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carbs for energy

Why are carbohydrates important in cycling?

Most of us know carbohydrates are the preferred fuel source for endurance sports like cycling, but why are they important? What’s the difference between complex and simple carbs? How many carbohydrates do you need to consume and how often?

In this article, we’ll try to simplify the science and give you some clarity on all things carbohydrates and how to manage your intake to keep you fuelled throughout your ride.

Even at a moderate cycling intensity, once you’ve been on the go for 60 mins, your body will require a top-up of carbohydrates. Up to about an hour, your body will be fuelled by glucose stores already stored in your muscles and liver.

Carbs are one of the most important macronutrients for cycling performance because they are so easily digested, they provide the energy your muscles need to work at their maximum capacity. 

Carbohydrates and glucose in cycling

We all know cycling requires a lot of energy, so how do you fuel that demand? Its carbs! When you consume carbohydrates, they are broken down in the digestive tract into glucose, which is then used by the muscles for energy. Glucose stored in your liver and muscles is known as glycogen.

When cycling, the body relies heavily on glycogen to maintain a consistent supply of energy. Without enough glucose, the muscles will quickly tire and leave you feeling empty and exhausted and eventually ‘hitting the wall’. This is why it's essential to consume carbohydrates before, during, and often after your ride as your body needs to replenish glycogen stores used up during exercise.

The amount of carbs you need to consume before or during your ride varies depending on the intensity of your ride. As a general rule, the more intense the activity, the more your body relies on the quick energy of glucose from carbs. The longer your ride, the more important it becomes to get enough carbs per hour of cycling.

Timing: When to consume carbohydrates

The timing of carbohydrate consumption is critical for cycling performance. Ideally, you should consume carbohydrates before, during, and after your ride.

Before your ride: taking on carbs before you set out is a must. Your aim should be to fill the glycogen stores in your liver and muscles for the work that you are going to do. A carb-heavy breakfast such as Cream of Rice is a good idea ahead of a few hours on the bike to pre-load carbs.

Consume carbs 1-2 hours before your ride. This will give your body enough time to digest. You may have also heard of carb loading, this is often done ahead of a big ride or event and involves increasing the glycogen stored in your body above its normal amount. This typically means several days of eating more carbs than usual while also decreasing exercise to reduce the amount of carbs you are using.

Simple or complex carbs, what’s the difference?

The more complex the carbohydrate, the longer it takes to be digested and absorbed.

Carb-containing foods can be viewed by their position on the glycaemic index (GI). This is a rating that gives a score according to its effect on the body’s glucose levels as it’s digested over a two-hour time span. 

The higher the GI, (over 70) the simpler the carb and the quicker blood glucose levels rises. Carbs that break down slowly and have a lower GI (less than 55) are complex carbs and drip-feed glucose more gradually into the bloodstream.

Complex carbs like whole grains and beans take a couple of hours, while simple carbs like potatoes take an hour.  Fruit and vegetable absorption times are mostly dependent on fibre content. More fibre means longer times, but usually, these take 20-40 minutes. 

How to take on carbs when riding

After about an hour of riding, glycogen stores in your muscles will be depleted so you need to keep these topped up to ensure a steady supply of energy. Simple carbs are best here as they are quickly absorbed. The amount of carbs varies depending on the intensity of riding but aim for 30-60 grams of carbs per hour. 

Wondering how to take on carbs? We’ve got you covered. Our Endurance range is formulated with products designed to keep you fuelled, energised and hydrated throughout your ride. 

As discussed, taking on carbs should be a priority, it’s easy too! Our award-winning carb electrolyte drink delivers a steady supply of fast-absorbing carbs and electrolytes designed specifically for on-the-bike refuelling. Alternatively, our isotonic energy gels deliver 23g of carbs per gel, they taste great and are available non-caffeinated or with caffeine for that extra energy hit. Both products can be together or on their own, whichever works best for you.

Carbs for post-exercise recovery 

Most cyclists and athletes know that protein is extremely important for recovery, but carbohydrates play an equally important role.

Your body has a single-minded goal after each ride or workout and that is to replace glycogen storage. Consuming carbs as part of your recovery increases plasma glucose and insulin concentration and makes it possible for the body to resynthesize glycogen at a higher rate. This is in addition to what protein is doing for the muscles.

Aim to start consuming carbs within 30 minutes of finishing your ride. 

It’s not always possible to have a carb and protein-rich meal ready for you after a ride and the temptation is often to grab some junk food to satisfy your body’s carvings.

For optimum recovery, resist those cravings and give our ENDURANCE Post Exercise Recovery Shake a try. Formulated as a complete recovery product, it contains the perfect balance of 21g of plant-based protein, 24g of fast-absorbing carbohydrates and a crucial 1500mg of rehydrating electrolytes. 

The ENDURANCE Recovery Shake is at the forefront of the latest recovery products and designed to be the most convenient, best-tasting and most effective recovery option for you post-ride.

Now you know why carbs are essential!

Remember, start taking on carbs after about an hour and top up regularly, focusing on timing and quantity. After your ride, aim to take on more carbs along with protein and electrolytes within 30 mins so you’re ready to get back on the bike in no time.

See you on the road or the trails!



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