When someone commits ludicrous amounts of time, money and effort into bike racing, it stands to reason that the person is fully committed to the point where he or she would naturally include dialed-in nutrition as an automatic offshoot of that regimen. However, after spending time with a wide range of cyclists, I have found this to range wildly from patently untrue (looking at the cyclists that ate an entire cake at my house in one sitting) to religiously upheld (the cyclist I spent a stage race with who had his morning oatmeal dialed in to almost the gram, with calorie expenditure taken into consideration.) As for myself, I vary wildly. One week I am reading nutrition textbooks and considering protein and potassium counts in various foodstuffs, and others, I’m eating half a pizza at ten at night.
This week, I had a “nutritional epiphany.” When I was talking about how this season I’m trying to see just how far I can go in cyclocross, I sipped my Coke as I drove along. After a few minutes of what I’m sure was incredibly grandiose posturing on my part, my friend made an excellent point: “It’s sort of crazy that you’re willing- without even thinking about it too much- to give up having a full-time job and spend all of these hours training, but eating healthy is just too much for you to handle, it’s this huge commitment that you can’t seem to make.”
That’s when things started to fall into place. Just how much am I jeopardizing my fitness for the sake of that big bowl of ice cream (or two bowls, if we’re being honest)? I know that nutrition is important for a healthy life and for a person’s well-being. But then I see elite-level athletes shoveling in junk food (remember when Michael Phelps’ meal plan became public?) and wonder: how much does good nutrition really impact performance?
Being the science nerd that I am, I immediately started searching for recent studies to see what the consensus was. Obviously, nutrition is important. But will it take me to that next level, or am I allowed to keep eating that bowl of Reeses Puffs (not exactly the breakfast of champions) for dessert?
Back in 1983, Clinical Sports Medicine looked at supplements and athletes. Their conclusion about nutrition was slightly obvious, but nonetheless worth looking to as a starting point: “Good nutrition is necessary for good performance and optimal nutrition can make the difference in a championship performance. Optimal nutrition, however, is the result of good dietary habits and is not achieved by following a special diet for several days or by consuming a special food or supplement.” So from this, two things are clear: good nutrition leads to good performance, and good nutrition does not happen in a matter of days or by “cheating” one’s way to nutrition by taking supplements.
Perhaps the most enlightening and interesting study of them all was surprising: a thesis done at San Jose State University entitled, “Nutritional understanding among elite, competitive, male cyclists” caught my eye when I began my search. I assumed that the study would show that most elite cyclists have basic nutrition principles down pat, but the results were surprising. A survey was given out to a group of “elite cyclists” to gauge their understanding of basic nutrition facts. The median score for the group? A mere 55%. Funk, the researcher, said that, “the group scored poorly on questions pertaining to hydration, nutrition for training and recovery, pre and post competition carbohydrate intake, and macronutrient percentages of daily caloric intake.” For cyclists that are supposed to know their bodies inside and out, these results were shocking. Then again, most elite-level cyclists most likely have the aid of nutritionists and have an understanding of their body’s personal limits, rather than the technical science behind it. A cyclist doesn’t need to know the rate at which he is losing water during a ride to know that he needs to sip a sports drink regularly to replace fluid on a hot day.
Funk concluded, “Nutrition intervention is recommended, to address areas of low knowledge and understanding, and develop practical skills for assessment of individual energy expenditure and dietary intake.”
For those not racing at the elite level, who may not have the benefit of a coach or nutritionist, understanding basic nutrition- and misinformation about nutrition- is key. Funk points out that the Internet is crawling with “nutrition guides” that are no more than advertorials pimping one product or another, and as athletes, it is our responsibility to ourselves to make sure that our information is accurate (and applied).
After reading that study, I stumbled on another (aptly named, if you’re into cyclocross) article, “Towards an Understanding of the Barriers to Good Nutrition for Elite Athletes” in the International Journal of Sports Science & Coaching. This study used a focus of elite athletes and sports dieticians to attempt to figure out why some elite athletes had trouble eating well. The results shouldn’t surprise any cyclist who spends most weekends traveling from race to race. “A number of barriers to healthy eating were described. Lack of time for food preparation was a significant barrier raised by all groups. Financial limitations, inadequate cooking skills and difficulty with living arrangements also rated high among all three groups.”
Additionally, the study suggested that part of inadequate nutrition is caused by not eating enough: “Coaches were concerned with excess body weight and fat levels and perceived an impact on sports performance. Athletes reported concern about body shape due to societal pressures.” Because elite athletes feel such pressure to conform to a specific body type, they may not be taking in adequate calories, and thus hurting performance rather than benefiting it.
With these two studies in mind, it’s clear that healthy eating as an elite athlete is not as simple as it may seem. Add in the fact that most racers spend at least two days away from home weekly during the season and it’s even more difficult.
Then, there’s the basic question of “what should an elite cyclist be eating?” Again, there is no simple answer. As one study in the International Journal of Sport Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism points out, “Any person with even a rudimentary familiarity with the area of nutrition and athletes knows that there is an apparent conflict between the scientific bodies that have established the dietary guidelines for protein and numerous popular and even published positions on how much dietary protein athletes require.” With many credible sources presenting different findings, even if an athlete makes the decision to eat well, what does that even mean?
Even this study, which promised to determine the proper amount of protein an athlete should eat, concluded on the vague note, “To attain peak levels of performance athletes clearly need to be aware of their dietary intake of protein, as well as carbohydrate and a number of other micronutrients and minerals. Highly detailed and refined guidelines for intakes, however, are likely to be confusing for most athletes.” While that’s a reasonable answer, it doesn’t translate into a program that can be followed, rather, it just points out that an athlete needs protein.
So what does this all mean for a cyclist? A big part of the problem, it seems, is a lack of understanding basic nutrition principles. Learning basic sports nutrition from proper, well-researched sources is key, as is developing a dedication to the concept of healthy eating. Of course, judging by the research I stumbled across, that is easier said than done in a lot of respects. That isn’t to say that I won’t still eat ice cream, it just means that I may not have two bowls of it, even if I did just ride for six hours. While the diet that I have now may be fine for a recreational rider or a sedentary person, for someone living “the bike life,” it is far from perfect.