In my last blog post, I wrote about 8 Principles you can apply to your training nutrition. In this post, I’ll apply those principles to a few representative, real-world training examples, highlighting which principles inform each decision.
Amber’s 8 Principles of Nutrition
- Nourish Yourself
- Don’t Diet During Your Workouts
- Fuel Yourself With Carbohydrates
- Practice Good Hydration Habits
- Emphasize Nutrient Density Off The Bike, But Don’t Overlook Enjoyment
- Guilt Never Needs To Be Part of the Food Equation
- Practice Moderation
- Practice Fueling To Improve
Principle 1 is the overarching goal: to nourish yourself. You’ve probably heard people talk about “earning” calories with exercise, but think about that for a moment. Your body is working hard to keep you alive every second of every day. You don’t have to think about things like breathing, making antibodies, or maintaining blood pH, because all of the trillions of cells in your body are taking care of countless interdependent systems that keep you alive and thriving. Our bodies are amazing and deserve to be nourished for this reason alone. We ask a lot of our bodies all of the time, but especially so when we train. When you fuel your body to meet your demands, you’ll feel better, perform better, and enjoy good health.
Not Just Calories
The following examples use calories as an illustrative metric, and while calories provide essential fuel, signaling is equally important. Your brain continually monitors your body, and when you’re training, it is particularly concerned with how hard you’re working relative to the amount of fuel available. Research suggests your central nervous system may actually hold you back if it detects low fuel reserves relative to your effort. When you take in carbohydrate at regular intervals, the sweet taste prompts your tastebuds to signal your brain that it’s okay to keep pushing, because fuel is incoming. If you consistently under-fuel, over time your brain will associate being on the bike with a lack of fuel; but if you consistently fuel well, your brain will associate pedaling hard with abundance. Your brain’s perception of fuel availability is an important factor in performance, so signaling fuel availability can be as important as the caloric content of the fuel itself (Principles 2 and 3).
About Those Calories…
All of the examples in this post balance estimated caloric intake with estimated caloric needs (= workout needs + basal metabolic needs + regular daily activity needs). If you and your doctor have together determined that creating a caloric deficit would be in the interest of your health, you can do so by adjusting your off-the-bike meals accordingly.
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Are you under-fueling?
Don’t worry if your current fueling habits don’t line up with what’s listed here. Many people find they need to fuel more than they thought. If this is you, you’re not alone. Even during my professional career, I under-fueled for a long time, and learning to fuel appropriately was a game-changer. You don’t need to make drastic changes. Pick something small that sounds easy, like having a recovery drink after every workout, and stick with that new behavior for at least two weeks or until it feels automatic. Once you’ve built that into a habit, try building a new one, like gradually increasing your fuel intake on the bike (Principle 8).
Early Morning 1-Hour Interval Workout
Ideally, you’d want to give yourself three hours to digest a meal before you work out, but an early wake-up makes that unrealistic. That’s okay. “Ideal” seldom figures into reality, which is why it’s important to aim for consistency over perfection. In this case, instead of a full meal, have a light snack before your ride (Principle 3) and emphasize fueling well during your workout (Principles 2 and 3).
Let’s assume your 60-minute workout typically burns about 500 kcal. Principle 3 says to aim for consuming that 500 kcal before and during your workout. Principle 4 says to practice good hydration. Here’s how I’d put that together in this situation.
Early Morning Interval Workout
- Pre-ride snack (6am) = 200 kcal of carbohydrate
- low fiber toast + jam = 200 kcal
- During ride (6:30-7:30am) = 280 kcal of carbohydrate
- 16oz bottle w/electrolyte/cho mix = 80 kcal
- 16oz bottle of plain water = 0 kcal
- 1 package Clif Bloks = 200 kcal
- Post-ride (before 8am) = 220 kcal, 4:1 carbohydrate-to-protein ratio
- 2 scoops lemon-lime mix (44g CHO) + 1 scoop plain whey powder (11g protein)
In this case, your pre-ride snack and on-the-bike fuel add up to 480 kcal. You’ll notice it’s not exactly 500 kcal. My principles offer guidelines or aims, not hard-and-fast rules. Aim to get close consistently, even if it’s not exact.
I recommend having a post-workout drink to kick-off signaling cascades that enable recovery, including glycogen replenishment and muscle repair, among others. This will help your body adapt to the training load, so that you make the most of the work you did on the bike, and so that you’re ready to rock your training again the next day. Even though some workouts are longer or more intense than others, it’s great to build this into routine as you would other fueling habits: with consistent application until it becomes automatic. I personally like the key-lime taste of plain whey and simple lemon-lime Gatorade powder mixed in water; it’s cheap and easy, but you can experiment and find what works well and tastes good to you.
For eating off the bike, aim for nutrient-dense foods that provide the carbohydrates, proteins, and fats that your body needs, as well as other essential vitamins, minerals, and nutrients. Principle 5 reminds you to look for foods that not only provide high nutrient density, but that also offer satiety, enjoyment, comfort, and connection. Off-the-bike nutrition fuels the rest of your day: the energy and mood you bring to your relationships, your work, and generally tending to your life. An important component of this is to drink plenty of water throughout the day, aiming for two liters or ~70 ounces in total (Principle 4). Play around with the timing and content of what you eat to see what works best for you. Here are some examples that work for me and that add up to the roughly 2000 kcal I’ll burn through the rest of my day.
Early Morning Interval Workout: Fueling The Rest of The Day
- Breakfast (9am) = 400 kcal
- Two eggs on whole grain toast
- Lunch (12pm) = 600 kcal
- Grain bowl with quinoa, chicken, greens, and veggies
- Snack (3pm) = 250 kcal
- Full fat Greek yogurt with honey and fresh berries
- Dinner (6pm) = 550 kcal
- Salmon and asparagus on rice
Weekday Evening 2-Hour Interval Workout
An evening session gives you time to eat a good pre-ride meal three hours ahead of the workout, which for most folks would be lunch. Using some of my personal go-to meals as examples for off-the-bike nutrition (adding up to ~2000 kcal to fuel my day), and assuming that the two-hour interval workout would burn 1000 kcal, here is how I might fuel.
Weekday Evening 2-Hour Interval Workout
- Breakfast (7am) = 600 kcal
- Oats cooked with chia seeds, ground flax seeds, almond butter, blueberries, maple syrup, and salt
- Snack (11am) = 500 kcal
- Whole grain toast with eggs, arugula, parmesan, and EVOO
- Late Lunch / Pre Ride (2pm) = 560 kcal CHO
- 4 oz pasta with chicken, squash, and bell peppers
- During ride (5-7pm) = 520 kcal CHO
- 2x bottles mix (80 kcal each) = 120 kcal
- 2x bottles water = 0 kcal
- 2 packages Clif Bloks = 400 kcal
- 1 package per hour, or between intervals (signaling)
- Post-ride (before 7:30pm) = 220 kcal 4:1 carbohydrate-to-protein ratio
- 1 scoop whey + 2 scoops lemon-lime mix
- Dinner (8pm) = 600 kcal
- Hearty salad (greens, red quinoa, slivered almonds, chicken breast, scallions, feta, raisins, sunflower seeds, and dill with EVOO, lemon juice, and salt)
In this example, breakfast, snacks, and dinner constitute your off-the-bike nutrition, emphasizing nutrient density, satiety, and enjoyment (Principle 5) and fueling your day (basal metabolic needs plus regular activity) with ~2000 kcal. Lunch serves as the pre-ride meal and along with what you consume on the bike would fuel your training effort with 920 kcal (close to the ~1000 kcal goal).
Weekend 4-Hour Endurance Ride
For most of us, weekends offer more flexible scheduling and a good time to practice race-day routines and fueling plans (Principle 8). I’d opt to eat a carbohydrate-rich pre-ride meal, giving myself three hours to digest before my ride (Principle 3). Try different pre-ride meal variations to see which sits well and best energizes you, and make that your pre-race meal (Principle 8). I’d also plan to include water stops to refill bottles (Principle 4) and a mid-ride bakery stop. While not part of a race plan, bakery stops are wonderful opportunities to savor delicious food, connect with bike friends, and enjoy the comfort of a weekend ride ritual (Principles 1, 5, and 6). Again using my personal go-to meals as examples, and assuming the four-hour ride will burn 2000 kcal, here is how I would fuel.
Weekend 4-Hour Endurance Ride
- Pre-ride Breakfast (7am) = 880 kcal
- Oats with maple syrup and salt = 580 kcal
- Whole grain toast with jam and cream cheese = 300 kcal
- During ride (10am – 2pm) = 1220 kcal
- 2x bottles mix = 120 kcal (80 kcal each)
- 4-6x bottles water = 0 kcal
- 4 packages Clif Bloks = 800 kcal
- 1 package per hour as terrain allows
- Bakery-stop pastry = 300 kcal
- Post-ride (before 2:30pm) = 220 kcal, 4:1 carbohydrate-to-protein ratio
- 1 scoop plain whey powder + 2 scoops lemon-lime mix
- Lunch (3pm) = 880 kcal
- Burrito with the works and a horchata
- Dinner (6pm) = 800 kcal
- Spaghetti bolognese with a side of roasted broccoli