As cyclists we tend to be really focused on getting enough carbohydrate before riding. Carbs are important, but a diet too high in them can lead to dips in energy and ultimately, bonking. Making sure there is enough fat in your everyday diet could be the difference between finishing your ride a whimpering wreck or pushing home feeling as strong as you did when you set off.
Here Vicky Ware explains everything you need to know about fats and how they can help you on the bike:
Fat Stores in Muscles
Along with the fat stored under your skin – which we focus on when thinking of body fat – there are stores of fat inside muscle. These stores are used for energy during exercise. Studies have shown that people who have higher fat diets have more of these muscular stores than people who ate less fat, potentially meaning they can keep going for longer during exercise.
Replace Some Refined Carbs with Fat
Your body changes the fuel it uses for energy depending on what you’re doing at any given moment, and what your everyday diet includes. If you have a diet high in protein and fat with some carbohydrate, your body will mainly burn fat for fuel when you’re sitting around – along with some carbohydrate and protein. If you have a diet high in refined carbohydrates, you may be burning a lot of carbohydrate even when you’re resting.
Ideally, you want to be burning as much fat as possible while cycling, leaving your limited carbohydrate stores for when you really need them. Fats take longer to break down into energy your body can use, while carbohydrates are easily broken down into energy. This is why your body uses fat at rest – when it has time to get the energy, and carbohydrate during intense exercise when you need a lot of energy quickly.
Replacing the refined carbohydrates in your everyday diet with ‘good’ fats will improve your body’s ability to burn fats for energy rather than carbohydrate even when exercising.
Feel the Difference
You should find that you need to eat less while you’re out riding, and that you don’t experience the large dips and highs of energy associated with using gels and sugary sports drinks. This will allow for a really consistent ride, and much less chance of getting ‘hangry’ at your riding partners or having to ring for a lift home because you’ve bonked.
Eating Fat Won’t Make You Fat
So long as you’re eating the same number of calories, replacing carbohydrate rich foods with fatty foods shouldn’t cause weight gain. A 3 month long study found that athletes could increase the amount of fat in their diet to 83% of the calories they ate without increasing their adipose tissue, weight or endurance exercise performance. Some studies have even shown that replacing refined carbohydrates in the diet with certain fats can decrease the amount of adipose tissue people stored.
It seems that fat could be the way forward for sustained energy throughout the day. What’s more, foods that contain good fats tend to come packaged with lots of other nutrients we need unlike refined carbohydrates.
Want some ideas for foods that contain fats? Why not try:
- Oily fish
- Raw virgin coconut oil
- Unheated olive oil
Vicky Ware has a BSc (Hons) in Biological Sciences with a focus on biochemistry and immunology. She is currently studying for an MSc in Drug Discovery and Protein Biotechnology and trying to ride her bike up mountains as quickly as possible.
- Goedecke et al. (1999) Metabolic adaptations to a high-fat diet in endurance cyclists. Metabolism. 48(12);1509-17.
- Burke et al. (2002) Adaptations to short-term high-fat diet persist during exercise despite high carbohydrate availability.
- Carey et al. (2001) Effects of fat adaptation and carbohydrate restoration on prolonged endurance exercise. J Appl Physiol.
- Burke& Kiens (2006) “Fat adaptation” for athletic performance: the nail in the coffin? Journal of Applied Physiology.
- Volek, Noakes & Phinney (2014) Rethinking fat as a fuel for endurance exercise. European Journal of Sport Science.