Diet, training and preparation for long-distance events

Way back in 2012 I discovered long-distance cycling with my first ride of the Dunwich Dynamo, a 190km night ride from London to Dunwich on the Suffolk coast, ostensibly "for breakfast".  I then targeted both London-Edinburgh-London 2013 and Paris-Brest-Paris 2015 on my Brompton and successfully completed both.  However, I struggled on both events and I knew that I needed to make some changes for LEL 2017.

I don't really go for fully scientific approaches to diet and training, because my run-my-own-business lifestyle often precludes daily targets, and instead I focus on the bigger picture.  The main things were to get my weight down, get my fitness up, and to improve my endurance.  Long audax rides are more like fast-touring than time-trialling, so pacing and mindset are more important than power meters and carbon wheels.  Note that all this relates to riding fixed-gear, although may have some usefulness on geared bikes alsowink

Bear in mind that I am not a scientist or a doctor, nor do I have any formal training.  This is just a simplification of how I understand it all to work and how I have applied it to me, personally.

Diet and weight

IMPORTANT NOTE All of the dietary comments included in this opinion piece are just my opinion or the opinions of others.  You should not read them as fact, because they might not work for you.  Before substantially changing your diet, make sure you understand how it might affect you; consult your doctor if you aren't sure.  I have to say this, even though it's bleedin' obvious, but somebody might think I'm cleverer than I really am and harm themselves — idiotic, I know, but they're out there …

Weighty matters

I started 2017 a little bigger than I intended to at about 76kg (12st).  My aim for LEL was to bring my weight down to about 68kg (10st 10lb).  I didn't quite manage that, weighing 71kg (11st 2lb) on the morning of the event itself.

Back in 2012 I tried the 5-2 diet, having watched the BBC's "Eat, Fast and Live Longer" documentary, presented by Michael Moseley, for the health benefits rather than weight loss, but weight loss is a positive side-effect.  I started at 76kg and noted my weight and what I ate on a daily basis.  I also rode hour-long, 32km rides almost every day, pushing hard on my Brompton, the idea being that I was restricting calories in and maximising calories out — at it's peak rate I was losing half a stone a week, for four weeks!  In the end I had to stop, because I was losing too much weight!  I was 10st when I stopped the diet, but I never stopped measuring my weight every morning and recording it.

Forward to 2017 and at the beginning of the year I changed my diet to what's called the “low-carb, high-fat” diet; ish.  More on that shortly.  But I can say that starting this diet inevitably caused my weight to fall, and by March my Monday weight — my weekly barometer weight — was in the 71s and it has stayed in exactly that range all year, barring a couple of exceptional weights (post-Easter, post-holiday, post-LEL), dropping back to the 71kg spot by the following week.  So regardless of any other aspect of the LCHF diet, it appears to have caused my body to reliably recalibrate my weight down to 71kg.  I have a very small paunch, but otherwise from a weight perspective I am in a good place.

Moderately reduced calorie intake

The government recommended daily intake for a man in the UK is 2500kcal per day.  What they don't make clear enough is that this is not a target, it's actually a maximum — most of us won't actually suffer any ill effects or die by eating less than that and in fact we might thrive on it.  So I cut out breakfast, most days.  That is: between dinner on one day and lunch the next, I don't eat anything. 

I also tried to reduce my evening alcohol intake, but that's a lot harder!wink

Not only does a reduced calorie intake mean I should lose a bit of flab, it also means my body has to get used to operating fully while not being quite so profligate in the calories it needs to do it — i.e. it becomes more efficient, another good endurance trait.  Weighing less also means fewer calories needed to power the bike.

Low-carb, High-fat — ish — diet

The most up-to-date thinking on eating for endurance events is to reduce the proportion of calories that come from carbohydrate, and proportionally increase those coming from natural fats and proteins.  This is the basis of the LCHF diet — not necessarily to reduce calories overall, but to change the types of foods that the calories are from.  Specifically the idea is to get well away from refined carbohydrates and modified starches, which flood the blood with sugar, but not for very long.

During exercise, the body loves to burn carbs to power the muscles.  Initially carbs come from locally and bodily stored glycogen, but as this depletes then the body will use blood-sugar, such as those sugars ingested by eating refined carbs.  As soon as the blood-sugar level dips, you either have to eat more sugary foods, or you will experience a ‘bonk’ and go weak at the knees.  By restricting carbs from the diet, the level of sugar in the blood is much lower and the body starts to become attuned to burning body fat instead.  The point about this is that the body stores only about 5000kcal of glycogen and sugars, whereas it stores over 100,000kcal of fat.  Plus, any sugars that are not burnt off immediately are stored by the body as fat, usually of a less-useful visceral type (AIUI), and so it's harder to burn those fats off later; this problem seems not to occur with stored fats from ingested fat and protein.

 “More peas, Norma?”  Lunch today was a bowl of buttered veg with chilli

“More peas, Norma?”  Lunch today was a bowl of buttered veg with chilli

It's a win-win, really — training your body to burn fat means not only will you be able to go for longer, but you'll also be better able to burn off the middle-aged belly fat that we all seem to collect … I'm just sayingwink

As with all these things, there is no clear-cut answer to all of this, but here's my take:

  • Don't eat as much bread — in fact, since stopping eating breakfast then my bread intake has plummeted; I also avoid bread at lunchtime and dinnertime most of the time, so I probably eat only a couple of slices a week; when we go out for burgers, I have the skinny, bun-free option with a salad instead.
  • Don't eat quite so much rice or potatoes — I haven't stopped eating starchy carbs, but I have cut them right back, so I might have a third of what I used to have, or I might cut them out altogether, depending on what we're having for dinner.
  • Eat more greens — salad and vegetables are critically important to our health and contain most of the nutrients we need; they also taste pretty good; this is much easier in the summer than the winter!
  • Eat more eggs — eggs are high in protein and contain only natural fats; they make you feel fuller sooner and you don't crave as much afterwards; I eat an omelette for lunch most days — my first meal of the day.
  • A meal of just vegetables is fine — I had a large bowl of buttered peas, beans and sweetcorn for lunch while writing this, yummy!
  • Taste the cake, don't eat the cake — my wife bakes the most delicious cakes, so I am not in a position to say ‘no’; instead I have just a sliver of cake, to get a taste of it, but still keep the calories from carbs low.
  • Don't eat sweets or biscuits — I love biscuits; I don't like this rule.
  • Don't carb-load before an event — this seems against traditional sports dogma, but actually it's a pretty good rule for audax, because we are out for a long ride, not a short sprint; at an endurance pace then carbs are not that useful, whereas fat-burn really is.

I still have to live with my family, though, so I do allow myself some leniency — the ish part of the diet, for me:

  • I allow myself breakfast at the weekends, although usually only one day.
  • If I'm out with friends then I am not fussy at all — that would just be awkward.
  • The occasional sweet or biscuit won't hurt in the long run — it's important to allow myself a treat, but not every day, and only one, not the whole pack!
  • I still need the occasional Jelly Baby when riding to help power the fat-burn process — there's a good write-up in the foreword to Feed Zone Portables cook book that is easy to digest, ahem.
  • If I fall off the wagon one day, that doesn't mean I have ruined the diet — it's just a blip, back on the wagon tomorrow.

The biggest proponent of carb-loading before exercise and the importance of taking in calories primarily from sugars during exercise is one Tim Noakes, a South African scientist, researcher, marathon runner, I don't know.  His videos make for interesting watching, there's no doubting his enthusiasm.  But, the important point is, Noakes has done a complete volte face about the position of carbohydrates within the Western diet, to the point of cutting them out altogether.  That might be a bit extreme, but there are certainly benefits.

The point Noakes makes about the current, government-recommended diet is that it contains too many sources of carbohydrate.  The UK Government recommends that 50% of our energy should come from carbohydrate — that is quite a lot!  Since carbohydrate sources give us about 2-4kcal per gramme then that's around 250-500g of carbohydrate a day.

Noakes likes to challenge dogma by gathering together all the research papers he can find and drawing conclusions.  He seems a bit of a nutter when you watch him, but a lot of what he says rings true enough to be considered.  Somewhere I saw or read — and I need to find a citation for this — that the originator of the idea that people should base 50-60% of their calorie intake on carbohydrate was just one US Senator, who said this after being lobbied by the US wheat and grain industry organisation — i.e. it has no medical or scientific basis, but does have an entirely commercial one, to sell more grain-based products!!

Noakes is not without his critics, though, as all good snake-oil salesmen shouldn't be — this is an interesting counter article that doesn't prove his assertions wrong, but does indicate that others consider a balance is a better approach, i.e. not too much of any one thing or another.  I probably eat too many eggs, but I like eggs.

It's not only Noakes on the LCHF trail, though — it seems that a fully-adapted ketonic diet is extremely unhealthy for cancer cells, which is a Good Thing!  Not that I'm taking it seriously enough for that, but I would if I knew I had to.

Healthy ‘gut biome’

Having a healthy ‘gut biome’ relates to cycling only in the sense that the gut biome seems to affect mood and well-being — it's important to be in good health and spirit when embarking on a ride of 10 or more hours in the saddle!

The gut biome is fuelled directly by the food that passes through from the stomach.  High-carbohydrate foods tend to be processed quickly at the top of the gut, whereas vegetables and proteins tend to get further along, which is better.  Moving my diet away from carbs towards fats and proteins, lots of greens and veg, should make it happier, I think.

I use this whole argument as an excuse to eat blue cheese, yumcheesy

If it was made by a human being …

And, finally for this section, I watched an interview with a dietary statistician (I think — I must find that video clip), who said that when looking at all the data to try to identify one food group or another that is responsible for obesity, heart disease and cancer, they had identified that basically reducing the amount of sugar we eat and increasing the amount of exercise are key factors.  But, startlingly, an over-arching factor that leapt out is this:

If it was made by a human being then it is probably good for you; if it was made by a machine then it is probably bad for you.

As a family, we make almost all our meals from scratch and we rarely eat fast food, so a big tick there.  It is sobering, though, when you consider that at least half of all food on supermarket shelves is actually machine-made and falls in the latter, bad-for-you category!!  Bear that in mind next time you're doing the shopping.

Fitness and strength

There is no doubt that being fitter means being able to ride faster for longer.  Exactly how to get fitter without really sticking to a training programme is key for me, because I cannot always get out when a plan says I should.  Also, for audax, it's all about endurance and not about speed — finishing within the time is the goal, not setting a time.

Winter miles, summer smiles

I already ride at least one 200km audax event or longer every month for my Randonneur Round the Year award, and I have an unbroken sequence of 50-odd rides from November 2012 — my first audax — to date.  This means I ride all year round, including the harder winter months.  As the old cycling saying goes: "winter miles, summer smiles", and it really is true — I start every spring with a base fitness to build on, and I usually ride my first double-century — miles, of course — in late February with Tom Deakins' Horsepower 200, which I extend to over 322km with an ECE extension on top.  I didn't get to do that this year, due to family commitments, but I still rode all winter and had a decent level of base fitness that I have built up over the past four years.

Fasted training

This started with a bit of a bet, really — in a conversation with some Cambridge CTC members, I foolishly suggested I could ride 100km without any food.  I tested that by meeting up with a group ride in Saffron Walden in early 2016 — they started in Great Dunmow — and I rode a 100km loop before diving into the corner shop in Six Mile Bottom for some energy.  I felt woozy, but once I got some sugar inside me then I felt fine.  So, 100km is okay, but needed some work.

Since the beginning of 2017, I have been riding all my rides without eating any breakfast, and without eating any food or taking in any energy until I have ridden at least 100km.  The purpose is to train the body to replenish glycogen from fat stores, instead of from blood sugars from eating carbs.

A friend of mine, Idai Makaya, write a book on intermittent fasting that also covers this — The Handbook of Intermittent Fasting.

Low-HR riding

The key to teaching the body to burn fat for fuel is to keep the heart rate low while doing it — it's all about riding well within yourself.

Most of 2017 I spent trying to ride well within myself with a heart rate of 130 or below.  At this rate my body (I think) is able to burn fat instead of sugars to power the muscles, and the more you do this, the better the body gets at it.  I got quite good at it — I rarely felt short of energy during the first 100km, and after a sandwich then I would be fine all the way home again.

High-intensity training + protein

I find my body responds well to a small number of high-intensity rides.  I managed to get out and ride half a dozen of these in the six weeks before LEL.  After one two-hour ride, Alex noted this on Strava:

42 minutes at threshold — you have a talent for suffering! (a most useful talent)

I hadn't really considered it that way, but I'll take it.

My training rides consisted of a short 20km or longer loop around the north of Cambridge, preferably with a hill (although there aren't any proper hills within 30km of here), which I tried to ride at 27kph or above all the way round.  I rode these in a fasted state where possible (i.e. when before lunch).  I did not hold back on the effort, these were not supposed to be endurance events, the aim was to get the heart pumping hard for as long as possible.

As soon as I finished the ride, my recovery consisted of a protein drink, or two if a longer ride — I have found that if I drink a protein drink then I feel fine the following day; if I don't drink a protein drink then my legs hurt for days afterwards.  I think this is because the additional protein in the drink, above what I get from my diet, helps with muscle repair.  After a few of these hi-tempo workouts, I can definitely feel a difference in my legs.

Longer-distance try-outs

It's always important to test your kit — and your legs — with a suitably long ride before the event.  Think of it as a shakedown ride.  I picked Tom Deakins’ Hereward the Wake 300km nighttime event at the beginning of July and extended it to 400km with the ride to/from the start.  This is a lovely event, in part due to the 9pm evening start and through-the-night ride across Cambridgeshire, Bedfordshire, Buckinghamshire and Hertfordshire, before the return to Essex.

The ride to the start was at a very easy heart rate, but the pace was pretty okay.  The first 100km of the ride almost always have a tailwind and this year was no exception — we absolutely flew north to Whittlesey, with me just about hanging on to an extremely quick group.  After the turn westwards, I stuck with the group on the flat, but when the hills around Stilton began then I quickly dropped off the group and picked my own pace: on fixed-gear it is important to play to your strengths and to work within yourself on your weaknesses.  Climbing is the obvious weakness and I spent a delicious few hours riding alone through the darkness, using just the routesheet for navigation, and out of sight of both the groupetto in front and any riders behind.

The final 100km back to the finish were ridden in daylight and I rode almost all of it alone.  It was a peaceful ride and I continued to make good progress, catching a few riders on the way.

After hanging about at arrivée trading stories, I set off for the 50km ride home, meeting other riders yet to finish.  My pace remained acceptably high, for me, giving me a sub-14-hour 300km ride, and a sub-20-hour 400km ride, both of which are good times for me.  More importantly, those times indicated that if I dropped my pace slightly then I would have a half-decent pace for LEL, too.

Managing sleep

There were also a couple of pre-ride extra changes I made to help me on the event, both relating to how I managed my sleep.

Caffeine-free

I love drinking coffee — the bitterness and the taste, lovely.  But wiser heads than me indicated I should abstain for two weeks before the event to give my body a chance to become intolerant to it once again — years of drinking lots of cups of coffee mean my body has built up a tolerance and so drinking coffee doesn't wake me up, but not drinking it makes me irritable and sleepy.  The point being that, if my body is no longer tolerant to caffeine, drinking coffee or taking a caffeine tablet when I am really tired should properly wake me up again.

I stopped drinking caffeinated drinks two weeks before the event.  The first couple of days my head hurt quite a bit, but then that settled down.  I drink a lot of caffeine-free fruit and herb teas instead — between two and three litres a day! It's a big mug …

During the event I did get the dozies, but biting into a couple of caffeine tablets, or drinking a strong coffee, did work to wake me up for a couple of hours.  That was enough to get me to the next control where I could grab a bed and actually sleep for a little while.

Good sleep

On multiday rides, sleep is a critical factor in enjoying the event and completing it successfully.  The long-established advice is to bank as much sleep as possible before the event, because it can be pretty miserable starting the event with sleep debt, or even sleep deprivation.

 Tom is better at sleeping anytime than I am

Tom is better at sleeping anytime than I am

On LEL2013 I had to get up at about 4am to get to the start of the Prologue outside Buckingham Palace and that meant I was in sleep debt from the start of the event.  On PBP2015 I found I couldn't sleep in the hotel and, with the early-evening start, I didn't manage to get any more sleep during the day, unlike my friend and mentor Tom, who stretched out in the afternoon sun and was slept soundly.  Both events I suffered with sleep deprivation.

This time around I spent a the whole of the week leading up to the event in bed nice and early with no alarm set for the morning — I slept like a babe.  The lack of caffeine definitely helped!  I got up at a leisurely 7.30am to catch my train to the start and was feeling great for the event — I managed to get around on about 14.5 hours' sleep, but felt great nearly all the time.  Still a work-in-progress but a significant improvement on previous events.

Also, I gave myself permission that during the event I would grant myself time to sleep if I needed it.  On previous events I have been too worried about running out of time by sleeping and so found myself unable to get to sleep.  By giving myself permission to sleep, I slept like a babe whenever I put my head down and woke up refreshed, even if that was only 15 minutes later!

Nick Wilkinson

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