A Nutritionist’s Dos and Don’ts

Marine LENEHAN, Sports Nutritionist, Massage Therapist & Yoga Teacher

When it comes to nutrition, it is hard to know which road to follow. There is so much information available that it is very easy to get lost. And the truth is, there is no real magical formula. We are all unique, we all function differently by having different needs based on our metabolism, gender, age and training load. But there are some general recommendations that are good for everyone. Here are my top 10 do’s and don’ts.

DOs

1. Eat Wholefoods

There is no better source of energy than whole foods. Of course if you pop a sports gel, you will get an instant energy burst but it’s a quick fix. As an athlete you also need to look at your overall health. Not transformed, wholefoods offer a great range of nutrients, vitamins and minerals. Sports foods are essential to fuel the body and necessary to perform but in the long run they cannot be classified in the healthy foods category. The key as an athlete is finding the balance between sports foods and wholefoods. 

2. Have a breakfast rich in protein

The way you start the day can have a huge impact on your general energy levels for the day. Starting the day with protein will not only keep you fuelled for longer but will optimize your recovery and your training adaptations. 

3. Diversify your protein intake

If I ask you what is a protein source, 90% of you are going to answer “meat” which is a good answer but not the only answer. Protein can be found in fish, eggs, dairy and plants. Plant based protein can be found in tofu, nuts, seeds, beans, pulses and some grains.

4. Eat more carbohydrates

When exercising, especially as a cyclist, you have a strong awareness of your weight. And a lot of us want to drop a few kilos and for that we often cut the carbs to lose weight which is not a healthy strategy in the long run. You are not going to get anywhere with no fuel.

5. Eat at regular hours

The body is a machine that likes eating at regular intervals. Especially recommended if you are trying to manage weight. Eating at regular hours will make you eat less, and less prone to snacking. Meals are designed to fuel your body. By skipping meals, you are not giving your body all the energy it needs to function all day long. This can cause a drop in blood sugar levels, making you more tired and sleepy. By skipping meals consistently, your metabolism slows, making you feel tired and slowing down your training adaptations.

6. Eat slowly and in conscience

Have you ever heard of leptin or ghrelin?

Leptin is the hunger hormone. Ghrelin is the satiety hormone. If you eat too fast, ghrelin won’t have the time to send the signal to the brain to say that you are not hungry any more, causing you to eat more than you should.

7. Optimise your recovery with a whey protein shake

Whey protein is a highly absorbable source of protein rich in essential amino acid’s, branched amino acids optimizing your recovery, muscle and bone health. 

8. Limit your saturated, transformed fat intake

Instead go for healthy fats such as avocados, dark chocolate, whole eggs, fatty fish, nuts (almonds, walnuts), seeds ( chia, flax, hemp), olive oil, full fat yogurt (Greek yogurt), nut butters (peanut, almond, tahini) …

9. Drink at least 2 litres of water a day

Water is very important : 60% of our body is made of water. It helps your body and skin in many ways, including keeping our body hydrated and a healthy digestion. It helps break down the food we eat, which allows the nutrients to be absorbed by the body.

10. Get creative in the kitchen

Don’t just eat rice and eggs, diversify your diet.

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DON'Ts

1. Obsess on calories

Although counting calories can be beneficial towards weight loss and weight management, obsessing over calories can contribute to stress and guilt. Controlling every calorie can cause stress which is counter to a healthy lifestyle. Counting calories can also stop you from eating balanced meals and overlooking the nutritional values of certain high-calorie foods. You should take into account the quality of the calories over the quantity.

2. Consume foods high in added sugars

Bad sugars are hidden everywhere. Many foods we consume have sugar. It is important to be aware of the added sugars in your diet. High consumption of added sugars can contribute to rapid swings in your blood sugar. Stable blood glucose levels are key to a healthy performing body.

3. Eat store bought bread

Bread should be 4 ingredients not 20. Bread is made with flour, water, yeast and sugar or olive oil.

Usually high in added sugars in the form of processed fructose, corn syrup or dextrose, which are just empty calories. Store-bought bread is also often higher in sodium and contains more transformed fats due to margarine and vegetable shortening.

4. Deprive yourself of certain food groups

While it is important to eat balanced meals containing carbohydrates, protein, fats and fiber. It is not necessary to eat all of these in every meal. By making sure that you are eating a balanced daily diet, you will get all the nutrients your body needs throughout the day promoting performance and recovery.  This way of eating can prevent cravings, binge eating, and overeating.

5. Drink store bought juices

They are filled with added sugars and have no vitamins or minerals left in them.

6. Eat meat at every meal

Like I said, meat is a great source of protein but also very high in fat. If you do eat meat, make sure it is lean meat from your local butchers. Avoid store bought meat which is full of additives.

7. Overeat before a workout

You don’t want to slow down your gastric emptying or cause nausea.

8. Forget to eat on the bike

You don’t want to deplete your glycogen stores after every training session. And getting tired out on the bike is not a nice feeling. Carbohydrates are your best friends when it comes to fuelling on the bike. 

9. Eat too much before going to bed

The reason for this is much simpler than you might expect. Eating before bed makes you more likely to gain weight simply because a bedtime snack is an extra meal and, therefore, extra calories.

10. Give up

Healthy eating is a learning process for everyone. If you happen to make a mistake, don’t feel disappointed and continue with choosing junk food over healthy ones. Remember that it’s about small steps that will accumulate into what truly matters, your health.

Cycling Nutrition: What to Eat and Drink During Bike Rides of Any Length

Marine Lenehan, Sports Nutritionist, Massage Therapist & Yoga Teacher

When you ask your group of friends on social rides what they eat and drink on their ride, you’ll get almost as many answers as there are riders in the group. Everyone fuels rides a little differently, which is perfectly normal. We are all unique. However there are some key principles cyclists should use as starting points.

Once we discuss the main concepts, I’ll give you recommendations for short, medium, long, and extra-long rides.

General Cycling Nutrition Concepts

HYDRATION

If your hydration strategy is not on point, it doesn’t matter what you eat or how much. Dehydration slows down gastric emptying and slows gut flexibility meaning that energy will either make it to working muscles more slowly or even worse stay in your gut. At first, you won’t notice much but it gets worse the more dehydrated you become. Hydration Is proportional to temperature, intensity and sweet rate, so it is very difficult to give an exact number of how much you should drink per hour on the bike.

CARBOHYDRATES : THE BODY’S ROCKET FUEL

It is hard to stress the importance of carbs for cycling performance. Mitochondria use this simple sugar in our cells to produce ATP (the energy source for all activity). All forms of carbohydrates we eat are converted to glucose. When the body has more glucose than it needs, it is converted to glycogen and stored in the muscles and liver.

When glycogen stores are full, the liver converts the glucose to triglycerides, which are stored as fat.

Endurance performance is about managing these energy stores, highlighting the importance of the amount and timing of your cycling nutrition.

If you don’t have carbohydrates available, your power output will be low. Cycling is an intermittent-intensity sport, meaning there are periods of low intensity that are primarily fueled by fat, but all  higher intensity efforts require carbohydrates. Cycling nutrition during rides is affected by not only the length of the ride, but by the intensity of the ride also.

CARBOHYDRATES : HOW MUCH DO I ACTUALLY NEED

If we take the general rule that most of us can only absorb 1 gram of carbohydrates per hour of aerobic exercise, 30–60 grams of carbohydrates per hour is the general recommendation. Some of us can train the gut to absorb up to 120 grams per hour when the body glycogen stores are depleted. This is just a general rule and not very precise or personalised.

For a more precise rule, the focus should be on the rider’s hourly kilojoule output.

Let me explain myself. If you are using a power meter, you will be able to know the kilojoules of work you are doing per hour. Based on that, the goal is to replenish 20-30% the kilojoules of work per hour by carbohydrate intake. 

For example, if you burn 400 kilojoules per hour, you should aim for 80-120 calories of carbohydrate (20-30 grams) per hour.

FUELLING ON BIKE RIDES OF ANY LENGTH

Let’s get practical.

The key to a performing body is a balanced food intake. You don’t want to eat too little, otherwise you will bonk out or too much giving you nausea.

Top 5 Foods for Cyclists

Marine Lenehan, Sports Nutritionist, Massage Therapist & Yoga Teacher

As any cyclist knows, good nutrition plays a crucial role in optimizing performance and endurance on the road. Here is a non-exhaustive list of 5 superfoods for cyclists.

1. Oats/Oatmeal : sustained energy 

As cyclists, we require sustained energy to power through long rides, climbs and sprints. Oats provide a slow and steady release of glucose into the bloodstream. This means keeping fuelled for longer, avoiding energy crashes during long rides and maintaining consistent performance levels.

Oats are also nutrient dense, such as vitamins (B vitamins), minerals (magnesium, iron, zinc), and antioxidants. These nutrients play a crucial role in muscle function, oxygen transport, and overall endurance, all of which are essential to help cyclists perform at their best.

2. Leafy Greens : a stronger immune system

Leafy greens including kale, spinach, roquet, and chard are undeniable superstars in the world of nutrition. Low in calories, yet high in fiber, vitamins, and phytonutrients, the benefits of leafy greens are incredible for your health in more ways than you would even suspect. They help regulate your blood glucose levels, helping your carbohydrates metabolism. They also play an undeniable part in making the immune system stronger which can be weakened by regular hard training.

3. Bananas : Nature’s equivalent of a carb bar

High in carbohydrate, easy to eat and digest, bananas are a cyclist’s best friend. They not only provide 25-30g of carbohydrates to supply energy to our muscles, they also help replace the electrolytes lost through sweat, especially potassium.

Don’t just eat bananas on your bike, the fiber in bananas called pectin helps to moderate your blood sugar levels and can reduce your appetite, making them a good snack between meals. They also make a great recovery food for after a ride, add them to a smoothie or eat one on a slice of sourdough bread with some peanut butter.

4. Dates: Nature's equivalent of a sports gel

A much healthier choice when it comes to fueling the body as they are packed with a number of nutrients such as potassium, magnesium and copper which helps to maintain a healthy nervous system and blood pressure.

1 deglet Nour dates = 6g carbs
1 medjool date = 18g carbs

The sugar in dates is usually glucose, fructose and traces of sucrose and maltose providing you a quick burst of energy accompanied by a slow release over an extended period of time. They are great for satisfying a sweet tooth when not cycling as the fiber in Medjool dates slows the rate at which the carbs can be digested, so you avoid spikes in blood sugar levels and energy remains more constant. You only need one or two dates at a time as they are so intensely sweet and energy dense.

5. Beetroot: the performance enhancer

Regular beetroot juice intake has been shown to enhance performance. It improves oxygen capacity. Beetroot is high in nitric oxide. When nitric oxide levels increase in the body, blood vessels are opened (vasodilation), which increases the blood flow bringing more oxygen to the muscles. In the long run, this reduces resting blood pressure, reduces oxygen cost of submaximal exercise & increases mitochondrial biogenesis. Drinking beetroot juice can make you faster in a 20 km time trial, it may only be by 10 seconds but that is enough to win a medal instead of being a runner-up.

To get the effect you need 500ml of beetroot juice a day, more than most of us would normally choose to consume.

Wicklow 200 Ireland's Premier Cycling Challenge