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Diet Tips for Cyclists from the Pros

By Ian Dille | May 6, 2016 | Rally Health

When it comes to food, professional cyclists aren’t that different from the rest of us, despite their often svelte physiques. They like to eat things that make them happy (not just faster or stronger), they struggle with self control, and they even suffer the subsequent pangs of food guilt.

And, just like everyone, they make some nutritional mistakes. Of course, the best athletes learn from those mistakes and refine their diets for a balance between athletic success and long-term health.

Members of the Rally® professional cycling team share what they’ve learned about eating for physical performance and emotional well-being.

Don’t fight your body type

Before he turned pro, Brad Huff, a 10-year veteran of the professional peloton, thought he needed to be light to get over the hills and mountains and hang with the best racers in the world. His obsession with his weight ultimately led to athletic anorexia.

He exercised compulsively, and severely restricted his calories—riding all-out for four hours on a single energy bar, and going to bed with a growling stomach. His already lean body lost over 20-pounds, but he constantly struggled with injuries and fatigue. His eating disorder nearly ended his cycling career before it started.

Bisbee Winter Training Camp | Rally Cycling | January 9-12. 2016
Brad Huff's new diet helped build muscle mass and turned him into a top sprinter

By studying nutrition, and ultimately earning a nutrition degree at Missouri State University, he realized he needed to accept his relatively bulky body and build-up muscle mass. Today, Huff travels with a Vitamix blender. When he experiences hunger pangs between meals, instead of denying his body the fuel it needs, he makes himself healthy smoothies, packed with ingredients like arugula and raw beets.

“I returned to bike racing as the guy who ate Brad Huff,” he says. He also went on to become one of the country’s best sprinters. In April, Huff took home a gold medal at the Professional Criterium National Championships in Greenville, South Carolina.

Do make the healthiest choice possible

Rally Cycling soigneur Sarah Engen is charged with keeping the team’s riders well-fueled during long races, making sure they have a healthy sandwich or snack to eat at the end of each event. But she doesn’t just focus on the rider’s nutritional needs, she understands that food provides emotional nourishment as well. Warm soup after a wet race is pure comfort.

According to Engen, this year the women's team is all about CanadianLiving.com's ‘Glory Bowl,’” a dish that combines warm rice, lightly fried tofu, and raw vegetables with a sauce made from nutritional yeast flakes, tamari, apple cider vinegar, tahini, and garlic. “The secret is in the sauce,” she says. “It's a great item for short or cold days.”

However, as a member of the team that is not burning thousands of calories a day like the riders, Engen often found herself struggling to find food that fit her own needs. “I appreciate eating organic, and eating meat from humanely treated animals, as well as non-GMO produce,” Engen says. “But being on the road between events, or in the team car during hectic race days, makes it challenging to find that kind of food at every meal.”

Engen says she found balance by worrying less about her particular diet, and simply making the healthiest choice possible, even if it isn’t 100-percent perfect. “I don't hesitate to expose myself to foods I don't usually eat. Especially if it's the only thing available,” she says. “The races can be stressful for both the riders and staff, so why make it more stressful?”

Don’t starve yourself

Last May, after significantly changing his diet, Rob Britton won one of the country’s most mountainous bicycle races, the Tour of the Gila in Silver City, New Mexico. So, what did he do differently?

“I realized my diet consisted almost entirely of carbohydrates, including vegetables,” says Britton. In focusing too closely on the micronutrients (vitamins and minerals) in vegetables, he was depriving himself of proteins and healthy fats.

Rob Britton
Adding healthy fats and proteins to his diet helps Rob Britton recover faster

After consulting with a friend who is a professional body builder, Britton moved to a more balanced diet of macronutrients (carbohydrates, protein, and fat). He ate more lean meats like poultry and fish, and healthy fats like avocado, whole eggs, and almonds. Overall, he increased his daily food intake by as much as 3,000-calories.

“I recovered from hard training and racing so much better,” he says. “I wasn’t hungry all the time. And I didn’t gain any weight.”

Don’t (always) deny yourself treats

Chocolate milk in traditional bottles with straws on old wood background
Chocolate milk is a healthy treat

“There’s a stigma against high-glycemic foods,” says Hannah Ross, a racer on the Rally Cycling women’s team who’s working toward a PhD in nutrition at Midwestern State University. “But after a really hard race or workout is a great time to treat yourself to something sweet. The spike in insulin levels from high-glycemic foods helps facilitate the absorption of protein and repair damaged muscles.”

Rally Cycling | 2016 Training Camp | Women's Action | Yerba Buena Dr. | © Sam Wiebe
Especially after a race or hard training session, it's OK to have something sweet, says Hannah Ross

Ross says a simple glass of chocolate milk provides the perfect balance of fast-acting carbohydrates and protein. As for her own non-guilty pleasure? “After a long, hard bike ride, I live for a Pop-Tart and a protein shake.”

Ian Dille is a freelance journalist based in Austin, Texas. He has written for Outside magazine, Bicycling, and Texas Monthly, and is the author of the The Cyclist's Bucket List (Rodale, 2015).
Ian Dille
Rally Health

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