What To Eat Before Cycling In The Morning: With example meal plans


When it comes to what foods to eat before a cycle, it can all be very confusing. I know I’ve always found this topic a little tricky to get my head around. However, as a doctor and cyclist, I thought I would be well placed to try and clarify exactly what you should eat before cycling in the morning.

For rides less than 1 hour, you should aim to have up to 75 grams of short-acting carbohydrates (such as fruit) at least 20 minutes before your cycle. For rides longer than 1 hour, you should aim to eat 1 gram of long-acting carbohydrates (such as oats) per kilogram of body weight for each hour before you set off.

So, we’ve established that what you need to eat before a ride is dependent on the length of the cycle itself. But in reality, your actual choice of breakfast will be dependent on a range of factors such as your weight and how long it will be until you set off. It’s also vital that we take a look into whether or not you can drink your morning coffee!

What should I eat before an early morning bike ride?

Your body is always using carbohydrates, fat, and protein to produce energy. The relative contributions of each of these types of food will be dependent on the kind of activity you are doing. For cycling, carbohydrates are the most common type of energy source your body will use.

The carbohydrates that you eat are broken down into a substance called glycogen which is then stored in your liver and your muscles.

Your liver uses this glycogen to produce energy (this time in the form of glucose) to power your brain and other bodily functions.

The muscles use their glycogen directly to move around and perform activities such as cycling.

How much carbohydrate should you eat for your cycle?

For a short ride, you should be aiming for around 3 to 5 grams of carbohydrates per kilogram per day, whereas for longer rides (more than 1 hour) you will want to aim for 6 to 10 grams of carbohydrates.

Note, this is the total daily carbohydrate target you should be aiming for! Don’t go trying to eat 700g of carbohydrate for breakfast before you set off on a cycle.

We’ll take a look at how much to actually eat before you set off in one of the next sections.

What are the different types of carbohydrates?

Not all carbohydrates are the same! Carbohydrates can be either short-acting or long-acting, and which type you want to eat will again be on the type of ride you plan to do.

Short-acting carbohydrates (also known as high glycaemic index carbohydrates) provide a burst of energy to your body and are the quickest types of carbohydrates to be broken down. These are good for short rides or at the start of a ride to wake you and your body up.

Long-acting carbohydrates (also known as low glycaemic index carbohydrates or complex carbohydrates) are broken down slowly, this means that your body can use them to re-fuel the glycogen stores in your muscles over long-distance cycles.

Short-Acting CarbohydratesLong-Acting Carbohydrates
Energy DrinksPasta
SweetsPeas
SmoothiesBeans
FruitLentils
Orange JuiceBread
HoneyPorridge

What type of carbohydrate you will want to eat will depend on the length of the ride you are planning.

In order to better understand which type of food you will be eating, it helps to understand your body’s energy requirements for shorter or longer rides.

For shorter rides (those less than 1 hour), your body already has all the fuel it needs for your muscles, stored as glycogen from the meal before you went to bed. However, the area that still needs energy is your brain itself. Any food you eat in the morning before a short cycle is there to wake your body and your brain up, not to provide energy to your muscles.

For longer cycles, you will use up the energy stores in your muscles and so you will want to make sure that the carbohydrates you are eating are suited to replenish your glycogen stores rather than being a short-acting burst of energy.

As such, for short rides, you will want to eat short-acting carbohydrates that help to supply your brain with energy whereas for longer rides you will want more long-acting or complex carbohydrates that break down more slowly and provide your body with a longer-term supply of energy.

What types of food should you be avoiding?

So, we’ve established what types of food you should be eating. But what foods should you try and avoid before a morning cycle?

Certain foods such as those high in fiber (such as leafy greens) can make your ride uncomfortable, causing excess wind or gas and making you uncomfortable during your ride, and may make you need the toilet.

On this same note, spicy foods, fizzy drinks, and alcohol can result in discomfort in your gut while you ride, and besides, you shouldn’t really be drinking before an early morning bike ride anyway!

Foods that are high in fat and protein (such as eggs or meat) can also cause your riding to be impaired. These do not offer much in the form of energy for cycling but are also some of the foods that your body has to work the most to digest. This means your body has to redirect blood to the guy and away from your muscles.

Should I have coffee before my morning cycle?

If you need a morning coffee, I know I certainly do, then one of the main things you will want to know is if you can have your morning coffee.

Overall research shows that coffee itself is unlikely to have a negative impact on your cycling ability, and in some cases will even improve it.

However, when it comes to having coffee in the morning before a ride, you may want to consider swapping out your americano for an espresso. This is less likely to make you need a wee!

Obviously, if you don’t normally have caffeine in the morning, don’t try it out on the day of a long cycle. Caffeine in coffee can activate your bowels in the morning and so you might find it leads to a problem later down the line.

How long before cycling should you eat?

So we’ve established that you need carbohydrates before a cycle, and established which types of carbohydrates and how many grams you should be aiming for. But when should you actually be eating them?

As with all the other sections we’ve looked at so far, the timing of your food will be dependent on the cycling you are doing. However, no matter the type of cycling you have planned, it is important to eat a good meal the night before. Aim to eat a few more carbohydrates than you normally would. This will help you store up that glycogen without overeating (which may make you feel sluggish the next day).

In the 8-12 hours after you eat this evening meal, your body will use these carbohydrates to steadily replenish your muscle glycogen stores. We’ve already established how important these long-term muscle energy stores are.

On the other hand, the levels of glycogen in your liver (the other area in your body that stores glycogen) will have been steadily declining overnight. This is the body’s main source of energy for areas that aren’t your muscles, such as your gut and your brain.

This means that when you wake up in the morning, your muscles are ready for a workout but your brain isn’t ready to focus yet. The challenge is to bring blood glucose levels up to fuel the brain without overloading the gut and feeling nauseated once you get on the bike.

Timing of food before short rides

For short rides (less than 1 hour), the timing of your food is less important. In fact, some people even skip eating before a short ride in the morning. The point of this meal is to wake your brain and body up.

A good source of short-acting carbohydrates at least 20 minutes before you set off should be enough to get you up and going.

Timing of food before longer rides

When it comes to longer rides, it is really important to ensure you eat a proper breakfast before setting off. Trying a longer ride while fasted is a recipe for running out of energy and hitting the wall (also called bonking in the cycling world).

For longer rides, you will need to plan your morning food in advance and give yourself enough time to eat and digest what you’ve eaten. Your body can only break down slow-acting carbohydrates at a certain rate, and so the closer you get to the time you set off on the ride, the less food you will be able to eat, and thus the less energy you will have.

The general rule is that you should be aiming to eat a maximum of 1 gram of carbohydrate per kilogram for each hour you have before you leave on the cycle.

Hours before a cycleGrams of carbohydrate per kilogram of bodyweight
10.5grams to 1 gram
22 grams
33 grams
44 grams

For example, if you have a ride planned at 9 am. A breakfast you have at 6 am should aim to have 3g per kilogram of carbohydrate (210g for the average 70kg man).

Remember that in the first section we looked at how many carbohydrates you would need over the whole day. While you should try to eat this many carbohydrates before you ride, you will still need to ensure your body has the right amount of overall carbohydrates throughout the day to properly function and recover.

Example meals

Okay, that was all quite a lot to take in. But let’s try and makes things a bit easier with some examples.

Obviously, all of these examples work on the idea that you have eaten properly the night before your ride and are refueling as you cycle! This is just as, if not more important than what you eat for your breakfast.

Example meal number 1 – Going on a long ride and eating 1 hour before you leave

Here you are looking to eat 1 gram of carbohydrate per kilogram of body weight.

For the average man, this would equate to 70g of carbohydrates. You also want to ensure you are eating a good mix of long and short-acting carbohydrates for this type of cycle.

FoodTotal carbohydrates
2 slices of toast26g of mixed carbohydrates
100g peanut butter20g of long-acting carbohydrates
1 banana27g of short-acting carbohydrate
Total73g of carbohydrate

Example meal number 2 – Going on a long ride and eating 2 hours before you leave

Here you will want to be aiming for 2 grams of carbohydrate per kilogram. For the average man, this is 140g of carbohydrate.

You also want to focus predominately on long-acting carbohydrates as any short-acting carbs will have been used up by the time you leave for your cycle.

FoodTotal carbohydrates
100g of porridge11g of long-acting carbohydrates
700ml milk36g of long-acting carbohydrates
100g Blueberries10g of long-acting carbohydrates
1 apple14g of long-acting carbohydrates
100g cashews30g of mixed carbohydrates
2 slices of rye bread32g of mixed carbohydrates
Total133g of carbohydrate

Example meal number 3 – Going on a short ride

For this type of ride, you are aiming to take in a small amount of short-acting energy to wake up your body and brain. Here you will want to be aiming for anything from 10g up to 75g of short-acting carbohydrates.

I’d suggest aiming to keep your small snack to around 200 calories.

FoodTotal carbohydrates
1 slice of toast13g of mixed carbohydrates
50g of Jam35g of short-acting carbohydrates
Total48g of carbohydrate

Overall

As you can see, when it comes to what to eat in the morning before a cycle, there are many factors to take into account. However, hopefully, with the examples we’ve given above, you’ll have some ideas of where to start.

And with the explanations, hopefully, you can take some of these principles to work out your own breakfasts!

Mark Holmes

30-year-old doctor with an interest in cycling, bikepacking, and statistics.

Related Articles