From the Coaches: Nutrition 101

First and foremost, I need to begin by saying that as a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist, and USA Triathlon and USA Cycling coach, I have the fundamental nutrition knowledge to provide general nutrition information and recommendations. I am not, however, a licensed dietician and it would be beyond my scope of practice to give specific nutrition advice, prescribe meal plans, or give advice for medical conditions such as diabetes, heart disease, etc. and it is advised that you take any nutrition advice lightly, if it is NOT coming from a licensed dietician.

In the same way that different training plans will work for different people training for the same event, there are many different nutrition approaches that will work for different people. This post is not meant to discuss or spark debate about various nutrition or dietary approaches, it is simply to provide general nutrition information to help those without much nutrition background to understand the basics and maybe spark some interest into learning more about it.

Good nutrition means something different to almost everyone, but if you ask 100 experts in the field, I think they would all agree on a few key points:

  • Eat whole, natural foods that are nutrient dense and nourishing for the body
    • Foods that provide vitamins, minerals, fiber, etc
    • A variety of brightly colored fruits and vegetables
    • Lean meats and unprocessed grains
  • Eat mostly non or low processed foods that are simple and recognizable (sports nutrition products during training are exempt)
  • Eat enough to fuel and sustain energy demands and physical performance, as well as provide satiety and enjoyment
  • Eat foods that are sustainable for us and the planet

Now let’s discuss the components of our food:

Macronutrients: the three substrates that our bodies need in the largest amounts: carbohydrates, protein and fat. Let’s break them down.

Carbohydrates- The body’s primary source of energy. There are 3 main categories of carbohydrates based on their level of complexity and number of sugar groups they contain. They range from simple to complex.

  • Monosaccharides and oligosaccharides are the “simple” carbs which you know as processed grains like breakfast cereals and breads, cakes, pastries, candy, and some fruits and vegetables. These have a higher Glycemic Index (rating of how quickly and significantly a food raises blood sugar, on a scale of 0-100) and more effect on blood sugar and insulin levels. If it gives you an energy boost quickly, it’s probably a simple sugar.
  • Polysaccharides are your complex chains of linked monosaccharides that take longer to digest, enter the bloodstream, and burn. They don’t raise insulin and blood sugar levels drastically, have a low Glycemic Index and more fiber.
    • Best examples include less or unprocessed whole grains (brown rice, quinoa, oats, etc.), fruits and vegetables, (starchy vegetables have more), beans, legumes.
  • All Carbohydrates contain 4 calories per gram
  • Managing your carbohydrate intake is important for optimizing health, body composition and athletic performance.

Protein- There are 20 individual Amino Acids that are the building blocks of protein. The body uses amino acids to make proteins that help the body break down food (i.e. enzymes), repair tissues, regulate the body’s tissues and organs (i.e. insulin- regulates blood sugar), transport materials throughout the body (ie. hemoglobin- protein in red blood cells that allows the transport of oxygen)

  • 9 of them are “essential” meaning that you must get them from food and the rest are “non-essential” meaning that our bodies can produce them on their own.
  • “Conditional” amino acids are usually only needed during periods of illness and stress
  • Contain 4 calories per gram
  • It is not necessary to get all amino acids at every meal, but it is important to have a daily/weekly balance. The proteins we eat in food are broken down into their individual amino acids that the body then uses to build the specific proteins it needs.
  • Most common/best sources of protein:
    • Lean beef and pork
    • Wild game: venison, elk, etc.
    • Chicken, turkey & duck
    • Seafood: Fish and shellfish
    • Beans & legumes: black, kidney, garbanzo & pinto beans, lentils, peas
    • Nuts & seeds
    • Soy products
    • Dairy products: milk, yogurt, butter, etc
  • Animal and plant based sources have their own advantages and disadvantages.
    • Some animal proteins (such as beef) contain heme iron, which is more absorbable than the non-heme iron found in plants.
    • Animal proteins are more anabolic, which is better for stimulating protein synthesis for muscle repair

Fat- Critical for regulating and producing hormones that allow your bodies to adapt to and recover from training, absorb and store fat soluble vitamins (A, D, E, K), cushion internal organs, maintain core body temperature, support a healthy immune system and are burned for energy.

  • Fats contain 9 calories per gram- much more calorically dense than carbs and protein
  • “Good” Fats: Mono and polyunsaturated fats make up your HDL cholesterol which stabilize cholesterol levels by decreasing LDL’s. These fats are usually rich in Omega 3’s.
    • Examples include fatty fish, nuts, seeds (flax, hemp, chia), avocados, olives & olive oil, green leafy vegetables
    • “Bad” Fats: trans fat and saturated fats cause an increase of LDL cholesterol which increase blood pressure, harden arteries and increases risk for heart disease and stroke.
      • Examples include saturated fat found in processed/packaged foods, poor quality meat, seafood and dairy products. Opt for grass-fed (pasture raised) meat and dairy products as much as possible.

Micronutrients: Vitamins, minerals, phytonutrients

These nutrients are needed in trace quantities in our bodies, but still play very important roles and are critical to a healthy metabolism and strong bones, among many other things!

Vitamins are necessary for normal cell function, growth, and development.

  • There are 13 essential vitamins that all have important jobs in our bodies, and a deficiency in any one of them could cause deleterious health effects. I.e. a deficiency in Vitamin K is a serious concern because your blood would not clot (stop bleeding).
  • Fat soluble vitamins- A, D, E, K.
    • These are stored in fatty tissue in the body and are more easily absorbed when consumed with dietary fat.
  • Water soluble vitamins- B1, B2, B6, B12, C, Biotin, Niacin, Folate, Pantothenic acid.
    • Must be consumed daily as they are not stored in the body (except for Vitamin B12 which can be stored in the liver). Any amount consumed in excess of what the body uses is excreted in the urine.
  • We also have “vitamin-like-factors” which serve similar purposes as vitamins.
    • Choline- aids in the functioning of the brain and nervous system
    • Carnitine- helps the body use fatty acids for energy
NAME SOURCE
Vitamin A Butter, eggs, liver, seafood, cod liver oil
Vitamin B Whole unrefined grains, fresh fruit & vegetables, raw nuts, legumes, seafood, organ meats
Vitamin C Fresh fruit & vegetables, organ meats
Vitamin D Butter, eggs, liver, seafood, cod liver oil
Vitamin E Vegetable oils, butter, organ meats, whole grains, raw nuts & seeds, dark green leafy vegetables
Vitamin K Liver, eggs, butter, whole grains, dark green leafy veg

Minerals- Important for brain, muscle and heart function, making enzymes and hormones and keeping bones strong. For example, Iron is responsible for transporting oxygen to our cells, and sodium and potassium are minerals that also act as electrolytes which regulate muscle contractions, fluid balance and nerve impulses.

  • Macrominerals- Needed in larger amounts than the rest:
    • Magnesium, sodium, potassium, chloride, sulfur, calcium and phosphorus.
  • Microminerals- Needed in trace amounts only
    • Copper, chromium, iodine, manganese, selenium, zinc, iron, cobalt, fluoride
NAME SOURCE
Calcium Dairy products, fish with soft bones, green leafy vegetables
Chloride Natural unprocessed sea salt, coconut flesh
Magnesium Natural unprocessed sea salt, fish, dairy produce, nuts
Phosphorus Animal produce, whole grains, nuts & legumes
Potassium Natural unprocessed sea salt, nuts, vegetables
Sodium Natural unprocessed sea salt, meat broths, zucchini (courgette)
Sulphur Cruciferous vegetables, eggs, dairy products

Phytonutrients- chemicals produced in plants which are not essential to human health, but can enhance it with their antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties. Generally, the fruits and vegetables with the most color, flavor and aroma have the most benefit, so look for foods with deep hues or bright colors, as well as herbs, teas and pungent foods like garlic and onions. Population studies have shown that phytonutrients provide health benefits to humans by reducing risk of disease, enhancing immunity and intercellular communication, repairing DNA damage from exposure to toxins, detoxifying carcinogens and altering estrogen metabolism.

Consuming a variety of fruits and vegetables generally provides an adequate amount of micronutrients to prevent nutrient deficiencies, reduce risk of diseases such as diabetes and heart disease, reduce free-radical damage to cells, improve blood sugar control and promote digestive health.

Sugar

I think it’s pretty common knowledge that consuming too much sugar is harmful. Overconsumption can reduce the body’s ability to tolerate carbohydrates, reduce insulin sensitivity and lead to fat gain due to excess calories and chronically high insulin levels.

For athletes, however, there are appropriate times to consume sugar and it can actually be beneficial to our performance when the session or race is very intense, or longer than 60 minutes. Sugar consumed during exercise is processed immediately and used for energy, and sugar consumed after exercise is used to replenish the energy burned so we’re ready for the next training session. Sugar consumed outside of training and racing should be limited, however, in order to avoid the negative effects described above.

Water

Water is an essential part of our daily nutrition needs. It has many functions, such as dissolving and transporting nutrients throughout the body, carrying waste away from cells, speeding enzymatic processes, lubricating the joints, acting as a shock absorber, regulating body temperature, and providing a source of minerals.

Challenge: 3 Day Diet Log

Keep a record of everything you eat for at least 3 days (two week days and 1 weekend day). Record as many details as possible:

  • what the food is (the brand or is it homemade?)
  • how much you eat
  • what time you eat it
  • how you felt when you ate it, etc.

The purpose of this exercise is not to nit pick your dietary habits, but to help you notice trends and find imbalances so you know where your strengths and weaknesses are. This exercise can also provide some insight into how your food choices affect your energy level and quality of training and how emotions affect your eating habits and vise versa.

You can do this the old school way with a paper and pencil, or with an app like My Fitness Pal where you can scan barcodes on packages or search the database for your food to see the nutrition facts and information about it. This isn’t necessary as you’re not analyzing it for actual nutrient density, but if it’s easier for you, then by all means.

I hope you all learn something about your dietary habits by doing this exercise or that it triggers a little more curiosity about nutrition and the role it plays in your health and athletic performance.

If you discover something interesting and not too personal, please feel free to share or ask questions. Just remember, this is a very general and broad overview and friendly discussion, not meant to debate diet trends or opinions.

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Thank you for a fascinating article @Coach.Suzie.S

It is only in the last 8 weeks or so that I have paid any real attention to diet (even after prepping for and running 3 marathons). Long story short I was fed up of getting dropped on climbs by my buddy and so used MyFitnessPal to start tracking what was in what I was eating.

And it was horrific! At 52 years old I was struggling to maintain a decent weight (weighing in at 196 lbs)- since tracking what I have been eating I have dropped 12lbs (in 6-7 weeks) and have way more energy simply by focusing on high protein foods and a balanced diet and cutting out a lot of the junk. Despite dropping a decent amount of weight my power output has gone up too!

One thing I have noticed on long rides is that if I take a sugary drink and snack midway through the ride I get a real short term energy burst but like a match it quickly burns out and I feel weaker. Protein bars, gels and water seem to do the trick but sugary snacks not so much!

Love these coach articles - the science behind getting stronger and fitter is so fascinating for a stats geek like myself. Just wish I had paid more attention a few years back!

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Times have changed. I did a 3 year diploma in nutrition. For my study, I worked with a group of Triathletes, one being National class, My approach at that time was to look at nutrients and overall health.If I did it now it would focus more on the needs of the athlete.For example, one of them showed me a container of energy drink and asked me what I thought of it.These were new at the time and I was not that familiar with them.I saw lots of sugar, and so decided it was an unhealthy product. At the end of the trial every athlete had improved in every discipline. There was not one injury or illness throughout the study, and I concluded that this was as important a reason for the improvement as the actual nutrients , although the two were probably interlinked.

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How do I best determine how much water to consume on a daily basis? How does that math change after a hard indoor session (maybe 1 to 2 hours) and how does it change after a solid outdoor effort (3 to 5 hrs)? I taking in 4,000 mL or more a day but feel out of balance after those longer rides even with steady consumption post ride. Thanks for all the info thus far!

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I suppose you do not ‘just’ drink water? What do you put in it?

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Not an expert but 4 litres of water a day sounds like a lot. If you’re out of balance it seems you may be better reducing water.

Do you sweat so much? How much water is contained in the food you eat? How much salt do you take in? Are you thirsty a lot?

Bit more of a personal question that you needn’t answer here but do you urinate a lot?

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Great follow- up and context is everything to be sure. I live in the Deep South of the USA and so I’m sweating a lot. It is not unusual for me to loss 1 to 1.5 Kg of weight over a course of long Summer ride. To @Cyclopaat question, even during the working day, I’ll have something like 650 mL of electrolyte drink like a NUUN or SOS drink. Regular meals are oatmeal with almond butter in the morning with coffee, sandwich and fruit at lunch, and then a pretty balanced dinner with a protein, veggies, and carbs at dinner. Thanks for asking the follow - ups!

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You may want to try other additives, like PH tablets, Magnesium and B6.

I sweat even more than you maybe; in Italy, last August, climbing the Mortirolo at 37 degrees Celsius, I had an intake of a 500 ml bottle, with a PH 1000 tab, every 500 to 800 meters.

I still lost more than I could take in…

Recovery drinks are important, but you should probably add what I suggested between workout too.

In hot weather, I will drink a bottle with a 1500 tab the night before.

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Thanks! Are there some brand names you might suggest? googling PH tablets gets me a lot of results for taking care of my fish tank water -lol!

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@Chas1014 and everyone else, PH is short for the brand Precision Hydration. Currently working it into the budget for next year I am going to purchase their sweat test for the exact reason of this topic. I am in the mid to upper Midwest of the USA and I believe that I am a moderate to high volume sweater too and I don’t hang on to my salts which I know because the cramps tell me. However another product that I have found that is working marvelously for myself and is quite tasty is Skratch hydration drink mix. I have three different flavors in my cabinet at the moment :smile:. Since finding this info out I have kept an electrolyte mix on board during rides instead of just water and have found that the cramp issue is not really much of a problem anymore, although there are still the “over did it” cramps which is what Amp Human is for. LOL!

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Precision Hydration it is :sunglasses: It has been the most important addition for me for a while now. It doesn’t really come cheap and there may be home made solutions that would perhaps do the trick, but I’m sticking with it.

I use both the tablets and the powders, whereas the powders do not produce ‘bubbles’. I find those a little easier on the stomach, but that’s a personal thing.

I also have the electrolyte capsules for ‘emergencies’. As I stated above, sometimes a just cannot swallow the amounts I need and it those cases, the capsule does the trick.

Edit: I have been looking at Skratch, but if I recall correctly, they either do not ship to Europe at all, or it gets very expensive. Might have changed since I last looked.

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@Chas1014,

Hydration needs vary among people as much as everything else. Generally speaking, you should be drinking enough to maintain a pale yellow urine color. For you, that may be a significantly different amount than the next person. Adding electrolytes is important, especially when you’re exercising and sweating a lot. If you’re drinking about 32 ounces of electrolyte drink in the 2-3 hours post training session and still not feeling like it’s enough, then you’re likely not taking in enough during training, and/or going into the session dehydrated. The general rule of thumb for training is that you can stick to plain water for sessions less than 1 hour. More than 1 hour and you should add electrolytes. For long rides, definitely start taking in electrolytes early and keep it up throughout. If you know you have a long or very intense session the next day (especially if it’s going to be hot and humid), then I’d recommend using the Preload formula from Skratch or Osmo. Just as the name implies, it will help you pre-load fluid and electrolytes so you go into the session stocked up, and help limit the losses.
If you want a more scientific approach, there are various sweat tests you can take, both free ones online, and more in depth tests for purchase, like the one mentioned from Precision Hydration.
If you haven’t done so already, I’d also recommend experimenting with different electrolyte products to see if one tends to work better for you than another.
Hope that helps!

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We probably all know that, but there are enough scenarios, some described here, in which you don’t pee at all, during your training or event.

Definitely take the sweat test somewhere - I was reluctant at the time, when doing that at PH, because they first ask you for your email.

But, they do not abuse that and I’m glad I decided to go for it.

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Thanks @Coach.Suzie.S

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Thank you so much for this wonderful article. There is so much hype out there and fad diets are everywhere, this is one of the best summaries for good nutrition I have read. I have been an avid cyclist for years and nutrition is always so subjective. I have always found that when I follow this same key points you have spelled out in this article it is usually a win!!

Also, just a quick personaI note…I stopped drinking my nightly glass of wine and try to keep my alcohol consumption in check on the weekends, at age 56 I have found I actually dropped weight and I sleep way better. Great benefits for feeling strong on the bike at any age. Cheers!!