#15: Balancing Your Energy Sources
Updated: Aug 10, 2020
Welcome to the Coach's Blog powered by Dillman Coaching. I am Drew Dillman and have been racing bikes for over a decade and started my own coaching company in 2018. I've gained a lot of experience and knowledge in the sport of cycling over the years and this is where I get to share some of it with you. For more on why I write the Coach's Blog check out Blog #1.
I have been diving deeper into my studies on nutrition and started a series of blogs to summarize Matt Fitzgerald's book Racing Weight. I introduced this idea of Racing Weight in Blog #12. Fitzgerald has created a 6-step plan for endurance athletes:
Improve your diet quality. (Blog #13)
Manage your appetite. (Blog #14)
Balance your energy sources. (This blog)
Time your nutrition.
This blog will tackle the topic of balancing your energy sources.
The word "macro" just means "big." And there are three macronutrients, or "big" nutrients that make up all foods and diets: Carbohydrates, Fat and Protein. While there are only 3 macronutrients there are hundreds of micronutrients or "small" nutrients. We all have a basic understanding of these 3 macronutrients. Here are a few of our basic understandings:
Carbohydrates are in bread and give us energy.
Protein is in meat and gives us muscle.
Fat is in junk and gives us disease.
However, food isn't that simple. Colin Campbell, author of New York Times bestseller Whole, argues that we must get rid of our reductionist thinking and adopt a wholistic approach to nutrition. What this means is that we should look at foods as a whole and not look at each individual nutrient that comprises that food. Or in other words, eat an orange instead of taking a Vitamin C supplement.
"Nutrition represents the combined activities of countless food substances. The whole is greater than the sum of its parts." -Colin Campbell
While I totally agree with this idea of wholism, I also understand how important it is for athletes to monitor their macronutrient intake, especially carbohydrate intake.
The Importance of Carbohydrates
Our basic understanding that carbs give us energy is pretty spot-on when it comes to endurance athletes. Listen to what Fitzgerald has to say about the importance of carbohydrates:
"All three of the energy sources, or macronutrients, in the diet - carbohydrate, fat and protein - are important. But for the endurance athlete carbohydrate is most important because carbohydrate needs increase drastically as training increases."
Because of the "diet" industry a lot of people have negative views toward carbs. However, most of the time the reason people lose weight on low-carb diets is not due to a decrease in carbs, but rather a decrease in total calorie intake. There have even been recent elite cyclists who have tried low-carb diets and haven't had great results. For more on this check out Dylan Johnson's video on low-carb diets.
When we consume carbohydrates there are 2 ways our body uses these nutrients:
Used as glycogen as an immediate energy source.
Stored as fat to be used as energy at a later time.
For endurance athletes it is important that we keep our muscles well stocked with glycogen throughout all our training. This plays a direct role in how we feel during our cycling performance. Another thing to note is that our bodies can only store about 90 minutes worth of moderate-intensity glycogen stores so it's crucial that we be restoring that glycogen by eating and drinking high-carb foods on the bike.
One really good reminder from the Racing Weight plan is that anything that improves performance will most likely improve body composition and make you leaner. This was something I always struggled with as I was a developing racer. I thought I could eat whatever I wanted throughout the week since I was training hard and then just "clean up" my diet a day or two before the race weekend. But unfortunately I was missing out on a lot of potential gains with that mindset. Just think of how much better my training and recovery could have been if I had been fueling my body with high quality food instead of junk. By improving your diet each and every day you will also improve your training each and every day and that is how you make bigger gains in fitness and performance.
"Carbohydrate forms the backbone of an athletes nutrition program because it is the most versatile, energy-yielding nutrient you can consume." -Chris Carmichael
Carbohydrates are important for endurance athletes and how we monitor carbohydrate intake is an important piece of the puzzle. Often times you'll hear people talk about diets in ratios of macronutrients. For example: 40% Carbs / 30% Fat / 30% Protein. This is a percentage of your daily calorie intake. However, it doesn't make sense to set a specific percentage for carbohydrates because a lot of it depends on our body composition and our training load. Your daily carb requirements are going to fluctuate based on your training load for that day. Your long days and high-intensity workouts are going to require a higher carbohydrate intake than a recovery spin.
With that being said, carbohydrate intake should not be expressed as a percentage of daily calories, but rather as an absolute amount in grams. Refer to the chart below to get an idea of your daily carbohydrate needs:
With the method above you should be fluctuating carb intake on a weekly basis depending on each weeks training volume. That may be cumbersome for the average rider, but for the elite racer it may be worth the time and effort. One of the things I notice with the Racing Weight plan is that each step gets harder and harder. So maybe you only adopt Steps 1 & 2 which I think are the easiest and most applicable to all levels of athletes. But if you're more serious about performance than maybe it'll require some extra effort, but the results will show.
As you look for sources of high-carb foods here is a helpful chart:
During cycling, the next most important nutrient for performance is fat. Compared to carbohydrate, fat is a slow-burning fuel that we optimize at lower intensity levels. Meeting our fat needs is really easy so in most cases we don't have to focus on getting enough fat, but rather on not getting too much. One of the reasons we don't need to concentrate on fat intake is because carbohydrates can be readily converted into fat.
The suggestions for fat intake vary pretty drastically. The average American diet is 30-35% fat. The American College of Sports Medicine suggests 20%. And advocates of the Whole-Foods, Plant-Based diet like Colin Campbell suggest as low as 10%. I like what Fitzgerald does here. He goes back to his ideology that we should look at the top-performers of our sport and mimic what they are doing. He uses the example of Ethiopian runners and their 13% fat intake. So I would suggest something in the 10-20% range for calories from fat. But most of us are hitting that mark easily and should focus more on not getting too much fat.
One specific type of fat worth mentioning is Omega-3 fatty acids. Here are the benefits Fitzgerald mentions concerning this fat:
Enhances fat-burning effect of exercise
Boosts aerobic exercise performance
Increases elasticity of blood vessels
Lowers blood pressure
Boosts cardiac efficiency
However, I disagree with Fitzgerald's advice to take an omega-3 supplement daily. Personally, I am not a fan of supplements. Influenced by Colin Campbell and his arguments in Whole, I believe you can get all your nutrient needs by consuming a well-planned, balanced variety of whole foods. Fitzgerald suggests 2-3 grams of daily omega-3. There are 2 simple ways we can meet this requirement without supplement intake.
Eat fish a couple times each week. Fish is a good source of omega-3 fats.
One tablespoon of ground flaxseed contains 1.8g of omega-3 fat. You can add this flaxseed to oatmeal, cereal, pancakes, smoothies and many other foods to get this daily omega-3 suggestion.
One popular argument in the cycling world is that you can train your body to operate on fats instead of carbs. This is not ideal if you are planning to perform at higher intensities. Even at moderate intensity levels of riding we are still burning 50/50 carbs and fat. And as the intensity increases our dependence on fat decreases. Simply stated, when we go really hard our body uses mostly carbs. So limiting that carb intake will hinder your ability to perform at higher intensity intervals. The only time fat plays a big role in performance is in long, endurance focused events or rides. But even then it's 50/50. For a visual representation of this see the chart below:
I had 2 buddies that were track sprinters on our collegiate cycling team. So their bodies looked a lot different than mine. I was a twig compared to these guys. Their legs were massive. In the cafeteria I often heard them recite these 3 rules for food:
Protein, protein protein.
Calories are gold.
Eat when you're hungry, eat when you're full.
As you can tell, they didn't have any degrees in nutrition. But it became a staple that I've remembered for years. They, like many athletes, put a huge emphasis on protein. While protein is an essential part of a healthy diet, I often think people get too concerned with adequate protein intake and miss the big picture.
Protein is known for it's role in muscle repair which makes it an important part of the recovery process. And while this is completely true, even then the focus should be on carbohydrate. When we race or do a hard workout the large majority of our energy comes from carbohydrates and our glycogen stores become depleted. So immediately following intense exercise, the best (and most common-sense) thing to do is to replace those glycogen stores. Or in other words, eat carbs! Because of this, most cycling-specific recovery drinks aim for a 3-1 ratio of carbs to protein.
Back to the car analogy: protein is like the oil that keeps our engine running smoothly, while carbohydrates are the gas that actually fuel the engine. Protein helps provide the enzymes for our bodies to use carbohydrate more efficiently.
If we look at the Ethiopian runners again, their protein intake consists of about 10% of daily calories. Fitzgerald suggests that we don't need to focus on a certain percentage of protein because our carb intake will sometimes skew that ratio. It is widely agreed that athletes should shoot for 1.2 grams of protein for every 1 kilogram of body weight. And since we are American, one kilogram is 2.2 pounds. So we can simplify this by saying we need .55g of protein for every pound of body weight. So a 150 pound cyclist would need 82g of protein. (150 x .55).
Since most people meet their protein requirement quite easily, Fitzgerald suggests counting the number of protein grams you consume on a typical day just to make sure it is meeting your requirement. And in the unlikely event you aren't, you can adjust your diet.
Nutrition can be complex and complicated and it only gets more complicated the deeper you go. But Fitzgerald argues that if you focus on a high-quality diet (Step1) and practice the appetite management techniques (Step 2) then you will be assured of consuming the right amount of energy. The biggest takeaway from Step 3 of the Racing Weight plan is to properly monitor your carbohydrate intake with the help of Table 6.1 shown above.
Now my track buddies can revise their 3 rules for food:
Carbs. Carbs. Carbs.
Calories are gold.
Eat when you're hungry, eat when you're full.
By the way, I don't suggest you follow their guidelines.
Feel free to message or email me if you've got questions about the blog, would like to see me cover a specific topic or are interested in my coaching services.