Cycling is a demanding sport that requires immense physical strength, endurance, and stamina. To keep up with the rigorous training and competition, many cyclists turn to dietary supplements to enhance performance and accelerate recovery.
But with the sheer number of supplements on the market, it can be overwhelming trying to determine which ones are really worth taking. This definitive guide examines the top science-backed supplements that can take your cycling to the next level.
An Overview of Supplements for Cyclists
Supplements popular with cyclists generally fall into two main categories:
- Performance supplements: Taken before or during cycling, these supplements aim to improve speed, power output, endurance, and other athletic performance metrics.
- Recovery supplements: After cycling, these supplements help rebuild damaged muscle tissue, restore energy, reduce inflammation, and relieve muscle soreness.
Additionally, some supplements like protein powder can support both performance and recovery goals.
While a balanced diet should provide most of the vitamins, minerals, and nutrients needed for optimal health and performance, certain supplements can help fill nutritional gaps that are hard to meet through food alone. They can also provide higher concentrations or more absorbable forms of key nutrients.
However, the benefits of any supplement depend enormously on the individual. Factors like your cycling discipline, training volume, fitness level, diet quality, and potential nutritional deficiencies will impact whether a supplement is likely to improve your performance or recovery.
Always consult a doctor before trying any new supplement, especially if taken in high doses or long-term. While normally safe for healthy adults when used correctly, supplements can interact with medications or exacerbate some health conditions.
Now let’s explore some of the top-rated supplements for cyclists and the science backing their use.
Best Supplements to Enhance Cycling Performance
These supplements mainly work by either providing quick energy, increasing blood flow, or reducing lactic acid buildup. This enables you to cycle at higher intensities for longer periods of time before reaching exhaustion.
Caffeine is a staple in many cyclists’ pre-race routines and for good reason—multiple studies confirm caffeine significantly improves cycling performance.
Research shows that consuming 3-6 mg/kg of caffeine (e.g. 200-400 mg for a 150 lb cyclist) about 60 minutes before a race can boost speed, endurance, and power output by 4-7% compared to placebo.
Caffeine reduces the perception of effort and muscle pain during intense exercise. It stimulates the central nervous system and releases fatty acids to spare glycogen use, enabling you to ride harder for longer.
While caffeine pills are an option, many cyclists get their pre-race caffeine fix from coffee, energy gels and drinks which allow precise dosing. To maximize caffeine’s performance benefits, limit intake in the days leading up to a race and completely abstain about 7 days prior to reset tolerance.
Drinking beetroot juice 2-3 hours before racing is popular among competitive cyclists. Beets are rich in nitrates that boost nitric oxide levels and increase blood flow to working muscles.
Studies demonstrate cyclists who drank beetroot juice for a week improved their 10-mile time trial performance by 2.7% compared to placebo. Gains were attributed to increased power output, oxygen use efficiency, and time to exhaustion.
Beetroot juice or supplements containing about 300mg of nitrates taken at least 2 hours pre-race seem most effective. While safe for most people, high doses may cause beeturia (pink urine). Start with half the recommended amount to assess tolerance.
In numerous studies, beta-alanine is an amino acid shown to increase cycling sprint power and time trial performance. It reduces lactic acid buildup in muscles, increasing aerobic capacity and delaying fatigue.
Cyclists supplementing with ~3-6g of beta-alanine daily for 4+ weeks improved their high-intensity cycling capacity by 11-17% more than placebo groups. Performance gains were most significant for short, explosive efforts under 10 minutes.
Note that beta-alanine often causes temporary tingling when supplementing. Space your daily dose into smaller servings or use time-released capsules to minimize side effects.
Sodium bicarbonate (baking soda) acts as a buffer against the drop in pH caused by lactic acid accumulation in muscles during intense cycling. This can improve performance in short-time trials and sprints.
Studies find cyclists performed significantly better in a 4-minute maximal cycling test when they were supplemented with 0.3 g/kg of sodium bicarbonate 1-2 hours prior compared to placebo.
However, amounts over 0.3 g/kg often cause GI issues. Start with a low dose and slowly increase over several weeks to assess your individual tolerance. Only supplement before key events as high sodium intake is unhealthy for a long time.
Sodium phosphate is suggested to enhance oxygen delivery and uptake in working muscles. It also helps clear lactic acid buildup, benefiting cyclists in short and long races.
Research demonstrates that trained cyclists improved their average power output by 3% during a 40 km time trial after supplementing with 4g/day of sodium phosphate for 3 days leading up to the event.
To minimize GI distress, take sodium phosphate in divided doses with meals starting three days out from your event. Cease use if abnormal cramping, nausea, or diarrhea occurs. Further research is still needed on its long-term safety.
While creatine is more associated with weight lifting, some research indicates it may also benefit sprint cycling performance.
In one study, cyclists supplementing with 20g/day of creatine for 5 days, followed by 2g/day, were able to complete more high-intensity sprint intervals before exhaustion compared to placebo groups.
By increasing workout capacity, creatine supplementation during intense training periods could boost fitness. However, weigh the benefits vs potential weight gain from water retention, which could impair climbing ability.
Best Supplements for Cycling Recovery
Properly refueling and restoring muscle tissues after training sessions and endurance races helps you recover faster, adapt better, and prevent overtraining and burnout. Here are some of the top science-backed supplements to support cycling recovery:
Whey protein has consistently enhanced exercise recovery and reduced muscle damage better than carbohydrate consumption alone.
Studies demonstrate cyclists who supplemented with 20-25g whey protein isolate immediately after cycling could maintain higher power output and experience less soreness in their next hard training session vs. placebo groups.
Look for high-quality isolates over concentrates with higher protein content, less carbs/fat/lactose, and quicker digestion to accelerate muscle repair and growth after rides.
Tart Cherry Juice
Tart cherry juice contains antioxidants and anti-inflammatory compounds that can aid cycling recovery.
In one study, long-distance cyclists drinking tart cherry juice twice daily for seven days before a race showed significantly less inflammation and muscle damage afterward compared to placebo groups.
Other research found tart cherry juice doubled strength recovery following intense exercise vs. no supplementation. Try 8-12 oz or 1-2 tbsp concentrate twice daily surrounding cycling events.
Curcumin, found in the spice turmeric, also has potent anti-inflammatory and antioxidant benefits that may enhance cycling recovery.
A study of cyclists taking 1.5g curcumin and 15g whey protein for 2 weeks following a hard interval workout showed lower markers of muscle damage and post-exercise soreness compared to placebo.
Look for supplements containing enhanced bioavailable forms of curcumin, like Meriva. Take 500-1500mg in divided doses with food to increase absorption.
The omega-3 fatty acids EPA and DHA found in fish oil supplements help relieve exercise-induced inflammation and soreness.
In a study of elite cyclists taking 2700mg omega-3s daily during training, blood markers of inflammation and muscle damage were 20-30% lower after strenuous rides compared to placebo groups.
Aim for 1000-3000mg EPA/DHA total from fish oil capsules for recovery. If you can tolerate high doses, distribute your daily intake with food to minimize fishy burps.
The amino acid L-glutamine helps replenish immune cells and protein supplies tapped during intense cycling to reduce muscle breakdown and strengthen immunity.
One study administered cyclists 0.9g/kg L-glutamine post-ride. The next day, their time to exhaustion improved by ~9% vs. placebo, indicating faster recovery.
Doses of 0.25-0.9g/kg appear beneficial but start low and increase slowly. Look for micronized glutamine, which is more soluble and absorbable.
Should You Take Supplements?
While select supplements can enhance athletic performance and recovery, they should never replace a solid training plan and dialed-in nutrition program.
Prioritize getting all the macro- and micro-nutrients your body needs from a balanced whole-food diet based on your needs and goals. Focus on optimizing your carb intake, protein timing, and hydration around workouts first and foremost.
Only then consider supplements to address any specific nutritional deficiencies or weak spots holding you back. The best approach is having bloodwork done and/or working with a sports dietitian or nutritionist to select supplements tailored to your unique physiology, training demands, and cycling discipline.
With sound training and nutrition principles in place, strategic, scientifically validated supplementation can provide that extra competitive edge to elevate your cycling to the next level.