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Can I eat anything if I train enough?

Do what you want – we’re not the boss of you. But maybe read this first, OK? Illustration: Clear as Mud

Michael Donlevy
16 Oct 2020

Exercise is hard work. It’s meant to be hard work. So unless you’re a professional cyclist it’s OK to allow yourself a treat every now and then.

You just have to factor them into the bigger picture. Booze and fatty meals slow recovery, which isn’t such a problem if you’re not cycling for a few days but definitely is if you’re training hard on consecutive days.

The best time to restore glycogen used during exercise is as soon as possible after you stop. Eat something with carbs and protein when you get off the bike, because if it was a long ride it’s probably time to eat again anyway.

You simply can’t out-train a bad diet. In fact the more calories you expend on the bike, the worse training through a bad diet can be. If you’re only doing one or two rides a week, you’re not going to burn through many of those calories, and nor are you provoking enough of the adaptive stimulus that soaks up calories after training.

If you’re training three or more times a week your recovery time is limited, so you have to be on your game when it comes to giving the body what it needs to fuel training and recovery.

In both cases you need to maintain basic health. If you’re training hard you have to be even more on point in eating fruit, veg, protein, fibre and healthy fats. Of course it’s up to you. You can eat what you like – but it’s not a good idea if you’re vaguely serious about your health, let alone your fitness.

Yes, you’ll carry less fat than if you sat on a sofa, but you’ll get better times, as well as fewer respiratory infections and other common health issues, if you eat well.

The simple fact is that a healthy mix of carbohydrate, protein and good fats is important. Carbs and to an extent fat provide power for your training. Fat and protein help build tissue and are vital for recovery. Carbs and protein taken together (before or during training) reduce the markers of stress and fatigue. Protein is intrinsic to muscle recovery and also supports the immune system and organs.

Likewise healthy fats are involved in a huge number of beneficial systems in the body, for example the proper control of inflammation, which aids recovery. Unfortunately most junk foods are low in good fats and high in the bad ones, such as trans or oxidised fats.

A little junk is fine, but too much and you’re either piling more food on top of your diet or doing ‘dietary displacement’, where junk calories push out healthy calories, which are associated with more vitamins, minerals and beneficial nutrients.

The more of the good stuff you displace, the more trouble you’re in. Have a think about smarter choices you like and plan some simple, tasty meals. Health should also be fun and interesting.

It’s tempting to think that if you spend enough time on the bike and plan your training properly your fitness will take care of itself. But if you get your nutrition wrong you undo a lot of that hard work. Your progress will be slower, you may get ill more often and if you up the miles your recovery will be squeezed.

Getting it right is about prioritising certain times. Focus on getting plenty of decent carbs with a bit of lean protein after a ride. At other times make sure you’re getting some healthy protein foods – including meats and fish if possible – and a good range of veg. Your cycling will thank you for it.

The expert Drew Price BSc MSc is a nutrition consultant who has worked with sports teams, elite athletes and sports food companies. He is the author of The DODO Diet, which examines intermittent fasting and food coaching for active people. More info at

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