The HIIT List: Fueling Strong Indoor Cycling Workouts

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By Chris Carmichael,
Founder and Head Coach of CTS

Indoor cycling is great for packing a lot of effective training into a short period of time. Without the need to get dressed in multiple layers or navigate to safe roads for interval training, you can just get on, warm up, and open the throttle. But effective High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT) requires fuel, and there are special nutrition and hydration considerations for riding indoors.

Eat light before a heavy workout

You really don’t want to start a hard workout feeling full. Eating your last substantial meal about 2 hours before an indoor training session typically gives cyclists enough digestion time to feel good on the bike. Remember that of the three macronutrients, high-fat foods take the longest to digest, protein is in the middle, and carbohydrate is the fastest. A turkey sandwich with some vegetables would be an example of a carbohydrate- and protein-rich choice that’s lower in fat. A bacon cheeseburger would be the opposite.

Have a pre-workout snack

If you are working out in the afternoon or evening, and you’ve had your last substantial meal was 2-3 hours before training, you’ll want a small pre-workout snack so you’re mentally alert and have enough blood sugar to avoid feeling depleted and tired halfway through. Between 30 and 60 minutes before the workout, have a banana or an apple with some peanut butter. Personally, I like to wait until about 30 minutes before getting on the trainer and having a banana or 3-4 Medjool dates or a ProBar Bite.

Fueling early-morning indoor workouts

The key to remember with early morning workouts is that you have full muscle glycogen stores, so you don’t need a full breakfast, but a small snack and a glass of orange juice will keep you from feeling hungry and provide some blood sugar to perk you up. The banana, dates, or ProBar Bite mentioned above work well for early mornings.

What about training fasted? That is another option, and there may be times when you want to use the ‘Sleep High, Train Low’ method for manipulating carbohydrate availability. The way it works is to train hard enough late in the day to significantly deplete glycogen stores, then eat little or no carbohydrate before going to bed, and wake up for a workout with less muscle glycogen available than usual. The idea is to improve fat utilization. If you are waking up to do a HIIT workout, though, you want high carbohydrate availability so you can produce high power. ‘Sleep High, Train Low’ is better saved for long morning endurance rides.

Caffeine – it works

Caffeine is one of the only supplements that perform reliably as an ergogenic aid. When you consume a reasonable amount (for you), it improves cognition, alertness, and focus. Generally accepted recommendations are to consume 3-9mg/kg to experience an ergogenic effect. A recent study discussed the inter-individual variation on this effect, which many people have learned through personal experience. For many people, a shot of espresso or a cup of coffee or tea is a standard part of their pre-workout routine, particularly before early-morning workouts. You can certainly have a highly effective workout without caffeine, but if you like it and tolerate it well, then it can be helpful.

Water or electrolyte drink during workouts

Indoor HIIT workouts tend to be short, difficult (duh), and hot. You’re likely to be on the bike for 60-75 minutes, and if you start with full muscle glycogen stores you have enough fuel on board for a high-quality workout. Not only do you not really need exogenous calories, you’re probably not going to be motivated to eat anything because of the intensity.

You’re going to sweat a lot, perhaps more than a liter per hour. Fluid replenishment is the priority over calories, and water and electrolyte drinks are the best choices. Carbohydrate-rich sports drinks have a place in longer indoor workouts, but water is tops for short and hard sessions.

Hydrate after workout

Even knowing that hydration is the priority during indoor cycling, it’s almost certain that you’ll sweat out more than you take in. This is especially true for HIIT workouts, because you may only take small sips so you don’t feel nauseated during subsequent intervals. Aim to consume between 120-150% of the weight you lose during your training session in the four hours after it. Remember that water in the foods you eat counts toward this amount.

Don’t overeat

A hard hour on the trainer does not warrant a trip to the all-you-can-eat pancake hut. If you have a power meter, you’ll probably see you did about 1000 kilojoules of work, maybe 1200 for some. You don’t need a 3,000 calorie mega burrito to replenish your carbohydrate stores. Your post-workout meal should be about the same size as what you’d eat if you didn’t work out, and include carbohydrate, some protein, and fat. Don’t stress about the exact proportions, but it is a good idea to consume protein throughout the day, rather than in a big dose right after training.

Save the shakes, unless…

Post-workout recovery shakes and drinks are good for riders who are doing more than one workout in a day, riders who are doing a hard session in the evening and another one in the morning, or after long rides (indoors or out). This year I’ve been doing more double-days, and I often consume a bottle of Fluid Recovery after the first one. If you are going to have 24-ish hours before your next hard workout, your meals should be sufficient to fuel recovery and adaptation.

As with everything related to nutrition, there is a lot of variability between what works best for individuals. These are good starting guidelines to get you in the ballpark, but don’t be afraid to experiment with more or less or different foods before workouts, different drinks during, and various ingredients and foods after. Push it far enough to really find something that doesn’t work, and that will help define your sweet spot for fueling indoor HIIT workouts.


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Comments 4

  1. Pingback: Your Guide To HIIT Cycling - Cerevellum

  2. As always, thanks for the professional insight and info. I noticed a change in recovery drink philosophy. I usually have one after a grueling hill climb ride or an intense flat TT like solo workout. Should I not being doing this an longer? I always thought it was suggested to do this without a double session in the plans.

    1. Scott, a lot of that change in thought is that we’ve noticed a lot of athletes overeating by consuming a recovery drink and a recovery meal after even light workouts. When the workout requires recovery nutrition, shakes can a convenient substitute, but if real food is available it can be just as fueling and a little more rewarding.

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