Interview: A Bike Racer's Diet

Devin Vernick is the Strength & Conditioning Coach at Georgia State University, and is also a bike racer. We all have our ideas and opinions on what we should eat in order to become stronger, faster and lighter as bike racers, but the people who make collegiate and pro athletes perform at their best peak often have the most pragmatic and up-to-date knowledge (after all, they have to get results). So when Devin agreed to answer some questions about how that might work for bike racers I jumped at the opportunity.

Q: Devin, can you talk a little bit about your background in helping athletes find their potential off the field (or court, or bike)?

A: The first, and arguably one of the most important, nuances of helping an athlete find their potential is discovering what it is that makes them "tick". As a coach, if you don't know what the right button to push is, you will never be of much help to an athlete.

Each athlete, and anyone for that matter, has a certain level of potential that cannot be tapped into until a skillful coach has discovered how to turn that athlete on. I tell my student athletes often that among the various roles I may play, one is them is to, "find your killswitch, and flip it off." Training to improve performance doesn't happen until I can turn off your killswitch, and engage you.

Dietary practice in regards to sport, or sports nutrition, is very similar. Athletes have their particular likes and dislikes... For better or worse. Therefore, I can provide all the proper advice and a helpful diagram, and cite the latest scientific research and information regarding the importance of nutrient timing, macro and micro nutrient content, etc. but if I cannot relate it to that athlete in a meaningful way it is not very practical.

Q: So, it kind of sounds like the ideal diet is not really finding what would be the best for a specific athlete, but finding what’s best approach considering what that athlete will actually do? For example if someone simply can’t (or won’t) say no to that cookie, the ideal diet will incorporate cookies?

A: Yes, and no. If an athlete does not "buy in" to the information, or recommendation I provide, then it won't go very far. I enjoy cookies very much, but I understand that eating a cookie is something that does not benefit me everyday. Therefore, finding a way to balance the enjoyment of a cookie with the appropriate timing is a way to satisfy this.

Let's assume an athlete has reached their ideal body composition, and wants to eat a cookie. The appropriate suggestion is to still enjoy such types of food, but do so when his/her body is in a physical state when their body is in the most need of quickly replenishing its glycogen (carbohydrate) stores.  A time for this would be after any training session.

Let's be clear, when the human body is digesting food, whether that food was a cookie or an apple is not important. Carbohydrate is carbohydrate. Case closed. Both foods will have a very similar effect upon the endocrine (hormonal) system, and both can just as easily be stored at either fat tissue, or glycogen.

If the athlete in question needs to improve their ratio of fat-free vs. fat mass, then encouraging the eating of certain "healthier foods" over others should be done in an encouraging and informative way. Simply telling one to, "eat this, and not that", may or may not stick. It depends on the individual. Sports nutrition, like training itself, is a very personalized science.

Q: Very interesting. You say a carb is a carb, and I’m wondering how specific types of food are used differently by a cyclist’s body vs other athletes, or even an average person (who maybe works out once or twice a week)?

A: What distinguishes different forms of carbohydrate from each other is the number of carbon bonds the respective form possess. Regardless, all forms of carbohydrate are eventually simplified into glucose, were it can be readily absorbed into the bloodstream, stored as muscle or liver glycogen, or stored in adipose (fat) tissue.

The debate between "complex" and "simple" carbohydrates is to a degree, an adventure in missing the point. Yes, simple carbohydrates will be more rapidally absorbed as glucose, because of its faster rate of digestion (less carbon bonds, if you recall), whereas a more complex carbohydrate will require more time. Without going any further in depth into a biochemistry lecture, the importance here lies in one form of carbohydrate being more appropriate during exercise than the other, for the sake of a faster rate of absorption. When consumed at rest, all forms of carbohydrate have a very similar net effect on a normal (non-diseased) person.

Cyclists happen to expend massive amounts of energy to power themselves in their sport, hence a greater need for carbohydrate, and fat and protein for that matter. Each macronutrient is very important for both training, racing, and recovery. An "average" exerciser who expends less than 1/4 of the energy a competitive cyclist expends, yet eats roughly the same amount of calories during the day will store those excess calories as body fat. The same would be true for a cyclist who only trains 3 hours each week, but eats like he or she is training 10 to 12 hours each week.

Q: When a bike racer is planning their diet in conjunction with their training plan, what should the main considerations be? How would they get started, and what would the final format generally look like? e.g. a chart broken down by activity - 20g protein extra post training, 25g protein extra post race; 10g easily absorbable sugars 1hr prior race, etc.; or notes on a training calendar schedule sort of thing?

A: Caloric need is determined chiefly by caloric expenditure; a training plan and an eating strategy that supports it should reflect that. In this case, we are talking about a, "bike racer," not an individual who is riding solely to improve their body composition or achieve another goal outside of improved physical performance. The specific amounts of macronutrients and micronutrients needed will differ from athlete to athlete - nutrition science is not a, "one size fits all" approach and thus beyond the scope of this discussion.

Generally speaking, however, a cyclist seeking to improve their performance needs to consider what they are eating, and how much so that they increase the likelihood of recovery and being prepared for the next day of training or competition. 20 grams of protein, and 50 to 100 grams of carbohydrate (that range depends on the duration and intensity of the training session) would suffice. This, consumed with a combination of naturally occurring fat (those derived from natural sources, such as nuts, seeds, olives, coconuts, whole milk dairy, or other whole fats) would support recovery.

Race day nutrition should look no different than training days. Our bodies respond and adapt to what they are most accustomed to, therefore a different approach on the day of competition could leave one unprepared, or over prepared for the demands of it.

Going back to the idea of, "needs being determined by expense," one needs to consider the nature of the event in question. A 45-60 minute criterium and a 100km road race differ significantly in what an athlete will expend. However, the criterium, being more intense from the start, should be approached with the athlete's blood glucose levels being elevated from the whistle. That would be accomplished through the consumption of a 10-20 grams of carbohydrate 45 minutes before the start.

Q: What is the most common mistake you see bike racers make when it comes to nutrition?

A: A common mistake is observe amongst many cyclists, and other endurance athletes for that matter, is taking in too many calories when they are not necessary and too few calories when they are needed. Keep in mind that calories [nutrients] can be spread over the course of an entire day, and one doesn't have to only eat solely around their training sessions. Skipping meals to lose weight, or thinking that a handful of Oreos are appropriate after a 60 minute low intensity ride,  are both incorrect. This is where having more structured guidance would be helpful for an athlete that is struggling to maintain or improve their body composition or feeling lethargic before or after long training sessions. More often than not, athletes are not eating enough protein throughout the course of the day, and acquire more than the necessary amount of their calories from carbohydrate.

Q: Generally speaking, how does alcohol effect a bike racer’s fitness?

A: Alcohol is a very taboo subject! The mantra, "everything in moderation, and nothing in excess" must be applied here. Concerning physiology and biochemistry, alcohol contains little, if any nutrients, and in excess is toxic.

A harder look at alcohol may suggest that it can delay or hinder recovery because of how it effects one's endocrine system. Will a post race beer terminate your body's chance of recovering? No. Will a post-training beer (or several) after every training ride help you recover any better? Certainly not. Is there a large body of research suggesting that excessive alcohol consumption will negatively effect fitness? No, because it is not a topic that has been scrutinized very heavily.

What we can say with confidence is that alcohol's net affect on recovery is negative, therefore an athlete who is serious about their performance should consider limiting alcohol use during intense blocks of training, or near an important competition.

Q: What are three actions that most bike racers could do to get their diet to improve their fitness?

A: Three things that most cyclists can modify their diet to improve their fitness would be:
1) Eat more green vegetables
2) Eat some form of fermented food, or any food that has probiotics
3) Eat at least 10-15 grams of protein at every meal, and 20-25 after a training session.

Q: What sort of diet would you suggest for these three cyclists to best reach their goals?
1. Fred Smith - 6’ Tall 180lbs Cat 5
Did a handful of races last year and placed middle of the pack. He is committed to upping his weekly training from 4 hours to 8 hours per week to improve his results, as well as do 4 road races and 4 crits in order to move to Cat 4 at the end of the season. He would also like to lose as much weight as is realistic, ideally to 160lbs. He has what could be considered an average healthy American diet, drinks 2 alcoholic beverages per day (more on the weekend).
2. Joe Racer 5’10” 145lbs Cat 3
Has been racing for 5 years and trains 10 hours per week on average. He has no specific racing goals for the year except to place as well as he can, and plans to train in the same way he has the previous two years. What he would like, however, is to lose those pesky 5 lbs for vanity: he’d like to have defined abs. To that end he’s committed to doing the core work and changes to his diet. He’s a somewhat healthy eater, avoids sweets, but likes drinking daily - usually 4+ drinks.
3. V. Sagan 6’2” 150lbs Cat 2
Has been racing seriously for 3 years, trains for 10-15 hours per week. Will have an aggressive training and racing schedule, as he’s had for 3 years. His goal is to cat up to Cat 1. His body composition is right where he’s like it - he eats healthy and generally does not drink or eat red meat. For various reasons he’s going to become a vegetarian (he will still eat eggs and milk products, but no fish). He wants to make sure this transition will not negatively impact his training, racing or his current body composition.

A:

1. This first individual is the sort that would probably come within reach of that goal simply through his increased training volume. The individual in question is not currently riding very much, and the incorporation of 8 hours of training each week could have a significant effect on his current energy expenditure. Now, that said, the "averse healthy American diet" is considered by most to be a diet that is mostly processed food, and very little whole foods...let alone fruits or vegetables. If this cyclist then meets their increased energy needs through this sort of eating (the American diet, that is) then attaining a weight loss of 20 pounds will be unlikely. Heavily relying upon a steady diet of processed foods, for many reasons, will negatively effect this goal.

2. Joe Racer's goal may be much easier to accomplish then the goal of the above cyclist. Joe's drinking habit is very likely adding a significant amount of empty calories to his diet each day. Reducing the number of drinks will pay large dividends.

3. When an individual with such a high energy expenditure wants to embark upon modifying their diet, it is prudent to evaluate where and how they will replace any missing macronutrients and micronutrients that may be lost in the dietary transition. In this case, the racer in question does not sound to be implementing a change that is dramatic. Egg yolks and whole milk products contain nearly all the micronutrients found in other animal-based foods (except creatine). Therefore, if this cyclist's overall energy needs are still being met, he is unlikely to incur any negative consequences.