Nutrition For Cyclists: Using Fats & Oils for a Cycling Diet

By Danny Webber
Danny Webber is a SENr registered practitioner, an ISAK certified Anthropometrist and a UK Anti-Doping accredited adviser.
| Updated on January 17, 2022

What are ‘good’ fats and oils?

The term ‘good fats’ can be somewhat misinterpreted and therefore people may eliminate certain dietary fatty acids from their diet which may not be considered ‘good’, but do actually play an important role in the human body. One example of this is saturated fat. This stems from the belief that saturated fat increases total cholesterol, thus increasing the risk of cardiovascular disease, however saturated fats actually support hormone production and the enhancement of ‘good’ cholesterol (HDL). It is also one of the significant components of nutrition for cyclists. Cardiovascular health issues arise when diets contain too much saturated fat and are combined with refined carbohydrates. Small amounts of saturated fats are good.

Unsaturated fats are defined as the ‘good’ fats; poly-unsaturated fatty acids (PUFA) include omega-3 and omega-6 fats and mono-unsaturated fatty acids (MUFA) being primarily omega-9 fats. These all offer many health benefits and should make up the majority of total dietary fat intake.

What makes these fats ‘good’ is that they are naturally sourced from unprocessed, whole foods. Eat a variety of high quality dietary fat sources across the week (2-3 portions each day) and you won’t have to worry about how much you need in grams/percentages.

The bad fats that should be avoided, or eaten very sparingly (not just by athletes) are those used in heavily processed foods, including margarine, vegetable oils, manufactured meats and confectionary foods.

How does their inclusion in the diet benefit cyclists/athletes?

Including healthy fats can be one of the best nutrition strategy for cyclists. The body needs fat for many important functions. As mentioned it has cardio-protective attributes and is required for hormone production, but it is also vital for the absorption and transport of fat-soluble vitamins (A, D, E, and K), cell signalling, brain function, and importantly for athletes, it’s a source of energy. Thus, good fats can be considered as one of the important diet for cyclists.

Cyclists can rely on fats to fuel the lower-intensity stages of a race but this must be trained with strategic nutrition strategies, not by consuming large quantities of dietary fat before a race.

Are there specific diet for cyclists and athelets?

Oily fish are the best source of omega-3 fatty acids, such as salmon, mackerel, trout and sardines. Flaxseeds and walnuts are also good sources but if you don’t eat fish then I would recommend a fish oil supplement. Omega-3 fatty acids are great for recovery as they possess anti-inflammatory properties and boost immune function.

Omega-6 are found in many animal foods sources, nut and seed oils and heavily processed foods, therefore careful selection of omega-6 fatty acids is warranted. Athletes should source these fats from high-quality (grass-fed) animal meats and poultry including eggs and dairy, as well as whole nuts and seeds. Avocados and olives, including olive oils are also great sources of MUFAs. and can be included in cycling nutrition plan.

Saturated fats are found in animal products and plant based sources like coconuts and cocoa. Saturated fats should be eaten in small quantities from lean animal meats, egg yolks, dairy sources (milk, butter, cheese and yoghurt), coconut flesh or oil, and dark chocolate can also be used as a treat.

What are the best times to consume these and why? e.g. routinely in the build up to an event? during or after a race?

Fats are better than carbohydrates for fuelling the body at rest and during lower-intensity exercise, therefore when an athlete is not training; rest days, evenings or reduced training hours, this is when they should focus on including the bulk of their dietary fats.

In the day(s) before and on the day of an event, carbohydrates will be prioritised and dietary fats will be restricted, but they should not be completely neglected.  This is simply to compensate for the caloric requirements for increased carbohydrate intake, but also to alleviate any unwanted digestive discomfort during a race as fat is metabolised slower than carbohydrates.

After training or competition, dietary fats may be re-introduced in cycling diet as they can promote recovery. Milk is the ideal drink to initiate the recovery process as it is one of the best protein sources. Also the fats aid the absorption of its protein, natural sugars and electrolytes. It is also great before bed too. Foods rich in omega-3 also help the body to recover after intense exercise by producing an anti-inflammatory response.

What would occur if your diet was deficient of these?

In a nutshell your body wouldn’t be able to function. Depriving your body of any nutrient will be detrimental to health, but a dietary fat deficiency can cause hormone imbalances, cognitive impairment, suppress immune function, metabolic and cardiovascular problems. Omega-3 and omega-6 are essential fatty acids as the body cannot produce its own and must be sourced through the diet. Ultimately as an athlete this will not only affect their training, but their health and career will be harmed.

What to eat before cycling?

Carbohydrate is the body’s major source of energy when we are engaged in high-intensity activities, of which our body has a limited supply of carbohydrates in the muscles and liver which last up to 90 minutes of moderate-high intensity exercise.

So, How much carbohydrates you should consume before cycling? This all depends on the duration and intensity of training and races, and what your training goals are for that particular session i.e. performance vs adaptation. Eating low-fibre and low-fat foods can help to reduce the risk of gastrointestinal upset.

On race day, it is better to eat the final pre-event meal 3-4 hours before the start, but you may want to include a snack or drink within 45 minutes of the start to ensure blood sugar levels are primed for the start. The chosen foods must be rich in carbohydrates and low in fat and fibre to assist in digestion and prevents stomach issues. 

What to eat and drink while cycling?

Cyclists as well as other endurance athletes should aim to start the events well hydrated. Water is the best fluid for short sessions and other low-intensive activities. 

However, for high-intensity activities and other long events, sports drinks and electrolyte drinks help to replace the carbohydrates and electrolytes more effectively and efficiently. They help to boost your cycling performance as well.

For most of the high intensity race consuming 30-90 G carbohydrates per hour is recommended to prevent muscle fatigue. The consumption of a higher amount of carbohydrates may provide additional benefits to endurance athletes, of which ensuring they offer a combination of glucose and fructose that needs to be practiced during training sessions.

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