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Cycling nutrition: the best food for cyclists

24 Jan 2020

The role of nutrition when it comes to training, racing and recovery is easily overlooked. Yet as much as a new bike, the right kit or training plan or a bike fit can give you a performance a boost, so too can improving your nutrition both on and off the bike.

A cyclist's body is a machine, and like any machine if you want it to run at its best, you need to fill it with the right fuel.

Nigel Mitchell, head nutritionist at Team EF Education First and technical lead at the English Institute of Sport, shares his tips for the kind of foods cyclists should be including in their diets, and why.

1 - Prunes

‘Prunes are great from a gut point of view,’ says Mitchell. ‘They are high in fibre so aid digestion and, to put it modestly, keep you regular.

'They are also sweet but not massively high in sugar, and contain antioxidants too. While they are just as worthy as being labelled a “superfood” as something like blueberries, they aren’t fashionable so are comparatively cheap.

'Eat them as a snack or chop onto breakfast cereal.’

2 - Hemp seeds

‘While it is botanically related to cannabis, hemp seed has a far lower concentration of the psychoactive element, THC, and therefore has no psychoactive properties,’ says Mitchell.

‘It’s actually pretty nutritionally complete: it contains the ideal 3:1 ratio of omega-3 and omega-6 fats, all the essential amino acids as well as a host of micronutrients.’

Hemp contains iron and magnesium, both of which play a role in oxygen transportation and muscle contractions.

‘Best of all they slide pretty easily into any diet,’ says Mitchell. ‘They can replace or supplement more conventional seeds in any dish and you can even buy hemp milk.’

3 - Greek yogurt 

‘Greek yogurt is a good source of potassium, calcium and vitamin B12,’ says Mitchell. ‘But really the only difference between Greek and normal yogurt is that it has been strained, so contains less water.’

This has the effect of concentrating the nutrients within, so it tends to contain much more protein per serving than other yogurts.

‘There are also lots of low-fat options so Greek yogurt, despite being physically dense, isn’t too high in calories,’ he adds. ‘It’s also live, which means it contains natural bacterial cultures that might be beneficial for gut health. 

‘I tend to eat it for breakfast with muesli. It’s a nutritious and satiating start to the day.'

4 - Omega 3s

‘Cycling is a high-volume activity that places a lot of load on the body, so maximising recovery is important,’ says Mitchell.

‘There are three types of Omega 3 fatty acids that help the body in different ways. The two main ones, DHA and EPA, can be had from oily fish. DHA helps the neural side of things, preserving cognitive function and mood. EPA is more for physiological stress, reducing cellular inflammation and helping with adaptation.

‘The third is ALA and it is derived from plant sources such as walnuts and flaxseed, which is good as it means you can get a boost of Omega 3 at breakfast.’

5 - Buckwheat

‘Buckwheat is another one of those pseudo super grains that can substitute for a carbohydrate source but also contains all the essential amino acids, so contains good levels of protein,’ says Mitchell.

‘It’s low in fat, high in fibre and gluten free. 100g contains about 13g of protein, whereas rice only has around 3g in the same amount.’

Not only can buckwheat help fuel training but it aids recovery, too. It’s high in the antioxidant rutin, which has been shown to combat inflammation, and it may also stimulate the production of collagen, the protein that is in charge of skin, bone and connective tissue repair.

‘As a post-ride meal, buckwheat goes well with chilli con carne or curry in place of rice. Or as fuel, buckwheat flour makes great pancakes,’ says Mitchell. 

6 - Quorn

‘Quorn’s production method doesn’t sound the most appetising, but including it in your diet can benefit muscle recovery and growth,’ says Mitchell.

‘It’s made by fermenting a natural fungus, but the result of the fermentation is mycoprotein, a complete protein unique to Quorn. Mycoprotein has a great amino acid profile in that it contains all the essential amino acids, which is a rare find in a non-meat source, while it also contains fibre.’

A recent study at the University of Exeter found that mycoprotein might be better than milk protein at supporting post exercise recovery, which could mean in future that a Quorn sausage is just as valid a food choice as a whey powder protein shake immediately post-ride.

What’s more, Quorn claims mycoprotein requires up to 90% less land and water to produce than some animal protein sources too, so consuming it is good for you and the environment.

7 - Pistachios

‘While it’s technically a seed, the pistachio is a bit of a super-nut,’ says Mitchell.

‘The green and purple pigments are a good source of antioxidants, and the nuts are loaded with nutrients – pistachios are one of the most vitamin B6-rich foods around, and a couple of handfuls provide more potassium than a banana.’

Pistachios are higher in protein and lower in fat than other nuts too, but correct selection is key. ‘We need to differentiate between Asian and American pistachios,’ says Mitchell. ‘Asian pistachios are smaller and higher in fat. American ones are bigger and contain more protein.’

For all their benefits, pistachios are reasonably calorie-dense, but they have a built-in mechanism to help with this. ‘The fact you have to shell the nuts slows down the rate at which you eat them,’ says Mitchell.

8 - Vegetable protein

‘Vegetable protein powders are a good way to increase protein intake without using dairy-derived whey powder or meat,’ says Mitchell.

‘So if a rider follows a plant-based diet, has a dairy intolerance or is concerned about lowering their environmental impact, they can use vegetable protein powders to still meet their protein requirements.’

Single vegetable powders are available, such as pea protein or soya, but Mitchell says you may be better off buying products made from several protein sources.

‘Vegetable proteins are often incomplete proteins, meaning they don’t quite have the amino acid profile of whey powder or meat. So you are best off buying blended vegetable protein powders that contain a better balance of all the essential amino acids.’

9 - Amaranth

‘You probably haven’t heard of Amaranth, but any cyclist would do well to do their research,’ says Mitchell.

Amaranth is one of those pseudo-grains like quinoa, originally cultivated at high elevation in Peru. It’s widely consumed in South America but is only now becoming more widespread. You can find it in health food shops.

‘It is a perfect alternative to oats in a porridge,’ says Mitchell. ‘Despite being a source of slow-release carbohydrate, it’s high in protein and, unusually for a non-meat based source, it contains all the essential amino acids.

It also contains a host of vitamins and minerals as well as lots of fibre and healthy fats. The term “superfood” is overused nowadays, but amaranth has as good a case as any to be termed as one.’

10 - Turmeric

Turmeric is the dried root of a plant in the ginger family, hence its bright orange colour.

‘Research suggests it has powerful antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties,’ says Mitchell.

‘For something with so much potential benefit it’s simple to bring in to your diet. It should be a key ingredient in curries and soups, and adds flavour to stir-fried veg.

Just remember to add pepper as this helps with turmeric’s absorption by the body.’