For 21 days every July, nearly 200 of the best cyclists in the world race their bikes in the Tour de France.
Watched by millions around the world, it’s an event full of history, prestige and wonderful scenery. With a route of nearly 2,100 miles – up narrow mountain passes, over bumpy cobbled streets and along windswept seaside roads – the race is a test of strategy, talent, endurance and perseverance.
Yes, to perform at their best day in and day out, these cyclists have to eat right – before, during and after each grueling stage. They eat for energy. They eat to keep going. Then they eat to recover and rebuild for the next 100-plus miles in the saddle.
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What can recreational athletes (and home cooks) learn from watching these highly conditioned pros? Along with enjoying the action and taking in the scenery, we can dig deeper into how these riders eat in order to perform their best.
There is plenty of literature dealing with sports nutrition, but two of the best books going for endurance athletes are Matt Fitzgerald’s “Racing Weight: How To Get Lean for Peak Performance,” and “Feed Zone Portables” by Biju Thomas and Allen Lim. Both are published by VeloPress, which specializes in books on cycling, running and triathlon.
As a longtime road cyclist who averages about 1,000 miles a month, I probably speak for many when I say I’ve grown tired of those packaged energy bars loaded with preservatives and sugar. Sure, they’re convenient, but they can be tough to stomach after a while. Even the best of them have flavor profiles that could be summed up as a chemistry experiment that resembles marginally palatable food.
That’s not a news flash to Lim, the sports physiologist and author who has worked closely with top cyclists for years.
“Watch the guys when they’re eating,” Lim said of the Tour de France riders. “Most of them will not be eating a pre-packaged bar. They’ll be eating real food wrapped in parchment paper and foil. … It turns out real food is better.”
If you have the time and inclination, Lim’s book has enough recipes to make you forget about Clif Bars, PowerBars, Gu or dozens of others in this highly competitive food category.
“Real food just works better and is definitely worth the time,” Lim said. “It’s not just about performance. The real benefit of properly made food is your chances of getting sick decrease immensely.”
Learning to make your own delicious rice cakes is worth the price of this book. They’re made with tender, sticky sushi rice spread out in a pan, seasoned with a wide variety of sweet or savory ingredients, covered with more rice, and then cut into squares. Red lentil rice cakes with Greek yogurt and seasoned with paprika? Delicious. Same goes for the cinnamon apple rice cakes. And the recipe for blueberry and chocolate coconut rice cakes included with this article is bound to convince you to give real food a chance on your next run, ride or hike.
On a recent six-hour bike ride, these little squares of tender, moist and tasty goodness were a game-changer.
Why were they so much easier to eat? As Lim explained, these rice cakes are 60 to 70 percent moisture. A typical energy bar from the store? They’re about 6 to 7 percent, he said.
Craving the next energy snack (as opposed to dreading it) can give your workouts or your races a significant boost.
“We’re not robots. We have such a strong emotional relationship with eating good food,” Lim said. “When you’re an athlete and you’re eating for 21 days of the Tour de France, having variety and looking forward to eating something good is really profound.”
Eating during an endurance event like Le Tour is crucial, but so is eating (and not eating too much) to get in the best shape possible, says author Matt Fitzgerald. His “Racing Weight” doesn’t mince words: If you’re carrying any extra weight on your body, you’ll never reach your potential.
“Racing Weight” guides readers toward understanding the relationship between reaching their optimal racing weight and achieving optimal performance. As you no doubt have noticed, many recreational runners and cyclists work out regularly but are still overweight to some degree. In his book, Fitzgerald argues that “the modern lifestyle, with its high-calorie processed foods and all-day sitting, tends to counteract the effects of training.”
The author writes, “Your body is very intelligent, and it is perfectly capable of ‘getting the message’ and becoming a lean, mean racing machine if you are willing to bring your overall lifestyle into line with that goal.”
In an interview, Fitzgerald said he is not a fan of fad diets. Instead, he says sensible, healthy eating will lead to long-term success. “Racing Weight” provides samples of eating diaries of several top endurance athletes. The conclusion you’re bound to make: They don’t overeat and they keep things simple. Pop diets like the zone diet and paleo diet deprive athletes of the carbohydrates they need to thrive mile after mile at higher training loads.
“The most salient difference I see between the most successful athletes and the recreational athletes, at the recreational level athletes are more likely to go in for the popular fad diets. Those diets tend to not work as well,” he said. “We tend to be too clever by half with diets.”
To help readers eat properly, “Racing Weight” offers a simple formula called the “Diet Quality Score,” which divides foods into 10 categories and assigns a points score for wholesome or unwholesome choices.
If you’re looking for more specifics on what and how to eat, Fitzgerald published a companion book (co-written by Georgie Fear), “Racing Weight Cookbook: Lean, Light Recipes for Athletes.”
Blueberry and chocolate coconut rice
Prep time: 25 minutes
Recipe comes from “Feed Zone Portables.”
3 cups uncooked sticky rice
41/2 cups water
3/4 cup coconut milk
1/4 to 1/2 cup raw sugar to taste
Juice of 1 lemon (about 3 tablespoons)
11/2 teaspoons coarse salt, or to taste
6 ounces chocolate chips
1 pint fresh blueberries
Combine rice, water and a dash of salt in a rice cooker and let cook. Transfer cooked rice to a large bowl and add coconut milk. Add sugar and lemon juice. Stir thoroughly and salt to taste.
Let rice cool, then spread half onto a 9-by-13 baking pan. Press flat. Sprinkle chocolate chips and berries evenly over the rice. Gently press the remaining rice over the berries and chocolate.
Let sit for 5 minutes, cut into squares and wrap.
Per serving: Energy 249 calories, fat 6 g, sodium 194 mg, carbs 45 g, fiber 2 g, protein 4 g, water 65 percent
Prep time: 20 minutes
Recipe comes from “Feed Zone Portables.”
1 cup coarse gluten-free bread crumbs
1/2 cup white rice flour
1/4 cup ground almonds
Pinch of ground nutmeg
1 tablespoon brown sugar
2 eggs, lightly beaten
1/4 cup almond milk
1 large ripe banana
Heat the waffle iron.
Place the dry ingredients in a food processor and pulse quickly to combine.
In a small bowl or measuring cup, combine the eggs and almond milk and stir briskly. Pour this into the food processor, add the banana, and pulse. Batter should be smooth and somewhat dense.
Pour enough batter into each waffle form to nearly fill all the squares (the batter will expand when pressed). Cook until the outside of the waffle feels crisp. Repeat, using the remaining batter.
Makes 4 large waffles. Cut each waffle into quarters and top with your favorite spread(s) to make 8 mini waffle sandwiches. Let cool before wrapping.
In a recipe like this, gluten-free bread shortcuts some of the extra flours and adds a unique texture. The water content of bread is somewhat lower than other carbs, though 43 percent is still well above pre-packaged foods.
Per serving: Energy 112 cal, fat 3 g, sodium 60 mg, carbs 17 g, fiber 1 g, protein 4 g, water 43 percent