Is it OK to cycle on a full stomach?


If you are a bike commuter or a regular cyclist who’s trying to set up a new routine you may be wondering how to schedule your meal and training and if it’s OK to cycle shortly after eating. Here’s some helpful information I have found.

Is it OK to cycle on a full stomach?

Cycling after eating is OK if it means that you had a moderate meal and you ride at a comfortable pace. Vigorous cycling on a completely full stomach can lead to discomfort, bloatedness, vomiting and diarrhoea. If your goal is to lose or maintain weight, then riding on a full stomach in the morning will offset the potential gains. 30-40 minutes on an empty stomach (a.k.a fasted cardio) is really helpful.

How much food gives a boost of energy and how much is too much?

Some people can’t start the day without having something for breakfast and they feel like an early ride on an empty stomach is killing them. My wife used to faint regularly if she didn’t have anything to eat within an hour of waking up even if she didn’t exercise at all. If your body reacts the same way then it may be too dangerous for you to ride on an empty stomach, and you will need to give yourself a boost of energy before your morning commute. 

If you just want to give yourself a quick boost of energy you can eat something light before riding. A small banana, some cereal or granola, a granola bar or a small serving of porridge can give you enough energy to fuel you for your morning bike commute.

If you can’t eat before the ride but feel hungry 20 minutes into your 40 minute commute, then taking a granola or muesli bar may be the solution. If you need an instant boost of energy then a sports drink can do that. 

What to avoid eating before riding?

It’s more about the quantity of food that can cause problems rather than the type of food you eat. Having said that, it’s better to avoid eating foods that are difficult to digest. Fatty foods, such as cheese, sausages, bacon are best avoided before hopping on the bike.

How long after eating can I ride?

The simple answer is it depends. It depends on what you eat, how much you eat of it and how your body reacts to what you eat. 

A good rule of thumb is that you should wait 2 hours after eating a big meal or 1 hour after eating a moderate amount. You can ride immediately after a very light meal. If you’re a bike commuter and have a small breakfast, you’re ready to go. If you have a full English breakfast then you should wait an hour before riding. This could mean that you need to get up earlier.

What benefits could you be missing out on by riding on a full stomach?

It’s impossible to only ride and never eat, so here I’m referring to the missed benefits of bike commuting on an empty  stomach in the morning.

  • Better use of existing glycogen storage

Energy is stored in the form of glycogen, and it’s stored in the form of blood sugar (glucose), readily available to use immediately. It is also stored in the form of fat, which needs to be transformed into glucose before it can be used to fuel your muscles. The body is quite lazy and uses the energy stored in your blood sugar first. Since this level is very low in the morning, by riding on an empty stomach your body learns how to transform and use glycogen stored in fat.

  • Therefore, more efficient fat burning

After waking up your body has fasted for a number of hours. Your blood sugar and insulin levels are low. In this state your body needs to tap into body fat to release energy to keep you going. This is known as fasted cardio. When combined with a proper diet, this can be the most efficient way of burning unwanted calories and excess fat. To find out how many calories you can burn by bike commuting you can read this other article on Bike Commuter Hero.

  • Increased growth hormone production

The presence of insulin prevents the production of growth hormones. “But I’m an adult, I don’t need to grow any taller. What good are growth hormones to me?” Growth hormones are the hormones responsible for fat burning and muscle building. The more you produce the more efficiently your body will burn fat. By cycling on an empty stomach your body produces more growth hormones and therefore becomes a fat burning machine.

  • Shorter recovery period

Increased growth hormone production, better use of glycogen stored in the form of fat means that your body is becoming more efficient. Better efficiency in terms of energy handling results in shorter recovery times. 

Is it OK to ride on a completely empty stomach?

The short answer is yes. If you can hold off your breakfast until a little bit later in the day

This is how I have my eating schedule planned for the day

There is no cookie-cutter solution. One size doesn’t fit all, and nobody knows how your body reacts better than you, but here’s what’s worked for me, and could be a good starting point for you.

I work a regular schedule like most people and my commuting times are very predictable, so for me it’s been quite easy to systematize my meals. This way I can maintain my energy and concentration levels high throughout the day. I never feel either depleted or uncomfortably bloated during my rides. Since I follow the 16:8 intermittent fasting protocol in my diet and I have no craving for food in the morning, I can get on the bike and do a 10 mile commute without a problem.

6:00 am Wake up and ride to work on an empty stomach at a vigorous pace (I drink a glass of water before riding)

Some coffee in the morning but without any biscuits.

11:00am Breakfast (usually granola or porridge with a banana and another piece of fruit)

3:00pm Ride home

4:30pm Lunch (I know it sounds late for most people, but it’s totally doable once you’re used to it. This is a big meal for me)

7:00pm Dinner (this meal is quite light, mostly a salad with some protein such as some meat or tuna). 

As you can see the first ride is on an empty stomach, and the second ride is 4 hours after my first meal. I do admit that my breakfast is larger than a regular portion, but one needs to fuel the engine. I would probably not be able to cycle home at my regular pace immediately after my breakfast.

Here’s another Bike Commuter Hero’s riding-meal schedule

7:00am Wake up and a light breakfast (usually cereal or a pastry)

7:45am Ride to work at a moderate pace

12:30pm Lunch (normal portion)

4:00pm Ride home

6:30pm Dinner (some veggies, some bread and meat)

Can I combine bike commuting and intermittent fasting?

Absolutely. If you’re already doing intermittent fasting, you can ease into bike commuting. You can expect increased appetite, and it takes some getting used to, but it’s perfectly doable.

Conclusion

While riding after eating is not a big problem, even though it reduces potential gains, riding on a completely full stomach can lead to some undesired consequences. For bike commuters who are looking to lose weight is recommended to wait with the first meal at least until arriving at work. You can test yourself for a few days and see if you can stick with the plan. 

You can always carry a granola bar in your bag, just in case.

Happy Riding!

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