How you fuel your body requires as much vigilance and commitment as that needed to comply with the training schedule you undertake. The 80/20 rule is well applied to what we eat on a daily basis, regardless of calorie deficit for fat loss or calorie excess for muscle repair and building of lean mass. If we comply with what we should be eating for 80% of the time, this will help us achieve the body composition and metabolic adaptations we require for better performance. In contrast, the remaining 20% of what we eat may affect how we feel for 80% of the time, psychologically and physically. Variation in meals is key, and too much of one thing, or if we add the same thing to our diet frequently, may ultimately prevent all the hard work in our training from paying off.
So there are two good reasons to eat well all of the time and make sure recovery, tissue repair, hormones and energy levels are in prime condition. This does not mean that rewards are never allowed during a structured training programme, sometimes we need small ‘celebrations’ for the sake of motivation. Understanding the difference between a healthy reward and something which is blatantly toxic, is important though. This takes a certain amount of restraint and discipline which gets easier as the body adapts to becoming stronger and more metabolically efficient.
Many types of ‘commercial’ diets exist, polarised on the internet like some sort of crusade for truth. None of these ‘defined’ diets are uniquely tailored to our objectives or personal physiology, which is something we can only achieve by taking sound ideas following key nutritional principles through a trial and error approach. However, some recently publicised nutritional advice has received recognition towards the nutritional benefits for endurance athletes, such as the Paleolithic diet, Modified Atkins, Medium Chain Triglyceride (MCT diet) which come under the umbrella of nutritional ketogenesis (formation of ketone bodies as a source of fuel (for the brain) from fat metabolism and glucose formation from protein amino acids to store glycogen in the liver and hence muscles) from low carbohydrate, high fat intake.
Each type of diet favours or avoids certain food stuffs, i.e. reduced dairy (especially for lactose-intolerance), more fruit or berries (not to mention the contentious issues of fructose which can be stored in the liver straight to fat during de-novo lipogenesis, no more than 30g / day is recommended) or more non-esterified fatty acids (Omega 3/6) from plant oils (ALA in avocado) and fish oils (EPA/DHA).
These absolute ketogenic diets have been aimed towards paediatric epileptic patients or in sport, towards the steady-state type athlete. Ironman/triathletes whose peak powers are usually much lower compared to a similarly experienced road racer who needs to ‘burn’ more glycogen or carbohydrate (CHO) at higher intensities more frequently and so should tailor their nutritional intake accordingly at different stages of training.
A balanced Mediterranean type diet, including a small proportion of grains, pasta and bread for higher GI foods (if not intolerant) when necessary and plenty of fish, red meat, some dairy and eggs for protein and creatine requirements, would provide many of the macro-nutrients for a performance cyclists while being able to control total calories and as importantly, the derived proportion of calories and substrates from each food stuff being important to suit the athletes default metabolism and stage of training.
Nutritional ketogenesis which is usually established after a few weeks of following a low carbohydrate diet (less than 50g/ day of sugars or starches from any source for 2-3 weeks) enter into a state of deriving most of their energy from fat due to the formation of ‘ketone bodies’ which are precursors to aerobic metabolism in some cells, from ingested and stored fat as well as promoting fatty acid oxidation in the muscles.
This process is beneficial during some intensities of training, in particular for sub-threshold efficiency, i.e. raising the point at which lactate threshold (MLSS) occurs from relying on purely carbohydrate and muscle glycogen stores which may not be fully reconstituted. Doing so provides more energy to be saved for more intensive efforts which can occur throughout a race or criterium, but particularly towards the end where the biggest efforts or highest powers are required. A similar effect may be achieved from excluding or reducing the calories from high GI foods through intermittent fasting, substituting calorie dense foods with nutrient rich vegetables which require ‘fermenting’ in our gastrointestinal track, to provide carbohydrate release. Also, training rides which are initially fasted for the first 60-90min before ingesting some form of carbohydrate/protein will drastically influence percentage body fat and metabolic efficiency when performed infrequently. Superstarch (UCAN) is a commercially available supplement which was designed for glycogen storage disorder sufferers (in childhood) to control carbohydrate levels and glycogen storage in muscles, with the added benefit to athletes of stimulating fat metabolism through reduced insulin release, read more here.
Cyclists prone to over-training can often fall into the trap that they need fewer calories to maintain their ‘preferred’ power-to-weight. This will potentially lead to sub-optimal performance as the number of calories are under-estimated for ride sessions and is accentuated if nutrient dense foods are also avoided, necessary for proper metabolic functionality. Clearly there are cases and periods when strict controls on calories are required for purposefully reducing weight, fat mass, but also looking to maintain or build lean mass through extra calories particularly from protein. The research shows that there are small windows (20-30g of protein 4/5 times per day) of opportunity to absorb optimal amounts of protein and digest these meals adequately without stimulating large releases of insulin, but enough to promote muscle repair (Maximum Protein Synthesis) and allow oxidation of fatty acids at rest. Some proteins now have a protein digestibility index, however natural food stuffs should not need scrutinising, but being vigilant of fat/protein/carbohydrate composition in processed foods is important for your immediate training objective.
In contrast to longer and lower intensity sessions, higher GI foods (of good quality) are necessary to help recover from shorter more intensive efforts as to stimulate insulin release to build glycogen stores and repair muscle after extreme efforts which are also planned in a structured training schedule, particularly resistance work-outs between POWER and ENDURANCE phases and interval sessions. As glucose storage to glycogen and release of lipids comes under the control of insulin and glucagon hormones, modulating these at the right times in training and phase can help you improve muscle glycogen storage, tissue repair and control fat levels and prime the muscles for better functioning during events. Even so, sometimes it will be important to reduce higher GI foods at certain times following more intense sessions, to provoke more efficient storage/ use and elicit further use of fat through a raised BMR, excess post-exercise oxygen consumption (EPOC) for example in recovery and taper periods where intensity is still important but calories from carbohydrate remain relatively low.
Increasing your protein intake during initial resistance training will offset the desire for excessive carbohydrate, and help repair muscle/ immune function and other tissue/functions will maintaining a constant weight body composition should change. It may be worth considering a protein supplement during this phase and adjusting the dose with response. Maybe as much as 2g/kg/day for a male, 1 – 1.5 g/kg/day for a female. Clearly most of that should be from natural sources, but the supplement will help achieve that after more stressful resistance and higher intensity endurance days.
Like training, diet and nutrition is multi-factorial, and there are many ways to approach the right balance at the right time. To develop strength and stamina on the bike the body needs to be ‘shocked’ into adapting through a combination of energy-system stimulating exercises. Depriving calories at certain times during training and providing excess at other times is crucial in influencing permanent and significant performance changes.