No matter what type of rider you are, if you don’t support your body with a healthy, balanced diet, you’re going to run into some problems. Energy levels tank, immune systems become weak, thinking gets foggy and hills seem to get longer rather than shorter.
If you’ve read the previous articles in this series you’ll know I’m trying to build as much form as I can between now and L’Etape Australia. If I can eat my way to the start line, I’m all for it.
This week I got in contact with Rebecca Hay, a sports dietitian and performance specialist who co-founded The Athlete’s Kitchen. Hay is not only a strong cyclist, but she is one of those people who makes any bunch ride a better one just for turning up. She’s also one of those people who gives smart, practical advice that’s easy to incorporate into what we’re already doing, as you’ll see below.
Finding out more about some of the specific demands cycling places on our nutrition needs is an obvious next step in investigating the different ways we can support our fitness off the bike and get the most out of time on the bike.
On-bike nutrition is a topic I'll cover later in this series. The focus of this interview is on strategies for eating well off the bike, which is just as important.
What are some of the demands that lots of riding places on cyclists' nutrition needs compared to the average non-rider?
Increased energy and fluid needs are probably the two biggest areas for focus. I encourage cyclists to eat more on days they are riding and less on the days they are not. I also encourage them to make sure they drink water with their recovery meal to rehydrate, not just a coffee!
Since most riders get out in the morning for training, breakfast is the meal that will vary most. On training days the meal after riding should contain foods that are rich in protein for muscle repair and appetite satisfaction, like milk, yoghurt, egg, cheese, nuts or seeds. And foods that are rich in carbohydrates to refill muscles with energy, like milk, yoghurt, multigrain bread, oats, wholegrain cereal, grains and fruit.
What are some of the common mistakes cyclists make regarding their off-the-bike diet?
The biggest mistake is not eating enough carbohydrate-rich foods after training or soon enough after training. This usually results in overcompensating mid-afternoon when they are absolutely starving or falling asleep at their desk. The restriction of carbohydrate foods, in particular, comes from the fear that they will gain weight or will not decrease weight.
Not drinking enough water during the day is another common mistake, meaning they are dehydrated when the hop on their bike.
What are some of the long-term consequences of these mistakes regarding training or racing?
Not eating enough after training makes you really hungry in the afternoon! And the best food choices are never made when you are starving.
Not eating enough after training day after day can lead to high levels of fatigue as the training week goes on.
With regards to training, a cyclist may find they can ride OK at the endurance level but as soon as the tempo increases or they need to sprint, they don’t have the energy stores in their muscles to fuel this intense type of activity and they get dropped. In a racing situation, this is not what you are after.
Long term, not meeting energy needs can also have an impact on how they respond to training or how they adapt to training, as well as making their immune system less effective.
Can you suggest some simple ways of fixing this?
Not restricting food intake around training. Being a bit more focused on how to eat around different training sessions, for example; eating/drinking before a high-intensity session or training in a fasted state for a low-intensity session.
Do not skimp on meals after riding. If you can’t eat make sure you drink something that is a good source of carbohydrate and protein. My ‘go to’ would be a milk based drink. There are other options like soy milk for those that don’t do milk.
I’ve been experimenting lately with a strategy I like to call “de-cheesing.” This essentially involves trying not to eat cheese as the main ingredient in every meal and snack, in the spirit of incorporating more variety into my diet. So far all it’s done is alert me to how much cheese I eat. Do you think this strategy has any merit?
Yes actually! Looking at a variety of protein sources is a good idea. While cheese is very tasty and a good source of protein it is also very energy dense. A variety of protein-rich foods can be substituted for cheese. These include nuts, seeds, lean meat, fish, chicken, turkey, tofu and legumes.
Can you suggest some yummy and convenient between-meal snacks that every cyclist should have in their kitchen?
Fresh fruit is the number one easiest snack. Canned fruit is also an option.
Making your own “raw energy” balls is easy too – no cooking – just using a variety of dried fruits, dates, oats, seeds, nuts and legumes. These take 10 minutes to make in a food processor and roll. My favourite recipe uses chickpeas.
Still on chickpeas, hummus and crackers or veggie sticks are good as a snack. So is yoghurt with nuts or seeds and fruit.
As I thought through Hay’s responses and advice, I found myself surprised at how many habits I’ve developed over the years that may be supporting my riding a lot more, or a lot less, than I expected.
If you change something in your own off-bike diet in response to the advice above, what would it be?
L'Etape Australia takes place in the Snowy Mountains on December 2, 2017. Entries close on October 23. Find out more here.