The long hours of cycling undertaken by elite cross-country mountain bikers call for a high-energy diet - high in protein, vitamins, and minerals, and high in carbohydrate for muscle fuel stores, so does that by ordinary cyclists.
Don’t start cycling with an empty stomach.
The most important considerations are to consume carbohydrate and fluid and to allow adequate time for digestion before riding.
1) Have a normal-sized meal approximately four hours before riding and a snack one to two hours before riding (see below for suggestions).
2) If you are riding early in the morning, have a high-carbohydrate meal the night before and a snack one to two hours before riding.
3) Choose high-carbohydrate, low-fat foods to ensure easy digestion and to top up carbohydrate fuel supplies.
4) Experiment with the type, timing, and amount of food that works best for you.
5) Drink 200-600ml of fluid approximately 2 hours before riding. Follow this up with another 200-400 ml of fluid immediately before hitting the trails. This helps to prime the stomach and improves gastric emptying during the ride.
6) If you find it difficult to eat before riding, try a liquid meal supplement such as PowerBar Protein Plus powder, Sustagen Sport or a fruit smoothie.Nutrition Tips for Cyclists
One thing to know: your body can digest about 300 calories/hour (or so I was taught). So, if you've just eaten a large meal, there's going to be food sitting in your stomach not doing much for you while you're riding.
Cycling with enough carbohydrate.
Adequate carbohydrate during prolonged rides is important to maintain a strong immune system and prevent riders breaking down mid-season. Daily recovery between heavy training sessions requires a high total carbohydrate intake, but also the clever timing of meals and snacks to enhance muscle glycogen restoration.
Carbohydrate and other nutrients such as protein and vitamins immediately after a long training session will kick-start muscle glycogen synthesis and prepare fuel stores for the next training sessions, as well as promote other recovery processes.
Recreational riders also need a diet that is proportionally high in carbohydrate and sufficiently varied to provide enough protein, vitamins, and minerals. Female riders that try and keep their weight down have a risk of iron-related problems such as anemia due to an over restrictive food intake. Riders need to include sources of iron such as lean red meat, chicken, fish, green vegetables, wholegrain cereals and fortified products such as breakfast cereal regularly in the diet.
Less is known about the nutritional requirements for downhill mountain bikers. Needs will vary according to the degree of cycling. A varied diet that includes sufficient carbohydrate and protein to meet training needs, optimize strength and maintain a healthy immune system is important. The diet should also provide a wide variety of vitamins and minerals and moderate to low amounts of fat.
Make the nutrition targeted.
Make your nutrition plans according to the body fat levels. Riders needing to lower skinfolds (reduce excess adipose tissue) should target excess kilojoules from fat, alcohol, refined carbohydrate and other energy dense foods.
It is important to maintain an adequate intake of nutrient-dense carbohydrates such as bread, cereals, fruit, vegetables and low-fat dairy products.
Some riders fall into the habit of consuming large quantities of foods when in heavy training then fail to cut back when they are less active = weight gain.
Recreational riders can overestimate carbohydrate needs and consume too many products such as gels, sports drinks, bars and powders = weight gain.
Most recreational riders would gain greater improvement from improving technique and fuelling strategies than from small losses of body fat.
Hydrate during the ride.
Given that the whole point is to stay within a 'normal operating range', it's not healthy to start a ride dehydrated, either. And you should aim to minimize dehydration, even if you can't avoid it altogether. Your performance will suffer if you lose more than about 2 or 3% by body weight, and it can get dangerous when you exceed 5% or so. Whilst you can "get used to it" the more you train it's not safe to make it a habit. So carry water with you and top up regularly.
Regular fluid intake is vital to keep up your performance. You can get bottle cages that allow you to take the bottles from the side which can make it slightly easier. How often should you drink the water? Just follow the rule to drink every 15-20 minutes in summer before you get thirsty.
Refuel during the ride.
There is a pattern of hunger times while riding. It happens at 90 minutes, 3 hours and 6 hours in the middle of a ride. For very long rides (rando, etc.) you'll need to experiment with your digestion (what works, what doesn't, etc.). Use variations on this recipe while backpacking and cycling with a lot of success: 2 parts corn flour, 2 parts honey, and 1 part smooth peanut butter. Mix together and stuff in a squeeze tube (REI has them).
In addition, a marble-sized drop packs a good energy boost. The cocoa mix gives you more instant energy but it doesn't last as long. You can also experiment with milk powder or add some dried fruit (dried cherries + the cocoa version is great!).
There are many other types of energy boosts you might need depending on the duration and intensity of the ride, but since you ask specifically about long bike rides on the cheap, I would also add—as someone on a tight budget expanding big energy in training and road racing—homemade rice bars mixed with sugar (natural and refined), some protein, some fat, and some salt. They're my go-to, cheaper-than-gels, and more wholesome energy source for rides over two or three hours.
The reasons are three-fold: quick-access dense energy, ease of eating/ digesting, and ease of carrying and unwrapping.
The first is because we don't want too much fat or protein but rather need to digest and burn calories quickly (i.e. within 15–30 minutes), which carbohydrate energy helps provide, while also keeping protein at the ready for recovery and fat to train our bodies to burn it before depleting too much glycogen. Secondly, it's going to taste decent and be easy to chew and swallow (unlike some energy bars and gels, esp. after consuming hundreds over the course of weeks and months). A good energy bar is something you want to eat, not have to eat. Thirdly, as you say, you don't want a mess of goo-on-plastic that you're wasting energy unwrapping and scrapping/squeezing and getting on your hands and bars. The pros wrap their rice bars in tinfoil: flexible enough to wrap tightly around the rice bar, but stiff enough to easily open and remove all the bars from.
Although fat and protein are less useful for immediate glucose replenishment, during a long ride sugary food becomes hard to take, so a cheese or ham sandwich can be a palatable, cheap and portable option. The bread is pretty carb-heavy and the filling might be easier to stomach.
Listen to your stomach.
If you do not know when to eat, just listen to your stomach. The minute your stomach starts rumbling, you need to stop and refuel your energy. On a long distance tour, the appetite may improve gradually throughout the duration of the ride. Ignoring hunger cues and just hoping to go through it will decrease overall intake and ability to recover.
Pay attention to post-ride nutrition.
The more important factor is, after your workout, take full advantage of the short, 60-minute recovery window. If you don't ingest the right level of calories and balance of protein/fat/carbs during that window, you set your progress back several days.
The general consensus is that a recovery drink should have a 4 to 1 ratio of carbohydrates to protein so you replenish glycogen stores and add protein to help repair damaged muscle tissue. There are several commercial "recovery drinks" that meet that standard, but in a pinch, a glass of low-fat chocolate milk will do the same thing at a fraction of the cost. Chocolate milk has a near perfect nutrition profile as a recovery drink. 4-1 is the carb to protein ratio. Plus it is available nearly everywhere and it is usually very cheap (especially compared to the products that market themselves to athletes).
Developing a nutrition strategy.
Supplements are akin to training wheels on a bicycle. You can Google that online and refer to the professional cyclists’ nutrition recipe. This is something once for all, particularly for the forthcoming ride. The diet before the ride is more necessary for it implicates that you’ll have a good health status and enough energy to be consumed.
When you eat is just as vital as what you eat.
If you’re on a long ride, it’s easier to have a pre-ride fuel because the body can easily digest the food. If you’re doing really hard workouts, it is suggested waiting an hour or two after you eat to ride so the food has time to digest. Besides, you need to refuel every 30-40 minutes. When you’re working at your maximum level, blood flow to the stomach slows down, and the food can talk back to you.
There is no right or wrong.
Every person prefers or performs better on his or her own preferred foods. There’s not a fixed nutrition plan for everyone. The most suitable nutrition should be concluded on the basis of long-time practical rides.