A Mountain biker’s nutritional guide
01 January 1970
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Gerald de Kock: Hello and thanks for downloading another edition of our Old Mutual Live Mountain Bike podcast. All matters mountain biking, some of them directly related to mountain biking. Some of them relate to all matter of sport and life and do have a link to mountain biking. Which is what we’re talking about today. Because what we eat and drink is crucial to how we perform in our daily lives.
It becomes even more vital when we get on a bike and start expending large amounts of energy over many hours riding a bicycle. I’ve co-opted the resources, considerable that they are, from Nicki de Villiers, who is a resident dietician at the High Performance Centre in Pretoria. Where all the world’s leading sports personalities come and get advice, train and generally prepare themselves to take on the worlds big events. Nicki, thanks for joining us.
Nicki de Villiers: Thanks for having me.
GDK: Let’s get this out the way, you are a mountain biker?
NDV: Yes, attempting mountain biker, I do a bit of cycling. But I’m obviously not at the elite group –
GDK: Very few of us are.
NDV: But I do enjoy it and I do do it as often as I can.
NDV: Basically the difference between dietician and nutritionist is basically just the fact that a dietician is registered at the Health Professional Council. We work in a much more clinical field. Where the nutritionist is usually not entitled to prescribe diets as such, but can give very good general advice for anybody.
The importance of good nutrition
GDK: Okay, let’s get that out the way. What we’re going to be talking about is nutrition on the bike. Let’s pair this down to me riding a stage race. I’m not a high level rider, but I want to get through, through without exploding on the bike. Firstly, the importance of the right nutrition?
NDV: Extremely important in a sense. I think the most important is the energy. If we ride more, we must eat more. I think that’s where most of the people go wrong. It doesn’t really matter is it bread, is it celery, apples or whatever, the energy must first be balanced. I think that’s the main thing we shouldn’t overlook.
Then we can start fighting about which foods are a better quality. If you’re going to put quality in, you’re going to get quality out. Crap in, crap out. First fix the energy, then look at quality. Then look at obviously your fuel sources. The fuel sources mainly are carbohydrates and fat and then you need to determine what do I need. What I need depends on the profile of the riders who are going to enter.
If it’s really hard work where there’s a really high intensity involved, like most of the stages are, then it would be carbohydrate predominant. So we would eat starches and fruit and yoghurt and those kind of things. If it’s predominantly just flat, long, you will use predominantly fat. Not that we’re going to increase the fat load of what you’re eating. You’re probably just going to lower the carb load because the fat is already on board to eat. It’s basically an individualised process where you need to just think a little bit ahead about what’s happening tomorrow.
GDK: For your average rider, your average family person who is setting out to prepare for these events, they’re not thinking too clearly about all the specifics. They’re just eating what tastes nice, what looks nice and what’s in front of them. Specifically, in terms of food choices, what should they be trying to look at, without going overboard?
What are good food choices
NDV: Okay, the food choice usually entails eat as close as possible to nature. So eat your meat, eat your fish, each your chicken. But try to stay away from very processed things. That’s what we mean by quality food, not some or other beef that looks like a sausage or whatever.
Eat a fair amount of fruit and vegetables, it can be frozen or fresh, whatever you like. But every single day, or every single meal, have either a fruit or a vegetable to carry you through that. Then eat starches in the form of much more whole wheat orientate stuff. Avoid excessive amounts of white flour and rather eat a whole wheat bread than white bread. Rather eat oats porridge, rather than a refined type of porridge, those kind of things.
Is it really necessary to eat bars and additional stuff? Not that necessary if you just supply food because there’s nothing else a sandwich versus bar, the same two things. So you don’t need to spend an unnecessary amount of money on special food produce.
The other thing I think you should really be concentrating on is regular eating. So that we don’t just have this big supper and nothing through the rest of the day. I think there is sometimes a big gap where people make a mess out of it. Then the other thing is fluid intake.
Not just the energy drink on the bike or just whilst I’m cycling. But fluid intake right throughout the whole day. To not get onto a bike when you’re dehydrated. Because then everything is going to get worse. If you get in that habit of eating, the regular eating, smaller snacks, three big meals, make sure there’s veggies or fruit with every meal. Make sure you eat unprocessed and make sure you drink enough water. You can just repeat that, even on a stage race from day to day.
Post-ride nutritional needs
GDK: Post-ride, get off the bike, what’s the golden rule, is there a golden rule, to eat soon after?
NDV: Yes, it’s still the golden rule, so within a half hour after getting off the bike, that’s your golden opportunity for recovering. Will you recover if you don’t use it, you will, but it’s going to be a much slower process. Because of stage races, you don’t have time to recovery. Basically by eating immediately, you buy time, by delaying it. You’re just not going to be fully recovered, so your choice.
GDK: Can we eat anything then?
NDV: You can, you shouldn’t, but you can. The main thing there is we usually talk about the three R’s. Refuel, we need carbohydrate sources for, they would be something like bread or a sugary thing. You can drink whatever drink you like to drink, even if it’s sugary it’s okay then to have it.
The repair is usually through the intake of protein. So that would be biltong which would a filling to a sandwich or something like that. The other one is the rehydrate, so we make sure we drink enough liquids as quickly as possible to recover the rehydration. Then we’ve got this favourite of chocolate flavoured milk, that works very well because it’s a drink that contains all three of those. It contains the repair stuff, the refuel stuff and the rehydrate stuff.
GDK: It’s the reason why some people ride, just to have chocolate milk. There’s that other thing, as we get deeper into a race. It becomes increasingly difficult to eat, particularly breakfast, but sometimes dinner as well.
NDV: The main thing there, you need to eat when you can eat. That is the one very good thing.
Then obviously if you’re then in a stage race, to really, I want to say over-eat in the first few days. Because you know it’s coming, that’s the one thing. Smaller amounts, more often. Then try out a few things that you don’t normally include. But that’s not going to cause any stomach discomfort.
Usually we transfer to, in the first few days we’re very sugar inclined. That changes to a very salty inclination later on. Prepare for those things with biltong and nuts and raisins rather than having the sugary things all the time. I would sometimes suggest to make use of a meal replacement, a supplement meal replacement.
That if you don’t get the food, that you at least can drink this thing. Know, okay, that’s a meal taken care of. Obviously there’s some better ones to choose than not, but basically it’s what works for you. What you can get in at that stage. It doesn’t help you’ve got a product and you can’t swallow it.
An alternative for non-meat eaters
GDK: There are people who don’t eat red meat, who are quite finicky about what they eat, but they love to ride their stage races. They find it quite difficult to find the foods, they should take their own, but what’s the alternative?
NDV: I think if you’re finicky, you need to provide for yourself, I think that’s the one thing. Luckily most stage races usually have got a spread of stuff. So it’s not that you only have the one thing. Most of us will be okay with whatever is available.
But if you’re really finicky about something like a preservative or a colourant or a specific carbohydrate or whatever, best to travel with your own stuff as far as possible. Because if you haven’t eaten something for a while and you start eating it on a stage race, you’re bound to feel uncomfortable. You should keep it to what you train on, repeat that in a stage race.
GDK: After 4-5 days and you haven’t had meat, you’re riding six hours a day, you’re going to need something.
NDV: The meat at that stage, people are sometimes attentative to the micronutrients in there. That would be okay over a five-day period. The main thing is that you need to get the protein in. If the meat is not working and the solid stuff is not working, then we can supplement.
Milk is often a very good protein source to include and it’s an easy thing to get in. To drink 2-3 glasses of milk throughout the day is quite easy, if you can’t stomach meat. But there’s quite a few people that can’t stomach milk either. I would prefer to sometimes move over to something like biltong, droewors, those kind of stick things –
GDK: But I don’t eat meat.
NDV: Not meat at all?
GDK: Not me specifically, but I’m putting you in that position.
NDV: Chicken or fish, if that’s not a choice, if there’s a vegetarian that doesn’t eat any of these. Then I would use milk. If there’s no milk, then you have to use the plant proteins. Go to chickpeas and lentils and soya products. You can use nuts, peanut butter is often a favourite, to eat peanut butter with a spoon.
GDK: Is there enough fuel in all of that to keep me powered up?
NDV: Not enough fuel necessary, that’s enough for recovery. The fuel needs to come from the carbohydrates as such. You’re not going to fuel on protein. Protein will help us to recover better. Even if we take it throughout a stage race. What I take throughout the race will help me to recover for tomorrow.
Usually if you do a one-day thing, taking protein on the bike is really not going to help you. But in a stage race it becomes more and more important to take protein during the race, during the stage to improve. The fuel food, to come back to your question, is much more the carbohydrate part of it.
Yes, we’re going to have to take raisins with the nuts. You’re going to have to eat an apple with the peanut butter. You’re going to have to eat rice with the lentils and that would be the fuelling food. Where the protein is really just going to fill us up and it’s going to make us recover better, that’s it.
3 key factors to save you hitting the wall
GDK: Three things, key factors, bearing in mind that generally we’re not scientists. We just eat what’s there. What are the key factors we must bear in mind to get through a race without hitting the wall?
NDV: I think the first thing is hydration. We need to make sure that we’re fully hydrated and stay fully hydrated. You need to drink quite early on in the race and you need to keep on drinking small amounts right throughout. Because once we’re dehydrated, even food intake a mess.
The next thing is stay eating, even if it’s small amounts. Even if you’ve got all this knowledge about you’ve got to eat so much. Three of those and two of those, just stay eating, nibble, stay nibbling, don’t skip water tables. Eat something at the water table, drink something at the water table. I know sometimes it’s a schlep because you’re on a speed and it’s nice. Just stop and have something because you never know.
The last thing I would say is mainly that recovery, especially in a stage race. We need to eat quickly and eat proper before you drink alcohol. Make sure that you drink the milk, wait an hour or two before you drink the alcohol. Because that will then enhance recovery for tomorrow. Tomorrow will be much easier.
GDK: Nicki, we didn’t mention alcohol at all for ten minutes. You’ve just opened a can of worms there, or another topic that we could discuss at another stage, about the alcohol intake. What you did allude to was that you can still have a beer after the ride.
Precautions around having alcohol
NDV: It depends on what your goal is with what you’re doing. I think most people train with alcohol in the evenings. So they drink a beer after they’re finished training. So I can’t see why it shouldn’t be there when you’re working hard in terms of your stage races.
Most of us are there to enjoy it. So that will take away from the enjoyment. Obviously the serious athlete is not going to do that. Just be aware of the effect of alcohol on hydration. I think that’s the one thing. Because it’s going to end horrid tomorrow on the bike if you didn’t hydrate fully. Just be aware of the effect of alcohol on muscle damage.
If I drink the beer, the muscle damage, you’re not going to be able to recover for tomorrow. Most of us won’t be able in any case to recover, before tomorrow. Because the time period is just too short. But be aware that those are the main things that worry us.
It’s the dehydration, the muscle recovery and then usually the low blood sugar that goes with the alcohol intake. Make sure that when I have beers, that the next day is going to be hard on the bike. You have to stop at every water table. But that would be easier because you’re going to want to stop at every water table.
GDK: Nicki de Villiers, putting it simply. It’s very good advice. I hope you’ve enjoyed that advice, taking it in. If you’ve missed some of it, just download again and listen to it again. Because it’s valuable information from Nicki de Villiers who is a resident dietician here at the HPC in Pretoria. She’ll give you all the information you need.
She’s a mountain biker, she’s done it all before, she’s experienced all these highs and lows. So get that information and use it wisely. I hope you’ve enjoyed that. I hope it’s been of some assistance to you as you prepare for your next challenge on the mountain bike. If so, download again, I’m sure we’ll be able to bring you some insight into this great sport. Until then, take care, ride carefully, ride with a smile, it’s always good to see people smiling on their mountain bikes, until then, cheers.