Athletic performance depends on how well you take care of yourself, from your training, recovery, sleep, stress management, and nutrition. Nutrition is the area where there is the most information and common knowledge but the least adherence – do as I say and not as I do. It is difficult to live as an athlete in a world surrounded by non-athletes leading regular lives. Having some background in nutrition and athletic performance could help put you on the right track to righting your dietary wrongs.
Nutrients and Training
Daily recommended amounts of nutrients are based on the average person living an average life. You are not living an average life. You are riding a lot and because of all that riding, you are using more of everything – vitamins, minerals and macro-nutrients. Keeping up with your consumption is necessary to perform your best on the bike; energy consumption in skeletal muscles can go up to one hundred times the resting rate. Along with the macro-nutrients consumed in the exercise, you are consuming micro-nutrients at similar speeds.
Joe Friel and Nutrition
In Joe Friel’s chapter on nutrition in his seminal work The Cyclist’s Training Bible, he enumerates how much food you would need to consume to achieve necessary levels of nutrients without supplementation. To eat the daily recommended amounts of vitamins C and E it is mind-blowing; fifteen asparagus spears, thirty one avocados, four cups of broccoli, thirty three peaches, thirty prunes, twelve ounces of tomato juice, seventeen cups of spinach and a quarter cup of wheat germ.
Or you could take supplements that would save your digestive system the distress of such a huge quantity of food. Below is an exploration of why you would want to supplement your diet instead of relying on the food you eat and how each common deficiency affects your daily life and performance.
B Vitamin Deficiency
B vitamin (B1, 2, 3, 5, 6, 7, 12 and folic acid) deficiency is common in vegan and vegetarians. The easiest way to eat B vitamins is through animal products – meat, dairy, and eggs. Without them, it is difficult to come close to the necessary levels of B vitamins.
This vitamin group plays a role in energy production, muscle repair and red blood cell production. Skimp on those processes and you are in for some bad days on the bike.
Vitamin D Deficiency
Vitamin D is necessary for calcium absorption. Without enough your bones will weaken. That is not good news when you fall off your bicycle. It also regulates skeletal muscles and the nervous system. Again, not good things to weaken when you are trying to perform at your best.
Your body can produce vitamin D, but only if you get enough exposure to sunshine. It is a tough balance to strike when you need the vitamin D but too much ultraviolet light can lead to skin cancer. Fortunately you do not need to make the decision between enough vitamin D and cancer. Supplement your vitamin D AND use sunscreen.
Some places do not get enough sun, or if you ride early or late in the day you will not get enough sun to meet your vitamin D needs. In these situations it is critical to supplement with vitamin D; you have no choice if you want your body to perform at its peak.
Vitamin E Deficiency
Exercise introduces oxygen into your cells, and while it produces energy, it also causes oxidation (think rust on iron) in the cells. It is a destructive process. Vitamins E (and A and C, vitamins less likely to be at a deficiency) combats oxidation (as an antioxidant). Enough oxidatitve stress can cause serious problems with recovery and rebuilding of damaged cells. While you can train your body to recover to an extent, you also need to have ample antioxidants on board to stop the process before it goes over the edge.
Red blood cells require iron to carry oxygen to cells for energy synthesis. If there is not enough iron, there is not enough oxygen and you will feel sluggish. This is anemia. It is not necessary to supplement iron unless you have confirmed anemia. Iron is available in meat and fish in the form of heme iron, which is more readily available than the non-heme iron in leafy greens, legumes, nuts and seeds. Be aware of a balanced diet and be aware of the signs of anemia.
You hear all the time about taking zinc when you are about to get sick or are around sick people. It is a powerful mineral that is critical to your immune system. It is present in over three hundred enzymes in the body. You do not need a lot of it, but that little bit goes a long way to protecting you from infections. If you start to get a sniffle, boost your zinc intake.
Calcium deficiency can lead to life-altering conditions relatively quickly. It builds bones along with regulating cardiovascular function, two broad and critical systems for a full life. A sweaty athlete depletes calcium levels more rapidly than a sedentary individual. Lots of foods are fortified with calcium; make sure you are eating enough. If not, supplement.
Dairy is not necessarily the best source of calcium. Protein synthesis requires calcium. Dairy has a lot of protein, so a lot of the calcium you are ingesting is going towards absorbing the protein.
Magnesium and Potassium are important electrolytes that conduct neurological signals throughout the body. If there are not enough electrolytes to conduct the signals, cramps result. More serious deficiency can cause failure of other body systems because neurological signals never make it to their destination.
If you are going to exercise and sweat, it is necessary to stay topped up on electrolytes. There are a lot in fruits and vegetables, but you should consider using a mix for your water. There are electrolyte add-ins that do not have flavor or calories. If you are riding in the cold, electrolyte mix is a good idea too, not only because you may sweat in your warm clothes, but because the electrolytes will lower the freezing temperature of your water.
The image of a cyclist burned in everyone’s mind is incredibly skinny. Think Michael Rasmussen or Chris Froome. The truth is that they are at the razor’s edge of fitness, a moment away from going over into a very unhealthy place. They have doctors and nutritionists to look after them; you probably do not.
According to the study cited here, fifty percent of athletes did not eat enough to meet their daily energy requirements. That means they did not have enough energy to effectively complete their workouts along with performing tasks required outside of training. Not having enough energy is a tough way to get through the day. Make sure you are eating enough. Remember that being ultra-skinny does not equal being ultra-fast and definitely not ultra-healthy.
Supplement Your Diet
A good multivitamin should be able to provide you with the necessary vitamins for proper nutrition and athletic performance. Getting enough micro-nutrients for peak performance through diet alone is not only difficult but nearly impossible. Remember to get the right amounts of all nutrients; too much of anything is a bad thing.