By Kevin Kolodziejski
Lifting weights is only a small part of bodybuilding contest preparation. In fact, some experts claim elite-level success is mostly a matter of what’s been eaten in the 16 or so weeks before competition.
And they’ve pegged the “mostly” at around 80 percent.
While eating’s influence on elite-level cycling may not be quite so high, diet does play a large part. So much so that some pros now use continuous glucose monitors — the same device many diabetics use in lieu of drawing blood and a blood glucose meter to keep track of their blood sugar — in order to be optimally fueled before and during rides. But the pros aren’t permitted to wear one all the time. As testament to the implement’s effectiveness, the UCI has banned its use in races. While many feel CGMs will eventually be as commonplace as power meters (even if the ban continues), expect the learning curve to be steep.
Riders Aren’t Cars
As Alex Hutchinson explains in a 2021 article for Outside magazine, riders aren’t cars and blood sugar isn’t gas. Your muscles usually use a mix of fuels, and which ones and how much depends on many variables: the availability of the “various forms” of fat and carbohydrates that can serve as fuel, your current effort level, the length and intensity of the ride so far, whether you’re fatigued, stressed, or in need of water. Factor in the rate at which your body secretes insulin and how your body reacts to it, and it’s enough to make Rube Goldberg envious and you more than a bit confused. After all, hasn’t what to eat before races and rides been long established? Yes . . . but when to eat before them is a murkier matter.
One that could be affected by your age and degree of muscle mass.
Racing Fast Because of a Three-Hour One
I wanted better racing results back in the summer of 2002 when I interviewed Dr. Bill Misner, Ph.D., and author of Nutrition For Endurance for an article about insulin and glucagon published by MuscleMag International in February of 2003. The doc, who also served as Director of Research and Product Development at what’s now Hammer Nutrition, learned about that desire during our conversations, and here’s what he suggested.
Eat nothing in the three hours prior to the warmup of a race.
Doing so causes your body to use a higher percentage of fat as fuel as you warmup and during the less intense parts of the race, he explained. That spares the limited stores of your optimal fuel for racing, muscle glycogen, and blood glucose for those intense efforts that take your heart beat to 85 to 100 percent of its max. So I experimented and found the suggestion really helped in all types of racing, but especially in time trials — and particularly at the point where I tended to lose power: between the midway and the three-quarters points of the effort. I became such an advocate of the three-hour fast that I soon began doing so even before important training rides. That worked so well that it became my standard practice, regardless of the intensity of the ride and even if I lifted weights on an off day.
Not as Fast Now Because of Fasting?
I’ve been less than thrilled with how my legs have responded during intense efforts on the bike lately. I’ve attributed it to my advancing age and four prior enough-to-make-you-quit injuries that have caused a loss of muscle and power. Background reading I was doing for the other column I write and the aforementioned Outside article forwarded to me by Lars Hundley, the editor and publisher of this website, however, planted this seed in my mind: Less muscle means less storage space for glycogen, which possibly means a greater need for energy from blood glucose during the intense parts of rides. But a three-hour fast drops your blood glucose level so low that the pancreas secretes glucagon. That allows stored fat to be used as energy, but it’s an inferior form of energy for hard effort.
Time to interrupt this story with another.
’Do What You Did, Get What You Got’
In April of 1985 as a first-year teacher and track coach, I entered another teacher’s room to ask his advice. I was considering replacing one of the runners on a long-established relay team and changing the order of two others. That’s when I saw “Do what you did, get what you got” in that guy’s inimitable scrawl on a faded piece of paper tacked to his bulletin board. Long story short: I applied those words to the situation that led me to him. Two weeks after the shakeup, the girls’ 3200-meter relay team won the race that qualified them for the state track meet. I’ve been a firm believer in the saying ever since, which led me to do something I hadn’t done in about 20 years.
Consume carbs just before a ride.
But I made sure I ingested no more than 200 calories or so and started the ride within a minute or two of doing so. That was the fallback strategy Misner offered when he first suggested the three-hour fast. Eating that closely to your ride won’t increase the rate in which you tap into glycogen nearly as quickly as consuming carbs 30 to 60 minutes before exercise (which so many mainstream websites advise). Maybe it was the placebo effect (I’ve never used a power meter so I can’t say for sure), but my legs felt more powerful early in the ride. I didn’t need to warmup for as long as usual. Better yet, that first hard effort— the one I’ve come to dread — didn’t seem quite so hard. Neither did the subsequent six-to-eight-minute, 85-to-90-percent efforts.
Changed What I Did, Liked What I Got
Afterwards, I checked the amount of time spent at 80 percent or more of my heart rate max and discovered I had done so for about 18 minutes more than a typical solo ride of two and a half hours with hilly efforts. While other factors could’ve caused some of the increase (it was hot and humid, for instance), the ride ended with me feeling hopeful and that I could’ve ridden longer.
So four days later, I replicated the experiment but used a bike with a wireless computer on the ride I do most Sundays. It’s usually just shy of four hours and includes 12 miles of simulated racing with about 30 serious cyclists smack dab in the middle. I stayed with the leaders throughout — something that’s been a bit of a coin flip since I rehabbed a second fractured femur in December of 2019 — and my average speed for the entire ride, most of which is done alone, was higher than it’s probably been since that time. So maybe I’m on to something.
And maybe you should do some similar experimentation as well?
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.