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Protein, Carbs, or Fat? Choose the Right Calories for Cycling

If you’re serious about cycling, there’s a good chance you’re serious about nutrition. You may closely track your calories each day to make sure you’re getting enough to meet the demands you’re putting on your body.

So why, if you haven’t changed your total calorie consumption, would you suddenly feel like you don’t have enough energy for your long rides? Well, there’s more to calories than a simple number. If you’ve changed the source of those calories, it could have a significant effect on your cycling success. 

Simply put, the calories you get from protein, carbs and fat are not the same. To understand what that means for the cyclist, we turned to our mentor, longtime cycling coach Darryl MacKenzie, who will help you choose the right calories for cycling.

The Complex Puzzle of Cycling Nutrition

Before we dive into our cycling nutrition tips, it’s important to acknowledge something: Nutrition is complicated. 

Especially when it comes to nutrition for performance athletes like cyclists, there are so many layers to the onion. Heck, Lance Armstrong used to weigh every specific ingredient for his meals to make sure he was getting exactly what he needed.

Its impossible to capture all of this one topic. What we’re looking at here is just one layer of that onion. It’s important for your cycling success, but there’s a lot more to it. Keep that in mind and consider consulting a nutritionist for further expertise regarding creating a carb cycling workout plan

Not All Calories Are Created Equal

Here’s your first step to choosing the right calories for cycling. When it comes to nutrition, a cyclist has to move beyond the basics of simply balancing calories in and calories out. This classic concept may help you maintain your weight, but it’s not sufficient for your cycling strategy.

“For the cyclist, you don’t get the same value out of protein that you get out of carbs,” Coach Darryl explains. “And you don’t get the same value out of fat that you do out of carbs.”

That’s true in a mathematical sense. While both protein and carbs provide 4 calories per gram, fat provides 9 calories per gram. So, there’s one basic difference. 

But it goes beyond that. Protein, carbs and fat do different things for your body. 

  • Protein rebuilds and restores muscles.
  • Carbs provide immediately usable energy.
  • Fats build your body’s fat stores, which provide insulation and energy reserves for when you need them.

For the cyclist, this difference is hugely important. And it’s why simply following a fad diet — say, one that’s high in protein but low in carbs — won’t work.

Plan the Right Calories for the Right Time

The timing of when you eat these things is important,” says Darryl. In other words, to match your nutrition to your cycling goals — particularly if you’re a long-distance cyclist — you need to time your intake of these different types of calories strategically. 

In appropriate amounts, fats can be a regular part of your diet. These don’t add specific benefits for cyclists, but you do need to be aware that every gram of fat is giving you more than twice the calories that protein or carbohydrates do. So, if you’re cycling to shed weight, you have to be mindful of fat intake.

It’s for the other two, though, that timing is critical. In a nutshell, the rule is this: carbs before a ride and protein afterwards. 

If you feast on a big steak the day before a ride, you’re not helping yourself. In fact, you’re diverting your body’s energy toward the long, slow process of digesting that meat and away from quickly churning out energy for your ride.

Instead, if you’re preparing for a big weekend with rides on Saturday and Sunday, you should pile on carbs Friday night and Saturday morning — and bring along sports drinks for quick carb intake during the ride. Save your protein consumption for Sunday night and Monday. This carb cycling approach will give you the energy you need for the rides and help you repair your muscles while you recover.

As you look ahead to your next ride, remember, not all calories are created equal. Don’t just track your total calorie intake. Fine-tune what you’re eating and when. Coach Darryl guarantees you’ll see a difference.


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

Photo by Brooke Lark on Unsplash

Now that you know how to choose the right calories for cycling, the next step is to make sure you have the most comfortable bike seat available. For more information about our lightweight bike saddles, get in touch with our team.