Plant-Based Eating to Fuel Cycling
If you’re a cyclist, you know just how important nutrition can be for fueling your ride. Good nutrition strategies can provide you with the right amount of energy, without feeling sluggish or weighed down. And particular foods can help reduce inflammation and speed recovery. The good news is that a plant-based diet—whether it is vegan, vegetarian, or flexitarian—can be a good formula for all of those performance targets. It just takes a little nutrition know-how to get your plant-based cycling diet dialed in, so you can have the best results on your journey. That’s why I sat down with my friend and colleague, Matthew Kadey, a Canadian-based dietitian and freelance nutrition writer, who is also the author of Rocket Fuel: Power-Packed Food for Sports & Adventure (Velopress 2016). As an adventure cyclist, he has pedaled his bike through numerous countries including Cuba, Myanmar, Chile, and New Zealand—fueling his ride with good nutrition all along the way. Check out his best advice for eating a plant-based diet to fuel cycling.
Plant-Based Eating to Fuel Cycling
Sharon: What are some of the main nutrition strategies that cyclists should keep in mind when it comes to fueling their sport?
Matthew: It really comes down to eating enough calories from the right kind of foods. The great thing about following a plant-based diet is that so many of the foods that fit into this eating style are very nutrient dense so it’s easier to meet your overall nutritional needs. Recovery is also very important, so a cyclist needs to make sure they are getting adequate nutrition shortly after a ride.
Sharon: How can nutrition make an impact on cycling?
Matthew: By taking in the right balance of macronutrients and micronutrients you’ll go a long way in improving your performance on the bike and recovery afterward. The physical demands of cycling can be great so that means the nutritional demands are also high.
Sharon: If you are a plant-based cyclist, which nutrients should you try to focus on for better cycling performance and endurance?
Matthew: Those who focus on eating mostly plants are bound to eat enough carbohydrates which is good news for cycling performance since they are a big energy source. For those abstain from eating meat or dairy (or eat very little of it) will have to make sure they are meeting their protein and iron needs. Healthy fats from foods like olive oil, seeds, nuts and nut butters can also play a role in overall performance
Sharon: What sorts of foods are good sources for these nutrients?
Matthew: Whole grains, legumes, fruits and vegetables will give a plant-based athlete plenty of quality carbohydrates to power their rides. Legumes and fortified foods like some cereals are going to help someone who shy’s away from meat to get some much-needed iron. As for protein to help build and maintain lean body mass, it’s usually no problem to get enough by eating a wide variety of plant-based proteins like beans, lentils, tempeh, hemp and quinoa.
Sharon: If you are planning a major cycling event, how should you gear up for it with your eating plan?
Matthew: Eating plenty of whole foods will help your body get the nutrients it needs to tackle a major physical performance. Personally, I make sure to take in a few extra servings of quality carbs to make sure that my energy stores are fully stocked. I guess you can call this old-school carbo loading.
Sharon: What sort of foods and snacks might cyclists take along to fuel nutrition on the road?
Matthew: Of course, there are the usual suspects like gels, chews and bars. These convenient energy sources certainly have their place to help fuel rides lasting longer than 90 minutes. But for full-day rides, I always make sure to bring along something homemade as this can help give my palate a bit of respite from the packaged stuff. So I may keep some mini pancakes, energy balls or even trail mix in my jersey pocket.
Sharon: What are some common mistakes that you see people make when it comes to eating for cycling performance and endurance?
Matthew: For long rides, I often see people try to fuel up all at once. So they will ride for a few hours and then eat plenty of calories at bakery or convenience store and then hope on the saddle for the remainder of the ride. It’s a better idea to distribute your energy intake throughout a long ride as this will give you more consistent endurance and less change of stomach woes. I also notice that some people swig bag energy drinks for shorter efforts. You only really need a caloric drink if you are riding for 90 minutes or more.
Sharon: What are some of your favorite eating tips?
Matthew: My biggest tip is to really focus on eating a diet saturated with whole-foods. So, lots of items with a single ingredient. I also push for lots of diet variety, especially of the plant food origin, as there is some new evidence that this can improve our gut microbiome which appears to impact many health measures as well as athletic performance. I follow the rule of eating most of my processed foods during long rides and then try to keep it clean the rest of the time.
Sharon: As an avid cyclist yourself, what do you find so rewarding about this sport?
Matthew: I love that I can test the limits of my body. I also find cycling to be very important for my mental well-being. A good ride on local trails and gravel roads is often what I rely on to keep my mood in a happy place.
Sharon: What has been your favorite cycling journey thus far?
Matthew: Well, I’ve been lucky enough to cycling in a number of countries and each one has had its highlights so it’s hard for me to pick a favorite. I loved riding through Myanmar as the people were so welcoming. Mountain biking in Costa Rica allowed me to geek-out on bird life. And the night markets in Thailand are always ready to fill-up a hungry cyclist.
Sharon: What are some of your favorite foods and snacks you pack along on your journey?
Matthew: I often rely on a combination of packaged energy foods like bars and gels along with some portable homemade treats. At the moment, my favorite bars to fuel rides are the KIND Pressed bars. They are delicious and made with mostly dried fruits and vegetables so I consider it easy-to-digest clean energy. A lot of longer rides go past a local bakery, so I may indulge is a sweet treat like a butter tart – an iconic Canadian baked good.
Check out some of my favorite recipes that I like to pack along when I go biking.