Let’s get something straight. There are no miracle supplements that will turn you into a cycling terminator. If you talk to riders you trust, read papers on sports supplementation, or even try some supplements yourself, you'll find that the most hyped-up supplements tend to be the most overrated and useless.
Having said that, should we ignore supplementation altogether? Absolutely not. It’s just that we might be better off focusing more on supplements that actually work, and less on new shiny things. This article is a reminder to beginners and experienced riders that a couple of basic and well-known supplements might be all you'll ever need to achieve your cycling goals.
Let’s dive in!
Endurance refers to the ability to sustain physical and mental effort for a long period of time. Let’s look at three key supplements that could potentially cover all your bases.
Electrolytes are necessary to regulate fluid balance in the body by controlling the movement of water and nutrients in and out of cells. Sodium is a crucial electrolyte that maintains fluid balance and blood pressure. It also regulates muscle and nerve function, including muscle contraction and relaxation. Other minerals, such as potassium, magnesium, and calcium, also play critical roles in muscle and nerve function, as well as energy production and bone health.
Have you ever had muscle twitching or cramping? That’s a clear indication that your body is low on electrolytes. Always take electrolyte supplements with you if it's hot outside or you're riding indoors. It doesn't matter if it's in the form of tablets or fine powder, as long as you consume it fast enough. Don't take this lightly, you don't want to run out of electrolytes.
Bro tip: No electrolyte tablets? Add 3 pinches of table salt and one crushed magnesium pill to your water bottle. Make sure to regularly take sips even if you are not thirsty.
In the body, carbohydrates are broken down into glucose, which powers muscles and other tissues. Fat storage can also be used as an energy source, but it's a slow process that has evolved for basic survival in times of prolonged hunger, rather than providing instant access to energy during cycling. Now, what happens when you run out of glucose? Lightheadedness, mushy legs, nausea, and tunnel vision are your typical symptoms. Gels and sweetened drinks are your best bet when it comes to keeping your glucose levels in check and preventing bonking. Because once the symptoms kick in, it's game over my friend.
Bro tip: Never wait for low sugar symptoms to appear before you reach for a gel or a sweetened drink. Create a recurring reminder on your phone or stick a reminder on your handlebar so that you remember to have a gel or something sweet every half hour or so, even if you aren’t hungry.
A molecule that has been popular among athletes for centuries and for a good reason – it works. Caffeine works by blocking adenosine receptors (a neurotransmitter that makes you drowsy and nudges your brain to take rest) and giving you the mental stamina to ride harder. Caffeine may also enhance muscle contractions, leading to improved power output and endurance.
Another cool characteristic of caffeine is that it can improve the body’s metabolism by increasing the release of stored fats and glycogen breakdown. So if you’re debating whether you should have an energy drink before the ride or not – go ahead, you'd do yourself a huge favor.
Bro tip: If you want to start supplementing caffeine with energy drinks or tablets, start with small doses. Then gradually increase the dosage until you find the sweet spot that puts your mind and body in hyper mode without causing unpleasant jitters and anxiety.
Intense and long rides damage your muscles and deplete your energy stores. During recovery, your body repairs muscles, replenishes energy reserves, removes waste products, and adapts to exercise stress. These processes in turn prevent injuries, improve performance, and promote overall health and well-being. Now let's look at supplements that will help you recover faster and achieve more on your next ride.
Every time you push yourself, you tear and break muscle tissue. Consuming protein after each ride can help support recovery by providing the building blocks needed for muscle repair and growth. Protein supplementation may also have anti-inflammatory effects and reduce muscle soreness and stiffness after exercise.
Like a team of bricklayers, protein fills in muscle tears, strengthening tissues and preparing them for even greater stress. If you fail to provide enough protein to your muscles during the recovery period, you’ll be much more likely to suffer from long-lasting injuries and pains.
You can be sure you get enough protein by following these steps. Firstly, always include meat or alternative protein sources like beans, soy, eggs, and dairy products in all of your meals. Secondly, depending on the effort level of your rides, supplement with protein shakes.
Bro tip: When and how many protein shakes should you take? On your ride days, make it a habit to drink a protein shake right after you finish, then before you go to bed, and finally when you wake up the next morning. Muscle reconstruction is a lengthy process and your body can only use so much protein at once. Spreading out your protein intake is the way to go.
Yup, carbs again. Recovery is a highly energy-consuming process. You can boost glycogen resynthesis and recover if you eat carbs right after your ride, ideally within the 30-60 minutes window. Power gels, bars, fruits, pasta, and whole grain meals combined with meat will speed up your recovery after a hard ride.
In general, it’s best to stay away from supplements that directly affect your endocrine system. In other words, avoid anything that messes with your hormones. For example testosterone boosters. They may be effective in upping your testosterone levels, but they can cause a chain of other system changes with unpredictable and serious consequences. Artificially boosting testosterone levels can increase the risk of cardiovascular disease, decrease fertility, and increase the risk of hormone-related cancers. Definitely not something you want to fool around with.
Also, you should be wary of so-called super foods. Take beetroot juice, for example, specifically its active ingredient nitric oxide. A popular choice among cyclists, runners, and track and field athletes seems to have very weak research support. Although beetroot juice and nitric oxide supplements are marketed as a way to increase blood flow and oxygen delivery to muscles, there is limited evidence to support these claims. Is it okay to drink beetroot juice before a ride? Probably yes. Just don't expect to see measurable improvements in your performance (the placebo effect doesn’t count).
It's easy to get carried away and go down the rabbit hole of sports supplementation. I know I do from time to time. The array of products with unbelievable claims can make us feel like we're missing out on something. But don’t be fooled. It’s an elusive catch-up game that will eventually impact your wallet the most. I know, there's nothing sexy about protein shakes, power gels, coffee, a balanced diet, good sleep, regular health check-ups, and blood tests. But this boring standard old-school supplement stack is still probably going to get you the best bang for your buck, yielding the highest improvements in your riding performance and quality of life.
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