Cycling Central talked turkey and chewed the fat with Lim about the realities of eating as a cyclist and came away with some surprisingly refreshing bites of advice.
Steve Thomas: Diet theories and approaches seem to of changed dramatically in recent times; what's your overall philosophy on food?
Allen Lim: What I have seen with riders is that there has been a big return towards the "slow food" movement, and here I do strongly emphasise the made from scratch approach. As long as the food you are eating is fresh, comes with its own package and is a recognisable whole food then it's probably ok. There was a time where people focussed on how much protein was needed, and also a time when we went towards pre-packaged foods. Now it has gone back to more natural food.
There are still a lot of riders focussing on pasta and high carbs, but also a lot more riders now take much more care of what they eat, and are a lot more sensitive to what makes them feel good and are sure to eat that. Some may see this as hedonism, but hedonism works pretty well for athletes who are really in tune with themselves.
For example, some riders may lose small amounts of sodium when they sweat, others maybe lose 4-5 times more, so they will naturally crave more salt and need to replace that. Then you may get a team director who has a belief system based on salt intake limits then they may well limit and inhibit the rider who needs more salt, and that goes for all dietary issues. I think hedonism is good in this respect and should be individual to riders, both mentally and physically.
ST: Carbo-loading seems to have fallen by the roadside, is it still relevant?
AL: Its really just about terminology. If you look at the average carbo intake during the Tour de France now compared to when carbo-loading was huge, well - it might actually be the same, we don't really know that. Because it was deemed as "faddish" we turned away from carbo-loading, but it did actually work. I think it's important to remove terminology from around what riders are actually doing.
ST: How important is comfort eating, especially during hard training or a stage sportive event?
AL: It's everything, really important. Even with top athletes, they are not robots; they are human beings. Performance at a high level has to come from happiness and joy. There is often a misconception that in order to be happy you must be successful, but in reality, it's the opposite - you need to be happy to be successful in sport and life.
Many of the athletes I've worked with recognise this - in the past people thought that the sun revolved around the earth, but it was the opposite. With this in mind, nutrition in sport all depends on your goals. If you want to win the Tour de France you may need a very different diet to your friends and family, which impacts on those important human relationships and on the way that food brings us all around a table. This effect may actually be more important than the food we eat. Social feel may well be even more important than chemical feel.
ST: Many of us may carry a few extra pounds around the short line - should we be obsessed with this if we want to improve in sportive and local events?
AL: I'm not one to advocate broad policies. There is definitely a strict discipline requirement at top-level sport, not just in diet but also in training and everything else, and they may need that to achieve their goals.
Sometimes you're all in, others you're not - one rider may not even worry about food, to another it may be all-important, and restricting it may have negative fall out. It's so individual and variable, dependent on the person.
ST: For a regular rider, with a job and home commitments, who wants to survive a week-long Haute Route style event diet is often something they focus on. What would be your general nutritional advice?
AL: I often see riders in these kinds of events, and it's all very extreme to them, and they tend to do everything else to extremes and not relax. This often means overeating and often eating way too many of the wrong things.
Using too many gels and products marketed as performance-enhancing when they don't need them is an issue, and even more important is that they often use these products for the first time during an event.
People end up getting stressed out and end up going to the bike shop and buying everything they can. Do not use products that you have not tried before. Have a plan coming into the event and keep things simple. Don't get stressed out about where you are and what you're doing.
The human body is great at taking care of its self and telling you what it needs. You may head out on a 100-mile training rider and not even worry about having enough food and water and still perform very well because you're not stressed out about it all. Relax and you will be fine.
If you're thirsty drink. If you're not, then don't - you may end up over drinking. You may find yourself craving salt more than normal, or getting hungry; appease these cravings, your body is telling you what it needs.
If something feels good to eat then eat it. You may want pizza and think that you can't have it because you're supposed to be performing at a high level - it's not actually true. In the last Tour de France I did after 17 of the 21 stages I cooked up chicken fried rice for the riders, and the rest of the time they had pizza.
People might think that they are not allowed to eat this in events like the Haute Route, but it's okay. They may actually perform better by eating something they actually want rather than sticking to a dogma where they think that you have to eat and do certain things. I often read people writing that you should eat this and that - but your body knows what it needs and so let it have what it needs and wants.
You should try to be consistent with your eating, and when you eat. When you get tired it's easy to slip. It is very important to eat a good breakfast (if you have time), be consistent with eating on the bike, to eat something as soon as you finish (very important for recovery) and also to eat at night. In training, you may have gone to bed a little hungry in order to lose weight - but you do not want to do that in an event like this.
ST: Breakfast is something many of us skimp on, what are the essentials on this and when to eat in general?
AL: It's a very individual thing. You need to do a lot of self-experimentation and find out what works for you - it can be misleading to give general advice.
A lot of riders I work with will keep breakfast very simple, often rice and eggs. If they are awake three hours before the start of a race they may eat more and have time to consume it. But, if it's really close to a race start then they may skip breakfast and just snack when they are on the bike, relying on what is already stored in the body.
We're starting to understand that nutrition and diet are highly individual and will depend on your own needs and goals for the day and that it can affect your moods and temperament on a daily basis.
This is why it's difficult to give general advice. People see others behaviour and think they need to do that, and often screw themselves up by doing so.
Unfortunately, a lot of the articles you read in sports magazines end up perpetuating a lot of negative behaviours, which is ironic because they're trying to come up with these sexy short sound bites in digestible ways. The best advice (from me) is if it feels and tastes good eat it.
ST: How about on the bike eating - natural treats versus high tech gels and potions?
AL: There is definitely a movement towards real food. Gels are fine for emergencies and so on, but real and good tasting treats are far more bearable, especially after a few days.
ST: Losing weight - what's the reality?
AL: First thing to recognise is that you probably will not lose more and a pound a week and keep it off. Timing can help - stack most of your calories in the first half of the day and then taper your eating down. Ultimately, it does all come down to calories in against calories out, even though various things affect your metabolic rate during the day.
Hunger is a good way to judge if you are in deficit. Going to bed a little hungry is a good cue. But at the end of the day, remember that you are a human being, do enjoy that and eat what you want, in moderation.