A cyclist’s body faces the most demanding nutrition requirements out of all endurance sports because cycling physiology is so unique.
Compared to other endurance athletes, cyclists are working longer, cover more distance, and often sustain a higher power output—and they can easily carry food on their bikes, changing their approach to nutrition as a whole.
Morgan G. works at an investment bank, but he’s also a Cat.1 cyclist who understands the toll cycling can take on the body.
"Because of the duration of cycling, it’s possible to deplete yourself more than in other sports. During a six-hour bike ride, you can reach levels of emptiness you’ve never reached before."
That begs the question: How can cyclists recharge? Supplements may help. We’ll be discussing which supplements cyclists can take, and what types of cyclists can take them.
How Can Cyclists Benefit from Supplements?
No other sport requires sustained, high-power demands like cycling. Some sports, such as track sprinting, might require more muscle power, or weightlifting, which produces more force–but the need to balance effort and efficiency over a long-term race is what makes cyclists a distinct group of athletes.
Because of this, their sports supplements should also be targeted and optimized.
Just think about the amount of human force. Weightlifting can require as little as a single rep for competitions; a marathon runner takes about 30,000 steps during a race; swimmers may take 500 strokes in a longer race. But cyclists?
A 200-mile ride (equivalent to a marathon) requires about 50,000 pedal revolutions.
They also embark on days-long events where rides can last a dozen hours.
Cyclists need to refuel more often. So, for example, a supplement containing a slow-burning carb would be beneficial to cyclists. In those pedal revolutions, there’s less a pounding on the joints. The low-impact workout exercises every muscle in the leg without hours of joint stress, so there isn’t a need to supplement with glucosamine, which helps build cartilage in joints.
Knowing which areas to target with supplements will help eliminate some of the guesswork from the variety of nutrition products on the market.
Cafe Pit Stop: Caffeine & Carbohydrates
You might say cyclists have a special relationship to coffee (and caffeine) unlike any other endurance athlete; it has been part of cycling and the Tour de France for decades. It developed into a rich culture, as the two are often intertwined–Italian espresso manufacturer Faema sponsored a pro cycling team in the 1960s, a team that included legends like Rik Van Looy, Vittorio Adorni and Eddy Merckx.
In the early days of the Tour de France, cyclists had to stop at checkpoints to prove they were following the race itinerary. It was here where riders refueled, drinking and eating to power their next leg of the journey.
Some of coffee’s influence on cycling might be cultural.
In European countries where cycling is popular, like Italy and France, cafe culture (and specifically, espresso) has been entrenched for centuries. But it’s not a coincidence, as caffeine is a supplement associated with increased performance.
It provides a quick jolt and has shown to improve exercise performance and decrease the perception of pain.
Cyclists regularly ride for over two hours at a moderate-to-high intensity; to sustain this, they need more than a pre-ride cup of coffee. Caffeine helps the brain keep pushing during exercise, but it’s important cyclists put fuel in the tank both before and during those long rides. Typically, that’s carbohydrate and many cyclists choose a mid-ride pastry.
Carbs ingested before a race or ride are stored as glycogen in the muscles and liver; when those are depleted is when the cafe stop comes in handy, as carbs consumed then provide a pick-me-up when they’re directly burned as fuel.
But now more and more athletes are going in the opposite direction and taking a low carb approach to training. The aim is to train their body to get more energy from fat and ketones; after a period of adaptation, the rate of fat burning is more than double that of a normal athlete.
What’s more, low-carb athletes (and athletes who eat a mixed diet) are beginning to use exogenous ketones such as BHB monoesters to top off their usual pre-race nutrition. These exogenous ketone supplements provide BHB, which can be an alternate fuel source for muscles, which will preferentially burn ketones and preserve glycogen stores. This year, a number of Tour de France cyclists used ketone esters for the first time. This may lead to more widespread employment of the technology in the cycling community as riders get familiarized with how BHB can improve endurance.
Recommended Supplements for Cyclists
Caffeine and carbohydrates are gold standard nutrition for cycling; all cyclists have likely used them as part of their nutrition plan. Along with these widely used supplements, sodium bicarbonate (found in baking soda), nitrates (found in beetroot juice) and omega-3 fatty acids are popular performance supplements, especially for runners.
But these supplements are for cyclists looking to try something new for an additional boost. We outline which supplements to consider for riders depending on their specific cycling needs.
- What is it? An organic acid formed in protein metabolism
- How can it help? By producing maximum intensity effort for longer than normal
- Which cyclists should be using it? Track & criterium sprinters
- Try: Muscle Feast Creapure, Bulk Supplements Creatine Monohydrate
An extremely popular supplement (it’s also found in red meat and salmon), creatine is most commonly associated with weightlifters. But employing creatine before a sprint race may provide muscles with more energy to work.
Our muscles naturally contain creatine as part of the molecule creatine phosphate. The molecule allows us to quickly replenish a substance called adenosine triphosphate (ATP), which is the energy currency of the body. ATP is produced when adenosine diphosphate obtains an additional phosphate molecule, becoming ATP, which is then used to power muscle contraction. Even though it enables the quick production of energy, the capacity of the creatine phosphate system to sustain exercise is limited.
That’s where creatine supplements come in: they increase the amount of creatine phosphate stored in the muscle, enabling an athlete to produce ATP at maximum intensity for slightly longer. This can be especially helpful to sprint cyclists, who strive for sustained power over just hundreds of meters. One study found the addition of creatine to a glucose/taurine/electrolyte supplement promoted gains in sprint performance.
20g per day is the recommended dosage; one study showcased that creatine serum was less-effective than creatine powder.
And while creatine has mostly been studied on sprint performance, there are studies that promote its benefits through supplementation with carbohydrates for road cyclists in time trial races.
If you’re interested in other proteins, such as whey protein, read more in our guide to muscle recovery.
- What is it? An essential mineral that helps transport oxygen throughout the body
- How can it help? By helping deliver oxygen to tired muscles, allowing them to work harder for longer
- Which cyclists should be using it? Road racers
- Try: Nature Made Iron Dietary Supplement Tablets
Iron is one of the most abundant metals on Earth, but you often hear about athletes being iron deficient (especially women).
On long rides, iron is important for keeping muscles full of the oxygen they need to function at a high level.
Iron can be lost through sweat, and red blood cells can be mechanically damaged during exercise, so there is a higher chance that endurance athletes experience iron deficiency. Things like abnormal fatigue and lower productivity, and the resulting decrease in athletic performance, might be signs you’re not getting enough iron.
Along with supplementation, many foods are rich in iron, like red meat, chicken and fish. Other plant sources of iron include cashews, beans and lentils, and dark leafy vegetables like spinach. Having a balanced diet can help maintain iron levels.
- What is it? A beta-amino acid, which is the building block of a metabolite called carnosine
- How can it help? Carnosine acts as a buffer against acidity in muscles during high-intensity exercise
- Which cyclists should be using it? Track & criterium sprinters
- Try: ON Beta-Alanine Powder
Beta-Alanine isn’t a typical amino acid such as those found in the popular supplement BCAA, which we outline when discussing the best supplements for runners.
While most amino acids are used in protein synthesis, Beta-Alanine is converted into carnosine (when paired with histidine) which is then stored in skeletal muscle.
For cyclists, Beta-Alanine is all about power lasting longer. One study found that Beta-Alanine supplementation significantly improved sprint performance toward the end of endurance exercise.
There is commonly a tingling sensation (called paraesthesia) associated with Beta-Alanine supplementation. Interestingly, this sensation, and the feeling of something working in the body, may be part of the popularity of this supplement. Generally, dosage is recommended between two and eight grams daily (split evenly throughout the day) depending on the person; this should be done for at least two weeks to improve muscle carnosine levels.
- What is it? Generally, they’re minerals dissolved in a liquid, creating electrically-charged ions
- How can it help? By replacing those minerals lost through sweat to maintain the correct levels of the different minerals in the body
- Which cyclists should be using it? Road racers
- Try: Skratch Labs Exercise Hydration Mix, Kaged Muscle Hydra-Charge, or for on-the-go supplementation, Precision Hydration SweatSalt Capsules
As core body temperature rises, the body compensates by sweating–this loss of water includes electrolytes. The body can cope with minimal changes in fluid volume, but as exercise difficulty increases, we lose even larger quantities of sweat that can lead to dehydration, increased heart rate, reduced heat tolerance and lower reaction times. Obviously, these can all hinder performance;
Sodium is one of the main electrolytes lost during this process (think about the sting when sweat hits your eyes). It plays a huge role in the body’s water levels, and maintaining the right fluid balance is vital for all processes of life, including neurological function and muscle contractions. One of the first signs of lack of sodium is cramps, which are real performance killers, and are the reason that many athletes guzzle sports drinks. Sodium is vital to helping our bodies retain necessary fluids.
"I’m a heavy salt sweater. When I lose too much sodium, I cramp. To combat that, I try to onboard 1,500mg of sodium per hour when racing."
Other important electrolytes are magnesium and potassium.
Magnesium can be found in whole grains, nuts and green vegetables. Its purpose is to activate enzymes, which are important in the process of energy release–magnesium supplementation has been shown to positively influence performance training in athletes.
Potassium, famously found in bananas, is a salt that helps manage several bodily processes, from sweat and nerve function to glycogen and fluid management. The electrolyte is essential in breaking down glycogen in the muscle, which helps fuel the repeated contraction that happens during endurance exercise. Potassium has been shown to have a significant effect on vasodilation (the dilation of blood vessels) in exercising tissues,
In addition to the above supplements which are relatively well studied, exogenous ketones might be the next frontier for cyclists looking to supplement to boost performance. Three different types of exogenous ketones exist, and each have a bit of research to support (or not) their efficacy to improve endurance performance. These include ketone salts, acetoacetate (AcAc) diesters, and beta-hydroxybutyrate (BHB) monoesters.
Ketone salts are usually are found in powder form, which can be mixed with a liquid and consumed. Ketone salts are composed of a ketone body (usually BHB) bound to one of several minerals that might include sodium, potassium, calcium, or magnesium.
Some salts also include amino acids like lysine or arginine. The fact that ketones come bound to another mineral or amino acid makes ketone salts one way to consume ketones plus some necessary nutrients. But they aren’t without certain considerations of side effects.
As with any supplement, athletes who are interested in ketone salt supplementation should be aware of the potential performance-negating side effects that have been reported.
To date, there have been three studies on ketone salts and athletes. These studies were all done using cycling protocols, so they're pretty applicable to you as a cyclist.
In the first study, participants were put through a maximal exercise protocol (essentially, a VO2 max test) after ingesting a BHB ketone salt. Interestingly, the BHB salt showed no advantage compared to a placebo beverage when comparing lactate appearance, perceived effort, or muscular efficiency. In fact, 13 out of the 19 participants complained that the ketone salt led to severe gastrointestinal issues that may have impaired their athletic performance.
In a second study, ketone salt ingestion prior to cycling exercise led to a 7% decrease in average power output throughout a time trial simulation (though the participants' fat oxidation was increased during exercise). Again, it’s important to note that the performance impairment likely occurred due to GI issues reported by many participants—and not to direct effects of ketosis itself.
A third study investigated how ingestion of a BHB salt would influence high-intensity cycling performance along with cognitive measures during and after exercise. While the ketone salt-induced ketosis (average levels reached 0.53mM), no improvement was seen in cycling or cognitive performance. In fact, a “fatigue index” measured in the study was higher in the participants consuming BHB compared to the control group not receiving a ketone supplement.
While the efficacy for ketone salts inducing ketosis is strong, the impact on performance is inconclusive for now. The optimal range for blood ketone levels is between 1.5–2.5mM; however, most commercially available ketone salts only raise blood BHB to 0.7 mM. For these reasons, ketone salts might not be at the top of your list.
Another exogenous ketone supplement, acetoacetate diester (1,3-butanediol acetoacetate diester) is one of two common supplements collectively known as ketone esters. It’s comprised of the ketone body acetoacetate and butanediol (BDO), connected by an ester bond (that's why it was given the name “ketone ester”).
Fewer studies on this ester have been done compared to the more popular BHB ester (discussed later), but there is still some science to support using this ketone supplement.
There has been only one performance-related study to date conducted on AcAc; results were generally negative. When cyclists ingested the AcAc diester prior to a 31-kilometer cycling time trial, it led to a greater reduction in performance compared to consuming just carbohydrates and caffeine.
Instead of ketosis, it seems like stomach trouble caused the performance decline. Like ketone salts, AcAc diester does not elevate blood ketones to optimal levels; participants typically reach a level of 1 mM after taking this type of exogenous ketone.
BHB Monester & R-1,3-Butanediol
The final exogenous ketone is the BHB Monoester (R-1,3-butanediol-R-3-hydroxybutyrate).
In contrast to , this ketone ester, when broken down, releases into the blood along with a molecule of butanediol (BDO), which is eventually metabolized to D-BHB in the liver. This results in two molecules of D-BHB in the blood. For this reason, the BHB is one of the most efficacious for elevating blood ketones—it can raise blood ketone levels up to 3 mM for up to 2 hours.
Ketosis achieved through BHB ester ingestion improves physical endurance in cyclists by switching the body’s fuel preference to favor ketone metabolism vs. glucose/glycogen oxidation even in the presence of high muscle glycogen.
As mentioned before, however, the optimal blood BHB range is 1.5 mM–2.5 mM. Higher levels may result in diminished returns. A new type of exogenous ketone supplement, H.V.M.N. Ketone 2.0, may help users achieve optimal levels while retaining the benefits of ketone supplementation.
H.V.M.N. Ketone 2.0 is pure R-1,3-butanediol (R-1,3-BDO), an exogenous ketone. R-1,3-BDO can elevate blood BHB levels to the optimal range 1.5 mM–2.5 mM for 2 hours—a significantly longer period than BHB Monoester. Research on this new technology is limited, but because Ketone 2.0 elevates blood BHB to optimal levels, it likely generates the benefits shown in previous studies using other exogenous ketones.
“The real magic isn’t what ketones do for you during exercise; it’s what they do afterwards.” - Alex Hutchinson, Outside Magazine
While the precise metabolic signals responsible for the benefits are not completely known, the evidence for using exogenous ketones in the setting of athletic performance is strong. However, it is important to choose a type of exogenous ketone that elevates your blood BHB to an optimal range so that you can reap the associated benefits.
Quantifying the Benefits of Supplements
Scientific evidence exists that analyzes supplements. However, studies in sport are limited, and the subjects in those studies are often athletic, well-trained young men. It may be hard to see how those results apply to you (if you are not an athletic, well-trained young man).
One of the most important things to consider when taking supplements is the subjective experience. There’s an element of feeling that sometimes can’t be qualified by biomarkers. Of course, there are objective, numerical tests that exist—but many athletes will rely on those subjective feelings to analyze whether supplements are working for them personally.
For cyclists, this may be a difficult obstacle to pedal past.
If you’re a keen cyclist, there is a good chance that you are the data-obsessed type; in fact, cycling is one of the most data-driven sports in the world.
Watch professional cyclists ride and their eyes will be fixated on the power meter. But it’s not just power—think speedometers or GPS or Strava, all the tools that track and measure and collect.
While it may be hard to rely on subjectivity for results, supplements may be a good place to start.
Cycling Supplements: Not For Your Average Endurance Athlete
It’s difficult to compare cycling to any other endurance sport. Factors like length of time, exertion levels, distance, and mechanisms make cycling a unique microcosm of physiology.
While supplements have the ability to improve performance, it all varies from athlete to athlete. The subjective aspect of the supplementation should also be taken into account.
“If you encounter a rider who says ‘this works for me, then, therefore, it should work for you,’ then that’s total BS. Everything is individual,” said Morgan G.
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