What I Eat

By: Ben Zawacki May 6

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Not long ago, this fair website published an article about the benefits of a vegan diet in relation to cycling and athletics in general. I’m not interested in discussing the ethics of meat eating here, but I would like to talk about what I eat and why. My diet, at least when I’m being healthy, is a pseudo-paleo, semi low-carb cycling, meat-heavy mix with days of indulgence and sometimes regret. I’ll go into those details later, particularly how sometimes the indulgence is preplanned and welcomed while other times it ends with me sitting in a pile of candy wrappers with tears rolling down my cheeks. This is not a scientific article, but I’m a bit obsessive and a science nerd, so the basis will be backed by my interpretation of the science of diet. I encourage everyone to read about any diet they wish to employ and take a critical look at why it is supposed to work, including everything I’m about to list.

And as a preface to the real content, I’d like to get one point out of the way, I don’t count calories. The importance of calories in diet has been blown way out of proportion. First, I encourage everyone to go look at the definition of a calorie and ponder what they learn. I’ll make it easy, a calorie measures the amount of energy required to raise one gram of water one degree Celsius. When talking about food we are referring to a kilocalorie, so the energy to raise a kilogram of water one degree Celsius.

Now it’s time to ask ourselves how those fancy scientists figure out how many calories our milkshake has. They light it on fire, scientifically of course. Using a bomb calorimeter, they burn the food and observe the change in water temperature.

And now it’s time to ask ourselves, do we really have that fire in our belly? Maybe in the metaphorical sense, but not really, your body does not truly burn food, you metabolize it. The way your body responds to one calorie of one food is not guaranteed to be the same as it responds to one calorie of a different type of food. I’ll leave it at that.

My diet has three simple periods; lose, maintain and gain. This of course refers to my weight and my goals. I like to try to lose weight in my true off-season, when I’m not physically working very hard. Sadly, this is now, the holiday season, when no one wants to thinking about dieting. It’s not ideal for psyche, but nothing is perfect. Maintain is ideally when I’m training the hardest which is the bulk of my base period and then all of the race season. Gain is of course never really a goal, but there are times when I don’t really care. Gain is sadly the shortest period but happily the easiest.

We’ll start with losing weight. This is the state I currently find myself in and also what mostly closely resembles the paleolithic diet. During this period, I look at sugar as the devil. All carbs are broken down into sugars when we digest them, so whole grain pasta and other healthy carbs are not considered an exception. The more refined the carb, the worse it is, so I try to keep the bulk of my diet as no-carb as possible, the “good” carbs minimal and the “bad” carbs as absent. If you need help on good versus bad, if the food is closer to brown rice, it’s good, if it’s closer to a peep, it’s bad.

The above tells you the essence of this phase. I try to stick to vegetables, meats, fish, nuts and similar options. These coincidentally happen to be foods that were available to our cavemen friends of the past. And drink lots of water, it’s good for you and more beneficial than we sometimes remember. Another side tip, remember what being hungry feels like, and feel that way sometimes. We all seem to forget the difference between “not full” and “hungry” sometimes. And a final side note, eating fat doesn’t add fat straight to your waistline. The higher fat nature of my overall scheme is not accidental and should not be feared.

The “lose” phase has a lot in common with the Low Glycemic Index diet as well and I try to stick as low on index as possible. I try to use these two diets as supplements to each other.

There are plenty of resources that will list out low and high GI foods, “good” carbs, paleo acceptable foods and so on. If you’re interested, those resources will be more helpful in finding which foods from each phase you like than me telling you what I eat on a day-to-day basis. I base my choices around principle of the type of food I’m consuming, which allows variety and makes life simple. The next phase is when we start to allow the index to creep up, so on we go!

As training begins, higher GI foods and drinks start to appear in the diet. It’s not a sudden shift, the transfer into the maintain phase morphs as my training increases. This is where I begin the “carb-cycling” portion of the diet as well. Simply put, you eat more carbs on certain days and less on others. As always, I try to stick to healthy carbs as much as possible, indulgence can be as simple as a big hearty piece of bread. Of course, sometimes I end up in that pile of candy wrappers blubbering about how it was justified because sometimes we need carbs. No one is perfect.

I can’t go into too much detail about every technique, but the general idea behind cycling is that you “stoke the fire” on the higher carb days, therefore keeping the metabolism high, and then on the lower carb days you switch from using glucose and go back to fat burning. Body builders use this to cut body fat before a competition while avoiding a prolonged catabolic stage. This technique is also thought to help avoid weight loss plateaus, when the body adapts to the low GI diet and slows the metabolism. I’ve heard the body does this because cavemen were more concerned with staying alive than being super cut. Not sure.

I use this strategy to ensure that my riding can stay at optimum levels, so my carb-cycling closely follows my training and racing. It’s worth noting that the body prefers to burn carbs as an energy source as opposed to fat. That doesn’t mean that you can’t train on a low carb diet, but the harder the workout, the more likely you are to be successful with more energy sources. I would also be willing to bet that the low-carb workouts go up to a higher intensity level threshold than most people think. The problem people experience when trying limit carbs is that they are also inadvertently limiting the calories, or total energy, available. I said I don’t like that metric, but this is where it can be useful. If you find that a moderate workout is too hard without carbs, you probably aren’t eating enough of the low-carb food. This is where portion size becomes important.

Without going into a day-by-day breakdown, the more strenuous a day is the more carbs I’ll have consumed before the ride. If it’s really hard ride, I’ll have increased my carb intake the day before. If it’s a fairly hard ride, I’ll increase carbs that morning. If it’s not that hard, I’ll only eat carbs just before and during the ride. If it’s a recovery day, I’ll have very few carbs.

I think this also is a much better employment of the carb-loading that endurance athletes seem to love. If you’re eating a sizeable portion of carbs every day, packing in 500 extra grams the day before a race isn’t going to do much but tell your body to make some fat. There needs to be depletion to load.

And finally, the best phase of them all, gain. In this phase, I eat what I crave. Sometimes that’s a frozen pizza, beer and jar of Speculoos. Don’t judge me, it’s a long season.

*Bacon photo courtesy of Dana Prey.


How to Ride Like a Pro With a Pro

By: Ben Zawacki Mar 25

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Although I’m partial to the title of this article, another, possibly more descriptive, option could be, “how to ride with anyone with the grace, knowhow and skill of a pro.” I won’t be the first to write about riding etiquette, nor will I be the last, but these are practices that often need repeating and there is no better than the begining of a new year to talk about them.

These are observations that I’ve recently made as well as ones that I’ve compiled throughout my many years riding a bicycle. I’ve been fortunate enough to have many great teachers beat these rules into me and some infractions occur too often to ignore. This shouldn’t be read as rules to be enforced by a cycling dictator, think of this as a series of hints and tips to make you a classier and more respected cyclist.

The first observation I would like to make, and one often left out of similar articles, is that people need to be aware of how hard they are pedaling. This may seem obvious, but the vast majority of people ride much too hard up hill and not nearly hard enough down. If your ride is based around intervals dictated by the road, you can ignore this, but for nearly every ride, individual, small group or large, this is important.

First, this is important because it helps you maximize your training time and particularly for winter riding, when you’re aiming for a steady ride, it helps ensure you are doing the riding that you are supposed to. Steady doesn’t mean a steady speed, it means a steady effort, steady heart rate, or steady power, all of which gauge how hard you are working. This is one instance in which I wish everyone had access to a power meter because they will tell you exactly how imbalanced your riding is. 200 watts up a climb feels like child’s play and will regularly get you dropped out of a group, but 200 watts down a hill will often have you streaking away from said group.

Without a power meter, the easiest way to implement this is by feeling the force going into your pedals, sounds easy enough. When you’re riding up a hill, think about the weight and pressure going through your feet, now try and replicate that feeling on flats and downhill. On your next ride, try to keep an even pressure on the pedals the whole time. You’ll find yourself riding quicker across the flats and scorching the downhills. You’ll also find yourself going quite a bit slower up the hills.

The other reason this is important pertains to the etiquette of group riding. To begin with, remember the basics of drafting. The faster you are going, the more important drafting becomes. Riding extra hard up a hill doesn’t benefit the group; it makes everyone work nearly as hard as the leader, riding hard down ensures that everyone still gets to pedal. When I’m on a group ride, I typically try to ride at a higher wattage down the hill, because those behind me are getting an even larger benefit than normal, and a lower wattage up, to ensure that the group remains in tact.

The next observation I’d like to make also brings us back to the basics, turning. Watch any good rider and they look fast, fluid and effortless. Now think about that next time you see the lead rider skittering through a turn on your group ride. It’s not impressive, it’s a little embarrassing and quite simply, reckless. When riding on an open road, slow to whatever speed you need to guarantee that you and the rest of your group can safely pass through the turn, stay in your lane and look good while doing it.

Next, let’s talk about a big one, pointing things out and announcing them. This is a good habit and welcomed by all. What isn’t welcomed is screaming “Braking!” Panic is not a particularly useful way to convey your message and that is often what comes across when cyclists try to indicate obstacles to each other.

When you point to things, point to where the object is, don’t lift you arm high and point in an arbitrary direction, that helps no one. Same idea, don’t yell, “Hole!” because once again, that helps no one. Unless, of course, your goal is to make sure everyone’s sphincters are puckered when hitting the hole.

Branching off that, try not to ride super close to what you are pointing out. If there is a dead animal in the road, you pass by it two inches away and point, you aren’t very helpful. Remember that those following you follow in the general vicinity but you have to give or take a foot or so on each side. So, if you nearly run over something, someone behind you probably did.

The next thing to remember is that attacking or even going fast through stop signs makes you a jerk. It’s the equivalent of attacking during a pee break. No one likes you.

Similarly, after a sprint point, let the group reform, don’t ride at a moderate pace and complain how long it takes for everyone to get back. The point is to give everyone a finish line to go fast toward and then once you’ve crossed that, you reset and let the group start over. This encourages people to “go for it” and if they blow up, so be it, they won’t be left behind. If you are one of the people that does not want the group to reform, why are you on a group ride?

And here is one of the finer points I was taught by an Irish pro back when I was a junior. Hold onto your bars. Sounds simple but countless people rest their hands on the tops or worse. Always have a grip on your bars and this includes wrapping your thumbs around the back when on the tops. It may seem a small detail, but when someone’s hands slip off you can be glad that you’re not the fool that forgot to hold on.

And a final point, when you see someone getting tailed off the back of the group, help them back on. Even if that means dropping off the back of the group to give them a wheel and tow back up. That shows true class and is much more impressive than winning the sprint.


Life in the Clouds

By: Ben Zawacki Mar 4

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In the never-ending quest to better myself as a cyclist, I’ve ticked off all the initial and obvious boxes – get a coach, ride more, sleep more, eat better - and have now moved on to the more mythical, and exclusive top rungs. I’m entering rarefied air up in the higher echelons of cycling. The step I’ll be talking about is living in the clouds. If the allusions to the point of this article aren’t clear enough, I’ll state it bluntly; I’ve been sleeping in an altitude tent.

I’ve always been interested in the concept of using altitude to better oneself. Maybe it was too many readings of Into Thin Air, by John Krakauer, as a teen, but I’m drawn and fascinated by the effects of being high in the sky. In theory, the general practice of using an altitude system is quite simple and effective. Flip the machine on, zip the tent up, sleep and you’re a tour winner. Other methods like low-oxygen workouts and intermittent hypoxic training have also proved to be successful, but are less widely known.

This led me to scrap a large portion of my prize winnings together and begin the search for an altitude system. I did my research, looked high and low at the different companies and made as many connections as possible. A friend of mine provided the contact information for Hypoxico Training Systems and after a few conversations we struck up a deal.

A short time later, two very large packages arrived at my door and upon opening I was greeted by the full gamut of altitude living and training accessories. My bounty included a generator, tent, high altitude adapter, facemask, oxygen monitor, pulse oximeter and all the necessary literature.

Set-up was relatively painless. Aside from trying to put a queen size mattress in a tent while on a high bed frame, everything else was simply plug and play. Running the system is about as simple as it can get, press the “on” button, select a setting ranging from .5 to 12 units and hop in. As simple as that sounds, I was still a bit intimidated. My parents were adamant about not putting a plastic bag over my head as a child; so zipping myself in a mostly sealed plastic tent that was purposely supplying me with less oxygen seemed iffy.

Before my first foray into oxygen deprived sleep, I had a scheduled phone call with Hypoxico’s training consultant, Krista Austin. We would be talking about many things ranging from sleeping with a partner in the tent to intermittent hypoxic training, IHT for short. Sleeping was my primary concern and the biggest takeaway was learning about the optimal saturation of peripheral oxygen (Sp02) in the body, measured by the pulse oximeter. The device is a simple finger mounted sensor that passes light of different wavelengths through the finger and measures the change in absorbance.

While the science behind it may be complicated, the need-to-know part is quite simple. In normal conditions you should be around 99% saturation. While in the tent, I was told to shoot for the 90-92% range. In that zone, you are sufficiently deoxygenating your body to produce a response but hopefully not so far as to make recovery impaired.

Interestingly, many other key aspects reminded me of general training advice. Three weeks in and one week out were recommended and that should coincide with general training method of three weeks on and then a recovery week. A carbohydrate increase may be necessary to guarantee optimal training. Come out of the tent a few days before key events. Iron supplementation was recommended to aid in adaptation. Overall, it was similar to most other types of training with a build and taper phase and factors corresponding to what phase you’re in.

I also learned about IHT training, which requires an article unto itself, but I’ll go over the basics. Essentially, it’s interval training with altitude. Sessions typically are in the hour range and go through a cyclic process of breathing hypoxic air and then ambient air. This is where the high-altitude adapter comes in handy as you shoot for SpO2 levels down to 70% saturation.

Armed with my new knowledge, I did a bit of further reading just to quell any other trepidation I had about my low O2 living. My main curiosity was how the generator simulated altitude. Without getting into the technical engineering, the generator pulls in the ambient air that contains about 20.9% oxygen, does some magic and pumps out air with a lower percentage of oxygen, the difference made up by nitrogen. That air is pumped through a tube into the mostly sealed environment of the tent where the oxygen rich air is displaced by the lower O2 air. The excess carbon dioxide, expelled by you, as well as the oxygen rich air, escapes through the semi-ventilated fabric at the top as well as zippers and other non-fully sealed areas in the tent.

It was time to jump in. The first night, I chose setting number 5, which corresponds to roughly 5,000’ if the generator was at sea level. My current location in Chapel Hill, North Carolina has an elevation of roughly 500’ and you can simply add that to the estimated altitude. With a quick zip, my girlfriend and I were locked in and ready to climb up to Denver. My habit has been to find a city of the approximate altitude we’ll be sleeping at and tell her where we’re vacationing each night. My hope is that this distracts her from the fact that we sleep in a fancy plastic bag each night. With the quiet hum of the generator in the other room and the rhythmic breaths admitted from the filter capped tube, off we went to sleep.

Probably from excitement, I woke up around 5am and checked all the stats. My blood was holding steady at 97% saturation, down from the 99% pre-bed level, and the air was at 16.4% oxygen, down from the 20.9% ambient level. After a quick trip to the bathroom, which is somewhat like unzipping your tent and descending 5,000’ to the campground bathroom, I bumped the generator up a notch and went back to bed. I woke up next with my blood saturation down to 95-96% and the air had dropped to 16.2% oxygen. Although the numbers said otherwise, I didn’t particularly notice anything out of the ordinary.

The first night I really felt the altitude came at a setting of 7.5 when I woke up with a 90% SpO2 level and an oxygen percentage of 14.8. It wasn’t exactly difficult to breath, but each lungful of air had more depth to it. Stepping in and out of a deoxygenated tent is when the difference is most noticeable, but like your eyes adjusting to a bright setting, your “normal” quickly adjusts. I’m currently sleeping at a setting of 8.5, which correlates to about 10,500’. I prefer to say Leadville, Colorado or the wealthy part of La Paz, Bolivia, depending on the night.

I’ve generally been very impressed with low-oxygen living. The most common complaint I’ve heard is the build up of heat inside the tent, but from my experience over the winter, it has been great. We turn the heat off a bit before bed and sleeping has been more than comfortable. The numerical benefits of my system are hard to measure; can I be sure that my power is increasing because of the tent or is it just a year-to-year gain? I can’t be positive, but the science seems to be on my side, my power numbers are up and my weight is down. It’s hard to be unhappy with those results.


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