As athletes, (athlete = everyone who exercises) we often think that we burn so many calories that we can eat whatever we want and as much as we want. In truth, athletes need to be more careful with their diet – as food is fuel.
80% of what we eat should contain properties that will boost performance and speed recovery. The other 20% we can reserve for enjoyment of life.
There are many myths and confusion around nutrition, specifically around carbohydrates (carbs) and fat, which have long been made into the enemies of most weight loss programs. This is wrong. Fat and Carbs do not make you fat.
Each of the macronutrients: protein, fat, and carbohydrates, are essential for the performance, growth, and repair of the body. Although they may be required in different quantities during different stage of training (daily, weekly, and yearly), each is just as important as the other.
Many athletes have found success following a KETO, Paleo, or Vegan diet. There are also many medical reasons (cancer, colitis, ulcers, irritable bowl, chronic fatigue, Parkinsons, etc), when these types of diets might be appropriate for you – either in the long or short term. However, choosing a diet that eliminates certain food groups requires much research and planning. I suggest you develop eating habits that you can sustain for your entire life – not just for a short period of time to achieve a short term goal. This could mean that you still chose a vegan or Paleo diet – but you are making these choices because you enjoy the diet and/or you have made a conscious decision to eliminate meat for many reasons.
The following is a quick debunking of some of the most common myths around macronutrients and how you can start to create an eating plan that is sustainable for life.
Eating protein does not result in bigger muscles, but muscles cannot grow without adequate protein. Protein is one of the building blocks that make humans who we are. Every cell in the human body is made up of protein. During exercise, we deliberately create micro-tears tears in the muscles. The long-chain amino acids help repair the cells and even create new ones, strengthening the muscles. Without enough protein, micro-tears in the muscles may take longer to recover, or not repair at all. So instead of getting stronger, muscle mass decreases, and the risk of injury or illness increases.
Athletes require 1.2 – 2 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight. So a 68kg (150lb) athlete will need between 80 to 136 grams per day. Since the body can only digest and use 30 grams in one meal, we require at least 3 to 5 small protein meals throughout the day.
Vegetarians and vegans will need to combine foods to ensure their meals include complete proteins. Note: A complete protein contains the nine essential amino acids that our bodies do not produce.
Eating fat does not make a person fat. Eating more than what your body requires will make you fat. Fat is essential for providing long sustained energy, supporting cell growth, allowing the body to absorb certain nutrients, and controlling inflammation, which is crucial after a long hard ride or workout. Fat is also the primary fuel source for endurance athletes. After the first hour, when an athlete runs out of glycogen, the body turns to fat for energy. Fat is not the enemy but an endurance athlete’s best friend who never lets them down.
The primary function of carbs is to provide quick, immediate energy, sparring fat, and protein so they can do all of their other vital jobs. However, we can only store so much glycogen at once. Once glycogen stores are full, sugar transforms and is stored as fat. So while fat can sustain us for a long time, converting fat into energy is slow and not as efficient as glycogen, so topping up our small glycogen reserves by eating simple carbs during a long workout will help the athlete access quick, readily available energy. Athletes can train their body to work and become more efficient using only fat, but this also requires a dedicated commitment to a specific diet and eliminating almost all carbohydrates both on and off the bike.
So the big question is: Without following a specific diet plan, which foods are best?
Variety is the key.
Foods that are whole, unprocessed, and from various sources will help bring about the most significant gains to enhance training and decrease recovery time. Avoid fast convenience foods and alcohol as they lack the necessary nourishment and deplete the body of essential vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants.
To help simplify things, ensure that each meal contains a selection of proteins, fats, and carbohydrates. The exception to this rule is immediately before training, exercising, or racing, when you want to avoid protein and fat as they take longer to digest.
Choose food from a wide variety, in every colour, and always fresh if possible. Change up your food choices every week to ensure that you are getting adequate micronutrients as well. By using many different cooking methods such as steaming, blanching, baking, or eating food raw will also allow different nutrients more bioavailable.
For athletes suffering from stomach issues, lack of energy, slow recovery, irritable bowel, or possible food allergies, take notes and record energy levels one to two hours after eating. Pay attention to how certain foods make you feel – not just in the moment – but throughout the day.
There is no one eating plan that will work for everyone, so although it may seem easier to follow a diet, you will be more successful long term if you can discover what works best for you. As you age, or circumstances change, you will need to adjust again. Hopefully, you will know your body well enough by then to make those changes, without resorting back to another diet plan.
Let’s first clarify that yes – every sport SHOULD have an off-season. If you aren’t training for anything specific but train for life, you should still have a few months where you slow down and focus on things that you may have neglected due to lack of time, interest, or just because it isn’t a part of your daily routine.
In Vancouver where we can ride almost year round, the off-season can be short – only a few months sometimes. Some cyclists are more fair weather riders and take a full 5 months before getting back on the road. But, either way, relying on spin classes alone should not be your only off-season training. If you hope to continue moving well for the remainder of your life, your training program needs to support this.
The number one thing that everyone should be incorporating in their off-season is weight training.
Starting from the age of 30, we lose 3-8% of muscle mass per decade. This number increases dramatically after the age of 65. Cycling is great to build muscles for the legs, but does nothing for the upper body. In addition, cycling is a non-impact sport, so it won’t help build strong bones. If you don’t want to become frail as you age, you MUST maintain a weight training program year round. The off-season is a good time to start. Everyone should aim for three 45min strength workouts per week, unless you have an active job that requires a lot of lifting. Throughout the cycling season, you can drop back to once a week to maintain the fitness you have gained.
But not everyone is ready to jump into the gym to start picking up weights. Some may need to take a step back and deal with prior injuries or poor mobility before undertaking a weight training program.
Before you can start to weight train, you first need to be injury free. Trying to build muscle on a torn tendon or tissue will create a larger problem. Find a physio. Do your exercises, and don’t start to add weights until you are pain free. If you have a chronic problem that won’t get better with physio (torn knees or blown out hips), make sure that you are doing exercises that support your injury and aren’t making it worse.
Having poor mobility is a precursor to injury. If a joint can’t move like it should, your body will compensate. This works for awhile, but the added and repeated stress will eventually take a toll on your body and you will be back to the physio again. Having adequate mobility in every joint should be the FIRST goal for every lifelong athlete.
If you want to cycle when you are 80, now is the time to prepare your body, slowing down the natural decline that happens with age.
“I’m hate … (fill in the blank) exercise or drill.”
And sure enough, you have proven yourself correct. You suck at climbing, your weak leg can’t do as many reps as your “good” side, and the exercise you hate is as terrible as always.
What if you changed how you spoke to yourself? Why not try boosting yourself up with a positive thought or encouragement instead of negative? How do you think that would change the outcome?
By choosing to look at a situation (that you usually dislike) with positivity and a sense of play, you not only improve your experience, but your thoughts can and will change your reality. Look at every mountain as an opportunity to grow stronger and soon you will become a monster on hills. Imagine your “weak side” as being made of steel, impossible to break, and soon it will become just as strong as the other side. Use those “awful” exercises as a way to build mental strength and resilience so nothing can break you.
Deena Kastor, Olympic medalist in the marathon and an elite runner in almost every distance wrote an excellent memoir titled, Let Your Mind Run, which I highly recommend for any and every athlete. Deena believes that changing her mindset to become more encouraging, kind, and resilient was the key to her success. I have read many self help books on positive thinking, and I will tell you – this one is unique and interesting to read about the path of an olympian. Her journey is not only inspiring, it is full of ups and downs that, at many times, threatened her career as a runner. In many ways, each of us can relate to her experiences as they include depression, insecurity, losing focus, broken bones, and having children. Even if you do not consider yourself to be competitive, Deena’s practice of having a positive mindset works for all aspects of life.
If you want to learn more about how to change your mindset, specifically for sports and performance, the next book I recommend reading is, In Pursuit of Excellence, by Terry Orlick. The first time I read this book was in 2009 when I was training for Ironman Canada, but I believe it is timeless. This book has practical tips and tools to help you stay focused during training and performance.
Next time you catch yourself thinking, I don’t like …, see if you can reframe it into an opportunity, challenge, or even a game.
Stop acting like an amateur and start acting like a pro.
An amateur is a person who engages in a pursuit on an unpaid rather than a professional basis.
Think about your current mode of employment, or job that you must do because someone else’s life depends on it.
You show up every day.
When it is cold, wet, and raining, you show up.
When you are tired and would rather watch Netflix, you show up.
When your best friend is in town for just one day, or it is your partner’s birthday, you may leave early, but you still show up.
Every morning you don’t wake up and contemplate whether or not you will decide to fulfill your responsibilities today.
You just do it.
In addition, while working you don’t typically suffer from feelings of guilt, laziness, or think you are wasting time as often happens when an amateur attempts to take an hour away from “their job” to paint, run, cook, bike, write, or play their instrument.
So what do you think would happen if you applied that same philosophy to your next goal?
With every goal comes massive resistance. Even if it is something that we desperately want, we will find every excuse to procrastinate, delay, or self-sabotage. By eliminating the choice of whether or not you will show up, you also remove the opportunity for that resistance (in whatever form of excuse it looks like) to stop you from doing the work required to achieve your goal.
Treat your goals as if your profession depended on achieving them.
Don’t think about whether you want to do it; just do it.
BUT, there is one caveatthat you need to consider.
Many people already have more jobs than they can handle.
Think about which responsibilities in your life are non-negotiable.
Beyond the employment that makes you money, your list of non-negotiable responsibilities, jobs, or goals may include:
attending to elderly parents
starting a new exercise program
volunteering in the community
serving as a board member
pursuing your love for music or art
learning a new skill
engaging in a sport or several sports
playing on a team
learning to become the next Top Chef
renovating your home
dealing with an illness or injury
traveling for work or pleasure
It is impossible to continue adding more jobs to the list without getting burnt out and ultimately failing at all of them.
If you are someone who overextends themselves, you will need to review your current list and evaluate which responsibilities can be put on hold or delegated, while you work on achieving your new goal.
Once you have narrowed down the list into something that is both manageable and realistic, add your new goal to the top of the list and the rest will fall into place.
If your “profession” is to become a 50+ road cyclist and finish a fondo before x amount of time, then you will need to do what a professional 50+ rider would do. You need to sleep, eat, rest, recover, and train like a cyclist. Every day you need to do something that gets you closer to your goal of becoming a professional 50+ fondo rider.
Remember, this is your job. It is non-negotiable. Now stop thinking about it and go and do it.
Strengthening this “red zone” is one of the keys to improving your performance and remaining injury-free for every sport. Your power comes from the core.
These muscles stabilize your torso and provide the base on which you can build power and strength. It doesn’t help to have strong legs if you have a weak core.
Twice a year I offer an AB CHALLENGE series and I hope you will join me. I need to clarify that this challenge focuses purely on ABS; however, it is imperative that you use your core to complete the exercises.
In my workouts, I talk about the pelvic floor. Contracting the core is not the same as holding your breath or sucking in your belly. Both of these actions are dangerous when strength training as they increase intra-abdominal pressure, which is not good.
Check with yourself. Do you know how to hold your core? If not, please repeat this glute and core maintenance video once a week until you feel comfortable with this action and can activate the core with awareness, then automatically when required.
Ideally, you should be able to recover within 24-48hs, just in time for your next workout.
The key is to repeat the stress so the muscles can continue to build week by week. It is only through repetition that you will get stronger.
There are no shortcuts.
So do you need to be sore after every workout?
It depends on several factors:
1. Short and long term goals
3. System you want to improve
4. Time of the season
1. You have a big goal and a short amount of time (3 to 8month) to achieve it.
With a short timeline, you will need to see consistent gains each week.
Yes, the pro athletes feel sore like this AND worse. But it is their job, and when they are not training, they use their time to recover with naps, massages, ice baths, proper nutrition, chiro, acupuncture, and more.
The best way to help reduce the soreness is to follow a yearly periodized training program, focus on the workouts that matter the most, and then spend the rest of the time recovering. The training will still hurt, and you will be sore, but you will have more days when you aren’t sore.
If you have reached your goal for the summer and are looking to maintain and enjoy your current fitness level, you may not feel sore for the rest of the season.
2. If you have a moderate to big goal but lots of time to achieve it (a year or more), you don’t need to push as hard with more time and can improve slowly.
3. Which system are you trying to improve?
If you don’t feel sore after the workout, that doesn’t mean that you aren’t improving.Training is not just for your muscles. There are so many other systems that are also working hard, which you may or may not be aware of.
With each training session, you become more efficient at your sport, strengthing or building new neural pathways. These pathways help you improve your technique so you don’t need to work as hard.
It is necessary to build a solid aerobic foundation. These are the easy rides, runs that shouldn’t be painful or make you sore.
Each ride or workout builds mental resiliency, improves self-confidence, and creates healthy habits.
Every workout creates stress on the body, which cumulates over time. You may be able to accomplish your goal by completing either 2-3 long workouts in the week or six short ones. The six short ones will not make you as sore as the longer workouts, but you will have made the same gains if the accumulated stress is the same at the end of the week.
Stimulates Growth cycle and Reverses catabolism
After 25, our cells stop growing and building on their own. We are now mature humans and are beginning the 2nd stage of life, where the cells start breaking down. Exercise stimulates a chemical reaction, reversing this process and stimulating new growth.
3. You don’t have any goals and would like to stay fit for life.
If training negatively affects other parts of your life, you may need to prioritize and re-evaluate. Since this is your hobby and not your career, you may be willing to give up a bit of speed or strength to not be sore. Or you may want to improve slowly year by year instead of trying to do it all in one season.
4. It is the off-season
You can NOT continue to improve in ALL areas throughout the year, nor should you try to maintain peak fitness. It is NOT possible and will only get you injured. You need to prioritize the different systems throughout the year. As a cyclist, your season would look something like this, along with the relative soreness you should feel.
January to February – build strength in the gym = muscle soreness
March to May – build endurance = body fatigue as you are building a base
June to August – build strength and power = muscle soreness from high-intensity interval training
September – taper, and race = body and mental fatigue as you are recovering from a full season of training
October – transition = no soreness or residual soreness from the season as you take time to recover fully
November to December – work on injuries/weaknesses = no soreness or start strength training phase = muscle soreness from getting back into the gym