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Cycling Nutrition - How Important is it?
Date: 24 Feb, 2004
Contact: Darren Ellis

I once helped to crew a yacht down the Red Sea while I was travelling in the Middle East.  The wife of the owner told me of her own travels, in particular an epic trip to almost every country in Europe…by bicycle.  The bike allowed time to really absorb the scenery, and it was a relatively cheap way to get around.  But she confessed to me that mode of transport particularly appealed to her as she could eat all the chocolate, croissants, cheese and pastries she wanted and not gain any weight!  It's true that cycling burns a lot of calories and living with three riders, I can personally attest that cyclists can get away with a less than strict diet.  I'm sure that they have conspired to increase my chocoholic tendencies and now I have to cycle more myself to keep the belly in check!  But how much is that chocolate bar or pizza affecting our performance on the bike?  In this article we are going to look at the role nutrition plays in cycling, particularly carbohydrate and talk about the importance of the type and timing of carbohydrate during the day.
  

Why Pasta is our friend:
Road cycling uses both fat and carbohydrate for energy, but carbohydrates (CHO) are the most important.  The body only stores around 1600 calories worth of CHO in the liver and muscles and if that runs out….roll on food bonk.  Many of you will have experienced this- nausea, fatigue and an inability to focus.  But even lean mean ultra distance runners carry about 30 000 calories of fat energy in adipose tissues!!  Why can't we use that?  Well due to the way our body metabolises fat all that energy can only be released very slowly.  If you're trucking along at race pace, attacking and hitting big
hills from time to time you will need the fast energy that CHO can provide.  There is a saying, 'fat is burned in the flame of CHO', meaning that fat can be processed for energy only if there is adequate CHO to drive that process.  That is why it is crucial to keep CHO stores topped up.  The average 70kg male requires at least 2000 calories a day just for basic metabolic function with no exercise.  This would include 300-350 grams of CHO.  A Tour de France rider can burn between 7000 and 10 000 cals. or 1150-1750 grams of CHO a day!  To put it into perspective that's almost 100 slices of bread!

Copy the cows:  
No, not relieving yourself whenever and wherever you want.  I mean you need to graze; snack constantly.  You need to forget about the three square meals your mother raised you on.  To consume the energy needed to race or train hard in only three meals would be a
real chore.  You need to be eating 5-7 small meals throughout the day, every 2-3 hours.  This will provide a steady supply of fuel to the muscles, while keeping blood sugar levels steady.  However, eating this way takes practice.  If you are not used to it you may find that you are just not hungry when the next meal time comes around. Experiment with what you eat, try the odd liquid meal, try to distribute meal sizes more evenly and eventually you'll get the hang of it.  Meals should contain mostly CHO, with a small amount of healthy fat and moderate protein.  Fat is very filling, thus preventing the consumption of adequate CHO.  So the night before a race consume a big bowl of
pasta rather than a greasy pizza!  And add lean chicken or tuna and a low fat tomato based sauce, rather than bacon and egg in a creamy carbonara sauce. 

Types and timing of CHO are big factors in performance and recovery. As athletes you can actually gain benefits from eating junk food!  I bet you didn't think you'd hear that did you? Well it's true, but only some foods and only at specific times of the day.  First let's talk about the Glycemic Index.  It's a scale of 1 to 100+ and is used to rank CHO's effect on blood sugar levels.  A low number means the blood sugar will rise slowly and drop slowly, providing a steady release of energy. Examples include high fibre breakfast cereals, whole wheat bread and pasta, lentils and beans. This is where the majority of your CHO should come from.  Higher numbers can cause a rapid rise in blood sugar, followed by an equally fast drop-off.  Lollies, white bread, carrots and potatoes all have high GI's.  Type the words 'glycemic index list' into Google to find websites showing the GI number for your favourite foods. Both high and low GI foods have their place in a
proper nutrition strategy. 

It's more than bananas in the back pocket!
Now I know it's hard to always eat perfectly but the three main times to really strive for optimum nutrition revolve around training and races- Pre, During and Post session.  


Pre:
Before races or training you need to ensure your glycogen stores are topped up.  Two to three hours before you start consume a meal containing low GI CHO, along with a moderate amount of protein and a small amount of fat with minimal fibre.  This will ensure enough time to digest and prevent any gastrointestinal distress when exercise starts. This meal, combined with the previous day's food should have your glycogen stores full to brimming, ready to release energy when called upon.  One hour before drink 500mls of an isotonic beverage such as Powerade or Replace.  Isotonic means they provide CHO in the 'magic' proportion of 4-8 grams per 100 mL, which is absorbed quickly through the intestinal wall.  As we're all different you should experiment with different brands to find the one that suits you.  Some people find 8 grams per 100 to be too much to digest quickly.  Of course both the store bought and powder forms can be easily diluted to individual preference.  If you have an early start and don't have the time to digest a big breakfast then make sure you cover your nutritional bases with dinner the night before.  In the morning eat something easy on the stomach and/or start on the isotonic
drinks.  


During:
If the exercise is only going to last around an hour then water will
suffice.  However if you are working intensely, you have multiple sessions scheduled in the day or you are exercising for extended periods, then H2O on its own won't cut it.  The longer you can delay the depletion of your glycogen stores the longer and harder you can race.  Drink about 250mL of isotonic beverage every 15 mins to keep your blood glucose levels high.  Clearance from the stomach is also enhanced by drinking this way as opposed to constantly
sipping small amounts.  During the long rides some solid food is
necessary.  Gels, goos and liquid meals are the first step, being easily
digestible.  After that, how about .…..lollies!  Yep, wine gums, jet planes and jelly beans are primarily glucose, providing a sharp shot of energy.  'But what about the sugar low?' I hear the people who were paying attention ask.   Well, once you're exercising the low isn't as pronounced, as the hormone that helps to control the amount of glucose in the blood, insulin, is inhibited by physical activity.  Cola and other sugary drinks are widely used by cyclists, but nowadays these drinks are made with something called high-fructose corn syrup.  Fructose is derived from fruit and is the sweetest of all the sugars, but is digested slower than glucose and regular sugar, which can cause problems when exercising.  So to avoid stomach upsets, have your soft drink at least an hour before training or as part of a recovery meal.  Sandwiches made with low fibre bread, muffins (not bran, low fibre remember), low fat cookies, cereal bars and bananas are other good choices for fuel on the go…..and remember to wash everything down with plenty of water to aid digestion.


Post:
As soon as you get home from your training ride or hit the finish line you should be thinking about post workout nutrition….no not a beer! That's not to say you can't enjoy a cold one now and again, but alcohol contains what are known as empty calories; no nutritional benefit whatsoever, and if it's the first thing down your throat after a hard session it's going to slow your recovery.  For two hours after exercise your body is super-receptive to storing glycogen in the muscles and liver.  So the more CHO's you can scoff down during this time (within reason) the better.   As soon as possible have a
high GI meal containing 1 gram CHO per Kg of bodyweight with moderate protein and low fat content.  You need that 'sugar rush' to release lots of insulin which in turn activates glycogenesis- the conversion of glucose into glycogen- cramming energy back into your muscles.  A lot of people find their appetite is dulled after exercise, and a big bowl of pasta the last thing on their minds, so a good tip is to drink a high GI liquid meal as soon as possible, followed by a moderate GI meal about 90 minutes later and continuing with low GI meals about 3 hours apart.  At the end of the day it's a matter of timing, practice and personal preference.  Hey, Steve Gurney wins Coast to Coast on Gingernuts!  But what works for him might not work for others.  Experiment, but remember; do it in training, never in competition.  It takes time to figure out exactly what you need, how much and how often.  But it'll certainly be worth it in the long run.

About the author:
Darren Ellis is a 3rd year sport science student at the University of Auckland, with special interests in nutrition and strength conditioning. Working at both the Auckland University Rec Centre and Unisports Academy of Sport Centre has enabled him to help people achieve their sport performance goals.  He can be contacted at dell031@ec.auckland.ac.nz

References:
Williams, M.B., Raven, P.B., Fogt, D.L., Ivy, J.L. Effects of recovery
beverages on glycogen restoration and endurance exercise performance. [Article] Journal of strength and conditioning research 17(1), Feb 2003, 12-19

Decombaz, J. Nutrition and recovery of muscle energy stores after exercise. (Ernaehrung und der Wiederaufbau von Energiespeichern im Muskel nach einer physischen Aktivitaet.) [Article] Schweizerische Zeitschrift fuer Sportmedizin und Sporttraumatologie / Revue suisse de medecine et de traumatologie du sport / Rivista svizzera di Medicina e traumatologia dello sport 51(1), 2003,
31-38El-Sayed, M.S., Balmer, J., Rattu, A.J.M. Carbohydrate ingestion improves endurance performance during a 1 h simulated cycling time trial. (L ' ingestion d ' hydrates de carbone ameliore la performance d ' endurance lors d ' une epreuve simulee de cyclisme contre la montre d ' une duree de 1 h.)

[Article] Journal of sports sciences 15(2), Apr 1997, 223-230Chryssanthopoulos, C., Williams, C., Nowitz, A., Kotsiopoulou, C., Vleck, V. The effect of a high carbohydrate meal on endurance running capacity. (Effet d ' un aliment a haute dose d ' hydrate de carbone sur les capacites necessaires lors d ' une course d ' endurance.) [Article] International journal of sport nutrition and exercise metabolism 12(2), June 2002, 157-171




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