Key to healthy life cycle? Exercise AND eating right

February 8, 2009 

Team Jelly Belly takes to the road during a recent practice ride near the company's headquarters in Fairfield. Their team physician, Dr. Helen Iams, says that 'What distinguishes the pros from the amateurs is at the elite pro level, these athletes are really tuned in to their needs.' (Allan Crawford courtesy of Team Jelly Belly)

Judd Van Sickle has seen it all: the junk-food binges, the candy bars, the post-ride burgers.

The longtime cyclist and coach of UC Davis' renowned cycling team even acknowledges powering down a double bacon cheeseburger himself after training.

"That was before I knew better," he said.

But just because competitive cyclists need four times more calories than average adults doesn't mean they can eat anything they want.

"That's probably the biggest myth about cyclist nutrition," Van Sickle said. "A lot of people are under the misconception that if you work out so much, you can eat whatever you want. But that's not a good idea. It's garbage in, garbage out.

"You're trying to eat 5,000 to 8,000 calories a day," he added. "That's not so hard if you're eating a Big Mac -- or 12. But you'll pay for it later. The key is consuming all those calories and eating healthy, too. For a competitive cyclist looking for an optimum performance, you need to watch what you eat."

When the Amgen Tour of California pedals around downtown Sacramento and launches off from Davis on Saturday (arriving in Modesto on Feb. 17 and in Merced on Feb. 18), its 136 cyclists will rely on fine-tuned nutrition to fuel their efforts over the 750-mile trek. The right timing of meals and the right combination of food and drink may mean the difference between a podium finish and a spot back in the pack.

"What distinguishes the pros from the amateurs is at the elite pro level, these athletes are really tuned in to their needs," said Dr. Helen Iams, team physician for Fairfield-based Team Jelly Belly. "When the margin between first and fifth is 3 inches, a 1 percent difference in your performance is huge." During a five- or six-hour ride, riders will consume six or more energy bars plus squeeze-tubes of sugary gel that tastes like thin jelly. On a hot day, they'll drink 15 to 20 20-ounce bottles of electrolyte-laced energy drink, topped off by a flat Coca-Cola for a caffeine boost.

That's just during a race. Their food focus starts long before they climb aboard the bike and continues when they dismount.

And most cyclists eschew high-fat foods for healthier, balanced eating.

"You may find a few who'll eat a piece of chocolate cake, but not many," said Dr. Marlia Braun, a University of California at Davis nutritionist and dietitian who has worked with many cyclists and other athletes.

Few pro cyclists have sweet tooths, say the experts.

"It's probably because they're consuming so much sugar during the race," noted Dr. Matt Marchal, a longtime cyclist and physician for Team Type 1, one of the tour's teams.

In the past decade, cycling nutrition has become increasingly scientific. Each professional team relies on doctors and nutritionists to help its athletes get the most out of their muscles.

"Cyclists definitely need a significant amount of calories, but it's not just the quantity, but where they get those calories," explained Braun. "Typically, they're eating very large portions very frequently and every food they choose packs something into their bodies." It's not unusual for a pro cyclist to down the whole box of cereal at breakfast (with fruit and yogurt, too) and four sandwiches for lunch.

And unlike athletes in most other sports, cyclists have to eat and drink while in the midst of intense competition. They're constantly refueling their "engines," their muscles.

"Otherwise, you can run out of gas when you really need it," Marchal said.

Imagine if NASCAR drivers had to refuel their cars while circling the track at top speed. That's what the tour's cyclists try to do, especially during longer stages.

"They're constantly eating and refueling," Iams said.

"Cyclist nutrition is actually pretty complicated," she explained. "There are four time periods we focus on (for the Tour of California): the day before the race, the morning of the race, during the race and after the race. Each time period has a different emphasis."

The night before the race, cyclists load up on carbohydrates to give their cells a store of energy.

"On race morning, they'll get everything topped off with some easily digestible food," Iams continued. "You can't eat too close to the race. There's competition in your body. When you're racing, you need blood to go to the muscles, not the stomach. But the stomach needs blood in order to do its work. That's why cyclists vomit; the body says forget it and pitches the food out."

Race time is its own food zone as cyclists try to replenish their fuel and fluids as they compete.

Immediately following the race comes "the golden hour." "That's when your body can actually replenish its energy stores more easily than other times," Iams said. "It's very, very important for them to eat, even if they're exhausted."

After that comes the all-you-can-eat dinner buffet.

"And boy, do they," she added. "It's amazing how much they can eat. But they're burning a lot of calories in a short period of time." During the Tour of California, they'll repeat that schedule nine times.

"You've got to have variety, too," Iams said. "You don't want eight days of orange Gatorade." Some cyclists become obsessive about their body fat, but thinner doesn't mean faster.

"Usually, it's a case of disordered eating, not an eating disorder," Braun said. "Some cyclists will put unrealistic calorie restrictions on themselves in order to lose that last pound. Or they'll purge. But most highly competitive athletes are pretty levelheaded."

Braun has seen general trends such as an interest in organic foods and vegetarian diets carry over into cycling. "We've also run the tide of sports products," she added.

Some products center on delaying muscle fatigue or helping the body assimilate glucose faster.

The current buzz is branched-chain amino acids, which have become popular with triathletes.

"But when you add protein to products, you definitely change the taste," she added. "Many cyclists don't care for it." Cyclists tend to operate on an energy deficit. They burn 800 to 1,000 calories per hour during racing. Energy bars average 240 calories. That's a lot of bars to chew while pedaling as fast as they can.

"Most can consume maybe 500 calories an hour," Braun said. "They're definitely in a deficit." During longer stages, cyclists will eat simple sandwiches, fig bars and fruit.

"It's all specially wrapped in a very specific way so it's easy to eat while they're riding," Iams said.

Team Jelly Belly augments its ride-along diet with its sponsor's product, Sport Beans. These designer jelly beans contain electrolytes, sodium, potassium and vitamins as well as easy-to-digest simple sugars. The squad's riders will consume about six packs of Sport Beans during a longer stage. (Their favorite flavor: berry blue.) "The guys don't really worry about calories on the bike," she added.

A cyclist also needs about 1 cup of fluid every 20 minutes to stay hydrated.

"That's another big myth --that all a cyclist needs is water," Marchal said. "Hydration is important, but you need calories and electrolytes, too. It's very difficult to get the calories and fluid your body needs. It becomes an issue of logistics and time. You need a lot of planning and coordination."

As for the flat Coke, it's another source of sugar and caffeine.

"It's an acquired taste," Iams said. "It's flat because otherwise the bottle would explode when (the rider) opens it. And that's not good." Marchal's Team Type 1, as its name implies, is devoted to promoting diabetes awareness. Two members who will race in the Tour of California are insulin-dependent diabetics. That adds another dimension to their diets.

"It's really pretty amazing," he said. "To do something like the Tour of California, they have to be thinking about what they eat all the time."

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