Despite the fact I've been racing bikes for almost six years now, not a day goes by that I don't learn something new -- or, at least, need to be reminded of the basics.
Last week, I was feeling rundown for no apparent reason. My workout hadn't been that hard, and I was coming off a rest week of less-intense training. After I whined to my husband about how tired I was, he looked at me point blank and asked, "Well, did you eat and drink enough today?" I pondered that question for a moment. Did I? Normally, I'm very good with my nutrition. However, that morning had been hectic, with little time for my basic needs, like getting enough food and drink. I realized I hadn't taken in nearly enough calories to sustain my ongoing training/recovery schedule. I didn't need a nap, I needed a burger.
Sure enough, that did the trick. I replenished myself with some healthy meals and put in a call to Anne Guzman, a former pro cyclist and registered holistic nutritionist based in Canada, for a little insight that might help beginner cyclists (and forgetful experienced cyclists) get proper nutrition. The following is an interview with Guzman, who knows firsthand what it takes to fuel a cyclist, whether a neophyte or an Olympian.
Many riders are confused about carbohydrates. Can you explain if they are friend or foe?
Anne Guzman [AG]: Carbohydrates are your friend, both on the bike and off. They're the most efficient fuel to eat while cycling. It's low-fat, low-fiber carbohydrates that you are going to digest most quickly while you are on the bike. These types of carbohydrates won't get held up in your stomach as long as fats and proteins will. If you are going to exercise regularly, riding for more than 30-45 minutes a day with some intensity, you need carbs. That's where your fiber and your B vitamins come from, as well as many other nutrients. You need them off the bike, too -- they are a very important part of the everyday diet. The question becomes, what kind are you eating? Are you eating whole foods, like veggies and whole grains -- such as quinoa and millet -- or are you eating processed foods that are coming from a box with a list of 20 ingredients you have never heard of?
Most athletes, not just elite athletes, need 50-70 percent of their diet from carbohydrates. Keep it on the lower end of that if you're riding less than 45 minutes a day, but if it's a couple hours a day or more, you need more. Even if you are trying to lose weight while riding, you can't cut carbs to very low levels. If you do, you will not perform. And not just "perform" in a race sense, but also perform your basic workout. Carbs are the only fuel you don't have an unlimited supply of. Most people have a very large supply of fat in the body, even a 130-pound athlete could store up to 50,000 calories in fat. Protein is not a good source of fuel while cycling, and we may get 5-10 percent of our energy from protein while cycling. Carbohydrates are only stored in the body in a limited amount, unlike fats, so it is crucial that we replenish them after/during training in order to feel strong riding day after day., especially at the elite level and when you are knocking out two-, three- or four-hour rides. It's not an option to not eat carbohydrates if you want to perform. You have to eat carbs to "fuel the engine."
So you're calling me a car?
AG: Yes, that's the perfect analogy in sports nutrition. When it comes to looking at your body as a vehicle for an athletic lifestyle, it's all about filling up your glycogen tank. You have to put gas in your car if you want to go somewhere, so it would be crazy to go out on a ride and not have enough fuel. Would you get set for a long weekend drive in your Porche on an empty tank? You won't get far! If you get into cycling to feel good about yourself, [but] then you don't put enough gas in your tank, you won't feel very good and you won't enjoy yourself.
Personally, I think this is why a lot of cyclists quit riding: They don't eat properly. If you go riding and feel awful and tired and out of shape, it's often because you aren't fueled or hydrated properly. You're not necessarily out of shape! You may simply not have the proper fuel in the tank. So eat well, and you can ride longer and be on your bike longer and enjoy the whole experience. Who wants to cramp and bonk and get that feeling of, "What's wrong with me?" It doesn't have to be that way. Just put the right kind and amounts of fuel in your tank and then go the distance!
Hydration: What don't we know?
AG: Hydration is just as important as eating. Most people don't realize they can't just drink water during prolonged exercise. The pros know this secret, but many beginners find it out the hard way. Water is a great way to hydrate off the bike, and it's the quickest way to hydrate when not exercising. But on the bike, you are sweating and losing sodium, potassium and other electrolytes. You need to have a sports drink, most of which are 4 to 7 percent carbohydrates. You don't want to add more sugar to that because then you slow down the hydration process as you will have to "pull" water from the tissues and blood in your body to dilute the contents in your stomach. This can wreak havoc on the guts while cycling and cause bloating and GI issues. Skratch Labs, eLoad, EFS and GU are good products -- not a lot of colors and artificial sweeteners and excellent electrolyte profiles. If you don't replace what you sweat out, it can get dangerous. If you go out and sweat out a lot of electrolytes but only replace it with water, you knock your sodium way out of homeostasis and dilute the sodium in your body. It's called hyponatremia. We can lose anywhere from 300-900mg of sodium per hour in sweat, so having a product to replace those electrolytes while cycling is important and crucial.
In fact, if the sodium levels get too saturated by water only, this can cause the body to lose more water and this can lead to hyponatremia -- a very dangerous condition of diluting the body's nutrients. You can die from this! Something as simple as a sports drink can stave off such dangers.
But what if I don't like sports drinks?
AG:There are definitely a lot of brands on the market these days -- it isn't just Gatorade anymore. Seek different brands; you may find one you like. If not, you can take gels with plain water, but at a minimum you want 300mg of sodium with every bottle of water you take. I am still an advocate of drinking electrolytes over just water, and today there are also a slew of "electrolyte tablets" on the market you can pop into your water bottle or swallow with your water. The key then is you are "eating your carbohydrates." The very minimum you should be drinking is one bottle an hour on the bike. In hot temperatures, this can get be to two or more bottles when riding hard if you are a big sweater.
What if I have a sensitive gut?
AG:Avoid products with sorbitol, aspartame or artificial sweeteners, colors and flavors. Think about the amount of times you are going to use these products if you commit to the lifestyle of being a healthy human being. You don't want to be pounding back chemicals day after day, that adds up! These ingredients, as well as fructose and fruit products for a certain percentage of the population who are sensitive to fructose, are harder on the gut while performing physically. Not to mention drinking chemicals isn't good for your health, period.
Most important, you want to use the same product for your training as you do in your race or event. Don't try a new sports drink or food product on the day of your event. You don't want to find out the hard way that a certain food, drink or product doesn't work for you. It is important to find out what will be available to you at the race or event rest stations. Then you can get used to and train on what will be available on the big day. When in doubt, bring your favorite product with you -- even if it means you carry a stash of dry mix to put in bottles. It's worth it. You don't want nutrition or hydration mishaps to ruin your day.
A lot of great foods get bad raps. What foods has our society unjustly shunned?
AG: I'd say the poor, white potato is at the top of the "bad rap" list for all the wrong reasons. I don't know why they get a bad rap, or why people think if you eat potatoes you'll get fat. This is not true -- unless all you eat are fried potatoes, then it is the "fry" making you fat, not the potato!
Potatoes are amazing for athletes, especially cyclists. Take a small baked or boiled potato, wrap it in foil and stick it in your pocket instead of an energy bar. You will probably have no gastrointestinal problems -- they are simple foods, high glycemic index, they digest easily and there is no crap in them because they are not "made" -- they come out of the ground. Also, for post-workout nutrition, potatoes are amazing. They are a great daily nutrition food. Not to mention, they're incredibly cheap and you can get them almost anywhere, which is great if you are traveling to an event. You can always count on potatoes being available.
How about the opposite: Is there a food that society bills as "good" but it is really bad, especially for cyclists and other athletes?
AG: Fat-free packaged products, or foods that have been engineered to be fat free, are not good choices. They are all about marketing. It really bothers me that billions of dollars are spent tricking consumers into buying these products. There are a lot of problems here. First, "fat-free" products give the impression it is OK to eat a lot of it. That's a lot of calories and chemicals. The list of chemicals is probably long. If you don't know what something is, chances are you shouldn't be eating it. Put the box back. Walk away from the shelf!
Stick to the outside aisles of your grocery store -- that is where the healthiest foods tend to be. Except, of course, the freezer with the ice cream display located next to the checkout lines. And remember, it is always going to be less expensive to buy a healthy product in bulk -- like rice -- than some factory-made product like individually flavored boxes of rice. You can add those fresh ingredients yourself.
Can you bust the myth that good meals take a long time to prepare?
AG: Absolutely. Most simple, wholesome meals do not take long to prepare and are perfect for an athlete's busy day. The time it takes to cook chicken, broccoli and a potato can be less than 20 minutes.
There seems to be a gluten-free trend in endurance sports like cycling. Is there no love for gluten these days?
AG: It's completely individual. Some people feel more alert and that they can perform and compete better on a gluten-free diet. But if it doesn't bother someone, they won't notice any difference. And they may miss having pasta until they realize that rice and quinoa pasta exist! Problem solved! Not everyone will feel better or different without gluten. I'm a big fan of brown rice and quinoa and potatoes, and they happen to be gluten free, but that isn't necessary. A lot of processed food and fillers for ground beef have gluten, so if people cut these out, they might not even realize they are already on a low-gluten diet.
Energy bars: Use 'em, or lose 'em?
AG: First off, I think that ride food -- bars, etc. -- should be kept for riding and real food should be eaten the rest of the day. Of course, you can take real foods with you on the bike, but I don't advocate eating energy bars as meal-replacement foods or part of daily nutrition. Whole foods will offer you more nutrients. Sure, there are times when you will be really busy and might need to grab a quick bar, so I would advise going for one of the bars with raw ingredients -- Larabars, Picky Bars -- or even make your own. Have an apple, too. Then you have a little bit of whole foods along with the bar.
Now that we know what to eat, many new athletes wonder when to eat. Say we want to get in a ride after work but lunch was five hours ago, the sunlight is fading and there's no time for proper nutrition. Quick, what do I eat?
AG: You should always have a snack, regardless of whether you are riding or not. Five hours is a long time to go without a snack. If you can have a meal, 2½-3 hours before you work out is the best in terms of absorption and digestion. If you are getting in a last-minute snack, try for 150 to 330 calories about a half hour before you get on the bike. A banana and orange juice is great. Or, try a small wrap with banana and honey. A small smoothie with rice milk is good, too. Remember, you want carbs, not a lot of fat and protein right before you ride. Dates are another quick, calorie-dense snack option. Maybe a coffee can help, too, but best to have it with a little food. Ideally, time your coffee 45-60 minutes before your ride so you start optimally "wired."
Say I'm new to cycling, and I can't help but wonder about the physiological effects. Will cycling make me bulk up?
AG: Bottom line, if you are cycling, you're going to burn more calories and lose weight. But getting bulky isn't typical for a female cyclist. Unless you are a track rider, then you want the bulk! For a casual rider, I think it is great to mix cycling with going to the gym, as we need to maintain muscle, especially as we age. If you are putting in the miles, it would be unlikely you would bulk up. You may tone, but bulk? Not so much.
Women want to look good, but we need a full mentality switch. We need to say, "I love to ride my bike, carbohydrates are not bad for me, I feel strong and I look good." The nutrition plays a huge part, because it can help women feel empowered and say, "I feel good when I ride my bike, and I can ride longer when I eat balanced, and if I eat balanced and ride, I will find my natural weight." Exercising and living healthy is about wanting to feel good and strong. Remember: Strong is the new skinny.
Three sample meals from the pro cyclists on Team Colavita
Jasmin Glaesser is off to the Olympics for Canada this summer. She'll be competing in the team pursuit on the track. Before a race this is her breakfast of choice.
"I always make sure I have ample amounts of carbs to go with some quality protein and, of course, a healthy dose of vitamins. Usually this will take the shape of oatmeal with Greek yogurt and berries, maybe sprinkled with some ground flax or hemp. The most important thing about a prerace meal is that it will provide sufficient energy, and that it tastes good so it is not a struggle to get down."
Joanie Caron is the sprinter on our squad. She knows the most important side of training is often recovery. Here's her postrace or postworkout routine.
"The most important thing is to eat as soon as possible after a ride, as this will really help you to ride better the next day. Ideally, you should be looking for a combination of carbohydrate and protein that you can eat in the first 20 to 30 minutes after you ride. While there are many commercial formulas designed with the right combinations of carbs/fats/proteins, one of the best and cheapest recovery drinks is chocolate milk. However, always make sure you are having post-ride food, too."
The veteran pro on Colavita is Moriah Macgregor, and she knows the secret of a perfect prerace meal. After all, if your nickname is "Mojo," you'd better make sure your body has some.
"My favorite prerace meal is oatmeal. It's super easy and convenient, whether you're at home or cooking out of a hotel room. Add in a little cinnamon, a banana, a tablespoon of nut butter, a sprinkle of salt and top with Greek yogurt, fresh berries and a drizzle of agave syrup -- absolutely heavenly! Chase 'er back with a good cup of black joe, and you'll be ready to roll.
Anne Guzman is a registered holistic nutritionist with the Canadian School of Natural Nutrition, an NCSA-certified personal trainer, and has an HBA kinesiology degree from the University of Western Ontario. You can visit her website here.