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.
WHY FATS ARE YOUR FRIEND
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.
CUTTING DOWN ON CARBOS
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.