Everything you do is fuelled by carbohydrates, fats and proteins. As we all know, the energy produced is measured in calories and activity ‘burns’ these calories. If you ingest more calories than you burn, you gain weight and vice versa.
Carbohydrates are sugars which the body breaks down to provide the energy for intense movement (most exercise). Any sugar not immediately broken down is stored as glycogen in the liver and muscles or, once these liver and muscle stores are replete, as fat. Carbohydrates can be burnt quickly and contain 4 calories per gram. You’ll find them in pasta, bread, potatoes, fruit or anything sugary.
The pitfalls of too much fat are well documented, so we won’t go into much detail here. They can, however, be extremely useful for exercise. Fats contain 9 calories per gram and can be stored in an almost unlimited volume. They are harder to break down than carbohydrates, so your body only relies on them when exercising at lower intensities or when you have run out of carbohydrate.
Proteins make up most of your body (after water, of course)—muscle, bone, skin, hair and more. In sports, the primary use for protein is in repairing damaged muscles after training. When you train, your body breaks muscle tissue down so that it builds up more strongly when you recover (see our post on training). Eating protein after training allows your muscles to become bigger, stronger or more efficient depending on what you’ve done. Once you’ve eaten enough protein to repair any muscle damage, however, it is stored as fat.
Perhaps the most fundamental divide you’ll find in endurance sports nutrition is the high fat/low carb vs low fat/high carb (HFLC vs LFHC) debate. High carbohydrate intake for endurance sports has been traditional for the last 50 years or so, but the theory is currently under siege. Proponents of HFLC argue that we have not evolved to eat as much processed carbohydrate as Western diets provide, and that our wellbeing, moods, energy levels and ultimately performance are hamstrung by such diets. The debate can get surprisingly fierce. Vloggers worldwide take it to surprising extremes, from those who only eat eggs fried in butter to raw vegans putting away several kilos of fruit in a day. The good news, however, is that common sense and compromise still seems to be the best way forwards.
FUEL FOR WHAT YOU DO
On that note, the best thing you can possibly do for your body is to fuel specifically for your activity. No matter what the direction the fat/carb debate turns, it is unarguable that humans burn carbohydrate when exercising hard. The ‘danger’ in eating carbohydrates comes in from overloading when not exercising and so storing the sugar as fat.
As such, if you are doing exercise of any intensity (above mid-Zone 2—see the training post), eat carbohydrates; if you are sitting down all day, don’t. It’s not rocket science.
You can get a long way on feel and experience here. If you eat a big plate of pasta the night before a hard session and don’t blow up half way through, you’ve fuelled sufficiently for that session. It is possible to be more scientific, however. As a rule of thumb, a reasonably lean athlete can store up to 15g (60 calories) of carbohydrate per kilogram of body mass. If you work out roughly how much carbohydrate you can store and roughly how many calories you are burning in a session, you’ll get to know the point at which you need to start taking on carbs during exercise (see below).
A similar approach is true of protein. Cyclists and other endurance athletes can generally absorb 1.2 to 1.4g of protein per kilogram of body mass per session. Protein is too vital to recovery to skimp on, but you shouldn’t go overboard.
YOUR MUM WAS RIGHT
You should, indeed, eat your greens. For at least two meals per day, try and cover half of your plate in vegetables—beans, carrots, spinach, lettuce, broccoli, peas, corn, tomatoes, onions. Essentially, if it grows, it’s good. Vegetables help to improve digestion, your immune system and recovery time. They simply cannot be replaced.
The UK government’s well-known recommendation to have five portions of fruit or vegetable every day is a good guide on this. Fruit, however, is still mostly composed of sugars, so it’s best to try and limit them where possible and maximise on veggies. Two big portions of different vegetables with lunch and dinner should see you well on your way to good, healthy performance.
You cannot drink too much water. Well, you can technically, but if you’re in a position where consumption is becoming dangerous you’ve probably got bigger problems to be dealing with.
Water is vital for every function your body carries out—the body itself is famously 70% water—and exercise increases your need for water, mostly by sweating. It is important to drink when exercising to replace fluid lost, but you should also do so through the rest of the day. It is important to always have a glass or bottle of water to hand, sipping constantly.
On the bike, you should drink to thirst. Don’t wait until your parched, but do drink when you want to. Normal water is fine for most riding. In hotter climates or indoors, however, sweat loss is higher and you get more dehydrated. This is where isotonic drinks come into play. There are heaps of good isotonic mixes out there, but it’s easy to make your own; just mix one to two parts of fruit juice with water and add a pinch of salt. If you’re off for a ride where you think you’ll sweat a lot, take one isotonic bottle and one normal one.
ON THE BIKE
Hydration is key for all but the shortest of bike rides. For sessions of over two hours, you’ll generally need to consume some carbohydrates as well. Depending on how big or small you are, and how hard you’re going, you’ll need between 50 and 90g of carbohydrate per hour, although like everything else your best balance will take some trial and error to find.
There are a number of ways to get these carbs in. The sugar in an isotonic drink is perhaps the most convenient way to do so, but energy gels, bars and more solid, ‘real’ food also works. The latter is the cheapest way of keeping yourself fuelled, but some riders find it tricky to digest solids on the bike. Try things out and see what works for you.
SOME GENERAL TIPS AND HACKS
Putting these principles into practice isn’t actually that hard once you know what to do. Little changes to your routine can have a big effect.
The simplest way to good nutrition is to eat colourfully. It’s all very well counting calories, but unless you have the focus and motivation of Graham Obree, it’s hard to maintain day to day. Make sure you’ve got some good greens, reds, yellows, whites and browns on every plate and you’ll go far.
Smaller plates are another way of controlling your intake. The point at which you have eaten enough is normally lower than the point at which you feel full, and so eating less whilst remaining satisfied can be a challenge. If you still load your plate up after a training ride, but limit yourself to one serving, a smaller plate can be an excellent way to stop over-eating. Marginal, certainly, but margins add up.
You could also try eating your carbs early and protein late. Fuel up for the ride you are doing beforehand, then limit carbohydrate intake after exercise and focus on protein to repair muscle damage. Carbohydrates eaten earlier in the day are less likely to be stored as fat than those eaten in the evening.
Think ahead. Prepare your recovery food before you go out riding, or at least assemble the ingredients. This way, you’re less likely to reach for the nearest chocolate and fill up on poor calories.
A NOTE ON SUPPLEMENTS
Supplements are intended to fulfil your nutritional needs when your diet, routine or body makes doing so through normal means impossible. The hint is in the name—they supplement your diet. They can be extremely useful in delivering high quality nutrition as and when you need it, but are better not used instead of meal-based food.
Before taking any supplements, make sure you know exactly why you’re taking them, what you need and what’s in the supplement.
To summarise then, good nutrition needn’t be that hard. You probably already know the fundamentals and so it’s just a case of putting them into place. Three tips will see you through a great deal:
- Eat carbs when you need them
- Have a range of vegetables with every meal possible
- Drink a lot of water.
Eating well requires discipline and forward planning, but isn’t as complicated as it seems.