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How many calories should I consume a day when cycling?

Michael Donlevy
29 Sep 2021

Balancing the energy in/energy out equation can be a complex business

Illustration: Clear as Mud

It’s a simple question but the answer is anything but straightforward. Energy expenditure, and therefore how many calories you need, is affected by many factors including age, gender, muscle mass, environment, fitness, quantity and intensity of exercise and NEAT – non-exercise activity thermogenesis, which is basically how much you move around or even fidget outside of exercise.

For example, if you carry greater muscle mass you’ll have a higher basal metabolic rate, which is the number of calories required to keep your body functioning at rest. If you train at higher intensities you’ll burn more energy. If you’re very active you’ll burn more energy.

This isn’t just about calories either – the type of calories matters too, in terms of macronutrients and the quality of your food.

Measuring energy expenditure is complex for all of those reasons, but you can use a power meter or heart rate monitor to calculate the amount of energy you burn on a ride.

Just make sure you input all the data correctly, and with monitors you get a more accurate reading with a chest strap than from the wrist.

These devices do give some useful data but can overestimate your calorie expenditure by 10-20%, so bear that in mind when you’re planning your food intake.

Measuring your weight is a great way to track changes, although it’s a crude measure because it only measures overall mass. It won’t take into account what percentage is fat mass, muscle mass or fluid.

But I do think it’s a good idea to check your weight once a week to track changes, and if you combine it with measuring your circumference – waist, legs, arms – you’ll get a more complete picture. 

Go for the burn

In simple terms, the number of calories you should consume every day will depend on your activity level. The more active you are, the more calories you’ll burn and the more you’ll need.

So let’s talk numbers. Most people who don’t train require 1,500-2,000 calories per day, with lighter people generally at the lower end. You can then use the data from your power meter or heart rate monitor to adjust your intake to cover your training. Assuming you’re not trying to lose weight, you simply replace what you’ve burned on the bike.

But we do need to come back to the quality of those calories. My advice is to keep protein intake moderate to high at around 1.4-1.7g per kilogram of bodyweight per day, aiming for the higher end on training days.

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For carbohydrate, periodise your intake, so for rest days aim for 2-3g/kg, for moderate days 4-5g/kg and for harder days 6-7g/kg. For very hard and race days you can go up to 8-10g/kg. Then keep fat constant at around 1-1.5g/kg.

In terms of quality, always aim for fresh, non-processed foods and balance your plate with lots of macronutrients. A diverse range of colours on your plate will also ensure you get the vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and polyphenols you need to support your health and training.

You can have treat days, but avoid them on rest days or when energy expenditure is low. On heavier days, having a cake during a cafe stop really isn’t such a bad thing, because you’ll burn it off on the ride. That’s another reason to track changes over time, in that it will help ensure you don’t overindulge.

Ultimately the best way to measure energy expenditure is in the lab using gas analysis, but modern technology has definitely helped to bridge the gap in our knowledge. The power is in your hands.

The expert

Dr Mayur Ranchordas is a Reader in nutrition and exercise metabolism at Sheffield Hallam University. He is also a performance nutrition consultant who works with Premier League football players and referees, professional cyclists and triathletes

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