For the most part, the scientists and the doctors out there did not judge me too harshly on my lack of formal education when it comes to nutrition and I thank you for that. However, based on some helpful feedback, I do need to make a few clarifications.
• I mentioned that Pistachios have half the calories of other nuts. This is based on a per nut measurement, not by weight or volume. In other words, you have to eat 30 pistachio kernels to reach 100 calories but only 15 almonds, or walnuts.
• For the sake of simplicity I talked about the Glycemic Index measuring insulin response. To be more precise, the GI measure blood sugar levels which is usually tied directly to insulin levels.
The thing that seems to cause the most confusion for athletes, dieters and the general public is the common use and mis-use of the terms carbs, complex carbs, sugar, simple sugars, glucose and, sucrose and I admit that I did nothing to clarify this in my first piece. However, a complete scientific explanation of these terms is beyond the scope of this article and to be quite honest, beyond the scope of my coaching credentials. All you really need to know is that not all sugars have the same GI and certain sugars such as glucose are simpler and have a higher GI than other sugars such as sucrose. To keep it simple, for the purposes of this article, let’s just go under the assumption that when I say sugar I mean sugar and that will just have to be good enough.
Before I start let me say that this is the diet that works for me. I stick to it for the most part but not always. I don’t think it is realistic for me or any of you to stick to this diet religiously and this certainly is not meant to replace any doctor’s advice. Having said that, I recommend testing it out in bits and pieces and finding a nice balance that works for you within the context of your life.
I have a small rotation of meals that I interchange every few days. How much I eat will depend on the length and intensity of the day’s training or racing. On an easy recovery or off day I might start with just a bowl of low fat cottage cheese with roasted flax seeds. I am a big advocate of adding flax seed to many foods to increase protein and fiber content. I have however heard there are potential dangers associated with excess flax seed consumption. My understanding is that ground flax seeds are better than whole flax seeds because the body is better able to absorb the nutrients. You may want to check this out for yourself.
On a moderate day I go for a Thomas Better Start Light Multi-Grain English Muffin with low fat cream cheese or butter. Thomas makes a number of varieties of English Muffins but this one has by far the highest protein and fiber content. Realistically, an active cyclist is going to need to have some bread products in their diet and according to the rules of my Pistachio Diet, this is about the best you are going to do in that department. For those of you living in Southern California, Western Bagel makes something called The Alternative Bagel which is very similar in nutritional content but not available in all places although it can be ordered from their website.
For a more filling breakfast on a long day or on race day, I choose Trader Joe’s Complete Oatmeal. If you don’t have a TJs nearby, try to find an oatmeal with at least 4 grams of fiber and 5 grams of protein. I mix in two tablespoons of ground flax seed and use WestSoy unsweetened soy milk. I use this because it only contains 1 gram of sugar but still has 9 grams of protein and 4 grams of fiber. Be wary of other soy milk products as they often have a lot of sugar. Non fat milk is the next best thing as it has a relatively low GI but contains no fiber. After it is cooked I add in a handful of almonds and raspberries. I tend to avoid many fruits but raspberries have a relatively low GI and the highest fiber content of any fruit I’ve seen.
I also recommend starting the day off by re-hydrating so that you are not playing catch up during your ride. Perhaps the best thing is to just drink a big glass of fresh water but if that is not palatable to you I highly recommend a good strong green tea. My favorite is Peet’s Gunpowder Green Tea. Green tea seems to be a steadier, long term, caffeine source than coffee and the way I make it, it can be every bit as strong. Studies have shown that when consumed during exercise, caffeine does not dehydrate. Stay away from orange juice or other kinds of fruit juice as they have all the sugar with very little fiber. A whole grapefruit makes for a nice alternative as they have the lowest GI of any fruit I’ve found.
On The Bike
A long hard ride is not the place to skimp on calories but I did find this winter that you can actually train your body to efficiently burn fat for energy. I traded out my usual sugary energy drinks and chocolate coated energy bars for a trail mix concoction of almonds, raisins and peanut M&Ms which have the lowest GI of any candy I’ve found. It’s a pretty tasty mix loaded with protein and fat and just enough sugar to keep you topped off. Another option is the PowerBar Nut Natural bar which has a similar make up and in my opinion (and the opinion of my teammates) is the best tasting energy bar of all time. It takes some getting used to but my experience was that over a very long 5+ hour ride, the mix would serve as a great long lasting energy source. At first, I experienced a lag of about 20 minutes after eating where my blood sugar would get very low and I would be on the verge of a serious bonk. However, instead of heading straight for the sugar to stave off the crash, I would force myself to ride it out. I would be pretty unhappy for 20 to 30 minutes but then all of the sudden the back up fuel source would kick in and I could go another 2 or 3 hours before I had to eat again. I wasn’t able to do any on the bike metabolic testing but my instinct tells me that it was the fat, protein and fiber that allowed me to keep going for such a long time. After a few weeks of this, the intermediate bonk went away and I found myself going longer and longer without having to eat.
As I transitioned away from endurance rides to higher intensity training I found that I needed to have quick access to simple sugars. For a high intensity ride where you will be going to threshold or above, I recommend having a lightly sweetened electrolyte drink in your bottle such as Twinlab Endurance Fuel (great because it also has a small amount of protein and many other nutrients useful to endurance athletes) and some PowerBar gel blasts in your pocket to make sure your body has easy access to sugar when it needs it.
Once again, it is hard for a cyclist to eschew all bread products but I had to look long and hard to find the perfect slice. The best I found was another product made by Western Bagel called The Alternative Pita. You can make a sandwich out of it or dip it in hummus which also fits nicely into this diet. The only other product I found that suited me was a loaf from Trader Joes called Multigrain Artisan Sandwich Bread. Some of my sandwiches with either the pita or the Artisan bread include turkey sandwiches with low fat swiss cheese, peanut butter and strawberries (real not jelly) and grilled cheese. A handful of Pistachios afterwards seems to top off the meal and curb additional cravings.
While the rest of my meals and snacks throughout the day are designed to keep energy levels up and to at least maintain an even balance of calories in and calories out, I use my nighttime meal to trim a few carbs. The perfect meal for me would start with a lean meat such as fish, shrimp or chicken but I am not averse to the occasional hamburger or steak. I tried replacing the pasta/potato/bread element of a good racer’s dinner with a huge salad but neither my stomach nor my brain were ever fooled by this. What seems to work the best is a stir fried vegetable such as broccoli, cauliflower and even Brussel sprouts. Actually, I should say especially Brussel sprouts! Despite their reputation, they have become a favorite staple in my household. All these vegetables are fine simply steamed in the microwave but I’ve found that they are especially delicious pan fried with a little olive oil which helps satisfy that craving for French fries or other carb rich side dishes.
The above meal is fine so long as you don’t have much of a ride planned for the next day but even with a large breakfast, I’ve found myself losing energy several hours into a long ride when not properly fueled from the night before. You can add in some whole wheat pasta, a couple slices of Artisan Bread and even some fruit until you find the right balance for yourself and for the type of riding you are doing.
Having said all that, I have to admit that my eating style rarely consists of the traditional three meal structure. A day during a heavy training cycle might include two “breakfasts,” two “lunches,” two “dinners” and a multitude of snacks in between. I suppose this is what they mean when they talk about grazing. This is where high fiber, nutrient dense snacks such as pistachios come in handy. I find them to be very filling and it never hurts to load up on a little extra protein during heavy training. Another great snack food is Trader Joe’s Soy & Flaxseed Tortilla Chips. With a heavy dose of protein, fiber and fat, these will fill you up and give you a nice bit of energy without an excess of carbs. In fact, I’m snacking on some right now!
Eating is Cheating?
I used to live with a few of my Kiwi teammates and this was one of their favorite sayings when it came to food. I think they were at least half joking but there was definitely a sense of privacy and even embarrassment when it came to meals and snacking. I know that I definitely felt self-conscious about what and when I ate. On the other hand, at the Adageo Energy training camp this past February I was pleased to see an assortment of “junk” food such as Goldfish, Cheez-Its and even Lucky Charms. I think this is a much healthier and more realistic approach to eating. Food satisfies cravings beyond just hunger. When you are on the road for weeks at a time, snacking on a childhood favorite can create a sense of home and there is absolutely nothing wrong with that.
One of the reasons I didn’t delve deeper into the actual details of my diet in the first article was that I wanted you to take some basic information and work it into the parameters of your established eating routine. Even now that I have shared the fine details of my day to day eating routine, I still hope that you will only use this as a basic guideline. Don’t forget to enjoy your meals. Don’t stress about every calorie and every gram of sugar. Don’t forgo a meal with family or friends because it does not fit into your diet.
And even now, when I get that frequently asked question (heard almost as often as, “have you ridden in the Tour de France”): “what does a pro bike racer eat,” I will continue to answer with the tried and true, “anything he or she wants.”
Josh Horowitz is a USCF Certified coach and an active Category 1 racer. For more information about his coaching services and any coaching questions you may have, check out his website at LiquidFitness.com.