these supplements will overcome a bad diet. These are only beneficial for people that have a training and nutrition plan that is dialed in and they are looking for something to give them the extra edge.

The supplement industry is not regulated. If you are competing as a pro or elite athlete you need to be very careful not to take something that is contaminated. It happens often that an athlete will take a supplement and test positive for an ingredient that was not even listed on the supplement.

Consider talking with a sports dietitian before taking a supplement to make sure it is safe and effective.

Here are some additional resources. Enjoy!

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