A little less than two weeks remain before El Tour de Tucson. My training plan has gone, well... to plan. I made it through the hardest week in my seven-week boom-or-bust programme – 240 miles ridden and a new personal best up South Mountain.
I paid for the effort though, with the deadest legs I've ever had on my Saturday ride. They felt like useless hunks of wood and no matter that I could drum along at a reasonable tempo, these meat-filled boat anchors had no snap, no acceleration, no life.
But I took those dead legs as a good sign – that I had pushed myself to some kind of limit. And since several days off the bike and three or four low-intensity rides followed, I think I've done the best I can to train for El Tour.
From here, I have two more weeks at normal training intensity. And with such little time, the attention has to turn to whatever else I can do to give this 5hr 30min goal its best shot. That means tackling the lingering issue of nutrition.
Nutrition is a complex topic with bike racers. There's so much advice out there about food, ranging from downing as much yoghurt, granola and fruit as you can before rides to programmes that have you weigh and plan every ounce of food you take in.
I'm not a nutritionist – so even if what follows makes sense to you, do your own research and make your own choices – but I know that my hunger-driven, sweet tooth and red meat dominated approach to eating means I’m carrying the equivalent of an extra 15lb sack of flour around my waist every time I ride.
I've tried many different ways to eat better and more efficiently, and after getting it wrong many times, I feel like I've finally stumbled on a formula that has an almost immediate impact on my riding.
When my wife went to work for a weight-loss clinic in Northern Virginia, the job required that she understand the clinic’s approach to diet and nutrition, and when we worked through their training material, it seemed a sensible approach, meaning a non-crazy, non-starvation fad diet.
The plan called for a person to eat from a menu of whole grains, fruits, vegetable, dairy and lean protein dishes in a specific daily pattern. You had a grain and a fruit in the mornings (eg. a piece of toast and a banana), followed by a mid-morning snack (eg. a supplement bar).
Lunch was a grain, a protein, a fruit and a vegetable (eg. tuna sandwich with an apple and carrot sticks). A mid-afternoon snack consisted of yoghurt or another bar, and dinner was a lean protein, vegetables with no fruit and occasionally something with carbs (eg. a piece of fish, steamed broccoli and squash, a roll).
I’m oversimplifying a little - there was another layer of rules which governed which foods you could or could not eat, and the plan included measuring portion sizes - but the focus on lean and wholesome foods, and the daily pattern of intake made real sense to me.
I adopted the eating plan and within two weeks I went from getting dropped on climbs to winning the sprints up them, from hanging my tongue out of my mouth at the back of the pack to working with the front of the group. It was mind-opening. But, although I've eaten more vegetables ever since, I soon fell back into my old eating habits.
More of this can make you faster...
The second diet revelation I had was reading the book The Great American Detox Diet by Alex Jamieson. Alex was the fiancée of Morgan Spurlock, the independent documentary filmmaker who made Super Size Me.
In that documentary, Spurlock ate McDonald’s fast food for all three of his daily meals and took the Supersize option whenever it was offered for 30 days. Jamieson’s book details the physiological changes he went through and the diet that she, a nutritionist and chef, put him on to bring his system back from the brink of total collapse once his experiment ended.
The book does a fantastic job of helping you understand food as it is produced for mass consumption in the US today; educating about processes the agriculture and food processing industry use to make food cheap and plentiful that rob us of much of its nutritional value.
I do the book a huge disservice by summarising its core premise so briefly but the bottom line is that Jamieson is a big proponent of eliminating sugar, saturated fats and processed carbs from our diets to allow our bodies to convert food into fuel optimally. She also recommends switching to organically-produced foods, to local produce, to an overall healthier balance of fuel.
Again, upon taking on the principles in Jamieson’s book, I had another back-of-the-pack to front-of-the-pack transition. So now when I get into ‘diet-for-riding’ mode (meaning, I want to pull myself back from the bad eating habits I always seem to drift back to without the proper motivation), I meld the two concepts together. I eat based on a daily plan inspired by the weight loss centre and switch to as many organic and naturally-processed foods as possible.
So, with just over a week to go to El Tour, my biggest focus is to stay on track with the final training rides and stick to the nutrition plan. Even though the only option in the restaurant near the hotel I just stayed in was burgers with fries, and the bag of candy left over from Halloween has been sucking me in every afternoon, I know from experience that a dedicated approach to eating healthy can have an impact on my riding.
Fingers crossed, I’ll be as ready as I can.
Steve's daily training menu
Just for reference, a typical day in my diet-for-riding plan looks like this:
Breakfast (8am): Gluten-free toast made with organic sprouted grain bread, buttered, with a piece of fruit.
Mid-morning snack (10am): Organic granola bar.
Lunch (12:30pm): Organic chunky vegetable soup, slice of sprouted multi-grain bread, a piece of fruit. Or a sliced turkey and cheese sandwich on organic sprouted multi-grain bread with a cup of sliced carrots and a piece of fruit.
Mid-afternoon (3pm): Cup of yoghurt with a cup of trail mix, a special omega 3 organic mix that includes dried cranberries, almonds and some other nut that supposedly is rich in antioxidants and fatty acids.
Dinner (6pm): A piece of fish or chicken with mashed potatoes, steamed broccoli and squash.