• Posted May 24, 2001

What constitutes "good nutrition"?

"Never eat more than you can lift." - Miss Piggy

Good nutrition is important for cyclists to reach their potential and stay healthy. Unfortunately exactly what constitutes "good nutrition" for cyclists is a subject of controversy. Cycling coach Joe Friel's new book, the Cyclists Training Bible, provides some up-to-date thinking on nutrition for cycling that challenges the traditional "carbo" based nutrition plans.

Most people don't want to have to carry a calculator every time they visit the grocery store, or go out to dinner. However, there's no way to avoid talking about ratios when discussing nutrition. Get in the habit of reading nutritional labels so you know the fat, protein, and carbohydrate makeup of the stuff you're eating.

The party line on nutrition seems to suggest eating from 60 to 70% of total calories from carbohydrates, 20 to 30% from fat, and 10 to 15% from protein. Calculate percentages based on the percent of calories from carbs, fat, protein (1 gram carb or protein = 4 calories, 1 gram fat = 9 calories.

The FDA food pyramid suggests 6-11 servings a day of bread, cereal, rice and pasta. 2-4 servings each of fruit and veggies. 2-3 servings of nonfat milk, yogurt or cheese and 2-3 servings of meat, poultry, fish, beans, eggs or nuts. Limit fats, oils, and sweets.

If you want to get more technical, you can check out the "Glycemic Index" of different foods to try to match the right kind of carbs with activities (i.e. slow burning carbs before exercise, faster burning during and right after exercise).

If you are interested in losing weight, eating more at breakfast and lunch, and less at dinner may help.


Some have recently suggested a better diet is composed of 40% carbohydrates, 30% protein, and 30% fat. Joe Friel in Cyclists Training Bible points out that while the human body has not changed significantly in the last million years, our diet has. Paleolithic men and women ate the meat and organs of wild game, uncultivated vegetables and fruit. They did not eat: grains, dairy products, animals fattened on corn in feed-lots, or calorie dense, nutritionally-empty foods (no Ding-Dongs). Their diet was high in fiber, low in saturated fat and high in protein from the meat of extremely lean animals.

In the last 10,000 years (too soon for our bodies to adapt) the advent of an agrarian lifestyle has brought with it "higher infant mortality, reduced life-spans, iron deficiency (especially in women), bone disorders such as osteoporosis and dental cavities," according to Friel.

While not suggesting that we equip ourselves with flint-tipped spears and go hunting for game, Friel does propose a diet based on the Paleolithic model. For more background, he suggests reading Protein Power by Michael and Mary Dan Eades (Bantam Books, 1996), or The Zone by Barry Sears (Harper Collins, 1995).

Most serious cyclists load up on carbohydrate, avoid fat, and eat little or no meat. Friel says "there is an accumulating body of evidence that high carbohydrate, low protein diets are not as beneficial to health and fitness as slightly lowering the carbohydrate and eating more protein than most athletes commonly do."

Increasing protein may also help control food cravings and swings in energy levels during the day.


Try to shove your carb calories through the "glycogen window" i.e. in the period right after your ride up through the next 2-3 hours. This might be the appropriate time to try a recovery drink such as ProOptibal. Although normal foods work too, the recovery drinks are convenient to take to a race and have ready after you finish. Studies claim that the body is more likely to replenish glycogen stores when fed during the first few hours after exercise, rather than storing the calories as fat.


Don't forget to hydrate properly. 8 glasses a day plus a water bottle every hour (more in heat) is the idea. More water at altitude helps too. When riding a water bottle an hour is the minimum.

Be sure to eat something or use a "sport drink" that provides carbohydrates on rides lasting more than 1.5 hours. "Fat burns in a carbohydrate fire". Not eating during a ride can result in the "bonk" and longer recovery. You don't need a fancy sport drink, though they are convenient. Studies seem to suggest a carbohydrate level of 8% is about right, and a little protein mixed in helps. The need to replenish other minerals (other than some sodium) during a ride is more debatable. Some riders just dilute a Coke in their water bottle. About 250 calories an hour is suggested. Too high a concentration of carbs in the drinks can cause stomach problems for some riders. Try taking one water bottle of water, one of sport drink on road rides. On a mountain bike ride you can put water in your Camelbak and carry a sport drink in a bottle on the bike. (Don't put anything but water in a Camelbak, unless you're trying to grow slimy things for your kid's science project). For longer rides take along a Powerbar, or some fat-free newtons, banana, etc. Experiment with this stuff on training rides, not races. It's a good idea to always carry some food, even if you expect a short ride. Running out of food is as bad as running out of spare tubes!

Bon appetite!

By Bill Becher, Conejo Valley Cyclists.

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