"You probably wouldn’t try to run your Formula 1 car on low−grade, regular−octane fuel, and I haven’t seen any Lamborghini owners lately filling up their ego−soothers with any form of eco−friendly fuel. That’s just not the way things are done, and it’s not the way their engines run. These are high performance vehicles with high performance needs. So you would think that athletes work the same way, right?
Well, not exactly. Sure, we scarf down heaping plates of pasta and stuff our faces with oh−so−delicious energy gels (though vanilla and coffee aren’t all that bad, I swear), but there’s more to it than that. I’m not saying that you can be an elite−level cyclist, or any type of athlete for that matter, and eat nothing but pizza and KFC, though you can certainly better afford the occasional Crave Case than the average American. But at the same time, you aren’t going to get there on nothing but brown rice and tofu either.
Let’s take this past Sunday as our test case. The race: L’Enfer du Nord. In layman’s terms: The Eastern Collegiate Cycling Conference (ECCC) Championships, hosted by Dartmouth College. The Men’s A race was 75 miles long, featured a pretty substantial amount of climbing and took somewhere on the order of three and a half hours. Oh, and we raced pretty hard. I should probably mention that. And as you may know from your experiences cruising along the highway well in excess of the legal speed limit, the faster you go, the more fuel you burn. The same applies.
So in order to survive a race like this, one thing is needed above all: calories, calories, calories. And yes, a calorie is a calorie, no matter where it comes from, but when you are trying to fill yourself with upward of 4,000, or even 5,000, of them, things get a little tricky. That plate of pasta isn’t going to cut it anymore, at least not on its own. That’s not to say that you don’t eat it, because pasta is definitely a source of high−quality carbs and is probably still going to be one of your best sources of fuel, but it’s only going to get you so far. This is where my peanut butter and jelly metaphor comes in.
The peanut butter and jelly sandwich serves both as one of the best ways to get that much−needed fuel, while at the same time symbolizing the balance that you need to strike in order to get in enough food without risking losing or gaining weight, both of which will hurt your performance.
The classic PB&J features the ideal ratio of foods for a cyclist: lots of carbs from the bread, some healthy fat and a little protein from the peanut butter, and some quick and tasty energy from the sugary jelly. It’s all there in a nice, neat package. You can wrap it up and put it in your jersey pocket, and it makes the perfect pre− or post−race snack. Personally, I never leave for any race weekend without my trusty Tupperware container filled with four premade and wrapped PB&J’s. And I would bring more too if they would fit.
But there is more to the PB&J than the sandwich itself. There is a lesson. Like I said, healthy carbs and healthy proteins are all great. We need lots, and I mean lots, of them in order to train, recover and race. But there is a time and a place for everything, and that means those “unhealthy” foods fit in somewhere too. If you’re going to get in enough calories, you’re going to have to get it from denser sources. This is where the fun begins.
Peanut butter, of course, is high on the list of approved foods. But right up there with it, and probably higher on most cyclists’ lists — including mine — is Nutella. This fatty, rich, chocolaty spread is pure energy in a jar, and it is calorie−dense and delicious. Did I mention that it’s chocolate?
It’s foods like these that help fill the caloric gaps in your diet that you just can’t account for with healthy foods alone. It takes cookies, French toast, hamburgers, ice cream, eggs, Snickers bars — you name it — to fill us up. Especially when you’re on the lighter side and your stomach probably isn’t big enough to handle large volumes of food, the trick is to choose foods that pack a lot of punch in a smaller package. (Does anyone have some Oreos for me?)
Now, I’m not saying that by riding a bike you get free license to stuff your face with whatever you want whenever you want. Fueling right is absolutely essential to performing well, and knowing when to eat that donut and when to opt for grilled chicken and a big salad is equally as important as any other aspect of your training. But it is a fine line between being a healthy, conscientious eater and being a little too neurotic. Eat too little, and you will suffer, possibly even more than if you eat too much. The key is balance. And that is why I always look to the PB&J.
Now that the ECCC racing season has come to an end, there is one collegiate race left for me before I transition to the rest of my season with my trade team: collegiate nationals. The race is a week from Friday in Madison, Wisc. In the span of 72 miles, the course ascends 8,000 vertical feet, which is simply a whole lot of climbing by any standard. For comparison, Mt. Everest ascends between 11,980 and 15,260 feet when measured from base to summit, depending on which face you start from.
Naturally, I like that. I like to climb, and this race does almost nothing but that. I’m not going to make any promises or predictions, but there is one thing I can guarantee: I’ll be bringing my PB&J."