By Kevin Kolodziejski
Sometimes it’s needed, sometimes it’s not. But one thing’s for sure. Get really committed to cycling on any level and — at one time or another, for one reason or another — you’re going there.
Over the top.
My buddies still talk about the time we were training in the early spring and got soaked and chilled to the bone by a surprise rain just before the coffee shop stop. When we got there, most guys called their wives and called it a day. I kept going with one other guy. The rain turned to a sleet that stung our eyes and slicked the roads. One 18-mile time trial-type effort later, I was safely home — but the tips of my fingers burned so intensely I didn’t know what to do. So I fell to the floor, put my hands between my thighs, and cried.
From that day on, I’ve needed to wear surgical gloves under lobster claws on days when my buddies get by with their warmest gloves. Or the burn returns big time.
I bet you have similar stories to tell and, like me, take a perverse pride in telling them. That’s because going over the top on a ride isn’t inherently a bad thing; in fact, you need to do so on occasion because, in the words of T.S. Eliot, “only those who risk going too far possibly find out how far one can go.” What you or Eliot needn’t worry about, though, is going too far when it comes to eating the good stuff that optimizes your health and best fuels any type of ride.
Don’t Confuse Symptom with Disease
Yes, I know the term orthorexia nervosa, first used by Steven Bratman, M.D. in 1996 to describe the problem facing individuals who become so preoccupied with eating only healthy foods that it disrupts their daily activities and diminishes their health. However, the American Psychiatric Association has yet to officially recognize it as an eating disease, and among those who see it as such, the generally accepted rate of the affliction across the population is less than 1 percent. In short, orthorexia nervosa strikes me as a symptom of a preexisting mental disorder, such as OCD, rather than an actual eating disorder.
But I’m no doctor. That’s why I’m so pleased to cede my soapbox to Stephen Kopecky, a guy who is and wrote a health book whose title should intrigue anyone middle-aged or older: Live Younger Longer: 6 Steps to prevent Heart Disease, Cancer, Alzheimer’s, Diabetes and More (Mayo Clinic Press, 2021). But only after I speak my piece.
Eating Is Never Neutral
For 30-plus years, I’ve written that every bit of food you consume affects your health, sometimes only in a minor way, but always somewhat positively or negatively. In essence, that the food you consume is never neutral. Ten years ago, for instance, I wrote about a personal eating experiment that in my mind proved just that. I had just bought 400 soft pretzels, one for each of our seventh graders as a healthy treat to be enjoyed while watching “Elf” the day before the winter holiday began. (I can call the snack “healthy” in good conscience only because of what was served the year before: two monstrous cookies and a cup of apple cider.)
Since as a little guy I had been absolutely hooked on the soft pretzels sold by vendors in the streets of Philadelphia, I decided to eat one in place of the 300-calorie “super snack” I normally eat for lunch three hours prior to long and intense afternoon bicycle rides just to see what would happen. Not much out of the ordinary — for the two-thirds of the ride. And then the power left in my legs suddenly left me.
I got light-headed. Really light-headed. So much so that the bike swerved unintentionally at times. My focus shifted from cooling down to keeping upright — and not getting hit by passing cars. After that unsettling experience, my lacto-ovo vegetarian diet that my family and friends already felt was a bit over the top became even more rigorous.
Eating a fistful of Reese’s Pieces cereal if I still felt low on carbs after the first meal following a demanding ride — the only time I ever intentionally consumed a few grams of added sugar — ended. The amount of ketchup I used on omelets, even though I had been using the no-added-sugar variety for years, got cut in half. Even whole wheat pasta became a thing of the past.
If those sorts of measures seem excessive to you, consider what the doc I previously mentioned, Stephen Kopecky, shared with DeeDee Stiepan. It lead to “Relationship between food, disease stronger than you think,” an article that first appeared as a Mayo Clinic Minute, was then carried by the Tribune News Service, and serves to reinforce the belief that the foods you eat are never neutral.
Far Worse Than Being Genetically Cursed
Being “genetically cursed,” Kopecky explains, increases your risk for disease by 30 to 40 percent — but an unhealthy lifestyle full of bad eating increases the risk by 300 to 400 percent. Luckily for you, reducing that risk doesn’t really take much. “It’s been shown,” Kopecky says, “if you take one bite of say a processed meat or ultraprocessed food, replace that with some unprocessed food or a healthier choice — you know vegetables or black beans — after a year of two, that will actually lower your risk of heart attack or stroke.” Like me, Kopecky rails against America’s overreliance of ultraprocessed foods and crusades for consciously limiting the consumption of it. While he admits that they are convenient and cost effectiveness, he stresses nothing good comes from consuming them. For one thing — and an important consideration for anyone, especially serious cyclists — they create inflammation.
That inflammation “bothers our tissues” as well as our heart, arteries, brains, pancreas, liver, and lungs. As a result of bad eating, “[Inflammation] could be in the brain with Alzheimer’s, the heart with coronary artery disease, or cancers elsewhere.”
While moderate exercise has been shown to reduce inflammation’s adverse effects on the body, the type of riding you often do causes it by creating the same free radicals found in radiation, pollution, cigarette smoking, and a bad diet. So you can limit yourself to four moderate 45-minute rides or so four times a week, or you can ride much more than that and counteract the inflammation it causes by being more stringent about your diet.
If you like the latter of two options but fear you need a bit more motivation to eat less junk, check out an article previously published here: Forgo Ultraprocessed Foods.
Kevin Kolodziejski began his writing career in earnest in 1989. Since then he’s written a weekly health and fitness column and his articles have appeared in magazines such as “MuscleMag,” “Ironman,” “Vegetarian Times,” and “Bicycle Guide.” He has Bachelor and Masters degrees in English from DeSales and Kutztown Universities.
A competitive cyclist for more than 30 years, Kevin won two Pennsylvania State Time Trial championships in his 30’s, the aptly named Pain Mountain Time Trial 4 out of 5 times in his 40s, two more state TT’s in his 50’s, and the season-long Pennsylvania 40+ BAR championship at 43.
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