Nutrition for the cycling commuter

We know nutrition is a big part of performing well, but what do we eat to stay healthy? to maintain energy? or to lose weight. Of course, we still want to perform our best at work, which means maintaining energy levels and keeping a steady blood sugar level across the day.

While there are many diets floating around the internet all providing both pros and cons, we have broken this down into three simple categories for commuters.

a. Health conscious commuter who wants to eat healthily but who wants to maintain energy levels and minimize fatigue

b. a cycle commuter who is looking to lose weight

c. a cycle commuter who is a fitness freak who wants to use cycle commuting as a workout and to combine it with going to the gym

For the average commuter, we typically have a longer day than most people (depending on the length of the commute) this includes waking up early to commute to work and coming home late after commuting home. This means we need a steady output of energy across the whole day.

How to eat healthy while maintaining energy levels throughout the day?

Nearly everything we eat is converted into glucose by our body, which in turn provides energy to our brain. When we run low on glucose, our attention drives and we struggle to stay concentrated throughout the day. The best and most simple way to achieve this is by eating a balanced diet that contains food from all the four main food groups. These foods include Fruit and vegetables, starchy foods such as (rice and potatoes), milk and dairy products. While providing the adequate amount of protein through fish, eggs, meat or other non-dairy sources of protein.

Foods like pasta, bread and numerous types of cereals release glucose too quickly, raising your blood sugar levels too high. High-fat meals (such as fast food burgers) provide a sustained level of energy but at which comes at a cost. Our digestive system needs to work harder which in turn reduces oxygen levels in the brain.

The key for the health conscious commuter is not allowing the glucose to drop throughout the day. Both spikes and drops in your blood sugar levels are bad for productivity. You will perform and have more energy throughout the day by eating smaller yet more frequent meals which help maintain a more constant glucose release and keeps your blood sugar levels more stable throughout the day. Giving you a more productive day at work and the energy needed to commute home on your bicycle.

When we skip breakfast, production of stress hormones is increased in which it then starts to break down muscle to use for Energy.

A simple example of a daily diet

breakfast: The focus in on eating fat and protein during breakfast rather than carbohydrate. Allowing between 20-40grams of protein during this meal has a stabilizing effect on blood sugar levels during the rest of the day.

Lunch: Instead of getting your carbohydrate from grains such as bread or pasta, opt for other sources such as whole fruits and vegetables. These carbohydrates can create intestinal damage or inflammation while raising the blood sugar. Carrots, beets and other root vegetables rather provide a rich source of carbs and are nutrient rich while providing a stable glucose release.

Dinner: At night carbohydrate has a sedative effect, which can prove beneficial before sleeping. This means that starch digesting enzymes are more active at night. But this meal is a must for the commuter. Keeping the last meal of the day some hours before you sleep helps the body to process the food and balance out the blood sugar levels before sleeping.

As a rule of thumb focus on high fat and protein during breakfast, while mixing small amounts of protein throughout the day with the larger meals (lunch and dinner) getting your source of carbohydrate.

Losing weight while commuting?

If your goal is to lose weight though commuting, you can following the guidelines above while restricting your carbohydrate during lunch and evening meals. Low-carbohydrate diets have provided in studies to produce a greater short-term weight loss than a low-fat diet (6months) and calorie restricted diets (1-5months). While long-term (1 to 2 years) most studies have found that low-carbohydrate diets have a greater effect. Restricting the intake of carbohydrates to under 30 g a day. While eating high-fat foods can prevent any short term negative balance, although it is important to consider the energy density of the diet, and is not recommended for the performance orientated athlete that needs to commute and train.

Breakfast should focus on higher protein and fat content. Such as eggs, nuts and fish etc.

Restrict your diet to 30-50grams of carbohydrate per day

Get your carbohydrate from rich nutrient foods such as fruits, vegetables, and root vegetables.

The fitness commuter

While this type of commuter tends to have a larger energy expenditure, it is important to take in carbohydrate as soon as practical after their workouts (after two hours studys have shown that glycogen replenishment can be affected by up to 50%), to help maximize recovery between exercise. This means a series of snacks during the day between these larger meals. Carbohydrate-rich foods with a moderate - high glycaemic index are more important for this group than the standard commuter. It helps provide a ready source of carbohydrate for muscle glycogen synthesis.  Meaning all recovery meals should include carbohydrate.

Some of the key focus points to look at:

  • Breakfast should focus on higher protein and fat content. Such as eggs, bacon and other high protein/high-fat foods

  • Mid-meal snacks throughout the day or  Increase carbohydrate content after exercise between 20-60 grams of high-glycemic carbs

The exact strategy is up for conjecture as no particular diet has been proven to be the most effective against all other strategies.  It is up to the individual to set his/her objectives and to align the diet accordingly.

Cover Photo by Marco Verch / CC BY