Cycling is seen as one of the most demanding endurance sports there is and often riders will push themselves to the limits of exhaustion on a regular basis. However none of this is possible without the proper intake of fuel and by fuel, I don’t mean a clenbuterol tainted steak or self administered blood transfusion. In this post, we’re going to ignore the world of doping and illegal performance enhancing drugs and go back to basics and focus on food. An insufficient diet can not only affect your performance, but also your immune system which can be weakened, resulting in vital training time off the saddle through illness. You and your bike are also not only powered by the type of food you consume, but also when you consume it.
The advancements in physiology and science has come on leaps and bounds in the last 40 years, however up until the late 1960s, organisers of professional cycling races across Europe had some bewildering ideas about nutrition and hydration. One of the most puzzling was a restriction on riders’ water consumption in an attempt to keep the races tough. Although this may seem to be testing Robinson Crusoe style survival skills rather than riding performance, organisers strived to increase the difficulty of races to draw in bigger crowds. Even the riders had a baffling attitude towards water, believing that too much would bloat the stomach and lead to impaired performance often avoiding rehydrating on a regular basis.
Riders were much more likely to opt for wine or beer as the refreshment of choice on hot days of riding and even the odd bottle of champagne was deemed to be adequate hydration. Raids on cafes and restaurants during the race was often carried out by riders in search of vital refreshments. This was considered part of the race with owners and managers feeling honoured when riders took items (free of charge) from their establishments.
For some of us, the café stop during a weekend ride, or a couple of energy gels are the most thought we put into the nourishment needed for cycling. However for the competitive cyclist, food is just as important as the components on their bike. During some of the grand tours, cyclists will consume between 6500 and 7000 calories per day in order to keep going. Of course this may also be the figure consumed in the form of full fat lattes and carrot cake by some weekend warriors, but the fact is your diet can have a dramatic effect on your riding. Eating correctly before and after training sessions can have a positive effect on your performance. Whether it’s road racing, time trials, cyclocross, track or triathlons, eating the correct food can be the key to getting the most out of your rides. However, not all of us have a team nutritionist to specially choreograph a diet sufficient to complete a Grand Tour.
Ben Coomber, founder of BodyTypeNutrtion and a contributing writer to Men’s Health has a special interest in endurance sports and athletes’ dietary requirements. Ben took time out of his busy schedule to write for PBK and share his thoughts on how the time starved rider can effectively stay fit and healthy through the proper nourishment around training.
“In my line of work I see a dietary problem that stops many endurance based athletes from keeping their training cycles as high volume as they would like throughout the year. This looks at carbohydrate demand on a daily basis and around training times, and your overall immune health, of which is all interconnected with your carbohydrate source. Now getting the right kind and amount of carbohydrates on board for an endurance athlete is paramount. Especially during the race, and in and around the workout window. But to compete at a high level all the other elements have to be in place to allow such a high training load. This is where we look at recovery and the type of nutrients you are getting on board to repair and reload (supplements will also play a vital role here). So the typical endurance diet is usually between 420g-700g of carbohydrates (6-10g per kg of body weight based on a 70kg male), which are usually obtained from starch sources such as potatoes, pasta, bread and rice with ample fruit and juices included. Indeed they have their place but not to the magnitude that they are consumed. Starch sources should be heavily prevalent in the recovery phase of training, so post workout. These starches should not make up the bulk of most of your meals as this means other essential food sources are being left out, the sources that repair and support. This is where the immune system plays its role. Protein for repair, fats for hormone and cell nourishment and fruits and vegetables for everything else health related.
To support the immune system we need a high intake of (1) Raw vegetables, (2) fruits and (3) cooked vegetables, and it’s important they are placed in this order. Raw vegetables provide anti-oxidants, vitamins, minerals and many trace elements that support the immune system and nourish cellular function, especially at the muscle function level. That is why finding the balance of carbohydrate sources is essential to get the balance between immune support and glycogen recovery.
So lets use an example now. You train at 3pm for 2 hours. The meals leading up to the training bout need to nourish the body, not carbohydrate load the muscles (this should already have come from the previous recovery meals after your last training bout). Over consumption of carbohydrates is still an issue among endurance athletes, your body can only use so much, the rest will get stored as fat (not quite as prevalent at the elite level). So the meals leading up to training need to be raw vegetable dense where possible, moderately protein rich, with minimal heavy starch content. This ensures the body is always gaining high nutrient intake while maintaining a low blood glucose level leading up to training. I’ve witnessed many trainers rely on stimulants to make them alert for training because there pre workout meals were not adequate at stimulating enough physical and mental energy due to over reliance on quick release carbohydrates.
In general feeling up for training and energised can be a problem if too many carbohydrates are eaten (this is certainly not the case for everyone as we are all different, but certainly an issue at breakfast). So post workout is the crazy carb period. The 1st load of post workout calories are ideally a liquid meal to enhance the recovery process and ensure this is as quick as possible. Simple sugars, fruit and whey or vegetable protein (there are many other supplements that might be taken here, we shall stick to the basics). So for example this might be 25-40g of whey protein mixed with 50-80g of glucose/maltodextrin/vitargo along with 1-2 bananas.
The next meal, possibly your big evening meal (still working on a 3pm training time) is then the 2nd carbohydrate heavy meal (the liquid meal counting as the 1st). This might be your chicken (oily fish is ideal for anti-inflammatory response) and pasta dish with a vegetable based source, the meal where all the used glycogen will be replaced (fat requirement is less prevalent post workout as a general rule). These 2 carbohydrate based meals will be it, ideally not much more starch based meals. This will be sufficient for most as we now need to think again about overall nourishment of the body, something starches don’t provide. This will also help minimise overall physical stress on the body and hormones as stabilising cortisol and insulin throughout the day is very important.
So recovery is accounted for in terms of macro-nutrients, we also need to think about other recovery essentials. Now supplements are not the focus here, but I have to emphasis the use of plenty of omega 3 fish oils for their anti-inflammatory benefits, a broad spectrum anti-oxidant and a green super food. A green superfood such as Living Fuel (many great products available, but this one is mainly organic and has the most nutritional density on the market) will really help maintain a strong immune system along with all the essential nutrients for optimum performance and recovery such as pro-biotics, anti-oxidants and trace elements. A scoop of this a day in the morning or post training will serve your body well and negate the use of any other vitamin formulas.
So let’s conclude. Although the endurance athlete has a higher requirement for rich carbohydrate sources due to their training type and load, there is a balance that needs to occur between types of carbohydrates ingested to balance other bodily functions. The athlete that focuses on continual starchy carbohydrate intake will inhibit his/her recovery, hormonal health, immune function and ultimately limit their performance potential by not being able to maximise their training intensity and volume. Remember to balance raw fruits and vegetables against your potatoes and pasta and you will go a long way to increase your health, recovery and performance.”
Thanks to Ben for putting together this article exclusively for PBK. For more information on sport and nutrition visit BodyTypeNutrition. If you’re now inspired to put in a bit more serious training check out our range of supplements, indoor trainers and training books and DVDs.
As usual we value your thoughts and feelings on this article. What do you eat before/ during/after a ride? Heard any strange training myths that some people swear by? As always, feel free to let us know.