As well as professional bike racers, amateur cyclists (like us at The Prologue) can benefit from taking a more careful look at our diets. This doesn’t mean that we should be obsessed by it. Titia van de Stelt, food author and Head Nutrition Expert for Team Sunweb, explains that the current fashion for a “quick dietary fix” can lull us into a false sense of security. But in an exclusive interview, she gives advice for improving performance without compromising pleasure.
Is nutrition underestimated by sports cyclists and sportspeople in general?
Yes, I think it is. What I see in particular is that recreational athletes often seek a quick fix, such as a supplement here, a pill there or a special shake, thinking they are on the right track. However, they often have very little idea what they are doing and ignore a lot of the basics of nutrition.
What do we tend to overlook regarding nutrition?
Often people look rather simplistically at their nutrition. They will say things like, “I eat a piece of fruit a day, so I eat healthily”. But if you look a little more carefully at their diets, then you quickly discover they are not actually eating healthily. The balance and proportions of their fuel are wrong, and these days, for example, people have an unnecessary fear of carbohydrates. I think most people would improve their sports performance if they looked at their nutrition in more detail.
What are the basics we could improve on?
I think the average sportsperson underestimates the major benefits of giving your basic diet more structure. For example, the recent trend for beetroot juice is a good example. Beetroot juice has been proven to be an effective sports supplement due to its high levels of nitrates, so a lot of cyclists drink it. But if you simply eat more than 300 grams of vegetables a day — which almost nobody does, by the way — then you not only get plenty of nitrates but also a whole range of other healthy ingredients that are good for your body, and you don’t need beetroot juice.
What should we do, instead of picking up on fly-by-night sports diet trends?
One of the best pieces of advice is to dare to be critical about your basic dietary habits. You can always improve your diet, and daring to be aware of this and working towards improving your diet can also improve your sports performance.
What is one of the biggest mistakes you see amateur athletes making with their nutrition?
In general, the amateur athletes I work with often fail to notice how often they actually make exceptions. For example, while they may eat a decent amount of vegetables they choose a less healthy option for spreading on their bread, or a piece of meat that contains too much fat, or white pasta instead of wholemeal. All those small choices build up towards better or less-good health and also sports performance.
Can you recommend any tools for us amateurs to use to help us with our nutrition?
There are a lot of apps for monitoring what you eat and burn. I personally use Myfitnesspal, a calorie counting app, into which you can also scan products — it works really well. You shouldn’t get obsessed about these things though! [laughs] But it’s all about self-awareness. Writing down what you eat in a notebook is also very effective.
Does that really work?
It’s interesting: I find that just simply writing down what I eat can have a positive preventative effect! You think to yourself, “Oh I have to write this down, I don’t think I’ll eat/drink it after all”. You don’t have to do it every single day; you can get a lot of insight by tracking a couple of days in a given month, also as a reminder to keep an eye on yourself that overdoing it is also counterproductive.
Any other tips?
It can help to get out the kitchen scales and weigh ingredients. Just once in a blue moon, not very regularly, to remind yourself how much a recommended evening meal actually contains. It can help to remind yourself what a healthy portion of potatoes, meat and vegetables looks like, and literally weighs.
There is quite a lot of marketing of alcoholic drinks associated with the ‘good life’ of sport and the outdoors. What do you recommend regarding alcohol?
I personally think the combination of sport and alcohol is very bad. Alcohol is literally poison for the body. Although it sounds very patronising, and people don’t really want to hear it because alcohol implies having a good time, unfortunately there’s a whole lot of evidence that it’s not good for you at all. And certainly not in combination with sport.
Is it particularly bad for you after sport?
Yes, it is. The problem with alcohol after exercise is that the body gives it priority.
What does that mean exactly?
Because the body recognises alcohol as a poison, it puts all its energy into purging the body of that poison. This significantly delays the recovery and fitness-building process. The body goes into overdrive to get rid of the alcohol first of all, delaying the rest. First, the liver has to get rid of the alcohol and, only once it has done that, tuen other processes get to the top of the body’s to-do list. This includes absorbing carbohydrates to replenish blood sugar, the regulating proteins for building muscle. So you delay all of that with a few beers on a terrace after a long ride, for example.
So we should all stop drinking alcohol?
Not necessarily, but I certainly recommend replenishing all your other energy reserves with carbohydrates and protein after serious exercise and, for example, getting some rest. If, after all that you would still like a glass of wine or beer, then it’s up to you. But just don’t try and convince yourself that drinking alcohol has no effect.
Titia van der Stelt is co-author of the Dutch-language book Eet als een Atleet (Eat like an Athlete), published by I’m a Foodie, which if you understand Dutch is a great way to strart increasing your nutritional awareness as you try to improve your physical fitness and cycling performance.