Friday, 25 March 2016

Nutrition: racing, training and off the bike

There's no point training really hard to prepare for races, or even just generally riding your bike for fitness and fun, if you don't fuel your riding properly.  You wouldn't deliberately put the wrong fuel in your car, yet every day many of us put the wrong fuel in our bodies.

I'm not claiming to be an angel when it comes to food.  I used to eat terribly, until I found cycling and it basically changed my life.  I still have the odd "off the wagon" moment, a few treats now and then, and those times when I know I'm eating the wrong thing.  I'm only human after all and it is not good for anyone to abstain permanently from the odd treat.  But the majority of the time, and for most of the race season and the months of training leading up to it, I try to ensure I'm fueling my body properly for training and racing.

This isn't just about fueling on the bike - what you eat day to day plays a big part too.  I'm not a nutritionist or dietitian.  I have no qualifications.  If you need proper professional advice, I recommend you go see someone like the expert nutritionists and personal trainers at Origins Fitness or your own local gym, health centre, or doctor.  However, what I've included below is just a few simple hints and tips to help you on and off the bike, based on what I've learned over the years.

It works for me, and so I'm not saying it will necessarily work for you, but it's a good basis to start from.  Experiment and find what works best for you.  

My top ten tips for nutrition


  1. Eat "clean" as much as possible - that is, cook your food from scratch and avoid processed packaged foods.  This is the only way to know exactly what you're putting in your body and be careful eating out.
  2. Always read the label - you'd be surprised the amount of chemicals and additives there are hidden in supposedly "healthy" food
  3. Eat little and often - don't starve yourself all day to then just have a massive dinner.  Have 3 smaller meals and 3 healthy snacks rather than 3 massive meals with no snacks in between
  4. Eat more protein - sweeping generalisation, but most people don't have enough (and no, it's not going to make you look like a body builder!)
  5. Only eat carbs when you need them - I do recommend a good balance of carbs, protein and fat, but just watch when you have the carbs.  Don't have a massive bowl of pasta then sit and do nothing
  6. Never try a new food or drink for the first time in a race - always try it out in training first to make sure it works for you (especially energy gels and bars)
  7. Fuel your training properly, both the night before and the day of the ride
  8. Recover properly - get some carbs and protein in your body within 30 minutes of completing your ride
  9. For any ride over an hour, eat!  Unless you're doing an easy Zone 1 or 2 fasted ride (which is good for teaching your body to use fat stores) - for anything over an hour, make sure you take food with you to avoid the dreaded "bonk".  Eat regularly during the ride.
  10. Have a treat now and again - don't let it become a binge and still try to avoid the chemical laden nonsense, but just time it properly and allow yourself the odd treat.  As I've said, I'm no angel when it comes to food - you just have to ensure 80 - 90% of your eating is "clean" and allow yourself the odd treat
General day-to-day eating tips

As I've already said, I'm not a qualified nutritionist or dietitian, and I also don't plan to give you lots of recipes and detailed meal plans here.  However, I've included a few ideas based on what I have myself day-to-day, to help you get started if you're looking for ways to better fuel your training and racing (or to just eat a bit more cleanly).

Breakfast ideas:
  • Porridge - I love it!  I would eat it 3 times a day if I could!  Just don't overdo the portion size and don't have it if you're not going to use it later in the day.  Also, please avoid the packaged nonsense!  Over-priced and often full of refined sugar.  Porridge is a great low-GI slow-release carbohydrate with a good dose of fibre.  I make mine with milk, even though I'm a Scot!  (no water and salt for me, but each to their own!).  You could add one or more of the following to spice it up a bit:
    • Banana
    • Blueberries
    • Flax seed
    • Chia seeds
    • Maca (great natural energy booster without being sugar)
  • Eggs - despite what the previous generation were told, eggs are so good for you.  Good fats, great dose of protein and they'll leave you feeling fuller for longer.  If you've got a big ride later in the day, eggs on toast is a great way to fuel it, along with a carb boost about 30 - 60 minutes before the ride
  • Fruit and protein smoothie - stick some natural yoghurt (not the low-fat stuff that has fat replaced by refined sugar!), fruit, ice and a scoop of whey protein powder in a blender and whizz it up.  You can add some of the seeds I mentioned above for some extra vitamins, protein and good fats.  A quick fix breakfast when you don't have time to make something.  Just ensure it's not all fruit to avoid a blood sugar spike then crash - ensure there's yoghurt and/or protein powder in there too
Lunch tips

I don't propose to give you a list of suggested meals, but my general tips would be:
  • Keep it light and mainly protein/good fats if you don't have a big ride or training session planned later that day - e.g. salad with tuna/avacado, soup with some natural yoghurt afterwards, an omelette
  • If you have a big ride or hard training session later that day, have some more carbs and more calories to help fuel it - aim for low-GI slow-release carbs just like at breakfast; e.g. wholemeal pasta/rice/bread
Dinner tips

I'm not going to give you a recipe book here, but what I want to show is that you don't need convenience food even if you have a busy life.  Everything I've listed below takes no more than 10 minutes to prepare and less than 30 minutes to cook.  If I've not just come home from a big ride or I'm not doing a big ride the next morning, my dinners tend to be quite low carb.  I've therefore separated the list:

Low carb:
  • Salad with any of my favourite meats: chicken, salmon, tuna and about once per week a red meat (usually steak)
  • Good old meat and veg - favourites include sweet potatoes (I rarely eat white potatoes), carrots, parsnips, asparagus, onion, butternut squash.  You can spice things up with your favourite herbs.  I have been known to cover everything in ground garlic - it's so good for you too!  Just make sure you brush your teeth afterwards! :-)  Use turmeric too - great for recovery.
Higher carb for fueling training:

  • Wholewheat pasta, green beans, sweet potato, chicken and pesto
  • Wholewheat pasta, tomatoes, passata, peppers, onions, courgette, chicken, garlic
  • Chicken and mushroom risotto - I just make this with normal brown rice.  If you just overcook it slightly, it has the same consistency as aborio rice used for making risotto and means you're sticking to a lower GI rice
  • Mixed veg cous cous, topped with fish or chicken

Snacks

The dreaded snack!  The time that most people give in and have something they shouldn't.  Snacking is good, as I've said above, and I try to ensure I eat roughly every 2 to 3 hours.  I'll usually have a snack at about 10 - 10.30am and then around 2.30 - 3pm in work.  If I'm training that night I might have something else around 5pm ish just as I'm leaving work and it'll be more focused on energy (such as an energy bar).  I've been known to have a bowl of porridge (told you I love it!) at about 4pm if I have a hard or long training session planned at 6pm or 7pm.  However, the rest of the time, I tend to stick to the following.

Just watch the portion sizes as the nuts can be high calorie despite how good they are for you.  Preparation is key so make sure you take snacks with you to work to avoid the vending machine!
  • 30g almonds
  • 30g pumpkin seeds
  • 30g brazil nuts
  • Protein shake (quite often the best way to get a protein dose if I'm in meetings in work rather than munching away in the corner!) - just watch out for added sweeteners which can mess with your blood sugar level.  Stevia is a good alternative sweetener that is much better for you but it doesn't agree with me.  I'm now just sticking to plain unflavoured whey.
  • Natural yoghurt (sometimes with blueberries, flax, chia added)
  • Cottage cheese - great source of protein yet still low fat
  • Fruit - I try to have only 2 pieces of fruit a day so that I don't have too many sugar spikes and get most of my "5/8/10 a day" from vegetables (who knows what the current recommendation is . . . lots is good!)
  • Homemade protein bar (some shop bought ones are okay and I do use them but just watch the chemicals and additives, especially sweeteners or sugar)
  • Chicken - a great tip from Graham at Origins Fitness: cook up an extra chicken breast with your dinner the night before and flavour it with your favourite herbs or spices (e.g. chilli and garlic).  Chop it up, let it cool, and you've got a tasty protein-filled snack for the next day!

Training

I hope the above gives you a few ideas for changes you could make day to day.  The emphasis is on high protein/fat and low carb unless I need the carbs for training.  So, what about training then?

Well, it depends on the type of training.  If I'm doing a short high-intensity effort, I find I don't need to load up on carbs before it.  Just eat normally throughout the day then have some fruit or an energy bar or some carb drink before the ride.  You don't need anything during a session like that, but make sure you get some carbs and protein into your body as soon as possible afterwards.  I find a banana and a protein shake the quickest way to do so, or if I've prepared more in advance, I'll just have my lunch/dinner straight away afterwards, depending on the time of day.

For longer training rides, I tend to do the following:
  • A good carby dinner the night before
  • Porridge with banana and a couple of boiled eggs about 3 hours before the ride
  • About an hour before the ride - an energy bar or a piece of fruit, and a caffeine coffee (I drink decaf most of the time, so the caffeine is a good boost)
  • During the ride, I'll use High5 4:1 (Carb/Protein) powder and typically have one bottle every 1 - 1.5 hours
  • If it's a steady Zone 2 ride, that's often enough, but I might supplement it with my homemade flapjacks, a banana, or gels if I'm practising race nutrition and getting my body used to gels
  • To give you an example, when I do the pretty intensive 80km group road ride I take part in most Saturdays over the winter, I'll have:
    • 2 x 500ml bottles of High5 4:1
    • 2 x energy gels
    • 1 x banana
  • I wouldn't have that much on an easy 2.5 hour training ride but that particular ride is pretty intensive and I treat it like race simulation so I want to ensure I'm fueled well until the end
  • Another favourite of mine that is simple to stuff in a bag or back pocket, but best saved for longer endurance rides where you have time to stop for a few minutes to eat:  peanut butter and chopped banana on a wholemeal wrap or wholemeal bread.  I wouldn't advise this on a really intensive ride as the fat/protein in the peanut butter can be hard to digest, but it's a great fuel for a longer steady ride and the kind of thing I'd have on, for example, a 6 hour wild mountain bike ride
Racing

In general, you want to aim for 1 - 1.5g of carbohydrate per kg of bodyweight per hour to ensure you remain fueled, especially in a longer race.  Another rule of thumb is about 300 calories per hour (very roughly half of the kilojoules you'll put out per hour) but that varies depending on your body, the intensity, your power output and so on.

However, in a short XC race, it's more about what you eat before - all I use in an XC race is water and gels (since they're much easier to consume and there's no way I could chew at XC race intensity!).  I'll ensure I've had a good meal with plenty of slow release carbs and a dose of protein about 3 hours before the race start.  An energy bar or homemade flapjack about an hour before, just when I'm going to start my warm-up.  Then, it's roughly:
  • 1 caffeine energy gel on the start line when we get called up (10 mins to go)
  • 250ml of water per lap
  • 2 x normal energy gels (start of laps 2 and 4 usually)
  • 1 caffeine energy gel on the last lap if I feel I need it
  • 250ml of High5 4:1 on the last lap, just for an extra boost (quite a few pros use flat coke in their bottle for the last lap for the same reason)
I used to have more than this in XC races and realised I was causing myself to feel bloated and get sluggish towards the end.  As long as you fuel properly beforehand you really only need a sugar boost every now and again, as above, in a race of approx 1.5 hours.

I realise I've gone on about clean eating above then I'm now saying I use energy gels.  I completely understand they are not "clean" but the ones I use don't have much added to them and I've yet to find a clean alternative to gels that I can get in my mouth quickly during a high intensity XC race!

For longer endurance races, I might have more carbs the day before the race and a bit more protein for breakfast (e.g. 3 eggs) to ensure I'm fueled for longer, but otherwise pre-race is the same.  When it comes to during the race, I will typically go with the following, but bear in mind this is based on my weight and I have erred towards the 1.5g of carbs per kg of bodyweight mentioned above and I just ease off if I start to feel a bit too full.  I've got to know my body well and can tell in advance if I'm at risk of eating too much or if I just need some plain old water instead of High5 4:1 (remember it's food, just in liquid form!).

  • Half a homemade flapjack and one gel per hour (spaced out by 30 mins - e.g. half a flapjack on the hour, gel at half past the hour)
  • 500ml of High5 4:1 every one or two laps, interspersed with plain water as I feel like it
  • A banana every 3 ish hours when I'll make a very brief stop in the pits
  • I will sometimes use jelly babies (a wee stash in my back pocket!) for an extra boost - they are much more natural now than they used to be and are a great way to get sugar into your system quickly.  I'm going to experiment with alternatives this year though so will let you know how I get on
So, I realise that's been a relatively long blog and not any pictures to spice it up in between, but I hope it has been useful and informative.  As always, if you have any questions please leave them in the comments box below or post on my Facebook page (link on the top left of this page).

Thanks as always for reading and remember to speak to a professional if you want proper advice - the above is just based on my experience!

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