Food can be a complicated subject for athletes. On one hand, food fuels performance and gives our bodies the nutrients to repair, recover, and adapt to the stress of training and racing. On the other, far too many of us moralize what we eat in the name of performance, with profound impacts on how we relate to food and the very bodies on which we rely. 

TrainerRoad’s Amber Pierce wants to offer a different perspective. Amber spent 12 years racing as a world tour cyclist, and her understanding of nutrition is rooted in both cycling performance and general health. Here are Amber’s 8 Principles of Nutrition for every TrainerRoad athlete.

For more on nutrition and fueling check out Ask A Cycling Coach Ep 280

This post is the first of two-article series. Next week Amber will outline sample nutrition plans for different racing and training scenarios.

1. Nourish Yourself

Your body is always trying to help. An adaptable and willing participant in training, your body is ready to respond to the training you do: to fine-tune itself into a faster and fitter machine. By nourishing yourself, you’re giving your body what it needs to do the things you ask of it. 

This includes calories and nutrients, but it means more than just fuel for pedaling muscles. Nourishment leaves you feeling energetic and uplifted. It improves your mood and motivation, empowering your body and mind to work together towards a common goal.

2. Don’t Diet During Your Workouts

TrainerRoad is designed to help you get faster. The higher the quality of your workouts, the higher the quality of the resulting training stress and adaptations your body makes in response. Those adaptations (mitochondrial density and efficiency, for example) improve both health and performance. 

This means you need to fuel your workouts to be as effective as possible. You may hear friends brag about completing long rides with little food, but that strategy compromises training quality and over time leaves a lot of gains on the table. Instead, make fueling your workouts a point of pride, and celebrate your success when you get it right. You’ll feel better doing the work, get more out of each workout, have more energy, and improve health both on and off the bike.

3. Fuel Yourself With Carbohydrates

For the vast majority of athletes, carbohydrates are the most effective fuel source for structured interval workouts. Sure, low-intensity, low-carb rides can offer some benefits in specific circumstances, but if you’re looking to get faster, carbs are king when it comes to fueling before and during your workout, as well as replenishing immediately after.

Fueling is a great example of an achievable process goal for each ride. Aim to ingest your workout’s full calorie demand in carbs before and during your ride, so you end the workout without a significant deficit. It’s okay if it’s not exact; just notice how you feel when you take in fuel regularly throughout your workout. Afterwards, have a small carb-centric recovery meal or shake within 30 minutes of finishing your workout, aiming for about a 4:1 carbohydrate-to-protein ratio. 

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4. Practice Good Hydration Habits

Another great process goal is to work on good hydration habits, both on and off the bike. During and after your workout, include electrolytes in your bottles to replace what you lose in sweat. This can be particularly important riding indoors, when reduced airflow and high intensity often mean high rates of sweat loss. As with fueling, drinking small amounts of fluid regularly during your workout (and throughout the day) is more effective than taking big swigs at longer intervals. Try to work up to two bottles per hour.

5. Emphasize Nutrient Density Off The Bike, But Don’t Overlook Enjoyment

Food nourishes you and supplies your body with essential nutrients, but let’s not forget that food is delicious and represents more than just calories. Eating is one of life’s great pleasures, and the enjoyment, comfort, connection, and good taste it provides are just as essential to well-being as satiety and energy. 

Instead of thinking of food as “good” or “bad”, consider the relative benefits that different foods provide. Some meals leave your mood uplifted and provide hours of energy, while others might confer incredible taste and momentary pleasure with a shorter-lived boost. All foods have their place, and if you pay attention to how your food makes you feel overall, you’ll naturally gravitate towards more wholesome, nourishing foods without depriving yourself of enjoyable treats. 

6. Guilt Never Needs To Be Part of the Food Equation

Guilt isn’t helpful when it comes to nutrition, contrary to popular belief. The stress we experience about eating a food we’ve labeled “bad” can be more detrimental than the food itself. Many of us think guilt is what “keeps us in line,” which is understandable. We probably learned this at a young age when guilt was used as punishment. Guilt is not necessary to improve, learn, and grow. Imagine guilt-tripping a baby into learning to crawl! 

We are hard-wired with curiosity and motivation that intrinsically pull us toward learning and growth, if we allow. When you focus on how a particular food affects you not only when you’re eating it, but also later, you’ll be surprised by how much you start to gravitate toward foods that truly nourish and sustain you. Indulge in a treat now and then, and enjoy it!  

7. Practice Moderation

This one is pretty self explanatory, but it applies as much to the food you eat as it does to how you approach nutrition in general. Think in terms of building sustainable habits. This means being flexible to account for life’s uncertainties and being kind with yourself to account for being human. 

8. Practice Fueling To Improve

Fueling well is a skill you can improve. No one perfectly fuels their workouts every time; aim for consistency, not perfection. Start with behavioral changes to build new habits: plan ahead by having the food you need easily available for each workout. Better fueling habits will improve your physiological capacity to process and utilize more fuel. When you tackle your goal event, you’ll reap the rewards of quality preparation as well as fuel efficiency, which can make all the difference.