Pre-Ride Nutrition: What, when and how much to eat before training
Spencer Miller's guide to eating right before you ride.
The first thing to note with pre-ride nutrition is that it functions differently for everyone. We all have different metabolism, different training programs, and can handle different types of foods. Nutrition is not a ‘one size fits all’ thing, so it is important to test and see what works best for you. You know your own body best and can experiment to find what works for you.
With that said, let’s dive into all things pre-ride nutrition.
There are three major parts to it: what, when, and how much. Once you see how each of these plays a role in your pre-ride meals, you will be able to customize to what works best for you, on a particular day, with a particular type of training. It may vary from day to day, and that's OK, in fact, it should.
The first thing that probably comes to mind are carbohydrates, as they should. Carbs are our primary, preferred source of fuel for training. No matter what anyone tells you about low carb, it is NOT optimal for an endurance athlete.
There are all different kinds of carbs out there. Whole grain, processed, high glycemic, low glycemic, high fiber, low fiber, etc.
How much time you have to eat before the training start determines what type of meal you should have.
The further out you are from a ride, the more you can have a well-rounded meal, of course still focused on carbs. Roughly 3 hours before training, you can make sure to get a little bit of healthy fat and protein for satiety so that you aren’t hungry 30 minutes after eating.
However, If you are going to be training really close to your meal, then you want lower fiber, easier digesting carbs and less protein and fat in this meal. Protein and fat slows digestion, which is NOT what you want when eating right before training, as it leaves you feeling sluggish at the start of the ride if you are still trying to digest a meal. This means higher glycemic index (lower fiber, quicker digesting) sources like white rice, cereal, fruit, jam, honey, etc.
Every pre-ride meal should be carb focused, with an adjustment to how many carbs based on the training for the day, plus the addition of moderate amounts of protein and a little bit of fat, if there is enough time for digestion prior to training.
Suggested meals if you have roughly 3 hours before training starts
This is where you can have more of a well-rounded substantial breakfast and should be what you aim to do before races, a big group ride, or a long, key workout.
Breakfast burrito (preferably with eggs, whole wheat tortilla, some cheese, veggies) along with some fruit
This will have some fat and protein from the eggs and cheese, plenty of carbs from the tortilla and fruit, and make for a well-balanced slower digesting breakfast to have a few hours before training. If you just have an easier / shorter day, you can just do the burrito and skip the fruit since you won’t need as many carbs, or even just have half of the burrito.
This is another one that will keep you full for a long time with quality complex carbs, some healthy fats, and some egg for added protein. A great breakfast to keep you going all morning, but you want to give it a few hours to digest before training.
Veggie omlette (Staple from Coach Colby Pearce)
Two eggs, sea salt scramble in pan. Add small bit of chopped ham or prosciutto. When they are 2/3 done, add a big handful of spinach or arugula on top, then cover with lid and turn off the heat. This steams the greens. Serve in a bowl topped with goat cheese along with sourdough toast (optional add some goat butter!) Colby suggests on days with more training, add muesli with goat yogurt, honey, and banana or berries. More riding = more muesli.
Are you training in the afternoon or evening but still need a good pre-ride meal? This is a great option to give you the carbs and fuel you need for training. Best if you have a few hours before starting the ride to let the meal digest since it is a larger meal.
If you have about 90 minutes before training
We know not everyone has time to get up super early and make a big breakfast and let it digest a few hours before training. If you are a bit more time crunched in the morning and have to train around 90 minutes after breakfast, you want to go with something with a little less protein / fat and easier to digest carbs. You also want to go with ideally a bit smaller of a breakfast than the above.
Greek yogurt, granola, and fruit
This is easy to put together, will digest relatively quickly, and won’t leave your stomach feeling heavy. The Greek yogurt is still a good source of a bit of protein and the fruit and granola / muesli will be a good carb source to fuel the training.
Eggs on toast with honey
Don’t knock it until you try it! The sweet and savory combo is one you are sure to love. Cook a couple of eggs over easy and place on top of some whole-grain or sourdough toast. Drizzle with a bit of honey (or maple syrup!). Easy to digest and a great start to your morning.
The key here is to have lower fat and lower protein than if you had 3+ hours before training, but still enough to keep you sustained.
Fried rice with eggs
Another delicious meal that you can eat closer to the ride and still be able to digest properly. A simple fried rice with eggs is great before an afternoon ride.
If you have to eat and immediately jump on the bike
Are you one of those people who wakes up at 4:30 or 5:00am to get the training done early? We commend you for the dedication and know that these rides aren’t the easiest to fuel before.
One of the big things to do if you have to train this early is to make sure you are getting a sufficient dinner with carbs to fill the glycogen stores since there really isn’t time to get a lot of fuel in the morning. Of course, if it is just a recovery day, you don’t really need to do this, but for intense training you want to make sure you aren’t starting the day under fueled.
We talk a bit more about it below, but if you are going to eat really close to training, you want to do it with something super easy to digest and about 15 minutes or less before starting the ride. This is so that your blood glucose is on the rise when you start the ride (and not coming back down which will make you feel sluggish, see below for more on this).
So what to eat then? It could be something as simple and easy as having a bottle of some carb / electrolyte drink mix that you start sipping on right before the ride.
Bottle of electrolyte / carb drink mix (depending on the intensity and duration of training can be anywhere from 20-50 carbs)
You can even just start drinking the carb mix right when you start the ride and not have anything before. If you are going to do this, you really want to make sure you fueled well the night before with quality carbs.
Rice cake / toast with jam or honey
This is another one that will be very low fiber and easy to digest. Depending on how long you are training you can adjust how much you want to have. Preferably choose low fiber bread or rice cake that to keep from slowing the digestion. Sourdough is great!
Gel or energy bar
Something processed isn’t always ideal, but sometimes you gotta do what you gotta do in order to be able to get the early training session done. Taking a gel or an energy bar right before jumping on the bike can help give you some quick energy you need before starting without having to get up earlier to prepare.
There are good times to eat before training and there are some not-so-good times. One thing the team has learned from research with blood glucose monitors and eating before training is that there is a window of time before the ride when you really don’t want to be caught eating.
Eating 2-3 hours before you start your training or event is preferred
If you have the time, eating a well-balance meal (still carb focused) 2-3 hours before the training or even starts is preferred. See above for some great meal ideas.
The earlier before the ride that you eat, the more you are able to eat and digest. This is why you want to try and do the 2-3 hour window, minimum, before big workouts or races. It allows you enough time to really fuel up well.
Eating at least 60 minutes before, or within about 15 minutes of starting training
The general guideline is that you want to try and eat at least an hour before training. However, we know that early mornings to train before work and life starts, you may not have the time. So, in that case, even though it may sound odd, you want to have something right before jumping on the bike – like within 15 minutes.
Why? When you eat, your blood glucose increases and then the body produces insulin to bring that blood glucose level back down. Within about the first 15 minutes of eating your blood glucose is on the rise, and then after that from about 15 minutes to 60 minutes after eating, it is coming back down and trying to level off.
So, if you eat 60 minutes or more before training, your body has time to produce insulin and bring the blood glucose down and then level off. However, say you eat 30-40 minutes before training, typically your glucose will still be coming down and that is the time when you do NOT want to jump on the bike. You will feel a bit tired and sluggish trying to start the training as the blood glucose is dropping.
If you are eating within 15 minutes of starting the ride (which needs to be something super easy to digest, purely carbs, and no fiber) then your blood glucose will be on the rise as you start the training and then stay elevated from the exercise. The key here is that it is NOT on a down slope as you start training, which was what you are trying to avoid.
Now, there are some caveats to this. If you do need to get up really early or eat right before training, a big key is to make sure you fueled well the night before. Of course, if you just have an easy recovery ride in zone 1, this isn’t a worry, but if you are doing a longer ride or one with intensity, your body will largely rely on the carbs from the night before since there isn’t enough time to really fuel the morning of.
Above we mentioned some quick digesting meals so you can have a little extra bit of energy right before those early morning sessions, but the key is to really make sure you have your glycogen stores fueled up from the day before.
Now, the question that many of you have probably been waiting for to find the perfect answer. Well, just like 'what to eat', there isn’t the perfect answer. Everyone is different and amounts will vary, depending on the training ahead, and of course factors like gender and weight.
The main thing to remember is that more riding = more carbs. This helps to simplify it when you are trying to calculate how much to eat in the morning. As mentioned, your age, weight and gender all matter too. For example, females tend to rely slightly less on carbs and require less calories overall compared to a male of the same fitness level (due to males being typically larger).
We can help simplify the amounts you need by the training for the day and breaking it down into three categories with category I being the longest / hardest training and category III being a recovery day.
Category I Training Day – biggest training / racing
This will be the biggest training / racing day and therefore need the most fuel. Think of it as a road race, big Saturday group ride, gravel race, 3 hour + interval workout, etc. These are all types of rides that will need big fuel to get through them.
Think small amounts of protein (two eggs). Try and avoid breakfast meats that are high in fat as you really don’t want a lot of fat before racing / training.
On this big day, have two of the eggs on some toast. In addition to get the carbs you will need, a bowl of muesli with yogurt, fruit, and honey will give you everything you need. If you are hungrier and have a really big day, add more muesli / fruit. More riding = more carbs.
Aim for anywhere from 2-3g / kg bodyweight in grams of carbs for this meal. The important thing is that you have plenty of time for it to digest which is why 2-3 hours is ideal (and you may find your body needs even more time).
Category II Training Day – medium training / racing
For this type of day, you won’t need as much fuel as you will be doing less work. Think of a day like this as a 90 minute session with few intervals, 2 hours steady endurance, or something along the lines of a 4-5 difficulty in intensity and duration.
You can follow all of the pre-ride meal principles from above based on how much time before starting your training you have to eat and digest the meal. What you will change is how much based on the amount of training. Aim for roughly 1-2g carbs / kg bodyweight in this meal for a medium training day.
Take for example coach Colby's meal above, here you won’t need as much carbs and calories to fuel the workload. You could just to fruit with the yogurt, eggs and toast instead of also adding muesli / =granola since you won’t need quite as much. You could just do the egg omelet plain (instead of on toast) and have that along with the yogurt, fruit and muesli. There are different ways you can slightly reduce the intake compared to a bigger Category I training day.
Category III Training Day – short recovery ride or rest day
This is what would be a rest day or active recovery day. Of course you still need calories and nutrients on a rest day so that your body has the energy to recover. However, you can focus more on healthy fats and protein rather than a bunch of carbs. Carbs don’t need to be avoided, but they don’t need to be emphasized like the other days.
Protein is crucial everyday, whether you are training hard or not. Your body needs it everyday for optimal recovery and function!
Taking Coach Colby’s meal for example, you could just do the eggs and toast. No need for yogurt, fruit and granola since you are having an easier day. If you find you are really hungry from the previous day’s training, add an extra egg or two for a boost of protein and it will help with satiety as well.
Again, this is a basic formula of more riding = more fuel needed = more carbs. Every person is different and will need different amounts, so there will be some time of trial and error to see what works best for you.
The key takeaways
What you eat depends on how much time you have before starting your training as well as the type of training for the day. More time to digest = more balanced meal with moderate amounts of protein and a little bit of fat. Less time to digest = lower fat / protein and quicker digesting carbs.
Think eggs, toast, granola, yogurt with 2-3 hours before training. With just a short amount of time to eat before training aim more for jam on toast, honey on rice cakes, or a gel / drink mix right before starting the ride.
For big training sessions and races you are going to want to get a larger, carb heavy meal 2-3 hours before the event / training session starts. May need slightly more time to digest depending on the person.
For smaller training days and early mornings, you can get away with eating much closer to the training assuming it doesn’t upset your GI system. If you don’t have a lot of time to get proper fuel in before training, make sure you fueled up well at the previous meal (or dinner the night before).
Try NOT to eat in the window between 60 to 15 mins before training. This means eat at least 60 minutes before, or something quick digesting within 15 minutes of starting. This is to make sure you blood glucose isn’t dropping as you start the training which will make you feel sluggish. You either want it rising or to already have gone up, back down, and leveled off by the time you start.
Very dependent from person to person (gender, age, weight, type of training for the day). Bigger energy use = bigger need for calories and carbs. Think – more riding = more carbs.
Big race / training days need the most fuel. A medium level training day needs good fuel still, but not as much. A rest or active recovery day will need the least fuel and focus can be more on healthy fats and protein rather than tons of carbs.
Category I training day = most carbs needed, Category III training day = least carbs / fuel needed.
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