With the ‘Scottish’ starting next week I thought I’d put a guide together discussing some basic nutritional considerations for riders. Times have certainly changed, particularly around some of the hydration strategies during the evenings (!) and riders seem to be taking their nutrition and training more seriously. Nutrition is certainly an important factor at an event like the Scottish, where you’re out on the bike for hours at a time, it’s physically tiring and your recovery between days will have an impact on how you feel the next day and by the end of the week.
With that said, let’s discuss some important considerations regarding your nutrition, in no particular order.
Without doubt, maintaining proper hydration is a key factor throughout the SSDT. Inadequate hydration not only affects your physical performance, but also your mental performance too, which could lead to losing slack marks or picking the wrong line over the moors. It will be extremely important to ensure that you start the day hydrated, which you can check roughly by the colour of your urine. A light yellow, like straw, is ideal and this rings true throughout the day too. Certain foods and supplements can affect the color of your urine, so first thing in the morning is a good time to check. I would advise taking on 500ml of mineral water, water with added electrolytes, or milk as soon as you get up. This strategy will reap rewards if you have an early start, as a cup of tea or coffee simply won’t cut it. Throughout the day, obviously you are going to sweat, and whether it’s hot or raining, layers and protective kit will limit your body’s ability to regulate heat. With sweat comes salt losses and it’s important to replace these salts which can be achieved with electrolyte tablets, sports drinks or carbohydrate powders added to your water. A hydration backpack is an ideal solution for having water available with you at all times, and you can customize your drink accordingly, as well as carry tools, spares and food.
One way to measure whether you are drinking enough is to weigh yourself before and after the event, ideally in just your underwear to minimize the influence of clothing. Obviously, if you have taken on food throughout the day this will affect your weight, but if you weigh less after riding, you should aim to replace the weight by 1.5 times, through fluids – again, milk is an ideal solution here as it contains water, electrolytes, natural sugars and protein, ideal for muscle repair.
Whilst we’re on the subject of fluids, I feel it’s important to mention alcohol and bring out Captain Killjoy. If you’re aiming to do well and want to make sure you tick all the boxes, I would advise avoiding all alcohol until after day 6. Essentially, alcohol acts as a diuretic, compromising your hydration status and likely affecting your performance the next day. Another disadvantage of alcohol is that it compromises recovery by affecting muscle protein synthesis, essentially the rebuilding of proteins which are broken down after hard exercise. Alcohol also contains a lot of calories, which you could loosely think of as ‘empty calories’ in that they provide no nutritional value. After a hard day on the bike, you want to feed your body with nutrient dense food to aid recovery for the next day, rather than take on a lot of calories through alcohol.
They say it’s the most important meal of the day, but while this may not be entirely accurate, breakfast is going to be a majorly important factor throughout the Scottish, especially if you have an early start. Ideally you should be finishing breakfast about 1.5 – 2 hours before starting the day, and aim for a good, balanced breakfast. A large bowl of porridge with milk is ideal, and the key to keeping porridge interesting is to mix up the added ingredients. A pinch of salt, mushed banana, honey, raisins, crushed nuts, desiccated coconut, apples, cinnamon, the list goes on. A personal favorite of mine is banana, honey, raisins and crushed nuts. Six days of porridge can get tedious so what about cooked options? A cooked breakfast can also work well; scrambled or poached eggs, tomatoes, toast with butter and a couple of rashers of bacon will provide plenty of energy until lunch time. Whilst sausages and black pudding will provide plenty of calories, they provide these calories through fat which takes longer to digest than carbohydrates or protein. High fat foods like these could leave you feeling sick.
At this point I’d like to address the issue of high fat / protein diets and exercise. There are some advocates who recommend a high fat, low carbohydrate diet for exercise. Whilst this can work in certain situations (e.g. ultramarathons) I would not recommend this approach for the SSDT. Carbohydrates fuel high-intensity exercise, and also refuel your body better than fats. The science behind the high-fat low carbohydrate diet for exercise performance has not shown an improvementin performance, but somepeople adapt to the diet and perform just as well. From experience working with athletes it is also a very difficult diet to stick to consistently, and the lack of fibre can leave you feeling ‘bunged up’!
Throughout the day, little and often might be a better strategy than having nothing after breakfast then a large lunch. Instead, aim for a couple of snacks between breakfast and lunch. Since it is such a long day out on the bike, it’s important to get a good balance of nutrients in your body, not just lots of sugar i.e. jelly babies, sweets etc. Some examples of food to carry:
- Cereal bars e.g. Trek, Nature’s Valley, Clif
- Energy bars e.g. SiS, High5.
- Rice cakes (homemade) – these are a staple of professional cycling nutrition and I use them with the riders I work with. It takes practice to get the recipe right but they provide a good amount of energy and you can change up the flavors. Wrapped in tin foil they hold out pretty well. The downside is they take a bit of preparation ahead of time.
- Energy gels – another good option and light weight. There’s a wide variety available now, some with added caffeine which would definitely be beneficial.
If I was packing a bag for a day at the Scottish I would pack 1 energy gel, 1 caffeine gel, 2 energy bars and a couple of small packs of haribo/ jelly beans etc. If you’re taking a hydration pack with you, again, some extra carbohydrate / electrolyte powder would be useful.
“A quick word about energy bars, definitely try different ones as the taste and texture can vary. The last thing you want is a dry bar you don’t like the taste of when you’re desperate for some energy!”
I would aim to eat something every 45 minutes and when you have a bit of time, for example, when you arrive at a section and may have some delay. This time of low activity, i.e. walking the section, would be an ideal time to take on some food as it will have had time to digest before you have to travel to the next group of sections. The sweets are better for when you’re on the move.
When it comes to lunch, again, a good balanced meal with some easily digested carbohydrates and protein such as chicken with rice or pasta would be ideal. Obviously, the burger van is always around and whilst it might not be the healthiest option, a burger will provide a lot of calories. If you can, consider swapping the burger for some eggs. It’s important to mention that if you opt to prepare meals, make sure they are stored correctly before you eat them. Cooking some food and leaving it out on your mate’s van seat for hours on end (in the possible Sun), is a sure-fire way to lead to a DNF due to stomach upset! A cooler box or bag is an ideal solution. Another good option would be to stock up on some Performance Meals (http://www.performancemeals.com) as these are sealed, can be eaten hot or cold and do not require to be stored in a fridge; they’re also healthy too!
After riding, it’s important to start the recovery process as soon as possible, and you can do this by having a meal or shake/smoothie as close to finishing the day as you can. A very quick and ideal solution is to drink 500ml of semi-skimmed milk as it contains protein, water, electrolytes and some carbohydrates. Then you can focus on preparing for the next day and have dinner some time later.
When it comes to dinner, it’s going to be important to feed your body the nutrients it needs to refuel and repair the damage done from a hard day on the bike. Again, easily digested protein and carbohydrates are going to be priority here. Some potatoes, pasta, rice or wraps, with chicken, turkey, meats or fish will be ideal, with plenty of mixed veg. When building your plate think ‘where’s the protein, where’s the carbohydrates?” Regarding portion sizing, I would aim to have half of the plate with starchy carbohydrates like pasta, rice or potatoes.
So, an example day:
|2-3 hours before start||
||To top up the tank and provide slow release energy for the morning|
|Throughout riding, every 45 mins||
||To top up the tank and provide extra energy for the session.|
|ASAP after finishing||
||Refill fuel stores and start muscle repair|
|Lunch and dinner||
||Refill fuel stores, repair muscles and provide slow release energy for the rest of the day|
Some meal ideas:
2 whole scrambled or poached eggs, 1 bacon, with mushrooms and spinach, with 2-3 pieces of toast and real butter.
70g of porridge made with whole milk, topped with fresh/frozen berries or banana, crushed nuts and honey. An additional protein shake would be good here too.
Smoked salmon on a bagel with cream cheese
Protein pancakes: mix 70g oats, 2 whole eggs, 1 scoop of whey. Fry in olive oil. Top with fruit, cinnamon and honey.
2-3 Chicken fajitas with mild spice, peppers and onion
Lean beef steak with jacket potato, corn on the cob, broccoli and some carrot mash. Gluten free sausage or lamb casserole – made with mixed beans, chopped tomatoes, red onion and garlic. Black Farmer gluten free sausages or similar
In summary, balanced meals with a slight emphasis on carbohydrates at the start, middle and end of the day are recommended. Protein is important to support the muscle repair/ recovery process throughout the event, and fats will provide essential calories. Avoid alcohol throughout the week! During the day, focus on maintaining hydration and eat little and often. Some caffeine throughout the day will also help but avoid any after 4pm as sleep is the best recovery. Get to bed early, and aim for 8 hours a night.