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Good nutrition plays a vital role in improved cycling gains. “Fuel for the work required” is a new way for endurance athletes to approach a cycling nutrition plan for better performance. Let’s see what the practical application of four days of training and eating under this new paradigm in cycling nutrition might look like. There’s no better way of understanding a new approach to sports nutrition and carbohydrate loading than trying it out. So, take this example and try adjusting your schedule accordingly to see how it feels, how your body reacts, and how it affects your body weight and cycling performance.

The authors of the fuel for the work required approach put together a sample carb loading schedule for an elite endurance cyclist who trains once per day on 4 consecutive days where each session starts at 10:00 am. Let’s take a closer look at what those four days might look like practically. There will be four main feeding points and the amount of carbohydrate is colour-coded with red, orange or green, representing low-, medium- or high-carb intake.

"Fuel for the work required" foot chart that indicates when to eat high or low carbs at what periods over a four-day schedule.

Day 1

The athlete will eat high-carbohydrate fare before, during, and post ride to be able to complete a long ride between 4-6 hours at a high-intensity. This might be a bowl of porridge with dried fruits for breakfast, energy bars or gels on the bike, and chicken with rice post ride. In the evening, the cyclist will consume a low-carbohydrate dinner, for example, beef with vegetables to integrate both saturated and unsaturated fats and essential amino acids into the blood stream to facilitate recovery and the “sleep-low, train-low” modality for a lower-intensity session on day 2.

Day 2

The second day will begin with a low-carb breakfast, perhaps a Froome-style avocado (full of beneficial monounsaturated fats) and eggs for some protein intake, before 3-5 hours of a low-intensity training session with reduced muscle glycogen stores. The session will be done with low to no carbs to maintain the “train low” status. Drink only water or electrolyte rich liquids to hydrate. The rest of the day will be high carbohydrate intake to replenish glycogen stores and prepare for the day 3 intense training. So, a lot of good fats full of Omega-3 fatty acids found in fish with rice and/or potatoes post-training, and for dinner.

Day 3

The third day pre-ride meal will start with another high-carbohydrate breakfast such as porridge, quinoa, greek yogurt or shredded wheat with fruits like apples, mango and blueberries to prepare for another intense workout. But given that day 4 is a recovery day with lower duration and intensity, carbohydrate intake should be reduced to medium levels during training. Look for all the carbs you need in cycling nutrition products like gels and a carbohydrate drink. Food heavy in carbohydrates should be eaten post ride. Followed by more medium carb fare in the evening served with fewer potatoes.

Day 4

The rest-day nutrition strategy of your now normal breakfast will be low carb, eggs and avocado again. Drink only water or electrolytes during the recovery session, as the intensity can be easily maintained without any carbs. Increase carbohydrate intake throughout the remainder of day 4 in order to prepare for another 4-day training block. So, back to full rice and potatoes portions.

In reality, the specific carbohydrate quantities need to be flexible in relation to athlete history, current form, and specific goals. There’s no quantity that will be optimal for everyone. But if done right, this day-to-day and meal-by-meal periodisation, as opposed to chronic periods of carb restriction and carb loading, is likely to maintain metabolic flexibility and still allow the completion of high-intensity workloads on heavy days. If you’re looking to implement this into your sessions, follow this logic:

Training low – Training rides where the intensity and duration are not likely to be compromised by reduced carb availability (steady-state-type workout sessions performed at intensities below the lactate threshold).

Train high – Training sessions that are carb dependent and that would suffer from low glycogen stores (interval-type sessions undertaken above lactate threshold).

If you get good at fuelling properly and planning your carb intake calorie consumption to fit your exercise intensity, you might find it beneficial for managing weight loss too. That’s because train-low sessions on lower-intensity days equate to calorie burnt without negating workout intensity. Focus on strategically using carbs and carbohydrate stores to your advantage, not just blindly relying on them as the best source of stored energy for all scenarios. That’s the main takeaway from the “the right fuel for the work required” approach.

At the grocery store

Unless you are a dietician or have intensely studied the subject, knowing what to buy at the grocery store can be its own obstacle to your best performance. Carbohydrates, fats and protein are the building blocks of health and any balanced diet. You are what you eat.

As a rule, you should focus your attention away from the inner aisles of the grocery store where processed foods linger in favour of the dairy, meat and produce sections normally found on the perimeter.

Fats are your friend. The engine needs some oil, so don’t go without them, even if you are trying to lose weight or lower body fat stores. Enjoy bad fats found in fried foods and that delicious bag of crips to reasonable quantities. Skip over the palm and coconut oil for olive oil when cooking. Focus on more carbohydrate rich foods, proteins, fruits and veg for a balanced diet

Listen to your body

As an athlete, you generally know what you should eat and drink for your energy stores before you go riding, but it isn’t always so easy. Some days it’s a snap. Caloric intake equals calories consumed during low or high intensity exercise, your body mass is where you want it to be, and hydration is a no brainer. You have enough energy on longer rides, power output is high, you recover faster, and your muscles feel ready to ride hard or tackle a multi-day event.

While on other days, eating right seems impossible. You’re craving sugar or extra calories in spoonfuls of peanut butter, can’t seem to get enough fluid intake or carbohydrate per hour on the bike, your digestive system is acting up, or worse, even the thought of a bike ride seems like a chore. Unplanned work, personal and family obligations can also cause havoc to any well designed food and training program.

You are not alone, cyclists and high-level athletes everywhere struggle with the same challenges. Our final parting word of advice is to remember that any plan is only a guide. It’s up to you to listen to your body and react accordingly during high intensity training sessions. And don’t forget to rest. You don’t want to risk injury or put your health at stake.

Next up in A New Paradigm in Cycling Nutrition series