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When I started commuting by bike to work I found there was quite a lot of conflicting information online about whether you should eat breakfast before you ride or not.
Having now commuted for several years, I feel much more qualified to answer this question!
In general, for optimal cycling performance, it is not recommended to eat breakfast immediately before riding. However, small portions before cycling often have zero negative impact. It is crucial for each cyclist to listen to their own body when deciding to eat breakfast or not.
There is an official answer, and there is the answer that many people live by, and these are not the same thing!
In this post, I’m going to describe the 12 most important facts about whether you should eat breakfast or not before you ride, and what is the best solution for you.
1. Listen To Your Body
The biggest thing (that is often glossed over) is to listen to your body.
If you eat breakfast, immediately cycle, and then find that you experience indigestion or lack of cycling energy, then in the future not eating breakfast is probably the thing for you.
However, if you eat breakfast, cycle, and feel absolutely great – then there’s probably not much danger in doing so.
Coming up are many pieces of scientific knowledge, many of which say that cycling after breakfast is not wise. If this doesn’t seem to be the case in reality for you – then I’d say just keep going.
2. Light Meal – Probably Fine
The science seems to suggest that if your breakfast is light, then cycling after it should not cause an issue.
Professional cyclists, in events like the Tour de France, for example, will eat small portions as they cycle throughout a Stage.
The average pro, according to Cycling Weekly, while cycling will eat ‘small rolls with jam, rice cakes, and energy bars, and most riders will opt for this on the easier days.’ (Source)
Though indigestion and gastro-intestinal issues are quite common in pro-cycling, (Source) this should be a reasonably good indication that eating a light breakfast before you cycle will usually result in no issues.
3. Light To Medium Meal – 30 Mins To 2 Hours
If you are having a medium meal – something pretty substantial like a big fry-up, then waiting a little time is recommended.
For a light to medium meal, it is recommended that you wait to cycle for somewhere between 30 minutes to 2 hours.
This takes into account the amount of food, the speed of your digestion, your age, and other factors.
Again, some people will be fine with this amount of food intake to cycle immediately, but the majority of people will be wise to wait.
4. Full Meal – 2 To 4 Hours
If you are someone that actually has a full meal for breakfast (I know that’s kinda rare!), then waiting for a full 2 to 4 hours is recommended.
Again, this is something you’ll witness in the Tour de France, where cyclists eat a pre-race meal 2 hours before.
Issues that could come up if you cycle too quickly after a large meal include:
- General sluggishness
|Meal Size||Recommended Time After Eating That You Can Cycle||Why|
|Light||Immediately||Should cause no issues with digestion and cycling performance|
|Medium||30 minutes to 2 hours||Cycling before the wait time will increase the risk of digestion issues|
|Large||2 hours to 4 hours||Cycling before the wait time will reduce cycling performance and increase the risk of digestion issues such as indigestion and vomiting|
These are the more serious issues that could arise.
There are actually a whole series of facts about eating before cycling and weight loss, that I’ll take a look at now…
5. You Won’t Burn As Much Fat After Eating
If losing weight is your priority, then the facts mostly suggest that skipping breakfast is the way to go before cycling.
You are then cycling in a semi-fasted state, and so burning more carbohydrates, or potentially even fat.
If you cycle immediately after eating, then you are burning off the carbohydrates from that meal. Your body has to burn off all the carbohydrates present in your body before it can move on to burning fats.
Burning off carbohydrates is actually simpler for your body. (Source) So it makes sense that your body wants to do that first!
I recently saw an excellent Youtube video from Dylan Johnson about the effects of fasting and cycling performance.
In general, I’d summarize his findings as: for optimum cycling performance, carbohydrates are best. For weight loss, fat loss is best.
You can check out the video here:
6. Cycling After Eating Reduces Endurance Capacity
There have been several studies that show that riding on an almost empty stomach increases your endurance capacity. (Source)
This suggests that riding on a full stomach, or semi-full, will do the opposite. It will reduce your endurance capacity.
According to Science Direct, endurance capacity is ‘the ability to resist muscular fatigue and describes how a given type of contraction can be sustained’. (Source) Simply put, it is the ability of your muscles to keep going with the activity without becoming tired.
An important thing to take into account is that when you are cycling in a fasted state, your body burns fat which improves something called your mitochondrial density.
What on earth is that?
Well, in a nutshell, this means the body is better able to take in more oxygen which leads to better results.
7. You Could Suffer Indigestion
An obvious issue, that I’ve already mentioned a couple of times, is if you cycle after breakfast, you are at risk of suffering from indigestion.
This is probably the biggie for lots of people.
Indigestion comes in many forms, such as:
- Being bloated
- Abdominal pain
- Growling stomach
The main cause of indigestion is usually what you eat, but this can be exacerbated by exercise after eating.
You are at greater risk of suffering indigestion when cycling after eating breakfast if any of the following is happening:
- You are obese
- Drinking excessive alcohol
- You are a smoker
- You have recently eaten oily, spicy, or rich foods
8. An Oily Meal Is Worse
Having anything oily for breakfast means that waiting at least 2 hours before cycling is recommended.
This is bad news for all you fried breakfast enthusiasts (of which I am definitely one).
Oily food makes the body’s job of digestion harder, and this process can be exacerbated by exercise.
Possible side effects of cycling immediately after eating oily food include:
- Stomach cramps
Of course, these are not guaranteed – but just possible. Be cautious!
9. Cycling After Spicy Food Is Not Recommended
This one is hard to take for curry lovers like myself, but there is research that suggests that cycling after a spicy breakfast is definitely not recommended.
This is because of the risk that spicy food causes of suffering with indigestion, stomach cramps, and diarrhea, particularly if you get on your bike too soon.
The recommendation is to wait for a minimum of 2 hours after spicy food before you cycle.
So anyone having a Vindaloo for breakfast should think again.
10. Don’t Have Alcohol And Cycle
Alcohol causes an issue with cycling from both a digestive and a safety point of view. I have to say that the number of people I know that have alcohol for breakfast is rare (except on special occasions!).
But just so you are aware!
Cycling under the influence of alcohol is much more dangerous and you are susceptible to falls or accidents.
Also, alcohol and cycling don’t work well with your digestion.
11. Eating Before Cycling Makes Cycling Harder
This is a fact that many of you won’t be too concerned about, but for optimal cycling performance, it is recommended not to eat up to 2 hours before cycling.
This will give you the best results in terms of:
- Enhanced cardio
- Muscle endurance
For many of us, we’re just trying to cycle to work in a reasonable time or take a leisurely ride around a lake. In that case, it really doesn’t matter.
But, if you are keen on getting the best out of yourself on your bike, then eating immediately before cycling will make cycling harder.
In a nutshell, it gives your body two important things to do at once, rather than just one – digest your food and ride your bike.
The two processes conflict and neither will be working at its peak.
12. You Won’t Use Glycogen Stores First
If you’re looking to burn glycogen stores, then eating before cycling makes this much trickier.
Glycogen is the body’s store of fat. This is what you want to burn to achieve more rapid weight loss.
However, if you eat food before cycling, the exercise will be consuming the blood sugar from the food as a fuel source.
So, if you want to be a fat-burning machine, cycling in a fasted state is absolutely the way to go.