Should It Be All Carbs For Cyclists?

I’ve spent more hours than I’d like to admit writing about the merits of riding a bike for fitness. That’s the niche I’m most comfortable in, particularly on the subject of riding indoors on a bike trainer when the circumstances warrant it.

But a short email conversation with Howard (the blog owner) has prompted me to step out of the box and write a little bit about nutrition as it relates to riding a bike. It seems that Howard read one of my blog posts in which I was smarting off about carrying a t-bone steak in my cycling jersey for a little ‘mid-ride’ refreshment.

Well, I’m not so primitive that I’d think that a steak is the right food for a quick ‘pick-me-up’, but the days of merely eating carbs when exercising have come and gone.

So for now I say good-bye to indoor bike trainers, and hello to my past days as an Olympic Trials marathon runner, and current days as a masters bike racer. Here’s what I’ve observed in the evolution of sports nutrition.

No Need To Re-invent The Wheel

There’s a real shortcut when it comes to trying to figure out the correct ratios of nutrients needed to optimize a person’s fitness efforts.

Piggyback off of the findings of a sophisticated energy drink company.

I don’t mean Gatorade, a company which made a fortune pioneering the way by adding salt and corn syrup to water. In those days there were no other products, so the commercial pickings were easy. The other category of ‘energy drink’ I’m not referring to are the Red Bull-type of drinks that aren’t much more than liquid amphetamines.

I’m referring to the companies that take their products very seriously…scouring the scientific journals for any study that will give them insight into making their products more effective for increased athletic performance.

One of the sponsors of the bike racing team I’m associated with is Cytosport. If you want to be privy to the cutting edge of sports nutrition, just take a look at their findings. These guys are serious about mixing their carbs, proteins, and fats together correctly.

It’s Not Just Meatless Spaghetti Anymore

When I was a hardcore marathon runner back in the 1980’s, carbo-loading was all the rage. We would ‘starve’ our muscles of glycogen for a few days early in the week leading up to a marathon we were focusing on and then late in the week, and up until the event, we’d go all out on the carbohydrates.

The theory was that our glycogen-starved muscles would overcompensate and pack themselves to the brim (and then some) with energy.

That’s not so popular anymore. Now the focus is on what you’re taking in immediately before and during the event…and what you take in is likely to contain some branched-chain amino acids along with the carbohydrates.

Let’s Look At What Cytomax Is Cooking For Dinner

Let’s take a quick look at what the researchers at Cytomax have found to be optimal for pre-event nutrition.

Here’s a summary from their literature, “Recent research confirms the need for more protein to stabilize and sustain peak energy levels and begin the recovery process while you’re actually training or participating in your event.” They go on to reveal that high carb intake without the moderation of proteins and fats leads to blood sugar levels ‘crashing’.

But it’s not so easy as merely carrying that t-bone steak around with you. What’s optimal are easily digestible branched-chain amino acids. Cytomax chooses to use whey since it has been shown to be ‘released rapidly at high concentrations and then move very quickly out of the digestive track and into tissue.’

A look at the ratio of nutrients in their ‘Pre-Performance’ product reveals the following in a serving of 70 grams:

-fat is less than 2 grams.
-carbohydrates are 35 grams.
-proteins are 26 grams.

I realize that those figures don’t add up precisely to 70 grams, but my point here isn’t to exercise my auditing skills, but rather to point out that easily digestible proteins are an important part of exercise nutrition.

Some ‘Low-tech’ Foods Will Do, Too

Sometimes it’s nice to push aside all of the precision of the labs and just eat some ‘good ole food’. When I think of a food to put in the pocket of my cycling jersey (after pushing the t-bone off to one side of the pocket), I think of a peanut butter and banana sandwich.

In the peanut butter you have some proteins (peanuts have a glycemic index of 15…a slow release of energy), in the banana you have a carbohydrate with a glycemic index of around 52 (similar to brown rice, that has a glycemic index of 55), and in whole grain bread you get carbs with a glycemic index of around 50.

And here’s something that my cycling coach finds amusing…chocolate milk is the perfect after-workout food. It seems that you need more than proteins to build up the muscles after a very hard workout. In addition, you need to replenish the sugar stores in your muscles to facilitate a much more rapid recovery.

So while adding proteins to the nutrition needed during the event is a rather new concept, adding carbs to after-event food in order to achieve rapid recovery is also a new kid on the nutrition block.

Of course the chocolate milk angle assumes you aren’t lactose intolerant, because if you are, you’ll be doubled over with gas pains after gulping down a quart or two following your run or ride.

There’s more to be covered in the sports nutrition world, but I suspect you’re about as tired of reading as I am of writing. Let’s call it a day…and leave knowing that sports nutrition has come a long way from the days of adding salt and corn syrup to water, with some of the largest gains being in the field of introducing easily digestible proteins into the sports performance ‘soup’.

About the author: Ron Fritzke is a cycling product reviewer with a passion for ‘all things cycling’. A former 2:17 marathoner, he now directs his competitive efforts toward racing his bike…and looking for good cycling products. Recently he’s been focused on products like the CycleOps Magneto bike trainer and the Cycleops Fluid 2, but appreciates Howard’s prompting to share a bit of what he knows about sports nutrition.

I’ve also written an article on the use of High Intensity Interval Workouts as a way in which to get as much from exercise in as little time as possible.  You can turbo-charge your weight loss with HIIT.

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2 Responses to Should It Be All Carbs For Cyclists?

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