Fuelly for the prospective cyclist
March 27, 2011 10:27 AM   Subscribe

Your recommended diet for a prospective daily bicycle commuter is requested.

Hello all. So for my up and coming summer internship, I hope to make the 10 mile commute to and from (round-trip: 20) my place of work, ideally every day.

One of my concerns is what I eat. Currently my daily diet is oatmeal/coffee for breakfast, sandwich for lunch (ham, turkey, bologna, or salami: pick 2 meats, and cheese on good bread), and some good dinner which combines wheat/grain, meat and veggies. Snacks between lunch and dinner and after dinner are included. Plus, I am a moderate drinker, mostly of red wine.

I have read a couple of websites. They have a mixed bag of answers. Been trying to avoid the 'have a ton of calories' answers as that can mean a lot of things.

Thus I am looking for what is crucial to maintaining ~same energy output every day, consistently, without draining the life out of me. What vitamin supplements would be good to take, and what are the equivalents of those in actual food. Feel free to consider cold weather scenarios as well, as that's another goal of mine.

Previously (that being the first 5 days of my school year) I had biked 4 of those days to and from campus (also about a 20-24 mile round trip). By the end of the 4 days I had unfortunately come down with a cold, which I assume was from improper dieting. So I do not want to repeat that.

Lastly, body parameters: somewhere around 5'10" @ 150 lbs.

Thanks a lot!
posted by JoeXIII007 to Travel & Transportation (21 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
You might be overthinking it. The diet you posted sounds on point. Add some greens to your sandwich, cinnamon and berries to your oatmeal.
posted by altie at 10:40 AM on March 27, 2011 [4 favorites]

Your cold was likely due to something else, your diet is fine. You'll know if you need to adjust it if you start to noticeably lose energy on the bike or get home at the end of the day only wanting to sleep (job pressures aside). You shouldn't need supplements with your diet. At 5'10" 150lbs, your main challenge may only be that you aren't eating enough.

However, if you still want to hack your diet in a bike-centered way, I recommend "Sports Nutrition for Endurance Athletes," by Monique Ryan.
posted by rhizome at 10:41 AM on March 27, 2011

I would not assume that you got a cold because of improper diet. Nothing's impossible, but it's more likely you got that cold off a door handle.

If you're not riding hard, you probably don't need to modify your diet. If you do, eat more. You'll figure it out—it's not rocket science.
posted by adamrice at 10:44 AM on March 27, 2011 [1 favorite]

I used to bike commute and it was definitely worse when I wasn't eating well. I also wouldn't attribute you being sick to diet.

In the end, you'll need to listen to your body. If you have hunger pangs in between breakfast and lunch, have a meal/snack. Same goes for the afternoon. If you ignore them, you will feel tired, sluggish, and worn-down.

Since your meals sounds fine, you should try to keep extra food stashed at work. I used to keep a bag of almonds, trail mix, jars of peanut butter and jelly, and a loaf of bread stashed in my cubicle. For cycling specific nutrition, most racers I know do the 'see-food' diet. It's heavy in pasta carbs, beans, tortillas, and whatever meat they can get their hands on.

Also, don't worry about supplements. In the end, I agree with altie that you're overthinking. Eat food when you're hungry.
posted by just.good.enough at 10:51 AM on March 27, 2011

Colds happen because you succumb to the virus(es) that cause them. You may be susceptible to a particular cold virus because you've never encountered that strain before, and/or because you're debilitated in some other way (under a lot of stress, lack of sleep), but it's not going to be solely because of diet if you're eating halfway decently.

The only thing I'd change if I were doing this is to add a little more protein and fat to breakfast - an egg, a piece of cheese, something like that. You won't get as hungry between breakfast and lunch.
posted by rtha at 11:02 AM on March 27, 2011

Keep doing what you're doing, but add:

-Lots of water.

-An couple of energy bars or candy bars stashed in your bag in case you bonk.
posted by hydrophonic at 11:12 AM on March 27, 2011 [2 favorites]

I commute 20-22 miles per day and have never felt like I needed to modify my diet at all, but I do like to carry a banana or some nuts to snack on if I'm hungry after a ride. I did this five or six days a week and didn't get a cold this year--in fact, I seem to come down with colds less frequently when I'm getting regular cardiovascular exercise than when I'm not.

Otherwise, what everyone else is saying makes sense: you'll feel hungry when you need to eat (trust me, once you's experienced "bonking" in the middle of a ride there's no mistaking it for anything else), and a little more fat and protein for breakfast probably wouldn't hurt you. For reference, I weigh about 20 lbs. more than you do.
posted by pullayup at 11:15 AM on March 27, 2011

Just going to reiterate, don't have much to add.

Oatmeal is a great way to start a day, maybe add an extra oatmeal packet and some fruit or yogurt.

Water, Water, Water (maybe a Gatorade - post ride)

I'd try to eat something like a power/cliff bar when you get to work, to help put back what you've burned riding.

Maybe, (maybe) try to put the coffee off until you arrive at work. Just since it can make you have to pee, (or something else - considering the high fiber in oatmeal) and doing that mid-ride kind of sucks.

Slight counter point (I know the science of colds/viruses) but anecdotally sometimes when I kick off a new exercise routine I've gotten "sick" I don't know if its a cold or just generally being a bit rundown from the onset of exercise, but its happened with enough consistency that I can't discount your story out of hand. I always try to up the sleep when I start some new exercise now and that seems to help.
posted by bitdamaged at 11:24 AM on March 27, 2011

What everyone else said -- 10 miles is not a lot, especially if you're not keeping a frantic pace.

(But, if you do want to challenge yourself, and own a smartphone, keep track of your rides with RunKeeper.)
posted by schmod at 11:31 AM on March 27, 2011

Your diet seems a little short on vegetables and fruits (unless your snacks consist of those things), my suggestion would be to bump up your overall intake by 200-300 calories focusing on those (I'm assuming you don't want to lose weight): a piece of fruit with breakfast or raisins in your oatmeal, something salady with your sandwich for lunch (something like a spinach salad with walnuts and oranges and an olive oil vinagrette would be a real nutritional superstar, for example) would pretty much do the trick.
posted by drlith at 11:47 AM on March 27, 2011

Water -- yes, and keep something sugary/high carb for the late afternoon, even if you're not hungry yet. I sometimes forget that and find myself shaky and cold for the last 3 miles or so on the way home.
Also, I found myself wanting a huge breakfast, about double what I ate before starting a 12 mi bike commute. I do ride pretty fast, though.

Re: picking up viruses: this is what you do in public transport. Not on the bike.
posted by gijsvs at 11:52 AM on March 27, 2011

You don't need to eat anything special to ride 20 miles a day. Your body will tell you "eat more" and you will. That's it.
posted by zippy at 11:54 AM on March 27, 2011

I bike-commuted about 24-30 miles round trip for years. You don't need to eat anything special, just more of whatever you're already eating. I kept a big container of salted cashews on my desk and pounded those between meals, and that seemed to help me maintain energy for the ride home if I was feeling a little off on any particlar day
posted by killdevil at 12:26 PM on March 27, 2011

I would just add a handful (~30g or 1oz) of mixed raw nuts and seeds after your ride, to make sure your muscles get some protein to recover with.

If you get issues with muscle recovery (really sore for days afterwards), I'd add a calcium magnesium supplement right after the ride, make sure you're getting enough water before, during and after the ride, and shift the caffiene consumption until a couple hours after. I find doing those things can really help.

Diet-wise, I'd always recommend a multivitamin. That's a general thing.

I've known a few people who if they start a regular (daily) exercise routine always get sick. They have to build up to it slowly - say, starting with 2x the first week, 3x the next week, etc. If you bomb out again, try this. It doesn't seem to be the exercise as such that does it, more that it does place stresses on the body, and sometimes, the immune system doesn't quite deal, so the next time you're in a 20ft radius with someone contagious, you get sick. This happens to me when I get stressed enough, which is why I prefer to cycle - there are many fewer people near me on the cycle path than there are on the bus.
posted by ysabet at 2:01 PM on March 27, 2011

Response by poster: Okie doke:

-Oddly enough mentioning public transit as a cold carrier was a good point, because I did somedays mix in bus usage (if a spot on the bus was available for the bike). So I should probably just avoid the bus altogether. Otherwise my other thought was that it was caused by exhaustion. Also need to work on sleep. 7-8 seem good?

-The diet has been lacking in veggies/fruits lately, so I will up them a bit. Apples: having a whole one daily/semi-daily led to some interesting stomach pains when having them with lunch. This is probably an indication I should have less apple, right? have a recommended serving (half apple, quarter)? I'll try adding some banana too (though one hopes they can keep growing them into the future...). Nuts are easy (peanuts a plenty), will add them, and will try seeds.

Thanks a lot.
posted by JoeXIII007 at 2:14 PM on March 27, 2011

As people have said, it's good to carry a snack, because hunger can come upon you rather suddenly and in a pinch you'll grab ANYTHING and eat the hell out of it. Having something handy reduces the odds of your spontaneously consuming half your weight in junk food.

As for your regular diet, I'm a bike commuter and I'm agreeing with people that your body will Let You Know. If you find you're getting hungry for lunch a lot earlier, then you should eat more/different breakfast. If you find out you are totally wiped out when you get home from work, re-think your lunch, or else keep a snack handy for right before the ride home. It really isn't rocket science, and everyone's body is different -- that's why the advice you find online is so conflicting. People who dig in their heels and say "THIS WORKS FOR EVERYONE" are lucky because they've clearly found something that works for them, but that kind of advice should be ignored unless it's coming from your personal medical specialist.
posted by hermitosis at 2:15 PM on March 27, 2011

When I bike in the cold--really cold, like 10 degrees-ish--I come in to work feeling like "om nom nom something high in fat and protein".

I also cook big things that can be reheated so that I can have dinner right! away! when I come home; otherwise I just eat a bunch of junk.

Now, I'm not a super-duper distance biker; I commute about ten miles round trip most of the year and do a five mile round trip walk in the dead of winter instead. Our climate is a bit dramatic, though, so I'm often out when it's very cold or goddamn hot. But I've found that timing is the most important thing about food--not so much quantity. I have to eat when I get in; the end of my ride or (especially) my walk tends to be devoted to thinking of food.

I find that a high-protein lunch is important to get me through the ride/walk home.

Also, I find that I often underdress in the cold and take a chill easily--I feel tolerably warm because I'm biking, but my body temperature plummets and I take a couple of hours to really warm up.
posted by Frowner at 2:25 PM on March 27, 2011

Especially at the beginning, I would recommend upping the sleep. Exercise makes you tired, and sudden increases will stress your immune system. Try for 9 hours, and also try starting the bike routine with two days a week, then upping it by a day each week. Or, train for a few weeks before you start. Both those strategies should help you through the adjustment period.

Try to keep healthy snacks around at work. One of my favorites is hummus and carrot sticks, if you have access to a refrigerator, nuts if you don't. I like granola bars because they're a better choice than cookies when I want something sweet; I also find those veggie chips very addictive for salty moods. So long as your calories are real food, you'll be fine.

Also, I find that alcohol hits me MUCH harder directly after exercise. If you're a red-wine drinker, I'd try to wait an hour or two after you get home before consuming any alcohol.

Best of luck with your bike commute...it's a wonderful way to start and end your workday!
posted by psycheslamp at 5:10 PM on March 27, 2011

Best answer: "Thus I am looking for what is crucial to maintaining ~same energy output every day, consistently, without draining the life out of me."

Speaking from the perspective of what research in biological anthropology has shown: The answer to this is pretty much the same for all of our species. H. Sapiens have particular dietary needs based on how our digestive system has evolved. We can't eat just leaves all day or just insects or just fruits like other primates. (See for example: Milton 1993, "Diet and Primate Evolution"; Lambert 1998, "Primate Digestion: Interactions Among Anatomy, Physiology, and Feeding Ecology")

Most North Americans like yourself don't meet these needs in the best way for health or sustained energy. They meet them by eating very processed, high glycemic foods (those with simple sugars) like frozen meals, candy, granola bars, pasta, pizza, bread-heavy foods, soda, etc. Those sugars are broken down really fast and if you don't use them right away they just turn into fat, which eventually could make you diabetic. We do this because we're surrounded by this stuff, and it looks like food, but it isn't food - it's basically a lot of sugar in fancy packages.

Instead, what you need to meet your goal of maintaining energy output is low glycemic foods. These are more complex, and provide sustained energy throughout the day instead of being burned or turned into fat right away.

How do you get them? Whole foods - whole grains, whole vegetables, solid proteins and good fats. Personally, I eat veggie, so I get all my protein from hemp, pea, soy, etc. My fats come from avocado, nuts, olive oil and hemp. And then I eat tons and tons of vegetables and a few fruits a day.

Try looking up foods here and look at the glycemic load numbers. Look at the carb/protein ratios. Start reading the labels of everything you eat and pay attention to this stuff. If there are a lot of carbs, and most of those carbs are coming from sugar that food will not help you meet your goal. It will give you energy for a short time and then you will crash, and most of it will turn to fat.

You don't want to eat a bunch of calories. You want to eat protein and slow burning calories that will fuel your body. First thing you've got to change, dramatically, is your breakfast. Replace your coffee/oatmeal with a solid protein shake. For example, mine is 30g protein, 1 cup blueberries, 3 tbsp omega rich oils, 1 tbsp almond butter + a bunch of supplements. Just make sure that as you increase your protein intake you drink a lot of water to help your body process it.

Eating low glycemic means avoiding things like pasta, oatmeal, rice in favor of lots of vegetables, nuts, fresh fruit and protein. It also means eating throughout the day - always have healthy snacks with you, and eat a small amount as often as possible, this will get your metabolism running smoothly and keep your body fueled.

It might sound like a wild claim, but I promise you that just by eating well you can cut coffee and other stimulants out of your diet completely and get that same level of energy just from the food you eat. If you think about it, it makes sense, food is fuel for the body, if you use the most efficient fuel, you'll have more energy available.

The science behind it all is easy to grasp, but finding ways to actually understand it in terms of diet choices you make can be a challenge. A great resource for information about this, especially in relation to your cycling is Brendan Brazier, he's a triathlete who follows a diet along these lines. There are a series of videos where he talks about this here. Also, I've learned a lot from Patrick Reynolds peak condition blog here.
posted by jardinier at 7:38 AM on March 29, 2011 [5 favorites]

Response by poster: Jardinier, I think you got it. I'll have to try out a few recommendations from the blog and particularly this post.

posted by JoeXIII007 at 8:42 AM on March 29, 2011 [1 favorite]

Very welcome! - Also this post about breakfast fails taught me a lot.
posted by jardinier at 9:15 AM on March 29, 2011

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