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Best food for cycling: How to eat like a pro

Cyclist magazine
17 Feb 2020

Fuel up with these top recipes and get yourself ready for that next big ride

When it comes to fuelling for a big sportive or ride, we can take a lot of advice from the professional peloton. A pro rider can burn up to 8,000 calories on a tough stage of the Tour de France, which requires a lot of food to replenish. It’s three to four times what the average person will burn and consume in a day, and it can’t just be any old food.

Pros need to fine-tune their diet to ensure they have enough energy to race without putting on any unwanted extra weight, and they need the correct balance of nutrients and vitamins to repair muscle damage and recover from fatigue.

That’s where the team chef comes in. Their job is to combine the right ingredients into something that will appeal to hungry (and possibly fussy) pro riders.

Hannah Grant was previously chef to pro team Tinkoff-Saxo, and for five seasons created a wealth of recipes that tick both the nutrition and taste boxes. For her, proper race fuel is about preparing and cooking from scratch, using quality ingredients and avoiding refined and processed products. Get that right, she says, ‘and things will start to fall into place’.

Below are some of her top culinary ideas for the pros that will help you on your next big ride or cycling event.

The night before: Bolognese

Bolognese sauce
  • 500g minced beef or veal
  • 4 tablespoons olive oil
  • 2 shallots, chopped
  • 5 cloves garlic, crushed
  • ½ bunch thyme
  • 3 sprigs rosemary
  • 1 tablespoon dried oregano
  • 1 tablespoon honey
  • 100ml balsamic vinegar
  • 70g tomato purée
  • 3 tins chopped tomatoes
  • 3 bay leaves
  • 2 star anise
  • Salt and freshly ground black pepper
  1. Peel and chop the shallots and garlic. Rinse and drain the thyme and rosemary. Brown the meat in olive oil over high heat, season with salt and set aside.
  2. In a thick-bottomed saucepan, sauté the chopped shallots, garlic, thyme, rosemary and oregano in olive oil. Stir until the shallots are tender but have not browned. Add the honey. When the honey starts to bubble, add the vinegar and reduce by half.
  3. Stir in the tomato purée and bring to an even heat. Add the browned meat, tinned tomatoes, bay leaves and star anise. Quickly bring to a boil, cover, reduce the heat and simmer for 30 minutes. Remove the thyme, rosemary and star anise, and season with salt, pepper and balsamic vinegar. Serve with freshly cooked pasta and parmesan.

Benefits

Over the last 20 years, there has been consistent evidence for the beneficial impacts of carbohydrate loading on prolonged cardiovascular exercise. The bolognese sauce makes it easier to ingest huge helpings of pasta – wholemeal is best, as it’s a complex carbohydrate high in fibre. The fibre regulates digestion while the carbs are steadily converted into muscle glycogen overnight.

The tomato-based sauce not only offers a host of vitamins but also supplies the phytochemical lycopene, which is instrumental in maintaining a strong immune system – important for anyone doing a lot of riding or training.

Beef mince contains the necessary protein and fat for optimum muscle repair and function, and also provides iron, an essential mineral that helps red blood cells transport oxygen from the lungs to hard-working muscles.

Top tip: Rather than just having plain old pasta the night before every ride, change it up with other carb-heavy, nutritional dishes like a vegetable chilli

Breakfast: Porridge with blueberries and chia seeds

Porridge with blueberries
  • 200g gluten-free oatmeal
  • ½ teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • ¼ teaspoon each ground ginger and nutmeg
  • 50g sunflower seeds
  • 3 tablespoons chia seeds
  • ¼ teaspoon salt
  • 100g fresh blueberries
  • Honey
  1. Bring 700ml water to a boil with the spices, sunflower seeds and chia seeds. Add the oatmeal and cook the porridge, stirring constantly.
  2. Turn down the heat and let the porridge simmer until it has the desired consistency. Add more water if needed. The result is best when you use a mix of fine-rolled (instant) oats and coarse (steel-cut) oatmeal.
  3. Season the porridge with salt and serve with the rinsed blueberries and honey. If that day’s training is going to be particularly tough, you can add 1 teaspoon organic unsweetened protein powder.

Benefits

Another meal high in complex carbohydrate and fibre is ideal for supplementing glycogen stores that have been stocked the night before. Oatmeal is digested slowly so helps preserve muscle glycogen by maintaining consistent blood glucose levels.

The sunflower and chia seeds provide vitamins and minerals but primarily supply essential fatty acids. At sub-maximal exercise intensities, fat is an important energy source that is used in conjunction with carbohydrate to fuel muscles. Blueberries top up the micronutrient hit and provide antioxidants, which counteract damaging free radicals that are naturally produced during exercise.

Top tip: Give yourself a mental boost the morning of the ride by swapping the honey for Nutella. Sure, it's not the best for you but you will burn it all off by the end of the day

Ride food: Rice cakes

Rice cakes
  • 500g pudding rice
  • 1 tin coconut milk
  • 3 tablespoons brown sugar
  • 1 teaspoon cinnamon
  • Pinch of salt
  1. Boil the pudding rice in 700ml water and the coconut milk. Turn down the heat, cover and leave to simmer. Stir regularly.
  2. When the rice is soft and the liquid has boiled away, stir in the brown sugar, cinnamon and salt. Transfer the pudding to a resealable plastic container lined with cling film, seal and refrigerate overnight.
  3. The next day, cut the rice cakes into convenient sizes and wrap them in foil for easy transportation on the bike. These are great examples of the kinds of ride snacks that pros can expect to find in their musettes along with the usual bars and gels.

Benefits

Mid-ride, you need easily digestible, energy-dense food. Palatability also becomes an issue as the body’s tastes change dramatically during exercise, shifting towards milder, more diluted flavours. Soft rice cakes are ideal in this sense. White rice is high on the glycaemic index so provides energy quickly and, being a completely natural food, is processed by the body with minimal gastric disruption.

Coconut milk contributes healthy fat that supplements the carbohydrate energy but also aids cell repair and maintains muscular function. Cinnamon has been shown to regulate blood glucose so adding this ensures that glucose levels don’t spike dramatically. The mellow flavours make the cakes easy to consume and open to flavourful additions, should you fancy exercising your creative prowess.

Top tip: If you prefer savoury snacks on the bike, swap out the cinnamon and coconut milk for water, soy sauce and something like bacon

Lunch: Pasta Puttanesca

Pasta putanesca
  • 1 litre tomato sauce
  • 2 red onions
  • ½ bunch oregano
  • 50g capers
  • 100g Kalamata olives, pitted
  • ½ bunch chervil
  • 500g pasta
  • 4 tablespoons olive oil
  • Salt and freshly ground pepper
  • 100g parmesan 
  1. Peel the onions and cut into ½cm rings. Sauté in olive oil until tender. Rinse and chop the oregano. 
  2. Mix the onion, capers, olives and oregano with the tomato sauce, bring to a boil and reduce the heat. Leave to simmer for 15-20 minutes.
  3. Meanwhile, boil the pasta in a large pot of salted water. Serve the pasta with the sauce, fresh chervil, pepper and plenty of grated parmesan.

Benefits

The body is at its most nutrient-receptive immediately after exercise, as it seeks to recover from the exertion and replenish energy stores. Another nutrient-rich tomato sauce, with olives and salty capers, effectively rehydrates the body.

In the rush for the finish line, the body is operating at an intensity where glycogen is quickly used up, so the pasta steadily refills these energy stores.

Top tip: Don't be afraid to have two portions. Better you eat well immediately after your ride than find yourself snacking on bad treats later in the day

Snack: Date brownies

Date brownies
  • 165g soft dates, pitted
  • 120g toasted hazelnuts
  • Juice and zest of 1 organic orange
  • 50g cocoa powder
  • 1 pinch salt
  1. In a food processor, blend the dates to a purée. Add the hazelnuts, orange juice and zest, cocoa powder and salt. If the mix is too dry, add a little more orange juice.
  2. Press the brownie mixture into a tin and chill for at least 1 hour in the fridge before serving. Can be served with fresh apricots.

Benefits

Training and riding use up a huge amount of calories, so hunger can creep up on you at any time.

These brownies offer a satiating treat without the empty calories of, say, a Victoria sponge. Dates contain minerals, fibre and plenty of natural sugar, while the hazelnuts are packed with healthy fats and B-vitamins, which, among a host of other benefits, help to convert that sugar into energy.

Top tip: Take some of these into work. They are a much better snack than something like a chocolate bar or a bag of crisps

Dinner: Lemon chicken

Lemon Chicken
  • 1 chicken (1.2-1.4kg)
  • 4 tablespoons honey
  • Juice and zest of 2 organic lemons
  • Extra lemon zest for serving
  • ½ bunch fresh rosemary 
  • 50ml olive oil
  • Salt
  • 500g new potatoes
  • ¼ bunch parsley
  1. Wash the rosemary, tear the leaves off the stems and chop. In a bowl, whisk together the honey, lemon juice, lemon zest, rosemary, olive oil and salt. Put the chicken in a plastic bag and pour in the marinade. Firmly rub the marinade into the meat. Close the bag and let the chicken marinate for at least 1 hour or preferably overnight.
  2. Preheat the oven to 175°C. Place the chicken directly on a rack over a roasting pan and roast until the juices run clear – about 60 minutes.
  3. Meanwhile, scrub the potatoes and toss them in olive oil and salt. In the roasting pan under the chicken, add the potatoes so the juices from the chicken drip over them and roast for 30-35 minutes. Rinse, spin and chop the parsley. Serve the chicken with potatoes and sprinkle with chopped parsley and lemon zest. 

Benefits

As well as adequate carbohydrate intake, getting enough protein is crucial to proper recovery. Chicken provides a high-protein, low-fat choice for dinner, and the lemon and rosemary add vitamins and stop the meat from being bland – the enemy when large quantities need to be consumed.

All protein is low on the glycaemic index and chicken is slow to digest, so throughout the night muscles are steadily supplied with amino acids – the building blocks for muscle repair.

Top tip: Make enough for more than you are serving. Chicken is great when reheated or eaten cold the next day

Desert: Polka dot mountain jersey meringue 

Polka dot jersey dessert
  • 4 egg whites
  • 250g cane sugar
  • 1 teaspoon raspberry vinegar
  • ¼ teaspoon salt
  • 110g ground almonds
  • 200ml whipping cream
  • Seeds of 1 vanilla pod
  • 200g fresh strawberries
  • 50g fresh blueberries
  • 50g fresh raspberries
  1. Preheat the oven to 150°C. Whisk the egg whites to soft peaks with sugar, vinegar and salt. Fold in the almond flour and divide the mixture into four equally sized portions on a baking tray lined with greaseproof paper. Bake for 30 minutes.
  2. Whip the cream lightly with vanilla seeds. Rinse the berries and remove the tops from the strawberries. Cut into a combination of halves and quarters.
  3. Top the meringue with whipped cream and berries, and serve straight away.

Benefits

Dessert is a useful way to ensure energy requirements are met – and it also alleviates food boredom, which can be bad for morale and ultimately performance.

The sugar provides plenty of carbohydrates and the cream supplies saturated fat, which is essential when recovering from exercise as it increases testosterone levels, in turn facilitating tissue repair.

The mixed berries cover all vitamin requirements and deliver more antioxidants – something an active cyclist can’t get enough of.

Top tip: Whatever you do, do not overdo it on the whipped cream!

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