Sports nutrition for optimal muscle recovery, applied to typical long-distance events

by Ed Burke, Ph.D. and John Hughes

John Hughes is a former director of the WUCA, an NSCA certified personal trainer and a USA Cycling coach. Learn about Hughes’ coaching at

See part 2


Long-distance cyclists love to ride all day and then get up the next morning to ride many more miles. Ultra competitors may only get a few hours sleep between long days of riding. Long-distance cyclists, because of all the miles on the bike, place more stress on their bodies than most athletes. At the same time ultra cyclists have less time to recover than riders doing shorter events. How can long-distance cyclists optimize recovery in the time available? This two-part article will cover:
a) sports nutrition for optimal muscle recovery, applied to typical long-distance events, and
b) non-nutritional aids for recovery, such as massage.

Sports Nutrition For Optimal Muscle Recovery

A) Theory

Extensive research with endurance athletes shows that nutrition during rides and afterwards for recovery has four components:
1) Replenishing fluids and replacing electrolytes
2) Replacing muscle glycogen
3) Rebuilding muscle protein
4) Reducing muscle and immune-system stress.

We’ll start by reviewing the scientific recommendations for sports nutrition and then will apply them to long-distance touring and multi-day racing.

1) Replenishing fluids and replacing electrolytes

Water is essential for regulating body temperature and cardiovascular function. As you sweat, you lose water and also electrolytes, especially sodium. Dehydration of as little as 2% of your body weight will impair performance and more serious dehydration is one of the leading causes of DNFs during ultra events..

Studies show that drinking plain water is not as effective in maintaining fluid balance as drinking a sports drink. The carbohydrate and sodium in a sports drink work together to increase water absorption in the intestinal wall. Further, the addition of sodium to the drink stimulates thirst, so you drink more.

“Drinking plain water is not as effective in maintaining fluid balance as drinking a sports drink.”

Fluid and electrolyte maintenance starts on the bike. During any ride of more than an hour, you should consume plenty of sports drink. A good sports drink contains 14 – 19 grams of carbs / 8 oz. (6-8% concentration) and at least 50 to 75 mg. of sodium / 8 oz. At a minimum, you should drink at least 8 oz. every 15 minutes during the ride, more if it’s hot and/or you are riding hard. Which drink is best? The one that you like to drink, since most commercial drinks fall within these ranges for carbohydrate and sodium content.

During the ride, try to drink enough so that your body weight is stable. That may not be possible in hot conditions and/or if you are riding hard. After the ride consume enough fluid to restore your body weight. Because plain water will satisfy thirst before the body is fully hydrated, your favorite sports drink is also the beverage of choice after a ride. Avoid carbonated drinks when you are thirsty; they may cause you to feel prematurely full before you’ve drunk enough.

Ultra riders particularly need sodium. Each liter of sweat contains approximately 1 gm of sodium which must be replaced. Beverages with that much sodium taste awful, so you’ll need to supplement from other sources. Good sources include tomato juice, salty (low-fat) crackers and adding salt to your meals.

2) Replenishing muscle glycogen

In long-distance events, the fuel and water available in your body are the factors that limit how fast you can ride. Fuel requirements vary widely for ultra cyclists: a 125 lb. person cycling at 12 mph on level ground is burning about 300 calories /hour while a 175 lb. person riding at 18 mph is burning about 800 calories per hour. While some of the energy comes from fat, most of the energy comes from glucose circulating in the blood stream and glycogen stored in the liver and muscles. A rider can only store a few thousand calories of glycogen, which will be exhausted in a few hours. To prevent the bonk, long-distance cyclists should consume at least 300 calories every hour, and 4-500 / hour if the rider is large and/or riding hard.

When consuming this many calories while riding it should be in easily digestible type foods: sports drinks, gels, bars, fruit, liquid meal replacements, etc. During long, hard rides it is very difficult to eat enough on the bike to match the caloric expenditure. So it is important to after the ride to replenish glycogen stores. Studies have shown that riders who consume carbohydrates within two hours after a ride replenish glycogen stored more completely. Consuming some protein with the carbohydrates can increases glycogen replacement by 30%. The optimum muscle recovery ratio appears to be four grams of carbohydrate to one gram of protein. However, consuming too much protein will delay gastric emptying, as will eating fat.

“Riders who consume carbohydrates within two hours after a ride replenish glycogen stored more completely.”

During the first two hours after a ride, try to consume 1 gm of carbohydrate / lb. of body weight and some protein in the 4:1 ratio. For example, a 125 lb. cyclist should consume about 125 grams of carbohydrate and 31 grams of protein. A rider weighing 175 lbs should consume about 175 grams of carbohydrate and 44 grams of protein.

One gram of carbohydrate yields four calories of energy; protein produces four calories; fat yields nine calories per gram. The 125 lb. cyclist should eat 500 calories of carbohydrates and 125 calories of protein after the ride. The 175 lb. cyclist should consume 700 calories of carbohydrates and 175 calories of protein within 60 minutes after getting off the bike. Select carbohydrates with a high-glycemic index, which will cause your blood sugar to rise rapidly. Examples include bagels, baked potatoes, bread, crackers, glucose, honey, and sports drinks sweetened with sugar. Whether the carbohydrate is in solid or liquid form does not seem to be important for absorption.

A healthy snack after you get off the bike will start the re-fueling process. Continue re-fueling with dinner, an evening snack and breakfast. These meals should provide 4 – 6 grams of carbohydrate / lb. of body weight. A 125 lb. rider exercising strenuously should consume 500 – 750 grams of carbohydrates (2,000 – 3,000 calories). A 175 lb. rider should eat 700 – 1050 grams of carbs (2800 – 4200 calories). The carbohydrates should total 65 – 70% of your intake, with 15% of the calories coming from protein and 15 – 20% from fat.

3) Rebuilding muscle protein

Rebuilding muscle protein is important for two reasons. First, hard training damages muscle cells. Protein is required for the growth, maintenance and repair of muscle cells.

Second, during hard exercise if your glycogen stores fall too low, your body may derive up to 10% of its energy from protein. The branch chain amino acids (BCAAs) isoleucine, leucine, and valine can take the place of glucose in the production of energy. However, using protein for energy is not desirable because amino acids that would have been available for muscle repair are diverted for energy. Further, when the level of BCAAs drops, then tryptophan can enter the brain, causing central nervous system fatigue, i.e., sleepiness. Supplementing with BCAAs may improve performance and delay the onset of central fatigue.

“When the level of BCAAs drops, then tryptophan can enter the brain, causing central nervous system fatigue, i.e., sleepiness.”

Athletes in heavy training do not need great quantities of protein. Consuming 1.2 – 1.6 grams protein / day / lb. of body weight should meet cellular repair and energy needs. A 125 lb. rider should eat 150 – 200 grams of protein per day, while a 175 lb. rider should consume 210 – 280 grams.

4) Reducing muscle and immune-system stress.

It’s not news to you that prolonged exercise may produce sore muscles and make you more susceptible to colds, etc. Free radicals are one of the sources of muscle soreness. A free radical is highly unstable molecule that is short one electron. The harder and longer you exercise, the more you become an ultra generator of free radicals. Free radicals can damage muscle cells and mitochondria and are one of the causes of muscle inflammation and soreness.

Research has shown that supplementing with vitamin C can reduce free-radical generation and help to prevent muscle and immune-system damage. Vitamin C also aids in the production of anti-stress hormones and is required for tissue growth and repair. Many researchers recommend 250 – 2500 mg /day. Both the natural and synthetic forms of vitamin C are easily absorbed.

Vitamin E prevents damage to cell membranes by inhibiting the oxidation of phospholipids. It also improves circulation, relaxes leg cramps and helps repair tissues. Although the optimum intake has not been determined, consuming up to 1200 IU / day may be helpful. Buy the natural form of vitamin E, which is absorbed about twice as readily the synthetic.

The amino acid glutamine is a source of energy for white blood cells and other immune cells. Glutamine is normally manufactured by the body; however, during heavy exercise (and other times of stress) glutamine concentrations in your body decrease significantly. Glutamine is available in foods such as raw spinach and parsley; however, cooking destroys glutamine. Supplementing with glutamine may lessen the effects of overtraining. In order to be effective, the suggested dose is 8 to 20 grams / day. However, because glutamine is expensive some sports drinks only contain milligrams per serving.

Ciwujia (Siberian ginseng) is a Chinese herb that stimulates the immune system. Subjects who took ciwujia had few colds during the winter Ciwujia also reduces heart rate during exercise. The reduction in heart rate means that at the same workload, muscle stress is reduced. Studies have also shown that taking ciwujia increases fat metabolism and spares muscle glycogen.


Nutrition and recovery for long-distance cyclists is really pretty simple. Ultra events are alternating periods of riding and recovery. On multi-day tours, you may ride 8 hours and recover 16 hours, while during RAAM you’ll ride 21 hours and recover 3 hours. But the principle is the same. For optimum performance:

  • calories in = calories burned
  • water in = water out
  • electrolytes in = electrolytes out

Either on the bike or afterwards.

1) On the bike

The less depleted you are when you stop riding, the less you have to recover.

Throughout the day, try to maintain adequate intakes of calories, fluids and sodium. During the last hour, instead of hammering in, slow down and start the recovery process:

  • Drink extra sports drink; arrive at the finish with your bottle(s) or CamelBak empty!
  • Increase your calorie consumption; if you’ve been drinking one bottle of food per hour, drink two.
  • Slow down and spin, allowing your muscles to relax, so that they will recover more quickly during your rest break, however short it may be.

2) On a multi-day tour such as PAC Tour

Many riders have trouble consuming enough calories at dinner without feeling bloated. The result may be growing fatigue due to progressive glycogen depletion on successive days. Try eating four smaller meals.

During the first two hours after you finish:

  • Drink plenty of sports drink. Although they may taste good, stay away from the sodas, which may cause you to feel full before you’re completely rehydrated.
  • Eat 500 – 1000 calories, predominantly carbohydrates but with some protein. Many riders carry a powdered supplement such as Endurox R4 or Sustained Energy in their gear bags to mix at the end of the day.
  • Eat salty, low-fat foods such as pretzels and crackers.

At dinner, try to consume 65 – 70% of your calories from carbohydrates, 15% in protein and 15-20% in fat:

  • Start with a trip to the salad bar, for extra carbohydrates.
  • In addition to your main course, order pasta or a potato on the side.
  • Use the salt shaker.
  • Enjoy dessert.

In your room:

  • Have a snack before going to bed.
  • Keep a bottle of sports drink by the bed to drink when you get up to pee. If you are adequately hydrated, you should get up a couple of times each night to pee.
  • Take your anti-oxidants before you go to bed.

Although for many of us, it’s hard to get up in the morning and eat right away, don’t skip breakfast:

  • Practice going to bed earlier and getting up early enough to eat a good breakfast before your long training rides.
  • Learn what foods work for you. If you have trouble chewing and digesting heavy food, try drinking several glasses of juice and eating a couple of yogurts.
  • Leave the motel with bottles full of sports drink and food in your pockets. Start eating and drinking during the first hour on the bike; don’t wait until the first rest stop.

3) On a multi-day event, such as a 1200 km randonnée or RAAM.

Before the event:

  • Know what your calorie, water and sodium requirements are per hour under the expected conditions.
  • Plan how much you will consume on the bike. Practice carrying, eating and drinking this much food and sports drink during training rides, so that consumption is habitual.
  • Plan how much you will eat and drink in the controls. Unfortunately, time spent eating in controls is time not spent riding or sleeping. One strategy is to stop for a meal every third or fourth control and grab plenty of pocket food at the other controls. Another option is to pack liquid meal replacements in your drop bags, for quick hits of calories while you are organizing your gear.

On the bike:

  • Eat and drink by your watch; every hour ask yourself whether you’ve met your nutritional targets.
  • Pay attention to your speed and mood; if either falls, you probably need to eat and drink more.
  • If you have a crew, ask them to track your consumption and nag you if necessary.

Sleep breaks are the only real recovery you get, so you want to take maximum advantage:

  • Consume at least 1000 calories of carbohydrates and small amounts of protein and/or fat just before your sleep break. Eat what you can on the bike in the last hour of riding and eat the rest at the control. As noted above, try for a 4:1 ratio of carbohydrates to protein. Your legs will feel much better when you get up.
  • Drink less sports drink during your last hour on the bike. If you only get a few hours for sleep, you don’t want to get up to pee!
  • Similarly, avoid caffeine in the evening unless absolutely necessary to ride safely.
  • When you get up, try to consume at least 500 calories before getting on the bike.
  • Start with full bottles and pockets and start eating during the first hour.
  • Because it’s important to consume a lot of calories in a short time before and after a sleep break, liquid meal replacements can be advantageous.

4) Relay team events.

Relay teams are becoming increasingly popular. Last year 22 different teams raced at the Race Across Oregon, RAAM and the Furnace Creek 508. This year nine 2- or 4-person teams will contend in RAAM. The same principles of nutrition and recovery apply to relay teams. Susan Barr has written an excellent two-part article on Nutrition for Relay Teams. See the September and December UltraCycling or go to the Team Nutrition article.

Peak performance requires pushing your body hard AND allowing time for recovery to repair muscle damage and rebuild energy stores. In the first part of this article we’ve described how consuming enough water and electrolytes, carbohydrates, and protein at the right times can improve your recovery. For more information see Ed Burke’s book “Optimal Muscle Recovery” (Avery Publications, 1999). Part II will cover massage, stretching, icing and other recovery techniques.