2 Common Cycling Nutrition Myths Debunked
By: Bob Seebohar, MS, RD, CSSD, CSCS, METS II
Do this, not that. It seems like everyone has a way of doing things these days, and with that comes a few myths that develop from the “n-of-1” experiments, or even better - from watching what pro cyclists do. Ah yes, this is the most popular method of receiving information and wondering if we should implement some of these “professional” nutrition strategies.
Let's go ahead and jump into two of the more common nutrition myths that cyclists encounter these days.
Myth #1: I need to do all my training sessions fasted to burn more fat.
I have read that quite a few Tour riders embark on this type of training, but it is monitored closely and meticulously periodized by their coaches and physiologists, so it does not have a negative impact on their performance. While there is some promising research showing fasted training can produce beneficial results in terms of fat adaptation and mitochondrial biogenesis, hopping on the bike in a fasted state for all sessions is simply not a good idea.
If you have an aerobic (zone 1 or 2) ride planned early in the morning and you wake up not hungry then by all means, don’t force-feed yourself. Do the session and eat breakfast right after.
However, it is a good idea to have some calories (specifically carbohydrate with a little bit of protein and fat) in your system prior to threshold (zone 4 and above) rides to be able to achieve your training objectives (power, heart rate, etc.). While not impossible, it is very difficult to achieve higher intensity efforts in a fasted state.
So, choose one or two aerobic rides per week that you can do fasted and be sure to feed before the others to improve your fitness and FTP (functional threshold power). Of course, make sure you are doing this at the right time of the year to produce positive gains, not negative consequences.
Myth #2: I need to eat like the Tour riders.
You don’t need to think of every ride as a buffet on wheels, like they do in the Tour. The Tour is a bit different in energy burn and calorie needs. While current research provides a range of calories for cyclists to consume each hour, it is important that this must be individualized and customized.
The calorie intake per hour ranges from 120 - 360. Unfortunately, this is a very large range and far too general to try to pinpoint where an older male cyclist falls versus a younger female cyclist in terms of their hourly calorie needs. The best way to learn your individual needs would be to have a metabolic efficiency test done. Testing, of course, will provide you a better physiological “picture” of your body, including its energy burn and calorie needs.
What About Carbohydrate Needs?
Certainly, you need carbohydrates on a ride, but this need is largely dependent on three things: 1) your level of metabolic efficiency, 2) the duration of your ride, and 3) the intensity of your ride.
If you have trained your body to use more fat at a higher FTP, then your body will not have to tap as much into your internal carbohydrates stores during rides that are under your metabolic efficiency FTP. What this means is that you will not need as many supplemental carbohydrates during a ride, so you don’t have to stuff your pockets with gels, bars, and chews.
Of course, the inverse is also true. If you are a “carb burner”, you are going to require a lot more supplemental carbohydrates during your rides because this is what your body has been taught. On that point, just like you can teach your body to raise its FTP through proper training, you can teach your body to improve its fat (or carbohydrate) burning through manipulations of your daily diet.
Maybe you don’t have the chance to have a metabolic efficiency test and you need to use the current research range of carbohydrate intake. While not too scientific, the best place to start is by eating between 120-180 calories per hour for females and 200-250 calories per hour for males. Give it about 4-6 weeks and try a few rides that are lower and a few that are higher than this, and note any differences you find in your power, recovery time, sleep patterns, and hunger levels post riding.
Most cyclists have enough carbohydrates stored in their bodies to get them through about 2-3 hours’ worth of moderate intense (50-70% FTP) training sessions. This usually means that if your ride is less than 2-3 hours, you should be fine with only consuming water and maybe some electrolytes.
Of course, there are some special situations that may apply, such as if you have intensity mixed with duration, or are climbing some serious hills that would elevate your intensity factor (IF) quite significantly.
However, for the most part, don’t feel like you need to stuff yourself full of sugar on shorter rides - especially if they are aerobic-based.
Any increase in intensity will put your body into carbohydrate-burning-mode like crazy. While it differs from cyclist to cyclist, once you are riding above 70-80% of your FTP, you will likely be relying more on carbohydrates as your primary energy source.
There are outliers, and I have personally seen cyclists burn more fat up to 85-89% of their FTP, but that is not the norm.
Take home message here is when you are getting above zone 3, you will likely need to eat a few more carbs during a ride.
Take Home Message
There is certainly a time and place for fasted training and consuming a few more carbohydrates while in the saddle. However, like training, these practices should be planned into your training to yield the most benefit possible. And if you are working with a coach, be sure to communicate with them and try a few experiments in different training cycles throughout the year.
Check out his newest book, Metabolic Efficiency Recipe book (second edition) at the eNRG Performance website.
Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit www.enrgperformance.com.