Ask The Experts: Should Athletes Eat High Carbohydrate or High Protein Diets?

Energy gels, energy bars and pasta parties – cyclists have a bit of a history of downing carbs like they’re going out of fashion. On the other end of the spectrum, women’s health magazines are full of low carb diets to help us ‘beat bloating’ and ‘drop a dress size’. Even a balanced individual with a healthy approach to food could be forgiven for feeling a tad confused.

We spoke to nutritionist Liz Tucker at an event to launch the new snack bars from 9Bar, alongside double Olympic Gold medalist Ed Clancy, to find out what they advised...

Registered Nutritionalist Liz Tucker is all about balance. She advises brands on how to make their food healthy, and started by explaining why ‘high protein, no carb’ diets don’t work.

Refined vs Unrefined Carbohydrates? 

“People shouldn’t cut carbohydrates out, they still should be our main source of energy. You can get energy from fat, at a push you can get it from protein, but it’s not good. Protein is meant to feed muscle. You need to be really starving for the body to want to process protein as an energy source because it knows it will weaken you physically.”

Top 10 Protein Sources 

She’s used to fielding questions from athletes who favour simple carbohydrates – such as the large bowls of pasts often handed out before sportives.

That’s not great, either – as she explains:  “There’s no point just putting a unit of carbohydrate in your body and expecting that to become energy. Most carbohydrates need other components to break them down, without them your body can’t access the energy.

“I see cyclists shoving loads of pasta down and I think ‘that’s not the carbs I would be encouraging people to eat’.  We need to get more lentils, and nuts and seeds and veg, rather than just eating those base carbohydrate rich foods.”

Track star and JLT-Condor rider Ed Clancy is a brand representative for 9Bar. He has plenty to say on the topic of low carb meal plans – saying: “If you look at a healthy meal on a plate it’s going to have protein, carbs, vitamins and veg – it’s just common sense more than anything.”

“You occasionally see these outrageous meal plans or week plans – and you just look at them and cringe and think ‘is somebody really going to eat that for a month, are they really going to have enough energy to ride and recover?’

Different Diets Explained

“If it looks bizarre and faddy, it probably is. Stick to common sense, you can’t go far wrong.”

So, what do athletes – amateur or pro – need to eat?

Liz explains: “Sports nutrition has become very market led – people think they need to have a ‘different diet’ and nature isn’t good enough for the high performance they want. That’s not right. Nature has worked for us for millions of years, we shouldn’t lose faith in it now. You don’t need a ‘special diet’, you just need a little bit of extra.”

Ask The Expert: I’m Cycling Loads And Watching My Diet but Gaining Weight

“As a sports person, you are in training 99% of your time, and competing maybe 1% of your time. When competing, you need food that is easy to carry, and quick to eat. But what’s more important is having a healthy diet the rest of the time – that will allow you to perform how you want to when you race.”

Quick Nutrition Tips for Time Crunched Cyclists

And what sort of food does she recommend?

“In meals, you need a mix of protein, carbohydrate and fat – a lean steak with potatoes and veg, or a lovely stew. For training, you can buy gel pouches now, and put smoothies in them, or rice cakes are a good option. 9Bars are great – they contain nuts, seeds and good energy.”

Clancy was advised to eat 9Bars by British Cycling nutritionalist Nigel Mitchell, because, as he admits: “For long rides, low GI, real food is good – and I’m not competent enough to make  my own, so Nigel sent me over the road [from the velodrome] for a box of 9Bars. They really are a great alternative.”

Energy Gels Demystified

He still uses gels and energy drinks when the time is right: “Gels have a purpose for racing and training. If you time it right, you can get a good hit when you want it. But for day to day training, the last thing you want is to have a massive sugar spike 20 minutes into your ride. Low GI, real food is defiantly the way to go for long rides and sportives.

“On training camps we get the soigneur to make batches of rice cakes, and porridge in the morning, rather than your sugar happy cereal. There’s no point having all that and blowing in the first half hour.”

So – there you have it. You need protein, fat and carbohydrate in a healthy, balanced diet. Gels are great for racing, but stick with real food for long, endurance miles, where possible. 

There are many ‘real food’ options – but 9Bars are an easy jersey pocket addition. They contain nuts, seeds and plenty of fibre. They’re gluten free – and pretty tasty – check them out here. 

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