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So far I”ve discussed cadence and gearing, the methods by which power is
converted to speed. Today I want to talk the methods by which food and
water are converted to power, how to optimize those methods for cycling,
and maybe throw in a few more cyclist health issues.
As I mentioned in the article on cadence, your muscles have two fuels:
glucose and glycogen. Glucose circulates in the bloodstream; it is
extracted from foods you eat (carbohydrates) and combines with oxygen
to power your muscles (via a complex reaction I won”t get into here).
The by-products of this reaction are water and carbon dioxide. The
CO2 is circulated to the lungs for exhalation, and the water is pushed
to the surface as sweat (usually). Glycogen (really just another form
of glucose) is stored in the muscles. It produces power via a faster
but less efficient reaction needing no oxygen. The drawbacks to using
glycogen are that one of its by-products is lactic acid, which causes
muscle soreness, and that you have only a limited amount in storage–
about 10 minutes worth. Glycogen is replaced very slowly; a good
night”s sleep will replace about two-thirds of a depleted glycogen
supply, so cyclists want to use glucose for their power as much
as possible. The best way to do this is to keep your cadence high;
see Cadence for details.
Protein is used to build and repair muscles. The meat and dairy
industries want you to think that protein provides power, but it
does not. Cycling does not require large muscles, so protein is
not that important; most Americans will get enough protein for
cycling in their daily diet, and therefore shouldn”t worry about it.
Vegan Death Warriors probably should consider protein sources, but
non-vegan vegetarians probably get enough for cycling.
Carbohydrates are what power your muscles. Complex carbohydrates, such
as pasta, take longer to break down and therefore provide fuel over
a longer period of time; this makes them good food to eat the day or
two before athletic activity. Simple carbohydrates (sugars) break down
quickly and are good fuel just before and during rides.
Water is all-important. You need water to digest your food; it also
provides most of your cooling in the form of sweat. Your thirst impulses
are not enough to keep up with your need for water when cycling;
drink before you are thirsty and drink more than you think you need.
If you drink too much water you just piss it out; if you drink too
little you can suffer from heat frustration or worse. This happened
to me on a hot day in Livermore a couple weeks ago, and it”s no fun.
Some cycling authorities espouse the value of salt, some going so far
as to advocate salt tablets while cycling. I personally don”t find
this useful; I tend to eat a lot of salty foods (as do most
Americans) and while I certainly sweat out a lot of salt, I”ve never
felt a real need to supplement my salt intake. But every body is
different; if you get muscle cramps while riding, more salt is
One note: while your muscles can use either glucose or glycogen, your
brain can use only glucose. That”s why it”s important to keep your
blood glucose levels up; at the top of long climbs you should be careful
to ensure you”re not woozy before plummeting down the descent.
That”s the groundwork; now some specific suggestions:
GENERAL DIET: I should put a big disclaimer here; not only am I not a
health expert, I don”t even eat all that well. I think what”s important
is improving your diet within your existing dietary framerwork rather
than trying to come up with an entirely new diet; the former is far
more likely to take permanance. I”ll try here to provide some
guidelines for improving your diet, with full knowledge that nobody,
including me, is going to follow them all. Health is an incremental
Avoid dairy products. They have a lot of fat and cholesterol and don”t
provide much usefulness for cycling. By “avoid” I don”t mean “swear off
completely”; just don”t order extra cheese on pizza, watch out for
cream sauces on pasta, don”t lather too much cream cheese on your bagels,
etc. Dairy products taste good and are versatile, which is why they
are ubiquitous; just don”t go out of your way to consume them.
Avoid meats. Again, I eat meat all the time, but it”s with the knowledge
that I could be eating something better for me. Instead of ordering
all-meat pizza, have mushrooms, onions, or green peppers. Order a
single burger with fries rather than a double burger without. At a
Mexican place, order a chicken burrito rather than a beef burrito, or,
even better, a bean burrito. Mexican food is good in general, so is
Chinese or Japanese, but consider something other than the sushi or
the sizzling steak cubes.
Eat grains. The reason there was such a big deal about oat bran a couple
years back was that people who eat oatmeal for breakfast are not eating
eggs, bacon, or donuts. It”s not a panacea but it”s pretty good. In the
mornings I usually have a bowl of oatmeal (2 packs of instant), sometimes
with a banana chopped up in it; this makes for a filling, tasty, cheap, and
fairly quick breakfast. Oatmeal is good, cereals are good (again,
go easy on the milk), rice, hops, whatever. A diet based entirely
on grains and fruits would probably be excellent for cycling; me, I
can only eat grains and fruits for so long, but it”s a good thing to
BEFORE/DURING RIDES: Before and during rides, you want simple carbohydrates
in easily digestable forms. The important thing is to eat LIGHT! I”ve
had burgers at stops on rides and regretted it immensely later. On the
day of a ride I”ll eat nothing heavier than a muffin until afterwards.
Bananas are great food and are really cheap; they can be a pain to
carry, though, and dealing with the peel can be a problem in urban
areas. I like Nutri-Grain Cereal Bars on rides; they”re not that
filling, they taste good, and they”re reasonably priced. Some people,
of course, go in for PowerBars and the like, which are good nutritionally
but are expensive and tasteless. Candy bars are actually reasonably
good, although they tend to melt.
Always be aware that you need a certain amount of water to properly
digest your sugars and salts. Similarly, you need a certain amount of
sugars to properly digest your water; without them it tends to slosh
around in your stomach being useless. A dash of salt is also helpful.
The human-power airplane project, Daedelus, used a drink containing
water, 100 grams/liter of glucose, and 1 gram/liter of salt. Not
a particlarly tasty beverage, but you get the idea.
OTHER CYCLING HEALTH PROBLEMS:
Cycling is generally a healthy way to exercise; it”s low-impact and
almost fully aerobic (when done properly). I”m just going to list here
some of the more common problems and ways to avoid them.
PAINS IN THE ASS: For casual cyclists, rear-end pain is the most common
problem. There are two types; a deep soreness that feels like it”s in
the bones, and a surface chafing. The deep soreness comes from being
unaccustomed to riding; ride more and it goes away. Softer saddles do
not help; your saddle is a cradle for your pelvic bones, not a
cushon for your rear end. Chafing can be more of a problem; it”s
usually caused by shorts that don”t fit well or are soaked with sweat.
As sweat and bacteria get into the chafed skin they can cause infections
that can be serious; just about every year someone drops out of the
Tour de France with saddle sores. You can avoid these by always wearing
snug, clean, dry shorts, and by getting your ass off the saddle on
downhills to let the wind dry out your crotch.
PAINS IN THE BACK: Mountain bike users will probably have to deal with
lower back pain on longer rides; this is due to the upright riding
position which puts more strain on your lower back. Raising your seat
and lowering your handlebars may help by putting more of your weight
Road bike riders sometimes have to deal with pain in the upper back and
shoulders; this is a result of having to hold your head up for extended
periods of time. It will go away as you ride more; doing exercises that
strengthen neck and shoulder muscles should help, too.
PAINS IN THE HAND: Hand pain and numbness are fairly common on long rides.
You can combat them by changing hand position on your bars (mountain bikers
need to buy bar-ends, which is what the industry wants you to do), and
by wearing cycling gloves and/or using padded handlebar tape.
PAINS IN THE ER, YEAH, THAT: Both men and women sometimes complain of
genital soreness or numbness after cycling. Good women”s saddles often
have a hole cut in the frame under the, er, affected area. Guys can try
adjusting the saddle position (bearing in mind that tilting it back
is as likely to help as tilting it forward) or wearing a jockstrap or
more supportive shorts. Sometimes, the condition is so serious that hormonal treatments are required.
KNEE PROBLEMS: Cycling actually has helped my knees and ankles which used
to be pretty bad. When done improperly, though, it can cause problems.
The two most common causes of knee problems when cycling are low cadence
and low saddle height. Since most casual cyclists use too low a cadence
and adjust their saddle too low, they feel cycling hurts their knees.
As I”ve said, cadence should be between 80 and 100 RPM. Your saddle
should be adjusted so that your leg is almost completely extended at
the bottom of the pedal revolution.
In conclusion, cycling is a fairly healthy endeavour; if you are treating
your body well it will probably be in fine shape for cycling. Cycling
nutrition is basically parallel to the ideas of general nutrition, and
most common cycling injuries (other than the falling-off-the-bike type)
are preventable and not serious. Ride Bike!