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Joe Friel: Off-season nutrition for cycling

  • By Joe Friel
  • Published Oct. 24, 2011
  • Updated Jan. 2, 2013 at 3:31 PM EDT
Joe Friel is author of The Cyclist's Training Bible. Photo courtesy Joe Friel

What you eat now has a lot to do with how you will race next season. Food provides the energy and the building blocks you need to be fit and healthy come race time. Before getting into what your diet should be like in the Base period, let’s do a quick refresher on fuel for exercise.

Energy Basics
There are two primary fuel sources the body has during exercise — fat and carbohydrate. What you would like the body to use mostly is fat. Regardless of how skinny you are, if you only used fat for energy you’d have plenty of it to keep a workout going for days. But you don’t have much carbohydrate stored away as glycogen. If you relied entirely on carbohydrate and exercised hard you’d probably only last about 90 minutes to two hours

In the real world, however, the body never chooses just one fuel source. It is always using both, but the ratio of how much of each is used at any given time depends on how intensely you are exercising, your diet and how aerobically fit you are. Get your diet and aerobic fitness right and your body will use a lot of fat and spare your glycogen. That’s exactly what you want. This brings us back to the subject of your diet and training during the winter Base period.

Case Study
I’ll start by telling you about a young athlete I once coached. As with everyone I coach, we started by doing a VO2 max test. One of the outcomes of this test is something called the Respiratory Exchange Ratio (RER). This is a comparison of carbon dioxide exhaled to oxygen inhaled during the graded exercise test. It gives an indication of aerobic fitness, and it is influenced quite a bit by one’s diet.

At the start of such a test an athlete who eats a normal Western diet and is in good aerobic condition will have an RER of about 0.80 to 0.85. This means that fat is being preferentially used for fuel. That’s good. As the intensity of the test increases every few minutes the RER rises and eventually it passes through an anaerobic threshold of about 1.0. At this point the body is using carbohydrate primarily as fuel. By about 1.1 most athletes decide to stop the test due to fatigue and suffering.

At the start of the test, my new athlete’s RER was already 0.94. And realize that this was at a very low intensity — just barely turning the pedals. It was nothing more than an easy warm-up. By the end of this first five-minute stage he was already at an RER of 1.0 — officially anaerobic. I had my work cut out for me! Not only had he not been training much, but he had been living on carbohydrate, especially starch and sugar, for the entire winter. When I studied his diet it appeared he seldom ate anything else. When the body is fed a lot of sugar (starch is a sugar) it preferentially uses glycogen for energy and spares fat. He was burning sugar at such a high rate that he was unable to finish long workouts. He simply couldn’t take in enough carbohydrate to match his glycogen burn rate. He was frequently on the edge of bonking. His late winter races reflected his poor eating habits of the previous winter. It wasn’t a pretty sight.

Base Training and Diet
The bottom line of this case study is that fitness and diet go hand-in-hand. One of the key objectives of the winter Base period is to improve aerobic endurance. Good aerobic endurance is associated with your body preferentially using fat for fuel. Limiting the starches and simple sugars in your diet now will help you achieve that. Eating a diet with lots of fruits, vegetables and lean animal protein also enhances your body’s ability to use fat for fuel. So eating well has a direct impact on aerobic fitness. Eating lots of sugar, as with my client above, detracts from aerobic fitness.

But there is more to the Base period than just aerobic fitness. This is also the time of year when we want to make gains in developing muscular force. Typical ways of doing this are lifting weights, running hilly courses, using big gears on the bike and swimming with paddles or drag devices.

Again, there is a close relationship between diet and fitness. Including significant amounts of lean animal protein in your diet will provide what your muscles need to become stronger with all of the stress you are putting them. Without adequate protein, recovery and muscular gains will be delayed and reduced from what they otherwise could be. Adequate protein will also keep your immune system strong to ward off colds.

The Aging Athlete’s Diet
Along this same line of muscle development, older athletes need to be especially concerned with loss of muscle mass during the Base period. As we age the body has a tendency toward greater acidity. But since even a small increase in acidity can cause death the body maintains a healthy chemistry balance by dumping nitrogen from muscles (and calcium from bones) into the blood stream to offset the acidic trend. That is great for preventing death, but it’s a resource-costly way to solve the problem. Muscle (and bone) is lost. A less expensive way would be to eat foods that are net alkaline and therefore neutralize acid sparing muscle and bone. The only such foods are vegetables and fruit. All other foods — dairy, grains, legumes, nuts, seeds, and meats — are net acidic. So the older you get the more fruits and vegetables you should be eating in order to maintain muscle and bone.

Supplements
Using supplements is an expensive way to eat and not all that effective. The bottom line here is to use supplements only because of convenience. Otherwise, it’s best to get your nutrients from real food, not from some powder in a box or bottle. In order to make real food into a powder something besides water was left out. Mother Nature has been making real food for millions of years. Scientists have only been doing it for about 30 years. Guess which has it figured out.

The bottom line to all of this is that eating a healthy diet will make you a better athlete. Focusing your Base period diet on foods that enhance aerobic endurance and muscular development will pay off with faster race times this coming season.

Joe Friel is the author of The Cyclist’s Training Bible. Read more about Joe’s training methods at www.joefrielsblog.com.

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