Spring is the time of year when training intensity is increased, yet the weather can still be a bit inclement. At this time of year more than any other, if you want to train (and race) hard, you need to do all you can to avoid illness, which will not only stop you from riding in the short-term, but also prevent you from maximising the benefits from your previous training sessions.
The best way to avoid getting ill is to bolster your immune system, which is your body’s defence against infection, but hard training and racing can knock your immunity for six. Recent research shows that what you eat after training is very important and can make the difference between continuing to train hard and enforced rest. A post-training, nutrition focussed recovery plan will make sure you make the most of the hard work you put in on the bike.
There is a huge emphasis on losing weight among cyclists. Low carb, high protein diets don’t really sit well with such an intense endurance sport as cycling, so don’t seem to be too common, but training whilst fasting, which is training at lower intensities to encourage the body’s adaptation towards fat metabolisation during longer slower rides, seems to have gained a following. Pros started this trend but the difference is that a pro can finish a training session (which is after all their job) and then rest properly. Amateur riders struggle to rest sufficiently, often being thrust straight back into a hectic normal life, which will include the day job, which it will be hard to do properly with low energy reserves. Consequently your post-ride recovery plan is even more important if you do this type of training.
Obviously rest is the key ingredient, but it’s not always possible. Lack of rest will raise stress levels and prevent proper recovery. In the most extreme cases lack of sleep is extremely damaging. Whilst you can try to maximise the amount of sleep and rest you get, it’s not always possible with work, kids, and social committments. But good diet immediately post training can help you kickstart the recovery process no matter what you have to do next.
Carbohydrate or Protein?
There seem to be two schools of thought among cyclists. Some finish a training session and reach for protein for muscle repair; others for carbohydrate to top up muscle glycogen levels.
You might think that a mixture of both is best but whilst protein is essential for muscle repair, we get plenty from a normal, healthy diet. A bit extra will certainly do no harm but low carbohydrate consumption after exercise can be very damaging. When muscle glycogen stores are low, hard training triggers catabolism, where body tissue including muscle is broken down in order to provide energy.
This damnaging catabolic process is obviously stressful on the body and is associated with the production of high levels of the stress hormones adrenaline and cortisol. These have been shown to lower immunity. So if you are in midst of a hard training block, you need to keep your carbohydrate levels topped up at all times, so that you’re not training with depleted levels of glycogen in your hard working muscles that will lead to muscle loss through catabolism. That way your immune system will be fully maintained and you’ll be less likely to succumb to illness.
To do this, the prevelant advice still seems to be to ensure that you have an ample supply of carbohydrate at all times, getting 60% of your calories from carbohydrates via the likes of whole grain breads, pasta, cereals, rice, corn, fruit, vegetables, beans, peas, lentils, etc.
If you are training in the evenings as many amateur athletes do, then make sure that breakfast and lunch have a good supply of carbs to fuel you through your evening workout. Extra meals at about 10am and 4pm can also be of huge benefit if you plan to train with the local chaingang come 7pm.
Despite all of the low or no carbohydrate sports drinks coming out, it’s still advisable to consume carbohydrate energy drinks on longer rides or during more intense interval sessions. The latest research seems to suggest that you should consume 500-1000mls of a 6% carbohydrate drink (60g of carbohydrate per litre) for each hour of training to avoid extensive carbohydrate depletion. Similarly a recovery drink, high in carbs but also with some protein can be a great addition to your routine.
Eating to bolster your Immune System
Immediately post ride is the time to eat foods rich in the nutrients that support your immune system. After training you should be looking at eating things like liver, eggs, orange and red fruits and vegetables like carrots, sweet potatoes, apricots for vitamin A; citrus fruit, berries, tomatoes and peppers for vitamin C; eggs, milk, butter, cod liver oil and some other fish oils for vitamin D; fatty fish like trout, sardines, herrings, salmon, mackerel, pilchards, unrefined whole grains, nuts and seeds like hemp, flax, walnuts and pumpkin seeds for essential fatty acids like omega-3 and omega-6 oils; high quality, lean cuts of meat, fish and shellfish, whole grains, some nuts and seeds like walnuts and pumpkin seeds for zinc; and unrefined whole grains, seafood, nuts and seeds like Brazil nuts to get selenium.
Basically vegetables, fruit, good quality meat and fish, plus lots of grains, nuts, seeds and beans will keep you fit and healthy. If you don’t or can’t have a diet which includes these items, but still want to get the most from your training, then supplementation may be required.
Even if you do have a good diet, a cod liver oil supplement can deliver a good dose of vitamin A, vitamin D and the essential fatty acids you need; magnesium supplements are also important as this mineral supports proper muscle function; and tumeric, often found in Eastern cooking, is being used more and more as an anti-inflammatory – very useful to a hard training cyclist with sore legs…
To make the most of this advice you need to develop a few meal recipes that are easy to make when tired or that you can prepare and put in the fridge for when you get back from training. As with anything in cycling, preparation is key. That way you know that you’ve done all you can to start the recovery process and make the most of all that hard work on the bike.
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