The Secret to Nutrition for Cyclists: There is No Secret!

3 Nutrition Truths and How to Take Ownership of Your Own Nutrition

With LENTINE ALEXIS, cyclist and professional chef

When it comes to fueling your body as an athlete and cyclist, the big secret is… there is no secret! No fad diet, meal plan or “perfect” caloric intake will help you ride faster, farther or recover quicker. Only YOU know what your body needs! I have learned a few things along the way that I consider nutrition “truths” and developed a few tips on how to take control of your own nutrition.

Whenever people learn that I’m a classically trained pastry chef, they assume riding bicycles is requisite to keep my waistline in check; that my work requires an active hobby. Apparently, it’s hard to believe that one can stay healthy and bake (or be in the proximity of) cookies nearly every day. So, those same folks are surprised to learn that I actually credit my work as a chef -- and my love of food -- for being strong on the bike. That what makes me a great bike rider is being a chef, not the other way around.

Before I was a chef, I was an athlete. In fact, I’ve been an athlete for as long as I can remember. And, for as long as I can remember, I’ve put a lot of consideration into how I ought to eat. I was a too-tall tomboy in high school, and like any girl my age, I felt a pressure to fit in which led to dangerous eating habits. As a competitive swimmer, I spent a lot of time in a bathing suit and figured food (and the fat, carbohydrates, salt and sugar in food) was my enemy. As a collegiate rower, those eating habits developed into what is clinically referred to as “Athlete’s Triad.” Basically, when an athlete attempts to limit their caloric intake to enhance performance, they can end up inhibiting athletic gains and compromising prowess, creating a detrimental triangle of stagnant performance. It wasn’t until I became a professional endurance athlete well into my 20s that I started to recognize just how negatively my eating habits were impacting my performance, not to mention the vitality of my mind, body, and soul.

So, how did I take a destructive eating disorder and flip it on its head? I did the bravest thing we can do as athletes and as human beings: I took responsibility for my own well-being. I recognized that, despite the many hours I was putting in training, if I didn’t change the relationship I had with food, I was living in a delusion of health. So, I started listening to my body’s cravings and practiced responding reasonably to its requests. When my body gave me signals of fatigue, dissatisfaction, felt unfocused, or weak, I sought to understand why.

Along the way, and through my work at Skratch Labs with founder and renown exercise physiologist Dr. Allen Lim, I discovered much of my intuition has a base in science. And what does the science tell us? Well, in a nutshell: nutrition is insanely personal. This reality is both scary and empowering because it means that nobody knows what you ought to put into your body to ensure you perform at your peak. No one else can be held responsible for your eating the “wrong” thing. Only YOU know that.

Photo by Davey Wilson at No Kid Hungry ride event. 

Nutrition Truths For Healthy Athletic Bodies

Nobody knows what your body needs but YOU.

We can read all of the fitness magazines in the world and can consult with every nutritionist on the planet. The body that knows BEST what it needs is yours. The human body is an incredible machine, and it knows how to ask for what it needs. Our cravings, emotions, and sensations are all significant clues as to what our physical beings need. We don’t crave cake because we’re naughty; we’re probably craving cake because our systems need fat and carbohydrates to function at their peak and our brains know that cake is a mainline for both. Sometimes a big slice of cake is all we need to right what ails us.

There are no bad foods. Just bad food habits.

When you’re talking about real, whole, unprocessed foods, there aren’t any bad guys. Just bad food habits. We don’t always listen to our own cues of satiation or dissatisfaction. (When you crave that cake, does your body REALLY feel like it wants to eat the whole thing? That sounds uncomfortable. Probably, just a few bites will do.)

Real food is athlete food. It’s also real people food.

Athletes don’t require different food or a different diet. They just require different amounts of the same whole, real foods to keep them performing at their peak. As cyclists, our bike rides magnify our macronutrient needs and speed up how quickly our bodies use the ingredients and calories we put in. More simply put, we need the same types of foods as a body at rest, but more of them, and sometimes in more concentrated forms. Sitting on the couch eating chips all day probably isn’t great for your system. But, eating chips in the middle of a hot bike ride might be a great idea (because your body needs to replenish the salt lost in sweat!) Don’t scold the chips; they didn’t do anything wrong.

Taking Ownership of Your Nutrition

Start from scratch.

Forget everything you’ve ever heard about what you “ought” to eat.

Despite food fads, fat, carbohydrates, sodium are all nutrients that your body requires in moderation to do its basic functions. Whether you’re an athlete riding bikes, or just a person in the world sending emails, your body needs to consume foods that contain those nutrients, but in different quantities depending on your activity level. Open the door to foods of all types, in moderation.

Banish boxes and bags.

If you’re looking to tune in and listen to your body, you’re going to also need to take a serious look into your pantry.

Get rid of the packaged products: energy bars, packaged grains, frozen dinners, boxes of crackers and bags of chips. If it has a nutrition label, strive to ditch it and replace the space in your kitchen with whole products, so you don’t feel inclined to worry about the calorie count. Most of these products (even if they seem to be organic and virtuous) have preservatives, additives, and ingredients that your body doesn’t recognize as “food” or “fuel,” and are nowhere to be found in your body’s innate cravings. This may sound like a big commitment where convenience is concerned, especially if you’re still working on your kitchen confidence. But I promise it’s easier than it sounds. Looking for an energy bar? Make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich or a homemade energy bar. Need a quick breakfast option? Toss some oats in a baggie and make them at your office or pre-make a yummy breakfast porridge. If you love frozen pizza, you might love turning flatbread from the grocery store into pizza as well, with your own fresh ingredients. Your food will taste better, and all of the ingredients you’re eating will be easily used as fuel for your beautiful, strong body.

Shop right.

The only things on your shopping list are whole, real food ingredients you can recognize and pronounce.

Now, get to the grocery store. Shop the exterior and stock up on lots and lots of fresh produce, leafy greens, lean proteins, and whole grains. Aim to fill your cart with beautiful, colorful, raw ingredients that look like they’ve just been plucked from the earth or the sea.  And don’t be afraid to pick up bacon, eggs, good olive oil, whole fat yogurt. Skip the snacks and middle aisles. You don’t need the non-food ingredients in those boxes and bags.

Tune into your body.

Listen to what your body is asking for, and respond.

So let’s talk about this cake we all crave from time to time. When that craving pops up, ask yourself why. Consider the context. Did you just complete a big bike ride? Maybe you’ve had a long day? Or, you’ve spent the entire day on the couch? If you’ve just completed a ride, chances are you’re craving that cake because your body needs fat and carbohydrates to refresh its glycogen stores and start recovering - eat a reasonable slice of cake. If you’ve had a hard day, maybe just a bite of cake is more appropriate -- you might just need to treat yourself emotionally to something sweet. And, if you’ve been sitting on the couch all day? You are probably just needing some stimulation, so get up, get outside, go for a spin. Still craving that cake? Have a little slice - your body is genuinely asking for it.

Eat for flavor (and color!)

Work as many colors, textures, and flavors into your meals as possible. Make it a game.

Make every single meal beautiful, and flavorful. Aim to put as much color on your plate as possible at every meal -- add little green pepitas or hemp seeds to your breakfast oatmeal, toss purple cabbage or radicchio, blueberries or red radishes into your lunch plate, and make sure your dinner is a rainbow. Boost the flavor in your foods by adding a little fat (Butter! Olive oil!), salt, and acid (Lemon! Rice vinegar!) to each dish. Once your food is more appealing - visually, texturally, and tastefully - you’ll be more satisfied with the experience of eating.