COACHING COLUMN: A common sense approach to winter nutrition

By Matt Spohn

Another January has rolled around and you are determined to be the leanest you've ever been and have your fastest season. You've read all the diet books and have planned a scientific approach for your eating. You are putting increasing time in the saddle each week, yet there are still tons of holiday cakes and cookies just waiting for you to get home so they can derail your precisely planned diet. The diet you just know will have you looking Micheal Rasmussen come the spring. What are you to do?

Don't be a food scientist, be a cyclist!

This time of year, you are going to come across plenty of articles on sports nutrition. Many will emphasize very technical, scientific approaches to diet including glycemic index, or ratios of protein, fat, and carbs. Be honest with yourself. You are probably not striving to be a food scientist and that spreadsheet you created to track every morsel of food will only get used for so long (and frustrate you when you try to log that Chinese take-out).
I suggest that you rely mostly on good old-fashioned common sense. You've heard it before, but it bears repeating. You are what you eat. Food is fuel. Think of your legs as a diesel engine, the cylinders pumping up and down, thousands of times a day. If you pedal around 90rpm on a four-hour ride, you've pedaled more than 20,000 revolutions! You want your engine to burn cleanly and efficiently, not spewing thick clouds of black smoke like a broke-down Peter Built.
While it is incredibly important that you give your body enough fuel from high quality sources to keep going and to recover, you do not need to analyze every ratio you can come up with to do this. Focus on high quality foods such as fruits, nuts, lean proteins, and whole wheat carb sources — and get creative or you'll burn out on food faster than you burn out on your training! The human body was built to cover vast expanses of desert on foot for hours and days at a time subsisting off of the food nature provided (read, endurance athlete eating high quality foods!). Last time I checked, Twinkies don't grow from trees. Follow your common sense and listen to your body. The form, and body composition, will follow.

Eat to ride, don't ride to eat!

You eat so you can ride strongly. You do not ride so you can eat donuts! How many times have you stared at a danish before a ride and thought, “I'm about to burn this off, it's cool”? Or, how many times have you calculated how long you need to ride in order to burn off the binge from the party the night before? Stop doing that! As athletes we are all guilty of this mentality, but it is a dangerous one. You can end up riding past the point where your body is telling you to stop or longer than your training plan or coach had set for you that day or week. Overtraining can happen quicker than you'd imagine simply by convincing yourself that you need to ride that extra hour to keep your calorie deficit in check.
A healthy, but slightly heavier athlete will always be faster than an overtrained, emaciated one. Always.

Relax and allow some indulgence!

Life is about balance, right? So is being an athlete. You bust your hump all year long. Allow yourself to indulge in a few treats. Enjoy that fruit cake your mother-in-law sent you. Be mindful of the treats you eat, perhaps as simply as by keeping a mental tally of the number of bites of sweets you take per day and you are not likely to overdo it. Depriving yourself of all goodies only makes you think about them more, which will make you miserable, and miserable athletes do not make champions.
Finally, do not feel guilty! If you can't ride one day due to weather, work, or family, but you ate a few cookies at lunch thinking you'd be able to burn it off later, nothing will derail your training goals like guilt. Instead, smile, knowing you had a unplanned treat and look at the day off as a day for your body to build up strength so your next workout is even better. This is a mental game and your body is only going to be as strong as your mind – and the food you put in it!
About the Author:
Matt competes nationally as a category 1 cyclist on the road and in cyclocross. He is also a USA Cycling certified coach and a former heavyweight wrestler. Somewhere between training and coaching, Matt attends Penn State pursing a Masters in Engineering Management. He can be reached for comments at