What About Oats?

Why oats are the perfect cycling food

Team GB are big fans of oats – nutritionist Nigel Mitchell ensures they're included in the British cyclists’ diets during training and competitions – and marathon runner Paula Radcliffe, rugby player Matt Dawson and even effing Gordon Ramsay endorse oats as part of their marathon training diet.

Porridge, once defined by Samuel Johnson as “eaten by people in Scotland, but fit only for horses in England”, is enjoying a resurgence. According to recent figures, the UK now gets through 47m gallons of the stuff every year (source: Quaker Oats); and in March 2009, Quaker Oats had their biggest sales increase in their 100-year history. It’s all down to the power of oats.

Benefits of oats

As a wholegrain – and therefore unprocessed – food, oats are low in saturated fat, high in fibre and rich in traditional nutrients like vitamins and minerals, as well as containing numerous phytochemicals, which act as antioxidants to prevent cell damage.

Oats also provide a source of insoluble and soluble fibre. The insoluble fibre helps you to maintain a healthy digestive system, while the soluble fibre – or beta glucan – has been demonstrated to lower cholesterol by acting like a sponge during digestion, soaking up and removing cholesterol from the body.

Soluble fibre also helps the body to release energy slowly, keeping you feeling fuller for longer, as Eleanor Jones, senior sport scientist at the University of Birmingham and a holder of an IOC Diploma in Sports Nutrition, explains. “Higher fibre food, such as oats and porridge, have a lower glycaemic index (GI). This means they provide a sustained release of energy from the carbohydrates they contain

"This is potentially advantageous when consumed in the hour or so prior to a longer ride, as there’ll be energy released throughout. GI food results in a blood sugar spike followed by a subsequent insulin spike, which is generally better for more immediate refuelling, such as straight after exercise.”

But while all oats provide the same amount of nutrients, including fibre, there are a number of different types to choose from. Rolled oats are one of the most popular ways of eating oats, unless you’re a porridge purist, in which case only medium-ground oatmeal will do. 

Then there are pinhead (or ‘steel-cut’) oats and oatmeal oats, which are made by grinding oats to produce flour of various grades, from coarse – which is used in porridge – to super fine oatmeal – used in oatcakes.

As Therese Coleman, consultant nutritionist for the All About Oats campaign, says: “Oats are usually steamed and flattened to produce rolled oats, sold as regular oats, quick oats, and instant oats. The more oats are flattened and steamed, the quicker they cook – and the softer they become.

"If you prefer a chewier, nuttier texture, consider steel-cut oats. These consist of the entire oat kernel, sliced once or twice into smaller pieces to help water penetrate and cook the grain. They usually take longer to cook, maybe 20-30 minutes.”

Oats in action

Jones, who’s in her second year of competing on the road and track for Halesowen Athletic and Cycling Club, and will be competing in the national women’s series, team series and omnium events this year, says she eats porridge before a ‘quality’ long midday ride, which may include intervals.

“I want to be well fuelled and it’s more like a meal than any other breakfast item I usually have in," she says. "I also eat it around 40 minutes after a long ride in the morning when I’ve trained low (ie, without breakfast) – typically around a two hour easy-steady ride without any fuel, apart from water.”

She’s a fan of Quaker’s Oatso Simple, made from rolled oats, because it’s in ‘ready to go’ portions, and she adds dried fruit such as sultanas or cranberries. “I also use raw porridge oats in baking (crumbles, flapjacks, smoothies) for post-exercise recovery snacks, particularly in the summer.”

But cyclists aren’t just limited to porridge to take advantage of oats – they’re hugely versatile. Muesli or granola works well in warmer summer months, while mid-morning oat-based snacks can include oatcakes, for example, while lunch can feature oat bread sandwiches with lean chicken and salad, to tick all the boxes of a healthy meal. Pre-training snacks can also include flapjacks or oat based biscuits (see the recipes below for a delicious oat-based savoury slice).

As training and competing increases daily energy expenditure, porridge and oats provide a quick and flexible way to carb load and refuel on the go. As if that wasn’t enough, oats are low in fat and, as Jones says, “excellent for the power to weight ratio”. One porridge maker, Rude Health, has even launched a brand called Morning Glory in the belief that the inclusion of organic oats can also boost libido ... Are you getting yours?

Recipes with oats

Recipe 1: Heather honey porridge

  • Preparation time: 5 minutes
  • Cooking time: 10 minutes
  • Serves: 4
  • Ingredients: 120g pinhead oatmeal; 500ml water; 500ml semi-skimmed milk; 2 tbsp heather honey; 2 tbsp low fat crème fraîche; a drizzle of honey, to serve
  • Recipe: If you have time, it’s best to soak the oatmeal in the water before you start. When you’re ready to make your porridge, add the milk and put the pan on a medium heat. Bring to the boil, reduce the heat and simmer for about 6-10 minutes, stirring occasionally, then stir in the honey. Add more or less milk or water to achieve the consistency you prefer. Pour into bowls and top with the crème fraîche and a drizzle of honey.  

Recipe 2: Cheese and oat slices

  • Preparation time: 10 minutes
  •  Cooking time: 20 minutes
  •  Makes: 16 squares
  • Ingredients: 100g wholemeal flour; 150g porridge oats; 50g mixed seeds; 2 medium eggs, beaten; 2 tsp Dijon mustard; 50g butter, melted; 100g Cheddar cheese, grated
  • Recipe: Preheat the oven to 200°C (gas mark 6). Mix all the ingredients in a bowl and press into a 23cm square tin. Smooth over the surface. Bake for 20 minutes until golden. Allow to cool slightly before cutting into 16 squares.

Recipe 3: Toasted honey muesli with summer fruit compote

  • Preparation time: 10 minutes
  • Cooking time: 10 minutes
  • Serves: 6
  • Ingredients: 300g jumbo oats; 50g each walnuts, hazelnuts and blanched almonds; 4 tbsp sunfl ower seeds; 2 tbsp clear honey; 150g sultanas; 100g dried apricots, chopped
  • Recipe: Preheat the oven to 200°C (gas mark 6). Place the oats, nuts and seeds on a large roasting tin and stir in the honey. Bake for 10 minutes until toasted. Allow to cool before stirring in the fruit. This is also delicious served with a fruit compote – place berry fruit of your choosing in a large saucepan and add 2 tbsp water and cook for 3-4 minutes until softened. Spoon over the muesli.

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