I’ve been a big fan of cycling all my life. The best Xmas present I ever received was my first BMX and I don’t think anything in my life has ever improved upon that emotional high I experienced as a 10-year-old boy.
These days I prefer mountain bikes, weaving through treelines at speed is so much more fun than stacking it into the road and writhing in pain, attempting a bunny hop 180 off the kerb, while your mates sympathetically double up in fits of laughter.
In cycling there are several disciplines. Road cycling, including Time Trials most people know about, especially since the rise in popularity of grand tour events over the past few years. The road cyclists at least understand about carbohydrate supplementation and hydration, if nothing else.
Then there’s cyclocross which is a gruelling short course style of racing on a drop handlebar cross country bike. This often involved carrying the bike and running up muddy inclines.
Then there’s mountain biking which is generally split into cross country and downhill (sadly 4X seems to have died). Cross country is an endurance race and, again, these guys understand that spending 5 hours in the saddle on rough terrain requires some intra ride nutritional intervention.
The downhillers are mavericks, they ride, they scoff mars bars and then go for beer, burgers and a smoke.
Nutrition the big swear word
One thing I have noticed over the years of riding and partaking in other action sports like snowboarding, all terrain skateboarding and surfing is that the only group who seem to give a hoot about their body are the surfers.
The rest almost hold the concept of performance nutrition in contempt.
It’s hard enough to get them in the gym let alone worry about nutrient partitioning.
The thing with the culture of extreme sports is that it goes hand in hand with punk culture. Go back to the rise of skateboarding in the late 70s and it was all about self-expression, being the outsiders and rebelling against society.
Mountain biking attracted similar personalities, especially among the downhill community where the likes of Shaun Palmer were considered gods in the 90s.
Shaun was the antithesis of the dedicated road cyclist, who were considered dull, obsessive and effeminate. No mountain biker would be caught dead wearing lycra, shaving his legs, going gluten free or having a green smoothie for breakfast.
No, mountain bikers were raw, expressive and partied hard, no early nights for them. Besides, those roadies are all on drugs, right? And not the fun kind either (wink face).
So, over the years even competitive mountain bikers have considered riding their bike as much as possible to be adequate for their fitness. Caffeinated energy drinks and junk food the fuel of choice. After-all all the extreme sports events and MTB teams are sponsored by brands like Red Bull, Relentless, Monster, etc.
Striking a balance
Look, I’m not going to say that partying is out and that yoga, foam rolling and meditation are in. But it stands to reason that if you want to have more fun you need to perform at your best so finding a suitable balance is necessary.
Besides, the MTBers I know aren’t kids anymore. I’m 43 and hangovers are no longer something that just happens to other people.
Like it or not, modern professional downhillers are athletes. Just look at the Atherton race team. Dan and Gee train like machines and as for their sister, world champion and world cup holder Rachel Atherton, there’s a reason that she is one of about three females in the world who can ride and jump like the men. Because she trains like a man, she ain’t letting her brothers get the better of her.
So, if you ride often and intend to compete you pretty much need to be getting down the gym and do some compound lifts at least a couple of times a week. The core strength and muscular activation that’s required to control the bike on that kind of terrain at that kind of speed is immense and if you’re not getting on the podium the chances are the three guys you’re watching polish their medals are doing just that.
This is where nutrition comes into it.
If you are training hard you need to recover well otherwise your performances will suffer.
"Most cyclists are way off getting these basics right".
Keep it simple
Let’s not get into calories and macro diet plans, let’s keep things simple. After-all, you’re not going to track that burger and the beers you have after the race are you?
It goes without saying that eating a balanced diet throughout the week will keep your body nourished and help you recover ready to hit the trail hard at the weekend so the following tips might feel like I’m making you suck eggs but, in my experience, most cyclists are way off getting these basics right.
The general recommendations for endurance based sports are 1.2 to 1.6 grams per kilogram of bodyweight, although as high as 2g/kg certainly won’t hurt you (1, 2). Believe it or not the cyclists I have worked with struggle to hit the lowest number there.
Should you be weighing your food? No, we’re keeping things simple. Aim for a good portion of protein at each meal, use the palm of your hand as a size guide. 1 palm of chicken, for instance will yield about 30g of protein. If you’re a 75kg man to get 2g/kg you need 150g a day so that’s 4-5 palms. So, let’s say eggs and bacon for breakfast, a tin of tuna at lunch and a large steak for dinner. See? Not so bad after-all.
Carbohydrates and fats
I’m keeping this simple so I won’t get into the technical stuff here but when it comes to fats, we need them, especially if your event is endurance based so full fat dairy instead of skimmed milk. Cooking with coconut oil, butter, lard or olive oil and snacking occasionally on nuts will give you everything you need.
As for carbs, especially if your event is downhill and you are riding hard and fast in relatively short bursts then having enough glycogen in your muscles is essential for these harder efforts. The ISSN (2) recommend 5-8 grams’ per kilo of body weight. But, again we’re keeping this simple because you’re too busy checking the sag on your bike’s suspension to worry about weighing your food.
A couple of fist sized servings of wet rice, mashed potato or bread rolls 2-3 times per day should hold it. When you’re on the trail pack a couple of trek bars, 9 bars, cliff bars or something similar to keep you topped up. They taste great in my opinion.
If you naturally prefer fattier foods then just slightly reduce the carbs which means less mash and more cheese, simples!
Beer is not a hypertonic sports drink, sorry guys that’s just the way it is. Aim for 1.5-2 litres of un-caffeinated and non-alcoholic liquid a day. If water is really too dull to satisfy your need for instant gratification go for a cordial, infuse some fruits into your water bottle for more flavour or herbal tea (for the roadies obvs).
When you’re on the trail, you can sip from your bottle as you travel back up for your next descent and make sure you chug some water at the end of the day, before you start on the beers.
Also, caffeinated energy drinks won’t really hydrate you, there are some ergogenic benefits from caffeine intake (2) but not for you because you probably drink these things every day.
Thirst is not a great indicator of hydration, by the time you’re thirsty you’re already dehydrated and your pee is going to be getting rid of all sorts of pollutants and might be darker than expected. So just aim to drink a pint every 2-3 hours.
A pint of water, that is!
Eat your 5-a-day
You’re not getting down from that table until you have eaten all your greens. If I had a £ for every time my mum said that to me as a kid, I’d probably be paying Ben’s wages right now.
Vegetables and fruit contain tonnes of essential vitamins and minerals and fruit also provides you with some of those carbs I mentioned earlier. I’m not listening to anyone who says (whiney voice) “I don’t like vegetables”
But seriously, have some mushrooms and tomatoes with your eggs and bacon, have some salad leaves with your tinned tuna and have some carrots and green beans with your steak. There you go a full spectrum of veggies to fit your routine and not a set of scales in sight.
Those vitamins and the fibre in the fruit and veg are really very important in helping you to recover from the exercise and the partying and nobody wants to miss a meet because they have flu.
OK, so you’ve exhausted the trail and your legs but it’s going to take a while to pack the bikes into the van and drive to the nearest pub for your burger and beers so how do you get some instant energy into your body to stop the shakes?
You’re gonna love this!
Chocolate milk. Chocolate milk has long been used for post exercise recovery (3). It contains the perfect balance of all the right nutrients to replenish your energy levels and stimulate recovery. Just get a 500ml bottle from the service station on your way to the trail centre.
So, drink your water, chug the chocolate milk and then set-off for post ride shenanigans.
There you go, it’s possible to take a slightly more serious approach to your nutrition but, as you can see, it’s not as complex as you think and there’s no need for obsessing over it. Just eat balanced meals, cut down on the junk foods and then you can, not only, enjoy your rides more but you can also enjoy the post ride lolz knowing that you’ve been a good boy or girl through the week.
Let’s sum it all up...
- Protein at every meal
- Carbs and fats to suit your pallet with a few extra carbs on the trail
- Drink water, 3-4 pints a day
- Get your veggies in, even if you have to hide them in a carrot cake (wink face)
- Ride hard, party hard, eat to win
- Dr. Scott Howitt CK, CSCS, DC, FCCRS FCCSS SPC Director. Endurance Performance and Protein Ingestion? What all endurance athletes need to know. WWW.SPORTSPERFORMANCECENTRES.COM
- Kreider et al. Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition 2010, 7:7 http://www.jissn.com/content/7/1/7
- Jason R. Karp, et al (2006) Chocolate Milk as a Post-Exercise Recovery Aid. International Journal of Sport Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism