RBR Reader Chris e-mailed me, “I have questions following up on last week’s column on Anti-Aging: How to Improve Your Diet and Performance This Winter. You wrote, ‘Eating the optimal mix of carbs, protein and fat off the bike will improve your performance on the bike. On the bike eating correctly to fuel your different energy systems will increase your endurance and capacity to go harder.’ Please explain in more detail.”
What’s the optimal amount of carbs in my daily diet?
Carbs provide your energy both to ride and for daily activities. The right carbs also help to prevent disease and control weight.
In The Cyclist’s Food Guide, 2nd ed Nancy Clark, MS, RD and Jenny Hegmann, MS, RD recommend, “Carbohydrates should be the foundation of each meal and snack in your sports diet. Carbs get stored in your muscles for fuel; this fuel is called muscle glycogen. When your muscle glycogen stores are low, you’ll experience extreme fatigue. Carbs also travel in your blood stream (called blood glucose or blood sugar) and supply fuel for your brain. When your blood glucose drops, your brain lacks the fuel it needs to concentrate on the task at hand. This also contributes to daily fatigue.”
For daily consumption they recommend:
|If you weigh||Recreational Cyclist||Competitive Cyclist|
|Target grams of carbs / day|
|100 lbs (45 kg)||200 to 300 g (800 to 1200 calories)||400 to 500 g (1600 – 2000 cal.)|
|125 lbs (57 kg)||250 to 375 g (1000 to 1500 cal.)||500 to 625 g (2000 – 2500 cal)|
|150 lbs (68 kg)||300 to 450 g (1200 to 1800 cal.)||600 to 750 g (2400 to 3000 cal.)|
|175 lbs (80 kg)||350 to 525 g (1400 to 2100 cal.)||700 to 875 g (2800 to 3500 cal.)|
- 1 gram of carbs = 4 calories
[The Cyclist’s Food Guide, 2nd ed. pp 50 – 57]
Note: Both Clark and Hegmann have Master’s of Science degrees in nutrition and are registered dieticians. When you’re doing your own research look for someone with academic degrees / certifications.
An easy way to practice good nutrition is to cover your plate primarily with carbo-rich foods like fruits, vegetables, fruit, brown rice, whole meal pasta, whole grain breads, lentils, chick peas and corn on the cob. And a small serving of protein.
I provide more information in these columns:
- Anti-Aging: Nutrition, part 1: Daily Food and Drink
- Anti-Aging: Nutrition, part 2: Supplements: Vitamins, Minerals and Antioxidants
But I read on the web that carbs are bad for you. What’s the truth?
Reputable sources make an important distinction between bad carbs and good carbs:
- Cleveland Clinic Good vs. Bad Carbs: What Should You Eat?
- Mayo Clinic Carbohydrates: How carbs fit into a healthy diet
- WebMD What’s the Difference Between Good and Bad Carbs?
- Medical News Today How bad are carbs, really?
- American Diabetes Association Get to Know Carbs
- Heart Research Institute All about carbs
Each of these articles explains why good carbs are an important part of your diet and bad carbs are unhealthy.
Good carbs and bad carbs
Carbs are one of three macronutrients (along with protein and fat). Sugar, starch and fiber are carbs. There are several important differences between good and bad carbs:
- Most bad carbs are simple sugars.
- Most bad carbs are refined sugars.
- Most bad carbs have no other nutrient value
Simple sugars are refined sugars such as white sugar, which is sucrose, a 50 / 50 mix of fructose and glucose. Sugars added to a food product, e.g., in a can of soda are usually high fructose corn syrup. Your body converts all carbs including simple sugars to muscle glycogen, when is then converted to glucose to provide energy for your muscles. However, there are two problems with these simple sugars, which is why they are bad carbs:
- Simple sugars are digested rapidly and can cause your blood sugar to spike and then crash.
- These types of sugars also don’t have essential vitamins, minerals and fiber.
Sugar also occurs naturally in fruit (fructose) and milk (lactose); natural sources of sugars do have essential vitamins, minerals and fiber.
You digest complex carbs more slowly so your blood sugar doesn’t spike and crash. “Complex carbohydrates are made up of sugar molecules that are strung together in long, complex chains. Complex carbohydrates are found in foods such as peas, beans, whole grains, and vegetables.
“Both simple and complex carbohydrates are turned to glucose (blood sugar) in the body and are used as energy … Refined sugars are often called ‘empty calories’ because they have little to no nutritional value.”
[Complex carbohydrates National Library of Medicine]
What’s the role of carbs on the bike?
Riding at a recreational endurance pace about half of your energy comes from glucose from carbs and half from fat. “The higher the exercise intensity, the greater the proportionate reliance on carbohydrate as fuel.”
“Glucose [from carbs] is the main fuel for creating muscular energy, which is in the form of adenosine triphosphate (ATP). A failure to maintain glucose delivery to working in muscles results in cessation of high-intensity activity (commonly referred to as ‘hitting the wall.’ [also called bonking]
“Humans can store approximately 350 grams (1,400 calories) in the form of muscle glycogen, an additional 90 gm (360 calories) of glycogen in the liver and a small amount of circulating glucose in the blood (5 grams or about 20 calories).”
[Dan Benardot, PhD, RD, FACSM, Advanced Sports Nutrition, 2nd ed. pp 2-3]
You can burn all of this glycogen over several brisk rides. If you’re riding more slowly you can still run out of glycogen — it just takes longer.
- Anti-Aging: Preventing Bonking and Hitting the Wall
- How to Avoid Bonking while Cycling
- Eating While Riding: Is Sugar a Bad Thing?
Myths about carbs.
Myth 1: Carbs make you gain weight
According to dietitian Julia Zumpano, RD, LD, “People often say that carbs are fattening … But complex carbohydrates like whole grains, are not fattening foods.
“It’s the type and quantity of the carbs you eat — not carbohydrates themselves — that cause weight gain,” she notes. “Many carbs contain excess calories and sugar.
“Examples include desserts, white bread, rice and pasta, and snack foods like chips, crackers and pretzels. These refined carbs are stripped of the outside grain, which contains fiber and some protein, making glucose (sugar) levels spike quickly.
“Carbs that contain fiber (like brown rice) or protein (like legumes) raise blood glucose more slowly, require less insulin and keep you full longer. But even complex carbs like whole grains, beans and fresh fruit should be eaten in moderation.”
Myth 2: Only white foods contain carbs
“People often think only rice, bread, pasta, potatoes, sweets and sugary drinks are carbohydrates … Think beyond ‘white foods’ to get a more complete list of high-carb foods, which also include:
- Sweet potatoes.
- Winter squash.
- Grains, including millet, kamut, barley and bulgur.
- Dried beans.
- Brown and wild rice.
- Yogurt and milk.
“High-fiber carbs (like legumes, whole grains, starchy veggies and fruits) and high-protein carbs (like legumes, yogurt and milk) provide more nutrients than low-fiber carbs (like refined grains, sweets and sugary drinks).”
Myth 3: All white foods should be avoided
“White foods like processed grains and sweets are higher on the glycemic index, quickly raise blood sugar and cause inflammation.
“But other carb-rich foods — considered ‘white’ due to the color of their inside layer — can be essential to good health.”
The following provide essential vitamins, minerals, and other healthy nutrients. “For example, potatoes have a particularly bad reputation, but are great sources of potassium, fiber and vitamin C.”
- Nuts and seeds.
- Onions and garlic.
Myth 4: Fruit is bad because it’s high in carbs
“Fruit is dense in nutrients. Along with a natural form of sugar called fructose, fruit provides fiber, vitamins, minerals and phytonutrients.”
“The bottom line? Don’t write off carbs — they play an important role in a healthy, balanced diet.
“Pick carbs that are bursting with fiber and/or protein, vitamins and minerals, and neglect those devoid of nutrients,” advises Zumpano.”
Cleveland Clinic Good vs. Bad Carbs: What Should You Eat?
The principles and recommendations for eating before, during and after a ride apply to all roadies. These are explained in my eBook Nutrition for 100K and Beyond. Although written for roadies riding 100K and farther, all roadies can learn from it. I show you how to calculate how many calories per hour you burn. I compare the nutritional value of bars, cookies and candy. I also discuss hydration and electrolytes. I conclude by discussing what you should eat every day to ride your best. My 17-page Nutrition for 100K and Beyond is just $4.99.
Eating and Drinking Like the Pros describes in detail what they eat for breakfast, during a race, after the race for recovery and for dinner. During a race they consume some sports bars, gels and drinks; however, most of their calories come from real food. The eBook includes a dozen recipes to make your own riding nutrition, each of which I tested with clients and friends. The 15-page Eating and Drinking Like the Pros is just $4.99.
Healthy Nutrition Past 50 goes into detail about what and how to eat to have more energy throughout the day, ride better and live a longer, happier life. It applies to roadies in your 50s, 60s and beyond. The 28-page Healthy Nutrition Past 50 is only $4.99.
Cycling Past 50 bundle includes the eBooks:
- Healthy Cycling Past 50 – what happens as we age and how to incorporate cycling and other exercise activities into our daily lives to stay healthy and active for many years.
- Performance Cycling Past 50 – how to train to achieve more specific cycling goals given the physiological changes of aging.
- Off-Season Conditioning Past 50 – how to best work on your off-season conditioning given the physiological changes of aging.
- Healthy Nutrition Past 50 – what to eat and drink to support both a healthy lifestyle and continuing performance.
The 95-page Cycling Past 50 bundle is $15.96, a $4 saving from purchasing the eBooks separately.
Coach John Hughes earned coaching certifications from USA Cycling and the National Strength and Conditioning Association. John’s cycling career includes course records in the Boston-Montreal-Boston 1200-km randonnée and the Furnace Creek 508, a Race Across AMerica (RAAM) qualifier. He has ridden solo RAAM twice and is a 5-time finisher of the 1200-km Paris-Brest-Paris. He has written over 40 eBooks and eArticles on cycling training and nutrition, available in RBR’s eBookstore at Coach John Hughes. Click to read John’s full bio.