If you ever want to clear a room of mountain bikers either tell them you are out of beer or, better yet, tell them you want to talk about nutrition. Nutrition is one of those subjects that everyone knows is important but they can rarely muster more than a passing interest in it. One of the reasons for this is that it tends to get overcomplicated and confusing and we like to spend our time riding rather than counting calories and munching on a celery stick.
But while nutrition is an immensely complex subject it can actually be boiled down to some very simple steps. The most important thing to remember is that what you eat fuels your body. Understanding that there are times that you want to eat for purpose and not for pleasure is very important. You will ride much faster and sustain it longer if you have the right fuel in your body.
For me it all comes down to the 3 W’s of Nutrition.
This is the basic plan I use with all of my new clients to help them easily get their nutrition on track and dialed in…
Before we can get into specifics we need to know the basics about “who” we are going to eat. These include the Protein, Carbohydrates, and Fats. Unfortunately, a lot of riders I talk to aren’t clear on what these things are and why each of them is important for us to eat.
Here is a quick rundown of each of these three macronutrients and some basic food sources for each of them:
– Protein is mainly used by the body to repair and build muscle tissue. It is broken down into smaller parts called amino acids and these amino acids are then shuttled to where they are needed. Some of these amino acids can only be gotten through food and are called Essential Amino Acids. Without them, your body can’t perform certain critical tasks and this affects your health and performance. Your body can also use amino acids as an energy source when faced with starvation or an extreme metabolic environment, usually from too much exercise.
– Lean proteins sources include eggs, beef, chicken, fish, yogurt, cottage cheese or a protein supplement. You want 10-30 grams of protein with your meals, which is about the size of your palm when on your plate.
– Carbohydrates, or “carbs” as they are commonly referred to, are used by your body to fuel bursts of energy by the anaerobic energy system. They are mainly stored in the body as glycogen and turned into glucose when released into the bloodstream to help fuel an effort.
– Natural carb sources include vegetables and fruits. Vegetables are preferred because they are high in fiber and will help you feel full longer. Fruits are fine in limited amounts because although they still contain fiber and are better than refined carbs, they have a larger impact on blood sugar levels.
– Fats are primarily used to fuel the aerobic energy system, which is active at both low and high intensity levels. They are also used by the body for the production of hormones and support healthy joints, brain function, hair, skin and countless other functions in the body. There are also Essential Fatty Acids that the body needs that can only be obtained through food or supplementation.
– Healthy fats include things like avocados, nuts, flax seed oil, coconut oil or extra virgin olive oil. Getting a variety of fats in your diet is best since the different types have different benefits for your body and will help keep you from developing imbalances that can impact your health and performance.
The next piece of the puzzle is to look at “what” we want to put on our plates each time we eat. Instead of trying to count calories or focus on including or excluding certain foods you want to focus on basic habits that make it easy to fill your plate with the right choices.
In order to get the most out of each meal here are the habits I get riders to focus on when they eat:
– Focus on what to eat rather than what not to eat. Focusing on what to avoid leads to a negative mindset with food and is tough to sustain. If you instead focus on what you want to include with each meal – lean proteins, healthy fats, and natural carbs – then there is naturally going to be less room in your mind and on your plate for the other stuff.
– Each meal should contain a palm-sized portion of lean protein, half the plate filled with vegetables and some healthy fats added in as well. Fruit is optional and should be eaten sparingly, especially if fat loss is a goal.
– Make note of how certain foods make you feel. We all react differently to some foods and you may find that some healthy foods still leave you feeling lethargic or bloated. Find foods that make you feel good after eating them and rely on them as the mainstay of your meals.
– At first, this will take planning so write out your weekly meal plan and use it as a checklist. This is a tip I got from my buddy Marc Halpern, R.D. and it is a great way to make better use of a “food journal”. Instead of writing down what you ate after you have eaten it, write out what and when you plan to eat and then check it off as you do it. This is a much more proactive approach and gets you thinking about creating success instead of just recording your actions.
The last step is to understand “when” is the best time for you to eat. Contrary to what some experts would lead you to believe, there is no perfect meal schedule that works for everyone. Some people do best with 4-6 feedings a day and some do best with 1 meal a day.
The best thing to do is be flexible and see what works best for you. Here are the basic guidelines I use to help riders find the best meal schedule for them:
– Let hunger be your guide. This has two sides to it. First, if you are eating well you should be able to go for several hours before starting to feel hungry. Your energy levels should carry you through to your next meal. The second part of this is that you shouldn’t force yourself to eat. If you are not hungry then don’t eat or don’t eat as much. When sitting down to a meal make sure to listen to your body and stop eating when you are full, not when you are stuffed or have “cleaned your plate”.
– Start with getting breakfast, lunch, and dinner on a consistent basis and see how you feel. If you consistently don’t feel hungry before your next meal, then experiment with cutting back to 1 or 2 meals a day (see the Intermittent Fasting section in this chapter). If you are having trouble keeping your energy levels up between meals, then look to add 1 or 2 snacks/ mini-meals a day between meals.
Something else to keep in mind is that trying to do too much too soon can sabotage even the best of intentions so don’t fall into that trap. If you take it one step at a time you will find your eating habits getting much better with minimal frustration. After a while, these steps will simply be a habit and you won’t even think about it anymore, it will just be how you eat.
You also want to keep in mind that you do not have to eat perfectly to gain the benefits of proper nutrition. It is called the Rule of 90% – doing something right 90% of the time will gain you almost all of the benefits of doing it right 100% of the time. The idea is to change your junk food diet with some good food thrown in into a good food diet with some junk food thrown in. This means that if you have some post ride beer and pizza every once in while you are not totally sabotaging your efforts
While there is a lot more than can go into your nutrition plan, these basic steps will gain you most of the benefits you want. I never tell someone to count a single calorie or measure out a single portion of food until they have these things down. The funny thing is, I rarely need to go any deeper than this – everything just seems to fall into place when these steps are followed.
You don’t realize how much bad nutrition affects you until you start to eat better. Everyone thinks that their diet of beer and fast food is sufficient but the truth is that you are holding yourself back. Implement these simple steps and you’ll be amazed at how much more energy and focus you have on the trail.
Until next time…