Healthy Eating Habits for Cyclists (and non-cyclists too actually)
We hear a lot about nutrition for sportsmen; the sports magazines are full of articles and associated adverts, but many of those ads are driven by a desire to sell product.
The approach doesn't need to be complicated, but understanding the need to change a few things certainly helps your incentive to do it. In this article we look at some of the reasons behind the advice if you want to avoid;
Premature fatigue during your rides
Major energy crashes after them
Early aging, so you can carry on riding into your 80s!
As a past amateur racing cyclist and now a natural health practitioner who specializes in nutritional profiling, I look back at my racing days knowing I didn't eat properly. And that's not just for the amount of exercise I did, but for a healthy life too. To put this into perspective, I grew up in a family of professional chefs and can say I never ate packet food, and yet still I didn't give my body all it needed.
The first thing to learn here is that there is a difference between GOOD food, and the RIGHT food, for you. This article is aimed primarily at cyclists over 50, because there are some key points in that age group which you should understand. Namely:
Proportions & Carbohydrates
The Right and Wrong time to eat
Nutrients & Supplementation
Water & Hydration
Portions. Above 50, testosterone levels naturally decline (including those in women), leading to less muscle bulk and therefore a reduced need for fuel. Portions should therefore be smaller as you age. Declining testosterone also means you don't heal as fast as you used to, so the importance of quality nutrition in older age is even more crucial. The important factor is to ensure the meals you do consume are packed full with nutrients. Don't eat until you're stuffed, eat just enough to satiate your hunger.
Carbohydrates & Proportions.
These paragraphs also explain why there is a Right and Wrong time to eat. Carbohydrates are sugars. They come in two forms; simple (alcohol, table sugar, fruit) or complex (potatoes, whole grains). Carbohydrates break down into a source of energy providing the same number of calories per gram as protein, but less than half the calories derived from fats/oils. Hence fats are such a good source of energy, particularly for cyclists because you need only consume a small quantity to give you long-lasting, steady energy, which is what most cyclists need. Despite carbs and protein providing equal calories, they don't produce the same result. The reason for this being the speed of digestion and their potential to raise blood sugar.
The more refined a carbohydrate becomes, the quicker it is digested and therefore the faster it raises blood sugar. If you haven't exercised, there is little demand for energy, so any rapid increase in blood sugar will be excess to requirement and met with a hormonal instruction to store it for later use. The hormone is insulin, and the store, much to the chagrin of the sedentary, is in the fat! Yes the carbohydrate is converted into a fat! Frustratingly everything you eat that is excess to requirement will be stored as fat. Yeah that sucks eh? On your blood test this fat is the Triglyceride figure. Triglyceride is stored fat, adipose, cellulite..... call it what you will, it's the same stuff. So we can appreciate how eating a pastry made from super refined flour, topped with lovely sweet cream and jam is going to cause a spike in blood sugar. This is followed by an equal spike in insulin to store all that sugar before you go into a coma! (That's what happens to severe diabetics who don't get their insulin jab in time). If you keep repeating this process, not only will your energy levels fluctuate wildly through the day, your body starts to develop insulin resistance; you are on the way to type ll diabetes. This whole process also represents a huge physiological stress on your body, because that sugar spike is life threatening. Stress is the single biggest suppressor of immunity, so one can reasonable argue that's not a sensible path in these days of covid.
Protein on the other hand is a lot harder to digest. Not only does it burn up more energy being digested, the slower digestion keeps the blood sugar rise steady and controllable. Same calories, different outcome.
Some cyclists believe it's good to eat healthy grains like porridge oats before a ride. But look at the physiology of this belief. Whilst oats themselves are a good source of protein, fibre and minerals they also contain a lot of carbohydrate. Do you need all that sugar in your bloodstream before you have started exercising, followed by a 100% guarantee of energy drop within one-two hours (post-digestion)? Of course not. You can easily do a two hour ride without eating anything, burning energy from your reserves. In the first hour that energy comes from glucose already in your blood. After about an hour it comes from fat reserves. Hence long-distance athletes are so slim, and those who jog round the park for 30 mins stay fat. Replenish the reserves AFTER exercise when your body needs it, instead of stressing it before you have even started. And if you want a little sustenance after two hours riding, have a banana.
If you want to eat before a ride:
Try and eat at least two hours before you ride
Consume slowly digested foods like protein, vegetables and fats/oils, but NOT carbohydrates. (see the breakfast examples below)
You can consume carbs, i.e. banana or dried figs or even a cake, while riding or directly afterwards, but not before.
As you age the proportion of carbohydrates in your meals should be reduced anyway. Generally your meals should become protein rich. So despite relatively recent trends, muesli, coffee and toast for breakfast you can see is a bad start to the day. A sardine salad with avocado, nuts, seeds and good quality flax and olive oil is a much better energy rich fuel, to power you through a four hour ride. The same goes for all other meals in fact, even on non-cycling days. No exercise, means minimum or no carbs, (unless you're intentionally trying to get fatter!)
If you want to learn more about this huge topic, as a rough guide for cyclists of advancing years, you should look towards the dietary principles of bodybuilders. You cannot eat like a bodybuilder, but you can take away the key ideas. These are much as described above.
Nutrients & Supplementation. For once researchers agree, that the quality of our food has declined since intensive farming practices became the norm. We must accept this and find ways to ensure we get a full complement of nutrients daily. Unless you grow all your own produce/livestock on your own naturally fertilized land, I guarantee you will be deficient in at least one essential nutrient. Even if you do grow your own, local soil variations will likely produce specific deficiencies anyway. Realistically these days if you want to stay healthy, you need to supplement. There's a guide indicating the most common deficiencies at the end of this article. In no way is this a list of all deficiencies nor does it account for individuality.
Unfortunately not all nutritional supplements are created equal. Regarding choice of manufacturer, let's say you are zinc deficient. Zinc is a mineral and in nature will be bound to another atom. To digest it, the zinc must be separated from the other atom before it can pass through the gut wall into the blood. If it's bound to something hard, like carbon, that bond will be difficult to break, relative to a bond with something like chloride, which falls apart easily. Many high street supplements contain nutrients which are not absorbed well, with the inevitable result that a proportion of them passes straight through you into the loo. This is probably the reason why some western medicine doctors pooh-pooh supplements. It is entirely possible however to provide nutrients in a form which ARE biologically available. These come as liquid minerals and activated vitamins. Personally I don't recommend multi vitamin/mineral tablets, because most are cheap and ineffective and the doses are way too low to make a change to specific deficiencies. Another factor in choice of manufacturer is 'excipients'. These are all the other ingredients included in tablets, such as binding agents, fillers, machine lubricants, colouring and flavouring. None of these are necessary, but they still need to be processed by your digestion in some way, and you're paying for something that you do want to go down the loo! If you are zinc deficient, your body wants zinc ONLY, not a load of other stuff that requires zinc to excrete it!
Some important generalizations for athletes to consider about supplements.
Minerals top the deficiency list. Take every opportunity to increase your mineral intake primarily through your diet, but also with Himalayan Salt or Sedimentary Mineral supplements. The latter (available on line) are arguably better because they usually have a reduced sodium content.
Particularly important for athletes, some nutrients are water soluble and therefore sweated out with exercise. Failure to replace these will result in premature aging and a whole host of deficiency related conditions (that is, every degenerative condition seen in the world today). The B vitamins fall into this group too. They are found mainly in your vegetables.
Another surprising but crucial group to watch is protein. It is common to see protein deficiency even in meat eaters and non-athletes. How much more for someone who rides off-road for four hours twice a week? If you're an 'O' blood group, eat red meat. All other blood groups, eat white meat or fish. Eat some protein at every meal.
When we exercise hard, muscles break down at the cellular level a little bit. This leads to inflammation, being a part of the repair process. Omega 3 oils help deal with inflammation and should therefore be consumed in quantity by cyclists. Be aware that omega 3 oil breaks down when heated, so contrary to popular belief, cooked salmon is a pretty poor source. If you use flax oil from a bottle, you can consume far more than relying on expensive fish oils capsules. Remember, fats (oils) don't make you fat. Excess calories makes you fat. True, it's easy to get fat by over-consuming fat, because they are calorie dense, but for cyclists that's a good thing because they provide you with stacks of slow release energy; just what you need for breakfast on ride day.
A note on vegetarianism.
I'm a natural health practitioner, so my philosophy is driven by nature and evolution. Humans have evolved to be omnivores, that is, we can survive by eating a wide range of foodstuffs, originally dictated by our immediate environment. Nowadays we can buy produce from half way round the world, in or out of season. We can flaunt evolution by supplementing with things we can't get in our diets. So whilst it is possible to be a vegan pro-athlete, it isn't natural, and it will cause problems unless specific precautions are taken. Vitamin B12 is not found in the vegetable kingdom and we can't live without it, dictating lifetime supplementation. Iron and protein are found in smaller quantities in vegetables dictating good knowledge of sources to avoid deficiency. From clinical experience I have found vegetarians and particularly vegans to be some of the most unhealthy people I have seen, but to put this into perspective, that isn't because vegetarianism itself is bad, it's because some of its disciples are poorly informed.
There is no need to go to extremes; our diets should comprise mostly vegetables, pulses, nuts, seeds, berries, fruits, unrefined oils and whole grains. On top of this I believe its more healthy to include a small amount of meat, fish or eggs to top up protein, iron and B12 intake. You can survive with an unnatural approach to eating, I suspect however, the average 'weekend warrior' would not like the will power and restrictions required by a world class vegan athlete. The benefits felt by individuals adopting a more vegetarian diet are clear to see, but to put this in perspective, most people making that shift tend to pay more attention to everything they consume. That means they are also feeling the benefits from cutting out a load of stuff which is patently bad for them, like most packet foods, fast foods and foodstuffs coated with a horrendous list of colouring and flavouring, and fraudulently labeled 'organic'! Much of our food today is of unknown provenance, so how can you ever really know exactly what you are eating, unless it came from your own back garden?
Food Quality. Do not be misled by the organic produce brigade. In an ideal world we would all eat produce grown naturally in a sustainable manner, as it used to be, but the world is not perfect. Even so, you are far better off consuming whole, fresh, in-season, local non-organic produce than anything from a packet or a tin, no matter what it says on the label. Shop only from the periphery of the supermarket, because that's where all the real food is. Manufacturers compete for space on the shelves in the middle because they know their nutrient deplete offerings rely on hard-sell tactics. Eat only whole, unrefined foods which 'grow'. If it doesn't grow, don't eat it!
Water & Hydration. I see far too many cyclists without water bottles on their bikes, or just as bad, riders finishing with their bottles still half full. Consider this; water, H2O, doesn't wash you out like a drainpipe, it is broken down into Hydrogen and Oxygen after digestion. It is fuel. If you don't consume enough water, you will run out of fuel and some crucial chemical reactions in your body will stop! As an easy guide for life, if your urine is still yellow after lunchtime, drink more. It should be more or less clear. For cyclists riding in mid temperature conditions, half a litre every hour is the guide. In summer this should be increased! Most cycling water bottles are only 750ml. So in summer you should be riding with two 1L bottles, minimum, and they should be empty when you finish! A coffee or beer during or after a ride is not sufficient liquid and both actually place a significant stress on your body at a time when it demands energy. If you must drink coffee or beer during your rides, ensure you drink adequate water as well. (Beer is mostly water it's true, but separating the H2O from all the other ingredients is a nutrient dependant process, so it will in fact deprive you of much needed fuel.)
How about proprietary sports drinks?
In the US in 2018 the sports drink industry was valued at over $23 billion, so it would be reasonable to assume they have their place, and so they do. But reality dawns if you start reading the ingredients labels. Whether it's a bottle, sachet or gel, sadly most are just an excuse to sell expensive sugar, with a few cheap supplements thrown in for good measure. There are some good ones out there, but they are expensive, certainly more expensive than your homemade formula. I speak here from personal experience and a lot of experimenting after 15 years living and cycling in Singapore, where the temperature is 30 degrees every day, dropping to a low of 28 at night with 90% humidity most of the year. It is the world's sweating capital! In the years I lived there I think there were three reported deaths among national service men from dehydration. A two hour ride in those conditions represents a serious loss of fluid and water soluble nutrients.
How do you combat this? It's actually easy. Your clue is to look at the ingredients of pharmaceutically produced rehydration sachets. Sodium, potassium, sugar and of course water. These are the absolute essentials to prevent dehydration and electrolyte loss. It's the loss of sodium and potassium which produce the symptoms of dehydration, because they are both essential for neurological function. Hence the cramps and mental confusion.
The best cycling drink is the one you make yourself. To your water bottle add the juice from half a lemon (include the squeezed lemon itself), a teaspoon of raw sugar, 1/3 teaspoon of Pink Himalayan Salt per litre of water. DO NOT use refined white table salt. That is not the same thing at all. Himalayan salt is unrefined and contains 84 different minerals including those which counteract the effect sodium has on your blood pressure. Refined white table salt is just sodium chloride, which raises blood pressure and stresses the kidneys because they have to expel the excess. For good measure add to your bottle sedimentary minerals in liquid form, available online, and to really feel the difference this makes, add the liquid minerals you know you are deficient in. Consume this throughout your ride. There are some fascinating and revealing methods to test the efficacy of your formula.
There is a case for drinking alcohol-free beer after a ride, I mean you earned it, right? Aside from the obvious emotional argument here, (a cool beer is just so refreshing on a hot day), from a physiological standpoint it's a no-no. After several hours of cycling your body needs to replenish and repair, but that doesn't just mean your leg muscles, it means everything. Damaged cells must be mopped up and excreted, damaged muscles must be repaired, all those fungal spores, bacteria and viruses you inhaled enroute need to be exterminated, (which is entirely normally I take pains to stress to you), and all this lot is nutritionally dependant. Not only does alcohol-free beer fail to meet either the physiological or emotional demand, one has to ask "What exactly IS in this drink?". All those unpronounceable ingredients in that 'free-from' beverage need to be neutralized by your liver and excreted, at a time when your body is craving something substantial like a lamb casserole! When you finish a ride, immediately drink clean water with minerals and lemon juice and eat a banana, THEN go for a beer (a real beer!).
The First Thing To Do After A Ride, (the Right & Wrong time to eat continued)
Now we get to a detail which most riders ignore. After hard or long exercise (three hours plus) your muscles and organs are screaming for nutrients. They are tired, deplete and damaged. At this time they want easily digested foods, meaning nutrient rich carbohydrates, like an apple or a banana. They DO NOT want alcohol! This is why body builders consume a protein shake immediately after a workout. Protein shakes are not a protein replacement, they're just a way of getting some fuel and nutrients into the system as fast as possible. Whey protein from milk is the shake of choice because whey is the fastest absorbed protein. So arguably you could do worse than a Pastel de Nata immediately after a ride, but its still not as good as a banana, raisins or dried figs. Proprietary protein shakes can be expensive and are often full of junk, so make your own. See the instructions for the Blended Smoothie at the end of this article.
Do understand the post-workout shake is NOT your post-ride meal. The shake only tells your brain it's not starving. After a ride, you have a window of opportunity of about one hour in which to eat a proper meal. If you miss this opportunity, your brain thinks you are trying to starve it, so rather than setting your hormones to rebuild tired muscles, it sets them to 'store' mode; that is to NOT liberate fat from the tissues for energy. If this is repeated too often it will actually instruct the breakdown of muscle as an alternative fuel source (called ketosis). You exercise, but stay fat! Sound familiar? Failing to eat soon after a ride is usually counterproductive; you lose muscle instead of fat, and despite all your efforts, strength and fitness plateau, with underlying health suffering because you are effectively starving, in an age of abundance!
The classic example of this situation is to compare aging body-builders with aging long distance athletes. The first group tend to retain muscle and youthful looks, the second group tend to suffer chronic exhaustion, muscle loss and age quickly. These are generalizations of course, but it requires knowledge and discipline to prevent it. In a similar way, long distance touring fanatics are often light and wiry rather than bulked up. This is because they routinely miss that window of opportunity to eat protein, and because they are burning so many calories during long hours in the saddle, they have little fat reserve either. It isn't a recipe for optimum health. With increasing age the key is to retain muscle but burn fat, and that only happens if you eat real food soon after your ride.
Here's a guide to the nutrients which are most commonly deficient; the ones you should consider supplementing. There is questionable value in supplementing if your diet is poor however. Get your meals in order first. Also, depending on your underlying state of health, you may well have other significant deficiencies too.
Vitamin B12 (essential if you're vegetarian)
Minerals (Himalayan Salt or Sedimentary Rock)
Omega 3 Oil
Vitamin B complex
Minerals (Himalayan Salt or Sedimentary Rock)
Omega 3 Oil
Vitamin B12 (essential if you're vegetarian)
Below are a few suggestions for healthy meal choices. This applies equally to riding days and off days. You can prepare this in whatever way you like, the important thing is to choose only healthy foods and to get the proportions right. The bulk of your meals should comprise vegetables (preferably steamed), a good portion of healthy fats, meaning butter & unrefined oils (approx. 2 tablespoons of oil), a medium sized portion of meat/eggs/cheese, and a SMALL quantity of a whole grain. Don't eat refined grains (white rice, white bread), and don't eat margarine, ever! The proportions in each meal should be adjusted depending on your physical exercise that day. If you just finished a tough three hour cycling obstacle course or 6 hours touring you probably need to increase the amount of everything. DO NOT starve yourself. If you only walked to the paper shop and back, reduce the intake of carbohydrates to a bare minimum or none at all.
Breakfasts. Try to cover ALL your nutrient groups here. Protein, Minerals, Vitamins, Oils.
Spinach omelet or scrambled egg with spinach and a tin of salmon or tuna. Whole grain bread & butter (NOT margarine).
Sardine or tuna salad, made with carrot, onion, pepper, sunflower & pumpkin seeds, almonds, raisins, flax & olive oil, Himalayan salt/pepper.
Blended smoothie.In a blender put carrot, beetroot, avocado, ginger, sunflowers & pumpkin seeds, almond butter, natural yoghurt, flax oil, turmeric, oat milk, water, Himalayan salt/pepper. All readily available in the supermarket.You can put anything you like in this blend, I even put chocolate in mine sometimes, just ensure it includes some protein and oil.
Homemade oat pancakes, but this must be paired with a good portion of fat and some protein. I.e. Avocado, yoghurt, butter, almond butter, pumpkin & sunflower seeds, honey (small quantity), marmite for example. As suits your taste.
Steamed/braised chicken and vegetables and whole grain rice.
Lamb stew with potatoes.
Chicken curry, broccoli and whole grain rice.
Vegetable soup with chorizo and grated sheep's cheese topping.
Steamed fish, vegetables steamed in butter, boiled potatoes.
Salmon, chorizo, presunto and sheep's cheese salad.
Sardine salad with plenty of seeds, oil, cheese, raisins, carrots, beetroot and green leaves.
If you find your energy level dropping 2 hours after riding, it is likely you either didn't eat enough or didn't eat enough of a particular food group. 2 hours after your ride, you have missed your optimum eating window, so do it differently the next time you go out. If you find yourself falling asleep 1-2 hours after eating, cut-out the carbohydrates and try again.
Finally, here's a real tip for the days you have a seriously hard workout, or consume too much alcohol. Add half a teaspoon of sodium bicarbonate (baking soda) to a mug of water and drink. This helps neutralize the acidity caused, assisting the normal mechanisms of pH regulation.
Article written by David Wells, Osteopath & Nutrition Specialist.
The perspective shared in this article comes not just from medical training but from symptoms and treatment protocols observed over more than 20 years of clinical experience.
If you found this article interesting, this topic and many more are explained in depth in the book, 'Finding Awesome: Proven Steps to Extraordinary Health'. Read more about it here.