Mountain biking can be a strenuous, demanding activity. According to LIVESTRONG.com, riding 15 miles per hour on a flat or slightly inclined surface – about the equivalent of moderate mountain biking – burns 526 calories per hour for a 145-lb. rider. Naturally, riding faster, gaining more elevation allows you to burn more calories in the same amount of time.
Just as fuel powers automobiles, so too does food provide the sustenance required for our bodies to complete such a demanding, calorie-burning activity as mountain biking. In order to maintain energy and endurance throughout a ride, mountain bikers must ensure they are consuming not only adequate calories but also the right kind of calories.
If you’ve set a foot in a supermarket or visited a health food store lately you’ve likely seen row after row of foods, ingredients and supplements boasting a variety of health benefits for active bodies. With a sea of options, how do you determine which foods are the best choices for mountain bikers looking to fuel their adventures? More importantly, with mountain biking’s unique challenges and energy requirements, how do riders choose the fuel that is right for pre-ride, post-ride and a trailside snack?
This article will explore some of the best food options available for the avid mountain biker from both the traditional perspective and that of the paleo diet, our recommended eating plan for mountain bikers. We’ll examine the benefits of these everyday foods in each diet plan for riders and take a look at some common nutrition issues and pitfalls and offer practical advice for your meal planning.
There are a number of disciplines that exist within mountain biking – cross country, downhill, enduro, freeride and trials being some of the primary categories. For consistency’s sake, this article will use cross country – the most common discipline of mountain biking – as the base by which to examine nutrition and discuss how mountain bikers can use food effectively in their fitness regimens.
The term “cross-country” refers to the terrain on which the riding occurs. Cross country trails and race courses consist of a mix of “rough forest paths and singletrack” as well as obstacles and varying grades and elevations.
Fuel for all stages
Calories are critical at all stages of a workout in order to ensure proper preparation, sustained energy and recovery. Mountain biking is certainly no exception. In the following sections, we’ll take a look at the various stages of a mountain bike ride and provide recommendations for nutrition and fuel at pre-ride, mid-ride and post-ride.
What you eat before a ride is the most important consideration, right? While what you consume leading up to a ride is important – and that will be our focus in this section – it is important to note that what you consume the week of a ride or training session, as well as the calories you take in during the ride, are just as important.
You should approach your food and fluid intake before a ride as an opportunity to “fine-tune carbohydrate and fluid levels and to ensure you feel comfortable and confident.”
We know that food becomes fuel only after it has been digested and absorbed into your body. So naturally, timing is important to ensure that what you eat is of value for your ride. Obviously, there will be some variation in the time required to digest and absorb food based on the type and amount of food consumed. Per the Australian Institute of Sport (AIS), foods that are higher in fat, protein and fibre generally take longer to digest than other foods. Thus, these foods may increase the risk of stomachache or discomfort during a ride. Also, larger quantities of food carry a longer digestion time than smaller quantities. Based on AIS recommendations, if you’re planning to eat a meal prior to your ride, do so about 3-4 hours before hitting the trail. If you’re going to have something lighter pre-ride, eat a snack about 1-2 hours before you start.
This is the million-dollar question. You may have a friend who chugs an energy drink or soft drink and wolfs down a candy bar before a ride. You may also have a riding partner who drinks only water and enjoys a ripe banana as a pre-ride snack. So, which approach is correct, and what foods should mountain bikers eat before taking off on a ride?
For some, the answer is carbohydrates. More specifically, carbs that are low in fat and “moderate in fibre.” This allows for easier digestion and a reduced risk of stomach discomfort. If you subscribe to the paleo diet, you’ll likely want to go another route (more on that later) as paleo is light on complex carbs.
As mentioned above in the “when” section, timing is also an important consideration. So, what foods are suitable hours before a ride, as well as just before you hit the trail? AIS offers the following recommendations:
3-4 hours before a ride:
- crumpets with jam or honey + flavoured milk
- baked potato + cottage cheese filling + glass of milk
- baked beans on toast
- breakfast cereal with milk
- bread roll with cheese/meat filling + banana
- fruit salad with fruit-flavoured yoghurt
- pasta or rice with a sauce based on low-fat ingredients (e.g. tomato, vegetables, lean meat)
1-2 hours before a ride:
- liquid meal supplement
- milk shake or fruit smoothie
- sports bars (check labels for carbohydrate and protein content)
- breakfast cereal with milk
- cereal bars
- fruit-flavoured yoghurt
Less than 1 hour before a ride:
- sports drink
- carbohydrate gel
- sports bars
- jelly lollies
- Wild salmon
- Wild meat – e.g. bison
- Free-range eggs
- Sweet potatoes
Whenever possible, it is recommended to provide a significant buffer between your meal and your ride. Some people experience stomach pain or discomfort when consuming calories within an hour of exercising.
Early morning rides are another consideration. If you’re rolling out of bed for “dawn patrol,” you likely won’t have hours to digest and absorb your food. In this case, go with a light snack roughly an hour before your ride. AIS recommends some fruit or a cereal bar on the way to the trail along with some fluid such as a glass of milk or juice. You can make up for this smaller carb intake by consuming some crabs during the ride.
Ensuring adequate nutrition during a ride is critical to avoid the dreaded “bonk.” Also known as “hitting the wall,” bonking occurs when your blood sugar drops to low levels (hypoglycemia) – you simply “ru[n] out of fuel for your body and your brain.” Dr. Elizabeth Quinn says, the feeling of bonking is unmistakable and is usually characterized by severe weakness, fatigue, confusion, and disorientation. Sounds like something you’d like to avoid, right? Read on and we’ll tell you how.
In order to maintain adequate energy levels during your ride, aim to consume 200-300 calories per hour. According to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (AND), cyclists should try to “have a few bites of food and a few sips of fluid every 15 to 20 minutes.”
Here are a few mid-ride “super snacks” and bonk preventatives AND recommends that also meet the key criteria for a good mountain bike snack: portability, packability, accessibility and non-melt-ability (O.k., that one may not be a word…but I think we can all agree it’s important).
- Bananas: Potassium and carbohydrates packed in a natural travel case. According to AND, bananas’ carbs may provide advantages to your muscles’ “ability to use the fuel efficiently.” More fuel to your muscles means more “pedal power” for you.
- Peanut Butter and Jelly: AND calls PB&J’s the perfect “pocket fuel.” The bread and jam (or honey) in the sandwich provide carbohydrates and the peanut butter brings the protein and fats. Almond butter and sunflower butter can be substituted for those with allergies. Try a tortilla for a twist, or if you’re frustrated with squashed sandwiches. Your sandwich can also be cut into smaller pieces to help achieve that “one snack per 15-20 minute” goal.
- Trail Mix: According to AND, dried fruits and nuts are a “concentrated source of carbohydrates” and dried apricots, prunes and raisins “have the added benefit of potassium.” Heavy sweaters may want to opt for salted nuts and seeds.
- Water and Fluids: For shorter rides of an hour or less, water alone is typically sufficient. For longer rides, plan to carry water plus a sports drink to help replace calories and electrolytes, especially in hot weather. While there are a variety of sports drinks and mixes on the market, AND also offers an easy recipe for a homemade sports drink. Combine black or green iced tea, a splash of juice, some sugar and a pinch of salt for a simple drink with an added antioxidant boost. AND advises, “Take sips of fluid often to maintain hydration and alternate between the two drinks if packing both.”
- Energy Bars: They are certainly convenient, but often expensive. If you’re going to eat them, AND recommends one that has ingredients such as whole grains, dried fruits and nuts.
For sustained energy the paleo way, Bicycling’s Allison Young recommends complex carbs such as grains, dairy, and beans, as well as the following do-it-yourself energy supplements in lieu of “packaged fuel.”
2 Tbsp raw organic honey
2 Tbsp raw almond butter, apple butter, or 1/2 banana
1 tsp lemon juice
1 cup coconut water
1/2 cup pomegranate juice
1/2 cup water
1/8 teaspoon organic sea salt
1,000 mg carnitine tartrate
(found in vitamin and health food stores)
If you’re looking for a truly wholesome and natural energy bar, make it yourself. A quick internet search will yield a number of do-it-yourself energy bar recipes, but a great place to start is with Feed Zone. The Feed Zone series of cookbooks represents a collaboration between Dr. Allen Lim and professional chef Biju Thomas. When Lim began working with professional cyclists, he found that many were tired of processed bars, gels and the standard, high-carb pasta. Lim and Thomas teamed up to create their first book, Feed Zone Cookbook, to make food for energy that was “delicious and practical.”
Expanding on this idea is Feed Zone Portables, in which Thomas and Lim offer 75 portable food recipes ideal for mountain bikers. According to the Feed Zone website, each real food recipe is “simple, delicious during exercise, easy to make—and ready to go on your next ride.” The cookbook includes vegetarian and gluten free-options. Some of the recipes found in Feed Zone Portables include: Rice Cakes, Two-Bite Pies, Griddle Cakes, Waffles, Baked Eggs, Sticky Bites, Rice Balls, Ride Sandwiches, Baked Cakes and Cookies.
Ah, calorie replacement – the second-best part of mountain biking…after the actual riding, of course. For many, post-ride recovery consists largely of a pint or three at a nearby pub. While beer may be a component of your post-ride ritual, in order to adequately refuel and replenish after a day on the trail, it probably shouldn’t be the only thing you consume.
According to Bicycling’s Joe Lindsey, a common pitfall for many cyclists post-ride is convenience. After a long spin, the idea of cooking a wholesome meal from scratch is far from appealing. As a result, it is often easier to reach for prepared or pre-packaged foods. Bad idea says Lindsey. Prepared foods or snacks typically lack the right mix of nutrients our bodies need following a workout like mountain biking.
Barb Grealish, who along with her husband Chris, cook for the Garmin-Sharp cycling at big races in the U.S. offers a few tips for healthy and easy refueling following a ride. Among them:
- Keep it simple – The fewer the ingredients you use, the less time and money required to prepare your post-ride grub. Convenience means you’ll be more likely to reach for it when you drag in at the end of demanding day on the trail. According to Grealish, simple, clean foods also digest best – an added benefit.
- Keep it Natural – In addition to being high in calories, prepared foods also typically contain chemicals. Stick to natural ingredients, your stomach will thank you.
- Prepare food ahead – Again, convenience. If your post-ride meal is prepared, the hard work is already done and you’ve eliminated any excuse to reach for the unhealthy stuff.
- Spice it up – Grealish regularly spices up meals. For example, she cooks rice in chicken broth or coconut water, which “add nutrient value” in addition to flavor. Seasonings will help make the good stuff appealing after a ride.
A few of Grealish’s favorite post-ride meals and snacks include:
- Homemade granola
- Kale salad
- Pomegranate-glazed beets
- A variety of proteins
- Cherry tomato relish
Check out this article in Bicycling for some of Grealish’s recipes.
Riders following the paleo diet should stick to protein and carbs after a ride. Stupid Easy Paleo recommends also avoiding powders and shakes in order to get the necessary recovery nutrients from real food. A few carb and protein recommendations from Stupid Easy Paleo include:
- Baked yam/sweet potato
- Fruit/vegetable blends – essentially baby food in a squeezable pouch, but don’t forget to check the label for non-paleo-friendly ingredients
- Fruit leathers
- Dates or other dried fruit
- Fresh fruit – e.g. banana
- Homemade beef jerky
- Chunks of meat or ground beef
- Hard-boiled eggs
Common nutrition issues
There are a number of nutritional challenges and common traps that mountain bikers encounter.
According to AIS, challenges for riders following a traditional diet include:
· Meeting carbohydrate requirements for training
· Body Fat Levels
· Fueling and hydration strategies before and during rides
Meeting carbohydrate requirements for training
Carbohydrates have long been a favorite source of energy among all athletes. The long hours of training undertaken by elite cross country mountain bikers suggests their target carbohydrate intakes should mirror those of elite endurance athletes (7-12 g/kg body mass/day) to “promote optimal performance and recovery.”
While it may be difficult to determine if your carbohydrate intake is adequate, some key indicators that you’re not getting the carbs you need include poor performance, unnecessary fatigue, frequent illness, or failure to achieve expected outcomes during a ride.
Body fat levels
According to AIS, while it is true that “reducing body fat levels can help to improve mountain bike performance, it’s important that reaching a certain skinfold target does not become the primary focus of the riders’ preparation.” When entering a period of “deliberate energy restriction,” it is important to closely monitor the quality of your training. AIS cautions that working to achieve or maintain an unrealistic body fat level can actually have adverse effects on both long-term health and psychological well-being.
Riders who consume processed foods or refined sugars may experience energy spikes and fluctuations. Eliminating refined sugars and processed foods from your eating, as recommended by the paleo diet, can help cease this issue.
Some of the primary issues athletes encounter with the paleo diet are simply related to a lack of knowledge or understanding about the diet, as well as not listening to their bodies.
Kelly O’Mara relates the experiences of Nate Helming, a CrossFit and triathlon coach who tried Paleo for several months, but had a “hard time eating appropriately for sustained endurance.” Helming’s problem is that he was focusing on foods such as sweet potatoes, applesauce and dates for energy. When training extensively for as much as 15 hours, you’re eating a lot of dates. Planning appropriate food intake based on the paleo diet is possible, but requires you to be intentional about meal planning and put in more work to succeed.
Liquid fuel: a few notes on fluids
Regularly maintaining fluids is essential for active bodies, especially in order to achieve peak performance. According to AIS, hypohydration (total body water below normal) “impairs the body’s ability to regulate heat resulting in increased body temperature and an elevated heart rate.” In this state, “perceived exertion is increased causing the athlete to feel more fatigued than usual at a given work rate.” Lack of adequate fluids can impact mental functions, slow gastric emptying and cause stomach discomfort or pain – all outcomes that can significantly impact your performance on the bike. All the aforementioned issues can be avoided or combated by regular fluid intake and replacement.
How much should you drink during a ride?
Every body is different and so are the fluid requirements for each individual. As a result, prescribing a “one size fits all” fluid replacement plan is impossible. But per AIS, athletes can easily estimate their own fluid requirements by “weighing themselves before and after exercise sessions.” Each kilogram (kg) of weight lost is equal to roughly one litre (L) of fluid, and by adding the weight of any fluid or food consumed during a ride, an estimate of total fluid loss for the ride can be found. For example, if you finish a ride 1 kg lighter and consume 1 litre of fluid during the ride, you have a total fluid loss of 2 litres.
Fluid replacement plans will vary based on the rider, the intensity of the ride and how often the rider is able to drink while on the trail. However, AIS advises that “where possible it is better to begin drinking early in exercise and adopt a pattern of drinking small volumes regularly rather than trying to tolerate large volumes in one hit.” The Institute states that most athletes can tolerate 200-300 ml every 15-20 minutes, but like all other aspects of nutrition, this will vary based on the rider and the ride.
- Be proactive – make food ahead when you can.
- Variety is the spice of life – use seasonings and change up your meal options and recipes. You’ll quickly grow tired of the same thing repeatedly and will end up reaching for an option that is not optimal.
- Plan for all stages of the ride – how will you fuel and re-fuel before, during and after your ride?
- Fluids, fluids, fluids – they’re important, so drink up! Staying properly hydrated will ensure good health as well as optimal performance.
- Don’t just grab and go – there are health benefits and advantages for you on the saddle if you allow your food time to digest and absorb before a ride. Plan your meal and allow adequate time to get the most fuel out of the food you’re consuming.
- “Check yourself before you wreck yourself” – be aware of your body. Watch your carbohydrate intake to ensure it is where it needs to be. Don’t let an ideal regarding body fat lead you into unhealthy habits or patterns that will have a negative impact on your mountain biking.
- Real, good – try to stick to whole, natural foods. If you need a dictionary or periodic table to decipher the ingredients of a particular food, you may want to reconsider eating it. The best food for fuel is everyday food in a variety of forms.
- Know before you go – bring adequate nutrition for the length and type of ride you’re planning to tackle. Quick after-work session? Pack a snack. Full-day ride? Be sure to bring something more substantial.
- Strike a balance – If you’re going to take an energy bar or another similar product on the trail, bring a banana as well. As Ralph Waldo Emerson eloquently stated, “Moderation in all things” and this is certainly true of food for fuel in relation to mountain biking. Strive to achieve a balanced diet that delivers the necessary components outlined above.
Mountain biking is a human-powered sport for which you are the engine. By selecting good, quality foods and being purposeful in your preparation, you will be able to maximize the benefits of your daily nutrition regimen to achieve results on the trail.
It is helpful to think of nutrition as a piece of essential mountain biking gear. You wouldn’t leave for a ride without your helmet, would you? You never forget your shoes, water bottle or hydration pack, and above all, your bike. These pieces of gear are essential for mountain biking and ensure that you are able to ride safely and effectively. The same is true of nutrition in mountain biking. Food is a key element of your ride and should remain such to ensure you continue riding for many years to come. Your pedal power is a direct result of the fuel you use. So fuel up and hit the trail. We’ll see you out there!
So keep in touch and see you out on the trails.
About The Author
Rod Bucton, mountain bike fanatic from Mid North Coast, New South Wales Australia…discover the shortcuts to mountain biking for beginners and while you’re at it follow Rod on Facebook or Instagram.
Like any sport, bicycling involves risk of injury and damage. By choosing to ride a bicycle, you assume the responsibility for that risk, so you need to know — and to practice — the rules of safe and responsible riding and of proper use and maintenance. Proper use and maintenance of your bicycle reduces risk of injury.