Old wives tales!

Nutrition myths


When I started RST Sport, which was now 20 years ago, one of the key areas I wanted to focus on was ‘old wives tales’. There were lots of them — I’d just finished my undergrad degree in Sports Science, and had just started my PhD, and these half truths really annoyed me! This included how people did or didn’t pedal, whether weight training was good for endurance cycling, and whether long rides had to be at least a 100 miles?

Anyway, while some of these myths perpetuate (!), as I’ve taken more and more interest in nutrition work, I keep seeing nutrition related myths. I thought I’d give you my take on some of them!

Carbohydrates are bad for you

Wrong. Carbohydrates are absolutely crucial for you. For certain there are some really bad carbohydrate choices you can make (e.g. sweets [candy]), but rice, grains, pasta, potatoes, bread, etc are all important to eat, and, as it turns out crucial for cycling performance. Recently, perhaps with the advent of the Atkins Diet, and the Paleolithic Diet (although it turns out that Paleolithic Man ate carbs as well) carbs have gotten a bad press. Shouts of “they cause insulin to spike”, “they’re the cause of obesity”, “they’re bad for health” are just untrue. But, in terms of athletic performance, it’s now becoming clear that athletes who eat only ‘low carb’ are down regulating enzymes that affect performance. Even when those athletes start to increase carbohydrate intake prior to competition they can not utilise the carbs and their performance starts to suffer.

Carbohydrates are the body’s preferred fuel source
This is true, but invariably leads people to comment that you can only store about 60 to 90-minutes worth of glycogen (this is also true, but there’s a but). Glycogen is the body’s carb store, along with blood glucose. And after that (90-mins) if you don’t eat you’ll blow up. Yeah, that’s rubbish. I’ve done loads of rides way longer than 90-mins without eating anything without blowing up either on purpose, or by mistake. At maximal workloads around FTP, the body mainly draws on carbs and has a run time of about up to 90-mins. However, you only need to start dropping a little below this and the fuel mix your body uses changes. Conversely, going above FTP burns carbs at a greater rate. One of the training adaptations that occurs from endurance and interval type training is that as you become fitter, at a given power output you burn less carbs and more fat (fatty acids) than if you were less fit (while at the same power output).

You can train yourself not to drink
This one is laughably bad. No you can’t. You can’t always replace all the fluid you lose while exercising, and indeed drinking too much plain water can kill you (hyponatraemia). You can work out approximate fluid needs by subtracting your post ride (naked) weight from your pre ride naked weight. (Please be mindful of where you do the weighing).

3:1 or 4:1 is the optimal post exercise recovery requirement
It’s been suggested that a carb to protein ratio of 3:1 or 4:1 is the optimal way to refuel. Not quite true. There’s certainly some evidence showing that these ratios have provided benefits over other ratios, but not all ratios have been tested, and there’s evidence that just carbohydrate alone is ideal. Indeed, there are times, when carbs alone are best, other times when no carbs are present, and most of the time the best option is when there’s a mix of carbs and proteins. The science isn’t there yet to give a definitive answer! If you want an easy to make, and tasty to eat option that provides both carbs and protein, then the cyclists standby of beans on toast with scrambled eggs is a great choice.

Natural/Unprocessed foods are ideal
Yes, almost certainly this is the case whatever style of diet you eat, whether it’s low carb high fat, or high carb or some other style eating real food with lots of fruit and veg (especially veg) is ideal. Real food is nearly always the best choice for both athletes and for health. The only time processed food win out, is for say gels etc when racing is really hard (and you just need carbs and would find it too hard to process real food), or for convenience (say at the end of a race, you’re driving home and want a protein shake).

Only eating carbs
In an almost opposite to the low carb diet, some athletes have tried only eating carbohydrates (because they’re the body’s preferred fuel source). In what I can only presume have been moments of madness, I’ve heard of elite World Tour pro cyclists trying to only consume carbohydrates, even if it was for a relatively short period of time (weeks to a months). Apart from not being great for your teeth (all those energy drinks and gels), it must’ve been extremely boring, leads to eating disorders, and just really unhealthy. Not recommended at all.

Are there any nutrition myths you’ve heard of? Why not ask Ric and see if it’s true or not! If you’d like get a start on your competitors, and make sure your nutrition is spot on, and make sure you’re fuelling correctly for performance, or weight loss, drop Ric a message and we’ll get you going.

Richard Stern