Cycling over winter brings with it several challenges – more punctures, fewer daylight hours and the general discomfort of riding in the rain. With all the extra hurdles to jump through (and the sheer amount of time devoted to getting kitted up to even go out) it’s easy to let your dedication to good nutrition slide.
Unfortunately, winter is probably the season where paying attention to your nutrition becomes most crucial. Whilst getting cold and wet doesn’t cause you to get ill, it does lower your immune system. If you tie in the drop in resilience to bugs that your body experiences after a long or hard ride, it’s easy to understand why it’s so important for cyclists to balance their energy requirements at this time of year.
No amount of healthy eating will protect you from every single winter bug or cold out there, but keeping yourself in the best condition possible will certainly give you the best chance of success. Here are some tips to help you on your way…
Eat for what you’re doing
Your daily diet: Many cyclists switch their focus to long, endurance rides over winter. On these rides – which are usually carried out at a lower heart rate – the body generally switches to burning fats as fuel. Therefore, it’s a good idea to include lots of healthy fats in your diet – nuts, seeds, avocado, fatty fish and eggs are all excellent sources.
On long rides: When you're completing long rides, carbohydrates are still the key to providing energy when on the bike. It can be easy to ignore hunger pangs when the roads are frosty and you just don't want to stop, but you need to keep your energy levels topped up with regular snacks. Go for items that don't require you to take your gloves off, and keep them in the pocket that's easiest for you to reach (usually on the side of your weakest arm, as you'll be more comfortable keeping your strong arm on the handlebars).
If you're spending time in the gym: Some riders also like to put a focus on strength over winter – spending more time in the gym than they would in the summer months. When muscles are put under stress, tiny tears form, causing the heavy legs and ‘DOMS’ (delayed onset muscle soreness) we all know and love. Your body needs protein to repair this damage, eventually making muscles stronger. So it you’re upping your gym time, then it’s a good idea to increase your protein consumption.
After a ride: Your immune system is lowered for the first couple of hours after a ride – especially if it’s been cold or wet. So give your body the best chance of a good recovery with a balanced meal containing carbohydrates, proteins and lots of colourful fruit and veg for vitamins and minerals.
Over summer, our bodies tend to tell us when we’re thirsty, and the only challenge is usually finding enough water to fill your bottle on a long ride. In the winter, the cold tends to repress your thirst. It’s easy to forget to drink, but you’re still sweating and you still need to keep sipping. Remember to drink little and often, ideally using a drink with electrolytes to replace lost salts.
If the idea of gulping cold water is really off-putting, fill your bottle with some nice warm juice – just make sure you top it up with a bit of cold so you don’t burn your mouth.
Save the gels for summer
Gels are great for downing on a super fast ride, or in a race. They don’t require chewing, so you can get quick calories down the hatch even when you can barely breathe. If you’re still riding super fast or racing, you can ignore this one. But if not, then you can probably stop using gels for a bit.
Energy gels are designed to give you a quick hit of carbohydrate. They contain a lot of sugar and though there are some nice flavours out there, they’re not the most palatable. Don’t get caught in the trap of thinking that gels are ‘healthier’ or ‘better training food’ than bananas, rice cakes or oat based snacks. On winter rides, most of us have the time to stop and chew, and we’re often wearing heavy winter jackets that can manage to bear the weight of slightly heavier snacks. So put the gels away til summer (they’ve got a pretty long shelf life!) and get creative with real food options over your winter miles.
Get a slow cooker
Picture this: you have a long, hard day at work. You clock off, change and get on your bike to endure anywhere between twenty and sixty minutes of rain and wind. And then you step into your house and it smells like a Michelin star chef has been busy at work all day. You can have that with a slow cooker, and you won’t need to employ a chef.
Simply load the pot up with a protein source, potatoes, lots of veg, plus water (or chopped tomatos) and seasoning, and switch the cooker on before you leave the house. You’ll have beautifully prepared stew ready as soon as you step in the door. Ok, it probably won’t taste Michelin star, but with a bit of practice you can get it pretty close and it’ll warm your belly and refuel your body.
DO NOT CRASH DIET
Sometimes cyclists gain a little ‘holiday weight’ – erm, over the entire off-season. It happens. It’s winter. Most of us aren’t targeting our biggest goals, we’re just ticking over until the sun comes out (again, that won’t apply to all). That really is ok, you can’t be in your absolute best shape all year round – even Lizzie Deignan (nee Armitstead) told us:
“I know that from experience if I’m too lean for too long, then I get poorly. You can’t maintain that kind of motivation and dedication… and it’s not healthy I don’t think to be [at your lowest ideal race weight, in this case for Rio] for more than six weeks."
So it’s ok if you gain a little bit of weight. Of course, it’s a good idea not to go completely wild and gain so much that it’ll be hard to get in shape come spring, too.
Let yourself live a little, have the odd extra slice of cake if you really want it. But don’t put on so much you end up forcing yourself to crash diet come spring. And when it does come time to get back to your ideal weight, take it slowly, and steadily, by simply adjusting your choices to healthier options rather than cutting so many calories you put yourself at risk of illness.
Winter weather puts enough stress on your body already, so look after yourself by making sure you're getting enough protein, carbohydrates, fats and vitamins and minerals to maintain healthy energy levels. And yes, turkey, brussels sprouts and potatoes all fit into that healthy diet.
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