Your Eating Habits Are Killing Your Performance

People start riding bikes because it's the closest you can get to heaven without dying.

Then, like watching your beautiful child grow up from a happy, fun kid into a seething, discontented teenager, things go off the rails. The familiar progression is:

  1. Rides bikes because they are fun.
  2. Decides racing also looks fun, so tries it.
  3. Gets their teeth kicked in, but not a quitter, so tries again.
  4. While waiting for the gun to go off at the start line, realizes some people look like they haven’t eaten in years.
  5. Looks down, decides they have, and maybe that’s why they keep getting dropped.
  6. Types ‘cycling’ and ‘weight’ into Google and retrieves a million results that lead you to forums with theories and solutions that would make Qanon blush.
  7. Adopts one method and begins the classic, tortured cyclist relationship with food.
Wout Van Aert lose 2kg
Cimolai eating problems

You can see this tortured relationship play out everywhere.

This week CyclingNews published an article about how an Italian pro struggled with eating for years and endured years of poor results trying to weigh an arbitrary amount. A few days later, the headliner was how Wout Van Aert gained too much weight during cyclocross and won’t be competitive without losing 2 kg. I hope the irony isn’t lost on you.

Here's the thing:

"No matter how many headlines you read or offhand comments you overhear on a group ride, you cannot diet yourself to the podium."

If you want to unlock your best fitness, you’re going to have to put down your keto bread and do something more obvious and a lot harder:

Train well for a long time.

Power drives performance, not weighing less than your 10-year-old cousin. If you’re going to produce a lot of power, you can’t feed yourself with big gusts of wind. You need fuel, and not just any fuel, but the right type of fuel at the right time to support your efforts.

Back up for a second, and let’s return to high school biology and consider a simple experiment. If you put stress on a biological organism and then deprive it of energy and nutrients over time, what happens to that organism?

OK, maybe it doesn’t die, but I’m making a point here. If it doesn’t die, it sure as hell doesn’t thrive. Minimally, the functioning of the organism decreases.

Well, guess what – you’re a biological organism also. If you exert stress on your system through training and don’t eat properly, what signal do you think you’re sending to your body?

ALL HANDS ON DECK WE'RE LIVING THROUGH A TEXAS POWER-OUTAGE AND ALL WE HAVE IS CANNED BEANS AND WE DON'T HAVE AN OPENER!

Your body doesn’t take mixed signals of stress and deprivation well, to put it mildly. And yet, many, many cyclists persist in trying to train hard on nothing but bubbly water and prayers.

I know what you’re thinking, though – so why do professional cyclists obsess about weight?

"If being elite is unhealthy, I am willing to be unhealthy to be elite."

But you're not a Pro! Your weight isn't holding you back. Your legs are.

Being light in and of itself isn’t enough – you still need to pedal, and the only way to get better is to train and train with quality, which means you have to eat for it.

I’m not sure where you stand on tattoos, but if you’re in the mood, it might be worth inking this into your forearm: Fuel feeds power.

If you make that nutritional mindset change and eat to perform, you won’t even believe how much your performance improves. Don’t buy it? 

Meet Mr. Waffles.

When Mr. Waffles started eating more things like waffles he broke out of the terrible eating cycle, and his power skyrocketed.

We worked together for several months, and we checked in on his 5-minute power and FTP.

He clocked in at 369 watts for 5 minutes and 291 watts for 20 minutes. He weighed 149 pounds.

K. Nothing too alarming there.

Two months later, we checked in again after a build period with lots of intensity.

5-minute power? 376 watts. His 20-minute power? 296 watts. He weighed 148 pounds.

OK, not quite the improvement we were looking for after eight weeks of build. He was frustrated. I was frustrated. 

So then I asked:

"Hey, how is your diet? You're often reporting you're low energy. Are you fueling properly for these workouts?"

Me.

"I'm actively trying to eat as little as possible because that's what you do if you want to win the Tour de France."

Mr. Waffles.

He was a brand new Category 3 racer!

So, we started an ‘eating is important’ approach and started fueling for performance. Three weeks later, we took a peek under the hood again and did some testing. Our jaws hit the floor so hard we broke them.

His 5-minute power went up to 397, which was a 20-watt increase. His 20-minute power? 321, a 25 watts increase. His weight? 155 lbs.

More importantly, something wild happened - he enjoyed training again.

Here’s an irony – once you start fueling for performance instead of depriving yourself, not only will your power go up, but your body composition will go down. 

“WUT??? How will my weight go down if I eat more? Are you saying the laws of physics will be suspended in my favor if I take your advice?”

No, the laws of physics still hold. But often with athletes, I see this cycle play out: 

  1. They don’t fuel for performance because of weight concerns.
  2. When they train, their power is lower because they don’t eat properly.
  3. They’re tired and hungry after training and often demoralized from a sub-par performance.
  4. Because they trained, they permit themselves to ‘cheat’ a little on their diet routine, which appeases their hunger and makes them feel better about their training.
  5. The food they use to subdue their hunger is low-quality garbage.

The net result?

They train badly, feel discouraged about their fitness progression, feel bad because of poor recovery, and eat the same (but probably more) amount of calories when ‘cheating’ when they would have just fueling before, during, and after their training. Cue the visual of a car spinning its wheels.

OK, so what should you eat to fuel performance? Locally sourced Cashew butter? Bacon wrap dates? Wild-caught salmon?

NO!!! You need CARBs!

Before, during, and after workouts, you should fuel your cycling workouts with food containing a higher percentage of carbohydrates.

"I know a guy who only eats bacon during 5-hour rides and another guy who does 8 hour rides fasted."

I’ve got a fallacy for that. It’s called the NACALT Fallacy – Not All Cyclists Are Like that. I’m not speaking to exceptions here, I’m speaking to general rules, and I don’t care how much low-carb loons espouse the glory of sweating out bacon grease while they power themselves on ketones.

If you’re doing it to do it, or you want to prove that you can power yourself aerobically on fatty acids forever, you win.

But if you want to do an actual race with high power and accelerations, the only thing your bacon is going to help you do is choke. For everyone else, carbs are king.

Since cyclists like to take things to extremes, it behooves me to mention that the need to eat carbs for performance doesn’t mean you need seven doughnuts to knock out a 90-minute ride.

If you search nutritional recommendations for fueling, you can find many charts that break carbohydrate requirements down to the gram per body weight based on the intensity and duration of the workout you’re doing.  Before you bury yourself in all that, start with these rules instead.

3 Simple Rules:

What, those three easy rules didn't answer all your nutritional questions?

Of course they didn’t, but they’ll get you 90% of the way to adequately fueling your workouts for performance.

The last few percentages are something you can only unlock with experimentation because once you get past basic nutritional principles the particular way your extra special collection of genes reacts to different foods and dosages becomes more individual.

Bottom line: