Why all cyclists need antioxidant vitamin supplements

The Golden Rule of Nutrition has always been “Food first, because food is best.” In other words, most experts believed that cyclists could get all the nutrients they needed from a well-balanced diet. Vitamin supplements were not thought to be a substitute for a poor diet.

But after looking at mounting evidence, I and other nutritionists are stretching our paradigms and admitting that supplementation can be beneficial–especially when it comes to antioxidants.

If you keep track of the nutrition scene you probably know the scoop: vitamins C, E, and beta-carotene (known as antioxidants) battle dangerous cells known as “free radicals.” Unchecked, these mutant cells can cause premature aging, cancer, and heart disease. On a less serious but more specific note, they also slow your recovery after tough rides.

The problem is that people–especially cyclists–probably can’t get enough protection from food alone. Although riding boosts fitness in general, it increases the number of free radicals in your body. Studies have shown free rad concentrations 2-3 times higher than normal in animals exercised to exhaustion.

But before you rash out to purchase pills and potions filled with these so-called miracle workers you should know what they are, how they work, and the destructive processes they can prevent.

The Air Facts

Humans are aerobic animals–we need air to thrive. But this same substance can be destructive. When our cells process oxygen the number of electrons they possess can change. This turns them into free radicals. They try to regain their electron balance from other cells, a reaction that creates more free radicals and damages tissue.

Lucky for us, antioxidants can neutralize free radicals. They throw themselves in the path of destructive molecules, oxidizing themselves instead of our precious tissue.

Evidence that this happens isn’t just from animal and test tube studies. In a ’93 study of 35,000 nurses and 40,000 male professionals, subjects who took extra vitamin E had 30-40% lower rates of heart disease. In China, 30,000 residents received either a placebo or an antioxidant multivitamin; those taking the supplement had a 13% lower cancer rate.

Because cyclists breathe 10-20 times more air than a typical person, our bodies generate more free radicals. But don’t worry. Proper supplementation appears to help protect even us from ill health. And not only that, it can also improve our performance by reducing muscle soreness. For instance, runners at UC-Berkeley were found to have significantly less muscle damage when they were given vitamins C, E, and beta-carotene.

If further research makes a stronger case for antioxidants, you might see food fortified with amounts higher than the RDA. For now, it’s still a personal decision. If you decide to supplement, use our chart to avoid side effects. In any case, don’t forget to eat right.


Only 9% of Americans eat plenty-o-plants (at least 5 servings a day), so start your antioxidant program here. There’s good reason to get as many nutrients from food as possible. At Cornell University, one group took a prescribed amount of vitamin C in supplements while another group ingested the same amount in fruits and vegetables. The food eaters showed lower levels of carcinogens in their bodies than the pill poppers. Other studies have shown that eating few or no fruits and veggies doubles the risk of most types of cancer. Here are good sources of each antioxidant:

Vitamin C

Citrus fruit, juice, cantaloupe, strawberry, sweet red pepper, cabbage, Brussels sprouts, tomato, broccoli, potato, cauliflower, watermelon, kale

Viatmin E

Vegetable oil, nuts, wheat germ, margarine, seeds, olives, leafy greens, asparagus

Vitamin A

Milk, egg, liver, cheese, fish oil


Carrot, cantaloupe, pumpkin, yellow squash, sweet potato, spinach, apricot, mango, papaya, nectarine, peach, red pepper


Safe but effective supplement recommendations from the UC-Berkeley School of Public Health:

Vitamin C

RDA: 60 mg/day (found in 1 orange, 1/2 cup orange juice or 1/2 cup broccoli)

Supplement: 250-500 mg/day

Warning: More than 500 mg can cause diarrhea.

Viatmin E

RDA: 8 mg/day for women, 10 for men (found in 4-5 oz. of peanuts)

Supplement: 200-800 IU

Warning: No serious side effects reported except infrequent diarrhea.

Viatmin A

RDA: 1,000 micro-grams/day for men, 800 for women

Supplement: None. It’s extremely toxic (even lethal) in high doses, and your body safely converts beta-carotene into vitamin A.


RDA: None, but 5-6 mg/day are suggested (found in 1/2 carrot or 1/2 sweet potato)

Supplement: 6-15 mg/day

Warning: Not toxic, although you may begin to rum orange (honestly).

The lose-weight debate

For years, pundits in the exercise physiology community — and even those of us at bicycling — have been telling you to train at less than 70% of maximum heart rate if you want to burn fat and lose weight. At high intensities of cycling, the reasoning goes, your body burns more glycogen (stored carbohydrate). This leaves your fat stores intact. Whoa. Sorry.

Your body does use a higher percentage of fat for energy during slow rides but, as we’ll show here, there’s more math to consider.

If you ride at 65% of your maximum heart rate, your body’s fat stores provide about half of your energy needs. When you increase intensity to 85% of max, fat provides only a third of the calories you need to pedal. But there’s more to it than that: The total number of calories burned is more important than the ratio.

Given an hour’s worth of exercise, you’ll always burn more calories at a higher intensity. That’s common sense. The percentage of energy supplied by fat may be lower, but the number of fat calories can be equal or greater. Data collected in the laboratory helps support this.

The chart on page 56 illustrates a study conducted at the University of Texas by Jack Wilmore and Dave Costill (and reported in their recently published book, Physiology of Sport and Exercise). They concluded that moderately fit cyclists exercising at 65% of their max heart rate burn about 220 calories in 30 minutes. But when the intensity increased to 85% of max, the caloric cost soared to 330 calories.

As the chart shows, 50% of 220 and 33% of 330 both equal 110 fat calories. In other words, 30 minutes of cycling, regardless of intensity, burns the same amount of fat. But at the higher intensity you burn an additional 100 calories in the same amount of time.

Keep in mind that you lose weight–and body fat–when you burn more calories than you consume. The mix of macronutrients (carbohydrate, fat, or protein) makes no difference. The more calories burnt, the more pounds you shed.

Another reason to ride harder: Owen Anderson, Ph.D., notes in Running Research News that not only does the higher intensity burn more calories, it has a more beneficial effect on your cardiovascular system.

But that’s not all. Jackie Berning, Ph.D. and sports nutritionist at the University of Colorado, says that because low-intensity exercise burns very little glycogen, when you eat a high-carbo meal after riding your muscles will have no place to store the new supply of carbo. Your body will turn this excess into fat and store it.


Even considering this evidence, low-intensity cycling still has its place.

If your goal is simply to improve your overall health (as opposed to becoming a better rider), cycling at any intensity is beneficial. Recent recommendations published jointly by the American College of Sports Medicine and the Centers for Disease Control suggest at least 30 minutes of moderate-intensity activity at least 4 days a week. At a speed of 15 mph this would equate to riding about 7-8 miles a day.

Of course, that seems slow and short to an experienced rider–which points out the other reason for slow spins. Many novice cyclists might not be able to ride for at least 30 minutes at 85% of max heart rate (or above). But nearly anyone can ride for hours at 60-70%.

Fit cyclists should still include easy days in their training–but for recovery, not because it burns more fat. Another advantage is there’s evidence that relatively slow, extended rides train the body to metabolize fat, sparing muscle glycogen for intense efforts and crucial moments near the end of a race.

But for most of us–especially fit riders whose training time is limited–long, low-intensity rides are not the most practical way to burn fat. To get lean, ride at the highest intensity you can maintain for 30 minutes or longer.

Eat Fat to Lose Weight (And Go Faster)

In the nearly 20 years i’ve been training world-class performers, I’ve noticed that most suffer from an inability to burn fat. Although they’re already at a high level of performance, they could go even farther or faster. But the solution doesn’t involve a change in training. It’s all in what they eat. Cyclists on severly restricted fat diets (say, less than 25%-30%) can ride better by consuming more of the proper fats and decreasing their intake of carbohydrate.

Sound blasphemous? Perhaps. But the science behind it is sound. The ratio of carbohydrate, fat, and protein cyclists consume is crucial to how their bodies function and how they ride.

For most people, a good ratio is 40% carbohydrate, 30% protein, and 30% fat. This ratio might seem radical. Cyclists who eat practically no fat will be reducing carbo and increasing protein and fat. Other cyclists who follow more liberal good-nutrition guidelines (60-70% carbo, 10-15% protein, 20-30% fat) will be adding mainly protein to replace the lost carbo.

This regimen is gaining acceptance among a small-but-enlightened group of top coaches and athletes. For instance, I’ve worked extensively with Massimo Testa of Italy, physician for Lance Armstrong’s Motorola squad. He believes that fat metabolism is key to improving cycling performance. Unfortunately, he says, U.S. athletes are afraid of fats. “You need good fat-burning for the aerobic engine,” he says. “But the key to building a fat-burning system is to include the right fats in the diet. In Europe, we eat more fats than Americans do without the problems [heart disease] seen in America.”

Top triathletes Mike Pigg and Mark Allen are 2 more converts. I convinced both of them to increase their fat and protein consumption, while decreasing carbohydrate intake. The result has been improved stamina on long rides.

The movement has also prompted a new type of energy bar that uses a higher percentage of fat and claims to promote endurance and weight loss. These include the PR*Bar and Balance.

But this regimen is not just for elite athletes who have the luxury of training for hours every day. Jennifer Brown, an age-group racer with a full-time job, found success with the new diet. “I can train more consistently, with more energy, without needing to take days off from fatigue,” she says. “I also have an increased desire to train because it just feels good. A 60-mile ride feels like a 30-miler used to. And I’m losing weight, too.” What’s going on here? Let’s take a look.


Most energy is derived from carbohydrate (glucose) and fats (fatty acids). Protein also plays a role, especially if carbohydrate and fat intake is inadequate. But by far the most abundant energy source is fat.

One molecule of fat yields about 460 molecules of ATP (adenosine triphosphate, used in muscle contraction). The same amount of glucose yields only 36 molecules of ATP. Calorically, fat stores in a healthy adult male offer 100,000 kilocalories of energy. Glucose stores, called glycogen, provide only about 2,000.

Consequently, you can obtain 80-90% of your energy from these extensive fat stores if you train your body to do so through diet and exercise. The benefits are enormous. Less fat is stored (leading to weight loss). Endurance improves. And you “spare” your glycogen for when you need it most: during high-intensity efforts.

Make no mistake, fat can be harmful if overeaten. The key is to balance your intake. Just as you want a mix of aerobic and anaerobic workouts, you need a combination of dietary fats. This means including at least twice the amount of unsaturated (mostly in the form of monounsaturates) to saturated fats.

To simplify matters think of “A,” “B,” and “C” fats.

“A” fats are unsaturated. They’re found in most vegetables and in olive, safflower, peanut, and corn oils. They are sometimes referred to by their chemical name, Omega 6. Concentrates of black-currant seed, borage, and primrose oil are also in this category. “A” fats also include many unsaturated oils (which can be either polyunsaturated or monounsaturated).

“B” fats are the saturated type found in dairy products, butter, meat, and egg yolks. They contain the essential fat arachidonic acid. They have also been mistaken for “bad” fats, but this needn’t be the case as long as they’re consumed as part of a balanced diet.

“C” fats are unsaturated fats found in fish and beans, as well as in linseed, sesame, soy, and walnut oils. Chemically they’re called Omega 3. This group also includes the concentrates from flaxseed (linseed) and fish oil called EPA.

The key in getting fats to work for you is to strive for equal amounts of all 3 in the course of a week or month. This balancing act is easier than you think, because most foods contain a combination of “A,” “B,” and “C” types. (If you’re a vegetarian and eat very little “B” fats then you need to consume equal amounts of “A” and “C.” Some of these will convert in your body to “B.”) If you follow this ratio and stay within the 30% limit, cholesterol overload and the other problems associated with excess fat shouldn’t be a problem.


The increased level of protein is important. It allows you to consume the proper amount of calories without adding to your fat or carbo percentages. (Think of the process as creating the optimum fuel mix for a race car.)

In addition, protein prevents muscle breakdown, and mental and physical fatigue. It also regulates functions related to cycling. One hormone derived from protein increases the amount of carbo that muscles can store after a hard ride. Another chemical controlled by your protein balance is serotamin, which influences how fatigued you feel.


Besides balancing fat intake, you must prevent the body from turning off the fat-burning mechanism, a reaction that occurs when you eat too much carbohydrate.

Carbo stimulates the release of the hormone insulin, which causes a drop in blood sugar. To compensate, the body sends more blood sugar to the muscle cells, increasing glycogen storage. This compels your body to use more carbohydrate as fuel. But because glycogen storage space is small, insulin changes about 40% of your carbohydrate into fat and stores it. So high-carbo diets–especially those including refined carbohydrate such as pasta or rice–result in more insulin being released and less fat being burned.

There’s more: If you don’t provide your body with enough fat to use as energy, it will be forced to use more sugar. This lowers blood sugar. The body compensates by raising it again. This roller coaster can create the mood swings familiar to many athletes on the high-carbo/super-low-fat diet. It can also lead to fatigue, clumsiness (not a good thing on a bike), headaches, depression, and allergies.

It also appears that up to half the population may be “carbo intolerant.” Our ancestors ate a “caveman diet” that consisted of mostly meat and vegetables. Only recently has our physiology been asked to digest and metabolize large amounts of sugar and starch. As a result, some people are unable to tolerate them.

This carbohydrate intolerance (also called insulin resistance, hypoglycemia, or hyperinsulism) can cause fatigue, a craving for sweets or caffeine, intestinal bloating, sleepiness, increased fat storage, and even depression. Long-term problems can include increased triglycerides and high blood pressure.

Could it be affecting you? One way to find out is to try a 2-week diet that eliminates most breads, pastas, sweets, fruit and fruit juices, potatoes, milk, and yogurt. Do this with the help of your doctor. If you feel better after the 2-week trial, suspect carbohydrate intolerance. Then begin to add a few carbos to your diet until you reach an amount that causes your symptoms to reappear. The optimal amount of carbohydrate for you is just below this.

A SAMPLE 40/30/30 MENU

Here’s a meal plan that contains approximately 40% carbohydrate, 30% protein, and 30% fat:

BREAKFAST–8-ounce tomato juice, 2 poached eggs, 2 slices of 7-grain toast (dry), 1/2 cup low-fat cottage cheese.

LUNCH–Tuna salad with mayo on whole wheat bread, and mixed salad (lettuce, red peppers, carrots) with extra-virgin olive oil and vinegar.

DINNER–Broiled red snapper, 1/2 cup brown rice, 1/2 cup bean salad, 1/2 cup cooked zucchini.