Keep in mind that good training can only get you so far, and that good nutrition, good sleep, maintaining a generally low-stress lifestyle, and keeping a good balance in your life are all key contributing factors to achieving your athletic potential. If you train well, but don’t eat healthily, don’t sleep regular hours or sleep enough, or have a lot of extra physical or mental stress outside of your workouts, each of those things can hurt your development.
So, with regards to diet, it should be our top priority to just consume a healthy, well-rounded diet with lots of fruits and vegetables, unrefined whole grains, and healthy fats and proteins. Consuming largely whole, natural foods will help provide a good cross section of macronutrients, vitamins, minerals, and phytochemicals to keep you generally healthy and strong. Beyond that, what workouts you’re doing should have a lot of influence over the specifics of what and when you eat certain things…
For any hard workout, it’s essential to start your it well-fueled. This doesn’t start with the meal before the workout, it starts with the first hour after your previous workout. As soon as you finish an especially hard or long workout, you should drink and eat enough to kick-start your recovery. In any given week, the largest meals you eat should fall immediately after your hardest workouts. Often the food eaten in the 60-90 minutes after a 4-6 hour ride or race should be upwards of 1000 calories (maybe less if you’re a smaller person). You should eat primarily carbohydrate with some protein and fat, and a proportional amount of water to the calories you consume and the level of water loss and general exertion you have reached. After an easy workout, you should have a more moderate meal with some fluids, but often just 500-800 calories should be fine after a 2-3 hour endurance ride.
There’s really no such thing as a perfect recovery food, but there are a number that are better than others. I would suggest some combinations of the following (among other things):
After a 5-6 hour ride with some hard efforts, I’ll often eat and drink up to 1000-1200 calories within the first 60-90 minutes after finishing. [I weigh about 165 pounds and can use up to 4000-4500 calories on an average long-hard day on the bike, so adjust accordingly.] As an example, I might have a few hundred calories of drink mix, a few pieces of fruit, and some sugary kid-cereal with yogurt. Or, I’ll often have a fruit, chocolate and yogurt smoothie with cereal or cookies. Or, even just yogurt, milk or chocolate milk with a large portion of cereal can be good… Just be sure to have lots of carbohydrates and fluids with a little protein and however much fat happens to be in the foods you like, as long as the foods have generally lower than average fat content (say, less than 25% by calories). The rest of the time, it’s going to be fine to consume more fat than that, but immediately before or after a workout, it will slow the absorption of the food you’ve eaten and that’s a time when you want to digest things quickly and easily.
After that first recovery meal, you will have made your biggest stride towards being well recovered for your next workout. Good job!
If you don’t eat for an hour after your workout, or you just have a banana, or finish your last energy bar from your ride and have some coffee, you’ll leave yourself in a big calorie deficit, setting you back before your next workout. If you eat well after a workout, then you’ll have a lot of carbohydrate available to refill your glycogen stores, some protein to build up new enzymes and repair any damaged tissues, and an insulin spike from eating a larger than average portion of food to help have those processes happen as fast as possible. If you skip a meal or have a small meal, then you’ll be way behind on calories, you’ll fail to replenish lost glycogen stores, and will help send your body into a more conservative hormonal state where your body does its best to lower your metabolism, stop building protein, breaking them down instead, and to store as much fat as possible, because clearly you’ll need it since you’re starving, right?!… Well, even though you aren’t starving, your body will think that it is and act accordingly.
After a good post ride meal, the rest of the time you can usually just eat more or less like a normal person should eat. Plenty of fruits, vegetables, maybe some meat or fish, some healthy fats, etc.. Don’t ever let yourself subsist on bread, rice, cold cereal and soda. Highly processed foods that are all carbohydrate may provide some of the short-term energy you need, but will leave you basically undernourished, and will harm your long term progress. In the long run, I think the only place for foods like that are in the immediate aftermath of a hard workout to provide quick calorie replenishment. The rest of the time, you should aim for real foods that will provide balanced nutrition.
If you did everything right after your hard workout, and you have a generally healthy diet, then the meal before your workout is much less important. You should just aim to have a balanced meal that will tide you over and not fill you up too much, so that at the time of your workout, you aren’t still full, digesting food, and diverting bloodflow to your stomach instead of your working muscles.
If eating an hour or so before your ride, maybe 300-600 calories with a mix of carbohydrate, protein and fat, but not too much protein and fat, because they take longer to digest. If eating 2 hours or more before your workout, a more average sized meal of maybe 600-1000 calories would be good, with the possible addition of a small snack in the last hour before the workout.
During the ride, what you eat and drink it will depend on how long and how hard you’re riding as well as how hot it is. If you’re doing an easy 2-3 hours, then probably a just bottle of water or mix and a bar will likely be just fine. Maybe a couple of bottles of mix or a couple of bars if you’re doing a handful of short efforts.
If you’re going to do a 4-plus hour ride with a lot of intensity, then you should usually aim to consume as many calories as you can comfortably digest. For most people, that will be about 200-350 calories per hour. For someone like me, a 165 pound guy, I may average 800-900 kj of work per hour and will try to consume 200-300 calories per hour (the upper end of that scale being for the longer 5-plus hour days with lots of intensity). Focusing on easy to absorb foods that are mostly carbohydrate is best.
Drink mixes are generally perfect because they provide calories, electrolytes and fluid. Cookies, fig bars, bananas, rice balls, PB&J sandwiches, energy bars, gels and the like are all good foods, and taken with fluid can work really well. I would tend to avoid fatty foods, so even PB&J is pushing it for me, because it takes longer to digest things with fat, protein and fiber than those without. Also, it’s good to make sure if it’s hot out, to consume enough salt with your fluids to maintain electrolyte and water balance. Drink mixes make that easy, but a lot of snacks (other than gels) don’t have much in the way of electrolytes, so maybe picking things with a bit of salt is a good choice when it’s warm (pop-tarts and fig bars stand out in my mind as good choices of carbohydrate rich foods with moderate salt content).