When I transitioned to a high nutrition plant based diet 2 1/2 years ago I wondered how such an eating style would support my cycling. Cycling has been a passion of mine for several years. My performance level is clearly 'middle of the pack,' nevertheless, I train around 200-250 miles per week. That much training requires lots of calories to keep me going. What would I eat to keep me from bonking during rides? Would a diet based primarily on vegetables, fruits (fresh and dried), beans/legumes, whole unprocessed grains, and raw nuts/seeds be substantial enough? How would I replace electrolytes lost during long hard rides in hot weather? These were some of my questions as I embarked upon this new eating style adventure.
I needn't have worried. My energy level has never been higher and, due in part to the 35 pounds or so that I've lost, my cycling has never been better.
But, there were some adjustments. The transition to the eating style was easier for me than most people because I had been a lacto/ova vegetarian for the past 25 or so years. That diet did not keep my weight at an ideal level because, although I avoided meat, I ate some dairy, lots of processed vegetarian foods like veggie dogs and veggie burgers, ice cream, and lots of processed oils, safflower, olive, canola, etc. Giving up these foods was easy (well, maybe except for the ice cream). My wife had to learn how to adjust her cooking to eliminate especially dairy and oils. She did so good naturedly.
So, people often ask, "What do you eat?" Before answering specifically, I can say without reservation that I have never enjoyed eating as much in my life. Once my taste buds eliminated the craving for foods heavily laden with fat, salt and processed sugar, I started to really enjoy the tastes of whole natural foods. When I crave something sweet, fresh or dried fruit always does the trick. When I want some fat, nuts, seeds or avocados do the job just fine. When I crave salt (not often) I might eat a couple of olives, which I soak in water to eliminate the excess salt on the surface. Not only is my energy level high and my weight at a near ideal level; being able to eat without worrying about weight gain or adverse health consequences is liberating. I am committed to a whole foods plant based diet for the rest of my life. It is one of the best things I have ever done for myself. I want to repeat, once you adjust to a diet of entirely natural foods they taste great.
So, "What do I eat?" to keep my energy levels high for cycling. Not a problem, as it turns out. I eat none of the common sports energy enhancers like Clif Bars, Power Bars, Gels, Gatorade, Powerade, etc. I have gone cold turkey off those things. My fellow cyclists have warned about cramping, but that has not happened. For the past year, my sodium intake has been less than 1.000 mg per day because I add no salt to anything, do not eat processed foods, buy low salt canned beans, tomatoes, spaghetti sauce etc. The average American probably consumes 5,000 - 6.000 mg of salt per day. I don't know the nutritional explanation, but cramping has not been a problem. On the bike I take along bananas, raw trail mix (nuts, seeds, dates, raisins), and sometimes oranges. I fill my water bottles with 1/3 organic apple juice, 1/3 organic blueberry juice and 1/3 water with some ice. This satisfies me, sits well on my stomach during long rides and often can be purchased at convenience stores.
Prior to training, or a long organized Century ride, I often eat a large bowl of cooked oatmeal with chopped bananas, dates, ground flax seeds, almond milk and cinnamon. This breakfast together with what I take along on the bike nourishes me without a problem. Sometimes I leave for a training ride in the morning only having eaten a banana.
After the ride, I am usually not hungry for an hour or two. Then I will mix up in my Vitamix a 'green smoothie' with spinach, dates, other fresh fruits, and various other fruits or vegetables. This is an excellent recovery drink. For dinner after a long ride, whole wheat pasta with a low salt tomato sauce (not olive oil) is my favorite meal. Alternatively, I might make a large salad with several ounces of lettuce and spinach plus a mixture of beans and corn on top. I make a special salad dressing made up of low salt spaghetti sauce, cashew butter and a flavored vinegar like Black Fig vinegar. Every day I balance my food intake with lots of vegetables, lots of fruit, at least a cup of beans (often much more), 1-2 ounces of raw nuts/seeds, and some whole unprocessed grains. I make salads the center of most meals, sometimes including breakfast.
I keep track of my diet with a software program, CRON-o-METER, which assures me that my nutrient intake is high. My average calories per day is around 2400, my fat intake as a percentage of total calories is around 21% and on average my vitamin and mineral intake is much higher than the RDA recommendations. The only exceptions are calcium and vitamin B5, which are at about 100% of RDA. I take some supplements, a low dose multivitamin (GentleCare), LDL Protect and DHA Purity purchased at www.drfuhrman.com, plus saw palmetto and cranberry extract.
Since my nutrient level is high, I seem to need fewer calories to maintain my high energy output. Thus far, it has not seemed necessary to supplement with electrolytes while on the bike because my electrolyte levels seem to remain very high and I get added benefits from the fresh fruits I eat before, during and after the ride. I seem to sweat a lot less while working out that before I started this diet.
I have not ridden more than a 100 miles or so in a day since starting this eating style, so I don't know yet how I would fare on ultra long distances. My assumption is that by continuing to eat fresh fruit, nuts/seeds on the bike I could ride as long as I want.
In sum, a whole foods plant based diet has enhanced, rather than detracted from, my cycling. I am no longer dependent on artificial processed 'energy' foods to keep my output high. A lesson I have learned is that the best way to feel good on the bike is to maintain an excellent eating style off the bike. If I start the ride with high levels of nutrition in my body, what I eat during the ride is of less consequence.
I predict that increasingly athletes will adopt this eating style for high levels of performance, even if they don't do it for health reasons. My 'experiment of one' thus far has been a great success.