Words: Zoe Wilson

Photos: Denzil Heeger, Robert Conroy

We all get crunched for time, and fast food can be a simple option for a fuel stop on the run. Fast food restaurants offer a quick, cheap, and filling meal. However, they can be high in calories, fat, salt, and sugar and low in vitamins, minerals, and fibre. Learning how to navigate the fast food joint is a key skill to filling your belly on the run while still fueling your body for good performance.


Basic Rules for Fast Food Restaurants

Use these basic rules of thumb to make the best choices you can when you’re ordering fast food. You’ll fuel your legs properly, reduce adding any extra kilos and get the best performance you can out on the bike. 


  • Stick with the familiar. Wherever possible, try to stick as closely as you can to foods you know and regularly ride on. Familiar foods are your friend! If you usually have a chicken and salad sandwich for lunch, choose a grilled chicken wrap or burger at a burger place. Usually have a meat and veg meal? Go for a veggie-packed pizza and side salad. The more familiar the food, the better you’ll feel on the bike and the less likely you’ll run into fueling or gut trouble.  


  • Don’t supersize! Supersizing means more high-fat food and extra calories! Don’t get sucked into the trap of ordering food you don’t want or need, even if it seems like a bargain. If you’re with someone else, let them supersize and share the fries.


  • Order things "your way". Ask for salad dressing on the side, extra veggies and bread, or hold the sauce. This will lower your fat intake, make it closer to what you eat at home, and guarantee the freshness of your meal as it will have to be made on the spot to order. 


  • Go for carbs. Carbohydrates are an athlete’s best friend. Carbs fuel the body for training and racing. So, choose meals that are based on carbohydrates like pasta, rice, potatoes or bread (ideally about a third to half your meal). Good choices at a fast food joint are pizza or a burger. You could even add a side of potato or rice depending on where you are and what your options are.  


  • Reduce the cream and oil. Fat slows digestion of a meal and the absorption of carbohydrate. Opt for meals that are lower in fat to help with digestion, refuel effectively after a session and avoid any gut trouble the next day. To do this, choose tomato-based sauces (rather than creamy), and meals with only small amounts of cheese, butter, or oil. Deep fried options are always high in fat, so if you can, opt for a grilled version.  


  • Think about colour. Vegetables add lots of colour to meals, but they also add vitamins, minerals, and fibre. So, try to order meals that have veggies or salad. Ask for extra lettuce and tomato on your burger, add extra veggies to your pizza or order a side salad to go with your meal. 


  • Replenish electrolytes. If on a multi-day ride, or riding in hot conditions, choosing foods with a bit of salt will help to replenish any electrolytes lost through sweat. However, most fast food options will be much higher in salt than home cooked meals so there is no need to add extra salt to your meal. 


  • Hydration is king! Always make sure you are well hydrated during the day. Sip regularly on water. If you know you need a bit more carbohydrate to top up your fuel stores after a big ride, fruit juice or even soft drink can be a good option for refueling carbohydrate stores when ordering at a fast food joint. Other good options are flavoured mineral water, soda water or a reduced fat milk shake or smoothie. 


  • It’s all about balance. Finally, remember life is all about balance. These tips work if you are eating at a fast food joint before a race or are frequenting these restaurants often. But, if you’re only eating these foods occasionally or as a post-race travel treat, then order what you want and enjoy it! A once-in-a-while not-so-great meal is not going to blow the performance budget. 


Better picks:

  • Thick crust pizza with tomato-based sauce and extra veggies. You’ll refuel carbohydrate stores due to the crust. Just ask them to go easy on the cheese and avoid fatty meats like salami to keep the calories and fat in check and your stomach feeling good for the next session. 
  • Sandwiches, wraps or burgers with extra tomatoes or lettuce and grilled rather than fried meat options. Ask for less sauce if possible to minimize the fat, and if you’re in the mood for fries, go for a small rather than large portion. 
  • Charcoal chicken or grilled chicken from the local chicken shop can be a great option. Make a balanced meal by choosing a couple of salads to go with – one that is high in carbohydrates like a pasta or potato salad and one full of veg like garden or Greek salad. 
  • Kebabs, souvlaki or pitas are one of the better takeaway choices, just choose the plainer options and avoid lashings of creamy dressings.
  • Pancakes or egg rolls can make a great breakfast option high in carbohydrates. Just limit the bacon or sausage in the roll and throw in some fruit for good measure.