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Nutrition to recover while staying lean
This is a tough time of year for me from a food perspective. My cyclocross season is winding down and I will take some time off and move indoors with workouts on the trainer and weight training at the gym. I usually gain a few pounds this time of year, and it is not “all muscle.” Can you offer some nutrition advice that will help support my recovery season training goals and prevent a few pounds of unwanted weight gain?
— Chris ‘Cross
This is a tricky time of year for many cyclists. For many of us, colder weather and limited daylight results in training hours taking a nosedive, putting a real damper on energy requirements. Many of us love the miles because it allows us to eat a bit more and not worry as much about portion control. This post-season training often takes place at the beginning, middle, and end of the extended holiday season starting with Halloween candy and extending to New Year’s. Perhaps you were munching on leftover Halloween candy when you wrote this letter? Often, January arrives and we realize that we are in the middle of a real food mess. This time of year, it is best to take a knowledgeable and proactive and conscious approach to food.
First, fewer miles and less intensity means softer nutrition demands, though you still need to make sure that you have good nutritional recovery from training. One of the best techniques for slowing down your food intake is to just slow down. Practice mindful eating, during which you sit and slowly enjoy your meal and savor each bite. Start with smaller portions than you would when training is full throttle and your energy needs are much higher. Pay attention to when you start to feel full and stop eating when you are comfortably full. Comfortable fullness feels like nothingness, not hungry, not too full, almost at a neutral level.
It is also important to plan ahead regarding weekly meals, packed lunches, and snacks. This is also a good time of year to try some new foods (not too rich!) and some new recipes. Have a little fun and try some seasonal foods and new lunch ideas and snacks. Many of the new items that you identify can be incorporated into your diet for the coming season. Keeping a food journal can also keep you honest and aware of what is happening over the next 10 weeks or so. Monitor your weight and have your body composition checked at the beginning of the season. You can recheck body composition to monitor changes in muscle mass.
Resistance training also has it’s own unique set of nutrition guidelines. If you are actively attempting to build muscle and strength, this does require an adequate intake of calories and protein, so cutting back too much could thwart your muscle building efforts. More importantly, you should have 20 g of high quality protein combined with 25 g or more of carbohydrate in the hour before resistance training. Research has shown this to be an effective nutrition strategy to maximize muscle building.
Supplements such as high quality whey protein are convenient, but food sources are just as good. High quality food sources include milk and other dairy sources, and animal proteins such as poultry and fish. You can combine this with carbohydrate sources from starches and fruits. You can also consume the same combination of high quality protein and carbohydrate in the one to two hours after resistance training to maximize your recovery from the resistance training. If you combined your weight training session with any type of cardio workout, increase the carbohydrate amount to a modest 50 g for muscle glycogen recovery as well.
Other “off-season” nutrition adjustments including consuming more whole foods, from whole grains, fruits, and vegetables, and reserving sports drinks, gels, and energy bars for heavy training days. Snack on fruits and vegetables as they are highly nutritious, boost your immune system, and fill you up at lower calorie levels. It is also important to stay hydrated during the day and replace sweat losses during weight training, trainer workouts, and any other cardio workouts.
You can also plan ahead for the holiday season. Approach the holidays as one meal or one day at a time. Don’t turn a one day holiday such as Thanksgiving into prolonged eating and a run on leftovers. Plan to have reasonable portions at one meal. Have your favorites and try a bit of what you want, but don’t feel like you have to have a lot of everything. Keep alcohol intake modest as this simply adds up calories and can fuel your appetite.
Your focused efforts will pay off when you enter the base training cycle at an appropriate weight and body composition.
Monique Ryan, MS, RD, LDN is a nationally recognized nutritionist with over twenty-four years of experience and is owner of Personal Nutrition Designs, a Chicago based nutrition consulting company that provides nutrition programs for endurance athletes across North America.