Fight fatigue with food – on and off cycling nutrition.

Words: Zoe Wilson APD

Pictures: TBS, Piper Albrecht

Most people feel tired at some point during the day. Possible causes include stress, lack of good quality sleep or lifestyle factors such as diet or exercise. Fatigue, however, is a very serious issue, especially for athletes who train hard and don't fuel themselves enough. So, if fatigue is having a negative impact on training or racing, it's time to increase nutrition to increase energy and performance.

Symptoms of fatigue

Tiredness is not just feeling a little drowsy after lunch or when it's time to go to bed. Related fatigue symptoms may include:

  • The resting heart rate is increased
  • Decreased heart rate
  • Sudden weight loss
  • Loss of food
  • Increased illness or injury
  • Loss of joy in training
  • Training feels harder than usual
  • Poor recovery
  • Sleep disturbances
  • Mood swings
  • Reduced performance

Look at it!

A smartwatch that tracks metrics like sleep volume, sleep quality, fitness and recovery can be a useful tool to help identify signs of fatigue. Monitor resting heart rate, heart rate variability and sleep duration and quality.

Common causes of fatigue in athletes

There are several reasons why fatigue may set in for athletes. Lack of sleep is an obvious one, but other reasons include overtraining without adequate recovery time, dietary factors, stress, and medical causes such as iron deficiency anemia or sleep apnea.

First, it's important to rule out any medical problems with a doctor, and to discuss your training load and race schedule with a certified exercise scientist or certified trainer. Assessing sleep habits and other lifestyle factors such as stress and making changes where possible to reduce the impact is also important. From a nutritional perspective, there are many factors that can contribute to fatigue and many are easily tricked into seeing improvements in fatigue levels:

Poor food choices

A busy lifestyle that includes spending hours on a bicycle each week can leave little time for grocery shopping and meal preparation. Relying on processed foods, lunches on the run, and living on coffee for energy? It's time to rethink. Insufficient grains, low-energy meat and milk, fruits and vegetables can lead to fatigue due to a lack of energy, protein, and vitamins and minerals such as iron or B vitamins to support training. Caffeine can also disrupt sleep patterns, exacerbating the problem.

Instead of relying on food you can grab on the go or order delivery, make shopping and eating a priority (even if you use a meal kit delivery service to prepare it for you!). Include a variety of foods each day (more colors mean more different nutrients) and keep good quality snacks on hand as an additional way to improve nutrition.

There is not enough power in the intake

If training increases but the amount of food consumed does not, the athlete may experience low energy availability, leaving insufficient energy to support good health and normal physical activity. Fatigue, unintended weight loss and missed periods in women can all be signs of not consuming enough energy to meet the demands of training.

Increasing the portion size and increasing the proportion of good quality protein and carbohydrates in the main meal will help increase the energy of the meal. Having energy-dense foods and drinks available before, during and after training, as well as snacks between meals, can also help meet extra energy needs and ensure there is enough left over for the body to perform at its best.

Not enough carbohydrates

Carbohydrate exercise and insufficient carbohydrate intake can lead to depletion of muscle glycogen stores. Low muscle glycogen leads to fatigue, lack of training energy, muscle loss and poor recovery.

To replenish muscle glycogen levels, make sure you eat carbohydrates regularly throughout the day during meals and snacks. Also consider targeting carbohydrate-rich foods during training (before, during and after) to complete sessions properly and get the most out of training.


Dehydration also has a negative impact on performance, reduces decision-making (not good when hitting the trails!) and increases fatigue. Prolonged dehydration can also lead to headaches, nausea and poor concentration. Focus on drinking fluids during warm weather and during peak sessions or long sessions as this is when fluid needs are greatest.

To check hydration status, check for loo-dark yellow urine? Increase fluid intake by drinking with all meals and snacks and during and after training sessions. A sports drink or electrolyte tablet can help—these are easily absorbed by the body and can make it easier to drink too much, too.

Finally, if you're not sure how much or what to eat, see a licensed Sports Dietitian for personalized advice.

Top nutritional strategies to get rid of fatigue

  • Shop weekly and prepare meals and snacks so meals are ready, reducing reliance on snacks.
  • Eat a variety of good quality, unprocessed foods each day. Include a variety of whole grains, protein foods like meat and milk, and fruits and vegetables.
  • Eat carbohydrates with each meal and snack. Wholegrain bread, rice, pasta, starchy vegetables and milk are all good choices.
  • Eat to support training. Find easy-to-digest options such as a banana, toast or cereal before training; sports drink, special sports food or rice cakes during a session for more than an hour; and a cereal, sandwich or smoothie after training.
  • Combine with iron-rich foods every day. Animal products such as meat, poultry and fish are the best sources, as well as green leafy vegetables. A doctor can help diagnose iron deficiency and recommend supplementation if necessary.
  • Adding a drink to every meal and snack will help with daily fluid needs.

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