Although the weather on Colorado’s Front Range seems reluctant to make up its mind, spring will soon give way to summer in the United States, and as usual, the changing weather is accompanied by the bloom of the cycling season. For many athletes, amateurs and pros alike, the season’s primary goals are coming up in the next few months; making right now the best time to examine your nutrition program and make sure it will optimally support your training.
The Big Picture
As goal events approach, many folks who are following structured, periodized training programs are moving from a Preparation Period to a Specialization Period. The nature of training shifts from longer intervals targeted at increasing sustainable power, to shorter, very-intense intervals designed to address race-specific demands. The number of training races or hard group rides tends to rise, and the overall intensity of a week’s worth of training increases over past months’.
When you start to spend a higher proportion of your training time at higher intensity levels, you’re changing the demands placed upon your energy systems, and as a result, the fuels you’re burning for energy. When you were out doing long, moderate-paced rides in the early spring, you were burning a pretty balanced mixture of carbohydrate and fat, with a little protein thrown in for good measure. While those workouts improved the power output your aerobic system can support, the harder workouts that lead to racing success demand energy faster than your aerobic system can deliver it.
To meet the demands of your harder workouts, your sleek and efficient aerobic system has to call upon the body’s version of the Hummer: the very powerful but gas-guzzling anaerobic system. In terms of fuel efficiency, the human anaerobic system even makes an M1 Abrams tank look good. As you go from moderate to maximum intensity, the rate at which you incinerate carbohydrate stores can increase fivefold. With that in mind, it’s easy to see how transitioning to the harder workouts, faster group rides, and races that characterize the Specialization Period increases the total amount of carbohydrate you utilize for fuel, and hence the amount of carbohydrate you need in your diet.
When it comes to optimal performance, it’s not enough to just consume the same high-calorie, low-fat diet year-round. Such a nutrition program often means eating more than you need when training intensity is low, and yet not enough to perform at your best during the height of the season. Ensuring that athletes’ carbohydrate intake and total calories progress alongside their training is the cornerstone of the Carmichael Nutrition Program (CNP), and I’ve found it to be very effective at eliminating portions of the year when energy intake and expenditure are significantly mismatched.
What The Big Picture Means For You
Increase Carbohydrate Consumption:
Carbohydrate is the fuel behind the high-speed, high-power efforts you rely on during intense training and competition, which is why it’s so important that you get the right amount. During the rest of the year, active individuals should consume between 60-65% of their total calories from carbohydrates, but during the height of the competitive season, endurance athletes like you need even more. Increasing carbohydrate’s contribution to 70% of your total caloric intake should help ensure that you’re getting enough to replenish glycogen stores between workouts. The importance of glycogen replenishment should not be underestimated, as it is one of the keys to preserving the quality of your training, as well as your ability to perform at your best on race day.
If consuming 70% of your calories from carbohydrates seems high, consider what Lance Armstrong and the rest of his teammates eat during the Tour de France. With the unrelenting pace of the event, their carbohydrate needs are extreme, and as a result, they can consume as much as 75-80% of their calories from carbohydrates during some race days.
Don’t Overdo It With Protein:
Since your total calories increase as you move from the Preparation Period to Specialization Period, it’s natural and necessary for your protein intake to increase, but there’s no reason to overdo it. During the height of the competitive season, consuming 0.8-0.9 grams of protein per pound of bodyweight should be sufficient to meet your needs for recovery and maintenance of lean body mass. For a 165-pound athlete training 8-12+ hours/week, this would be about 100-115 grams per day.
Adding more protein won’t lead to further improvements in recovery or performance; rather you run a significant risk of displacing carbohydrates in your nutrition program. Even though your liver can and will convert excess protein into glucose, the process is relatively slow. When you’re trying to rapidly replenish glycogen stores, you don’t want to rely on the liver’s ability to produce glucose from protein; it’s better to do the job with carbohydrate.
Of course, whenever you talk about protein and endurance athletes these days, you have to address the issue of carbohydrate and protein mixtures in recovery foods/drinks. In the process of developing the formula for the new PowerBar Recovery drink, the CTS coaches and I found we could reduce the protein content of a drink while still achieving the recovery benefits that carbohydrate/protein recovery drinks are known for. With a carbohydrate:protein ratio of 7:1, the drink provides enough protein to accelerate glycogen replenishment, without displacing the carbohydrate that actually gets stored as glycogen in muscle cells.
Consider Your Sources:
Your high caloric demands do not give you a license to eat with wanton disregard. While you are seeking to consume hundreds of grams of carbohydrate each day, it’s important to consider the other nutrients those foods carry with them. Brown rice, for instance, contains more fiber and delivers more beneficial vitamins and minerals than bleached white rice. Their carbohydrate content, however, is the same.
Whole grains, and products made from them, are “quality carriers” for carbohydrate, meaning they deliver beneficial cargo in addition to carbohydrate energy. The concept of seeking quality carriers cuts across carbohydrate, protein, and fat sources, and generally places an emphasis on fresh vegetables and fruit (carbohydrate); lean cuts of meat, fish and chicken, eggs, and low fat dairy products (protein); and nuts, seeds, cold-water fish and mono- and polyunsaturated oils (fat).
Having spent the winter and spring training and sacrificing in pursuit of improved performance, you owe it to yourself to make sure your nutrition program is going to support you when you demand the most from it. Don’t worry so much about losing weight as a means of improving your power to weight ratio, because doing so means restricting calories when you need them most. Your performance is likely to suffer more from the attempt, than it would benefit from you losing a few pounds in the next few weeks. Eat to fuel your training, improve the strength and efficiency of your engine, and let that engine carry you to your goals.