I used to be hungry. Always. I assumed this was just a consequence of cycling and trying to stay lean; I was wrong. It was due to my diet.
I ate healthy food. That wasn’t the problem. And I believed my macros were perfect for an endurance athlete. About 70% carbs, 20% protein and 10% fats. For me though, that is far from perfect. My metabolism seems to prefer a diet rich in protein and fats instead of relying on carbs.
I stay full. I eat delicious food. I perform better.
The assumption is always that a cyclist needs to consume huge amounts of carbohydrate to perform well. Yes; it’s true that during long rides you need to keep eating carbs often as they’re the best source of quick energy for a body that’s working hard over an extended period of time…
…But! It isn’t necessary to ‘load up’ on them before a ride. I’ve found I ride much better when maintaining a well balanced diet of good fats and protein. With only moderate carbohydrate intake when it will aid recovery or performance.
I’m not just eating for fuel. I’m eating to maintain a healthy body and mind.
That’s my belief and I’ll try to explain why. There’s so much more to diet and nutrition than we think. Even the experts still aren’t sure what exactly we should be doing! I’ve learned a lot about how my body works this year, and I’ve tried many things in both training and nutrition. One of which (and the most successful) is Carb Backloading.
A quick disclaimer: Carb backloading works best when doing exercise of around 90 minutes a day. You have enough glycogen stores to get through even an intense session this short. Any more and you will need to take on *some* carbs before and during the workout. It’s common to see body-builders take this approach and isn’t typically recommended for cyclists. But for leaning up fast, staying strong, and maintaining muscle I haven’t found a better method.
This approach to nutrition consists of a largely Ketogenic diet. Where I eat only protein and fats during the day and then train in the evenings before my evening meal (dinner or tea, that’s up to you!). After training I’m free to eat any carbohydrate I like. Even High GI carbs often considered unhealthy (but I try not to go crazy on those).
This is because my body will be crying out for them after a tough session! The theory is that in a glycogen-depleted state, none of the carbs I eat after training are stored as fat. Instead the muscles soak them up like a sponge. Leaving me refuelled, recovered, and ready to go again the next day.
I’m training your body to use fat as fuel (something it has almost limitless supplies of) rather than carbohydrates. Normally, the carbohydrates contained in food are converted into glucose, which is then transported around the body and is particularly important in fuelling bodily-function. Any excess though is stored as fat.
However, if there is very little carbohydrate in the diet, the liver converts fat into fatty acids and ketone bodies. The ketone bodies pass into the brain and replace glucose as an energy source.
And for moderate-to-low intensity exercise this is a much better use of your body’s resources. If I’m training for longer than 90 minutes and in the morning I’ll need to tweak the process slightly. But it’s just a case of making sure most of my plate is veg and protein, and the side dish is carbs. Not the other way around!
What I find most interesting is the way this method helps balance out your nutrients and macros. And how my shift towards a diet rich in plants and vegetables has left me with a healthy and happy gut. Further aiding my performance on the bike and keeping me full of energy throughout the day.
In addition I leaned up extremely quickly. The small amount of body fat I did have melting away within a few weeks. I safely and healthily dropped from 57-58kg to 55.5kg and lost no power. Feeling stronger than ever throughout.
For a little proof, check out this article. Where I talk about smashing four power personal records in the same week! All done on a low carb diet using the Carb Backloading method.
I’ve hit personal records over the past seven days across pretty much every power zone! Some highlights;
324w for 20mins
341w for 10mins
430w for 3mins
500w for 1min
Power to weight
That means my power to weight ratios are looking extremely healthy!
5.8w/kg for 20mins
6.1w/kg for 10mins
7.7w/kg for 3mins
9w/kg for 1min
In The Long Term
At the time of writing I’m training for a very specific, short event – The National Hill Climb. In the future my training will be way in excess of 90 minutes and most weekends I imagine I will be doing upwards of four hours in the saddle (in the morning). So how will Carb Backloading work then? Put simply: It won’t. Carb Backloading is just a fancy name for the timing of carbohydrate consumption.
Instead, I will simply make sure I only eat carbs when I need to. And only in reasonably quantities to keep me fuelled and strong. Breakfast before a ride might be Sweet Potato pancakes (2 eggs, a sweet potato, and some Greek yogurt to finish), or a bowl of oats & seeds with Soya milk and natural yogurt. Something to keep me fuelled and satiated, instead of a big bowl of High GI carb-and-sugar-filled cereal.
I think you get the idea? The carbs are there but they’re always balanced alongside good fats and protein.
After training I will always consume some fast acting High GI carbs. Something like a bagel with jam is perfect. Even cereal or at a push junk food. However once the post-training window closes, any meals afterwards will be well balanced and mostly protein and fats.
Without the option of stuffing my face with carbs every meal at first I was left with a bit of a dilema: What the hell do I eat?!
The answer is mostly lean meat, eggs, green veg, cheese, nuts, and avocado!
A typical day might look something like this
(Taken from my food diary 2nd October, 2015)
- 4 x Medium eggs
- Handful of spinach
- 20g Stilton
- 100g Salad leaves
- 100g broccoli
- 100g Sprouts
- Half an avocado (about 90g)
- 10g Stilton
- 140g Chicken Breast Fillet
- 1 large egg
Dinner – Takeaway Chicken Curry
- Chicken (Tikka and Tandoori spices – dry cooked)
- 1/2 container boiled rice
- 2 x Poppadum’s
- Dips (mango chutney, sweet chilli – you know the type
- 2 x Warburton’s fruit loaf
- Small Banana
- 200g Greek Yogurt w/handful of strawberries
- Almonds and Hazelnuts ~60g
Training: ~90mins endurance with 10x1min efforts to open up the legs. Ridden at 4pm before dinner. Roughly 1250kcal burned.
Total Calories for the day: 2610.
That’s a lot of food for relatively few caloroies. Macros are roughly 50% fat, 25% carbs, 25% protein.
This pie chart shows my distribution of Macros for the day.
An even balance, but the majority of carbohydrate was consumed after training.
Any carbs before then came from green veg such as broccoli or avocado.
Reasons why a Ketogenic diet is awesome
- I can eat lots – Huge volumes of veg and salad contain very few calories. I can eat an entire bag of salad leaves and still not tip over 20kcal. Pair that with a lean meat and I’ve got an enormous, filling, low calorie meal. And I won’t want to snack in between.
- I’m promoting good bacteria to thrive inside my Gut. Something that’s often not even considered. But as I’m about to get into below, so important to how I perform during training!
- I will stay lean and strong. Despite dropping weight. I will maintain any muscle I’ve gained through training and simply shed the fat.
- I’ll feel more alert, more switched on, and more motivated in every aspect of life.
I’m promoting good bacteria to thrive inside my Gut. Something that’s often not even considered. But as I’m about to get into below, so important to how I perform during training!
The Importance Of A Healthy Gut
Our gut is often neglected when thinking about ways to improve our riding. Yet it’s just as important as any other part of your training routine! I mean, it’s what processes everything we eat into usable energy!
Put simply, your intestine plays host to millions of bacteria microbes, know as your microbiobe. Everyone has a unique microbial fingerprint made up of different species of bacteria. Which species you have impacts on your health — and potentially your sporting performance.
I am one hundred percent convinced that part of the reason I have broken a year long plateau with my cycling and training is due to my new approach to nutrition and having a healthier gut as a result.
I find this quote from Cycling Weekly intersting;
“The types of bacteria in your microbiome are affected by your diet, genetics and which bacteria you come into contact with on a daily basis.
Your adult microbiome is even affected by things that happened to you in childhood; whether you were born by caesarean section or naturally, breast or bottle fed and even what your mum ate while she was pregnant.”
A typical Western diet is awful. We consume too many carbs, too much meat, and excessive amounts of processed foods. Even products designed to aid our performance, (such as energy drinks & gels) are full of refined sugar. Not good!
Cyclists need to eat more than a typical person otherwise would. If you aren’t consuming the right foods for your microbiome, this increase in food can negatively affect your digestive system. especially when the foods consumed are full of sugar. This will slow down your metabolism and ability to process the fuel you’re putting into your body… Basically you’re going to get fat. Even when doing hours and hours on the bike.
A diet high in diverse kinds of plants feeds a diverse range of bacteria, which is associated with a healthy immune system.
The Immune System & Recovery
The immune system doesn’t just fight bacteria and infection that causes illness. It also repairs damaged muscle after hard training. Additionally cyclists in general are more susceptible to illness because intense exercise leads to a dip in the immune system’s ability to fight infection.
Probiotics to the rescue
Probiotics have been shown to aid digestion. And even help maintain a healthy GI tract. More importantly they’re likely to improve immune function. Specifically through enhancing a the body’s ability to recover.
Fermented foods naturally contain good bacteria. These include kefir, miso soup, and probiotic-containing yoghurts. I love a good bowl of full fat natural yogurt. Yum.
Lactobacilli and bifidobacterium are two species that are almost certainly ‘good bacteria’, so if you’re going to go for a probiotic, these might be the ones to try.
There are a load of supplements available too, but I’d always recommend going the natural food option when possible!
Putting It All Together
It’s simple, really. A clean diet rich in protein and fat is going to train your body to be more efficient, leaner, and stronger.
You will promote the breeding of good bacteria in the gut, boosting the immune system. Improving the effectiveness of nutrients you eat, and recovery better from training sessions.
Carbs have their place but don’t need to make up the bulk of a meal. A small amount of wholegrain with a salad and protein. A banana an hour before a workout. A bowl of porridge oats when you get home for recovery.
A simple tweak to make on a low-carb diet is cadence.
A higher cadence of around 90-100rpm or more puts more strain on the aerobic system and keeps your legs fresh by preserving that precious glycogen store for longer. And this is entirely the reason we train, right?
I’m naturally a spinner so this is great news for me. A few scenarios where this simple tweak will be effective might be
I’m in a road race: I’ve trained my body to run efficiently on fat. My legs are spinning fluidly at 100rpm, it’s the last few miles and I’m still feeling fresh because I haven’t relied on carbs as fuel the same as my opponents. They’re all fading with heavy empty legs. I can attack, and no one can respond.
I’m out doing base miles: I’ve trained my body to run efficiently on fat. I will be able to train longer, feeling less fatigue, and all the time getting leaner, and leaner as I will not need to ingest excessive amounts of carbohydrate to keep me going. As we all know, any excess will be stored as fat. When I get home, that’s the time to eat the carbs to refuel and recover!
Throughout the year I will keep my diet varied and balanced. In the winter months I won’t pay as close attention to carb backloading but will certainly keep my carb intake moderate during the day. Only completely indulging in carbs for my first meal after training.
My body responds well to the Ketogenic diet. There’s no reason to mess with it now.
When it comes to carbohydrate oats will always be the best! – both pre and post workout – and they will make up a large chunk of (the carbohydrate) part of my diet. I’m not just talking porridge, oats can be used in a ton of ways.
I’ll be making Flapjack for long rides, baking my oats, experimenting with porridge, and even trying out some savoury oat recipes. Rice is also a fantastic source of carbs, and a breakfast staple for a lot of Pro cycling teams is Rice with an egg. Honestly!
Simple, easy to digest carbs. That’s the key.
When trying to get lean and remain strong for a key race or event I know that within just a few weeks of Carb Backloading I can be race ready without any loss of energy or strength.
I’m not saying these techniques will work for everyone but it’s certainly worth a go coming into the off season and with the Winter base miles and build looming. If you’ve seen a bit of a plateau with your form, perhaps a different approach to diet will – like me – be thing that lets you climb to the next level?
#WhatsInRoss on Instagram for meal inspiration