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Bike Shorts: Use Carbs to Recharge Muscles (Not Build Fat) After a Bike Ride

People get into cycling for many reasons. It forces you to get outside frequently. It’s a great way to pass time with friends. It keeps you active.

And, presumably, high on that list for most cyclists is the desire to stay fit. Cycling is great for burning lots of energy and keeping your body’s metabolism burning steadily. However, it’s easy to overlook one thing you might be doing to make this fitness goal a little harder to achieve: how you time your carb intake.

Just like choosing the right comfortable bike saddle, consuming the right food can make all the difference on how you feel after a ride. When you cycle for long distances frequently, you need a lot of carbs. You shouldn’t start a carb-free diet, or you won’t have enough energy for those long rides. But how you time your carbs after a ride can make all the difference between refueling your muscles for the next ride or simply restocking those fat stores.

As usual, longtime cycling coach Darryl MacKenzie has a few insights. 

Burning Carbs When Cycling

When you’re cycling, your body is burning quite a bit of energy, and your muscles need a constant source of fuel to keep up the workout. Carbohydrates are the main source of that fuel, and you have to stock up on them in the days and hours leading up to a ride. 

But you also need them throughout long-distance rides. We’ve talked elsewhere about Coach Darryl’s Rule of 90, which states that a cyclist should always have additional carbs on hand (ideally in the form of a sports drink) for any rides longer than 90 minutes. 

Your body needs this constant input on long rides because it can quickly turn those carbs into energy (glycogen) that your muscles can use. When you’re not active, though, those carbs don’t get burned up as readily, and many of them just get padded away into your “spare tire” of extra fat around your waist.

What About Carbs After the Ride?

So does that mean you can only consume carbs right before or during a ride if you don’t want them to turn into fat? Not exactly.

After a workout, your body continues to burn energy at a high rate. Rather than an on-off switch, think of your body’s metabolism as more of a dial that gets turned down gradually after you finish a workout.

When you’re done, your body is still working hard to replenish the energy you’ve lost. That means there’s a limited window in which you can consume more carbs after your ride and still send them straight to your muscles for energy instead of stowing them away into your fat stores.

The 20-Minute Rule for Carbs After a Ride

To illustrate, imagine two cyclists who take the same ride at the same pace. They both bring along an energy bar for the ride. One of them eats it midway through, while the other eats it after the ride is over. Will those carbs get used in the same way for both cyclists?

As long as the second cyclist eats the energy bar within 20 minutes of completing the ride, the answer is yes.

During that 20-minute window, your body is still burning carbohydrates at a high rate. So any carbs you consume within that window will go toward replenishing your muscles’ energy stores rather than into your spare tire. In effect, you’re just recharging for the next ride.

Now, that doesn’t mean you can load up on as many carbs as you want. In general, you can eat up to one calorie of carbs for every pound of body weight. Here’s an easy way to double-check yourself: There are 4 calories in every gram of carbohydrates. So, a 160-pound cyclist could consume up to 40 grams of carbs within 20 minutes of a ride and not have it turned into fat.

This rule changed Darryl’s stationary trainer classes years ago. Since he shared it with them, everyone brings along an energy bar for the ride home after class. Try it yourself and see if it helps you with your cycling fitness goals — and keeps you refueled for the next ride.


Look for more insights from Coach Darryl over at his website.

Image by pasja1000 from Pixabay