I talk to Laura Tilt, Dietitian & health writer, about nutrition and cycling.
Could you tell us a little about yourself and how you became an expert in nutrition?
Of course – and thank you for the invite to chat to you. I’m a registered dietitian and health writer with specialist interests in sports nutrition, weight management and digestive health. I do a mixture of work from advising patients and clients on a 121 basis to writing for magazines.
I started studying nutrition around 10 years ago after my home economics teacher sparked my interest in the subject! I had always been interested in food and cooking, so it was a natural progression. After my bachelors degree in nutrition I moved to London and studied a masters in public heath nutrition, and I spent some years working as a health editor and nutritionist for the health coach fitbug (fitbug.com).
I later decided I wanted to work on a more 1-2-1 basis with individuals so I returned to study dietetics, becoming a registered dietitian in early 2012. Like many fields of interest – you never stop learning about nutrition; it’s an ever-evolving science.
How does that expertise extend to sport and cycling?
I became more interested in sports nutrition a few years ago, and started writing for cycling weekly shortly after. I’m currently studying for the International Olympic Committee diploma in sports nutrition with a view to working more in this area.
I think it’s fascinating how much diet and nutrition can affect sports performance – from your ability to train hard, recover, fight off infection, injury and adapt to specific exercises. It’s a rewarding area to work in because you can really see it making a difference – you can measure improvements in performance as a result of making a change to diet, which is pretty amazing. It’s also rewarding because sports men and women are often very motivated and open to making changes to their diet which makes my job a lot easier.
What tips you would give a beginner looking to complete a 1500km endurance event such as the Cycle To MIPIM?
Don’t leave your nutrition and hydration to chance because what you choose to eat and drink will make a huge difference to your ability to complete the event – during long and hard exercise your body relies on carbohydrate for energy. Around two hours of all out hard cycling will drain most of your body’s carbohydrate stores, so you’ll need a fuelling strategy to replace what you use and put the breaks on fatigue.
A carbohydrate rich meal a couple of hours before you start riding each day will top up your energy –porridge oats with a banana, eggs on toast or a banana and peanut butter sandwich will give you steady energy. Avoid easily digested foods such as sweets and biscuits as these don’t provide lasting energy.
When you’re on the bike for more than an hour, consuming 30-60 grams of carbohydrate per hour will delay tiredness –sports drinks and gels are convenient and give both fluid and carbohydrate although real foods such as bananas, raisins, fig rolls and even sandwiches are effective (a large banana contains around 30g of carbohydrate).
As with fluids, any ‘on bike’ food needs to easy to open and eat, so practice your fuel strategy during training to see what works best for you. If you do opt for solid food you’ll need to factor in fluid intake too.
After you get off the bike a meal or snack containing both carbohydrate (pasta, rice, potatoes, cereals, fruit) and protein (meat, fish, eggs, milk, yoghurt) will replace carbohydrate stores and support muscle recovery – if you’re getting back on the bike within eight hours, aim to eat within an hour of getting off the bike.
I will be training through the British winter. How does training in the cold weather affect diet and nutrition?
The main difference consideration is the temperature. Shivering increases your body’s reliance on your carbohydrate stores, so it’s important to fuel your rides with plenty of starchy foods. Carbohydrate rich foods that are slowly digested (oats, bananas, wholemeal bread or muesli for example) will give you a steady stream of energy to help fuel those longer rides.
To help maintain body temperature it’s helpful to include warm foods before after your ride– you’ll also be more motivated to eat and drink something warm, which will support your recovery and hydration. Try simple swaps like changing cold milk for hot milk with porridge or using baked fruit and eggs instead of cold cereals for breakfast. Post ride go for warming foods and fluids – chocolate milk is one recovery drink that can be made with hot milk, or try soups with pasta or rice and a protein like chicken or fish.
It’s also important to be aware of your fluid intake – sweat losses can still be substantial in the cold because you lose fluids through breathing in the cold dry air, which your body has to humidify. Sweat also evaporates more quickly than in the heat – so you’re less likely to notice how much you’re sweating. Coupled with the fact that we tend to feel less thirsty in the cold, it’s easy to become dehydrated in the cold.
To combat this, make sure you drink plenty before getting on the bike and stick with regular drinks breaks. A warm favoured squash or sports drink will encourage you to drink –an insulated bottle or even a sock can be used to stop it becoming too cold.
If you’re training hard over the winter I’d also recommended a good probiotic as well as a healthy diet as this can bolster you immune function and help to prevent respiratory infections.
I hear people talk about their calorie requirements but how do I understand what mine are and go about making sure I meet them?
Your calorie needs are decided by a number of factors including your age, height, gender and how much activity you do. If your weight is stable that’s a good indication that you’re meeting your calorie needs – if you’re losing or gaining weight then this suggests you’re under or over-consuming calories.
There are a few ‘calorie requirement calculators’ online which will give you a general guide – nothing is exact but a ballpark figure is a helpful start. Try a few and you’ll probably find they give you similar figures within 100-200 calories or so. If you want to understand how much you’re consuming try a food-tracking app – My Fitness Pal is free, and can be used on iPhone, desktop and Android.
I commute to work and back everyday (20miles) which gives me a ferocious appetite. What do I need to be aware of and how do I combat this appetite.
It’s easy to fall into the trap of eating a lot when you start exercising more – yes you’ll be burning more calories, but when you consider that three chocolate biscuits adds around 250 calories, it’s easy to see how you can end up overcompensating with food, particularly if you’re eating a lot of energy dense snacks.
If you’re concerned about weight gain it’s wise to monitor your weight once a fortnight or so. Excess body fat will slow you down on the bike, and winter is a prime time for weight gain.
To help manage your appetite choose higher fibre wholegrain carbohydrates, plenty of vegetables and a protein rich food at each meal – protein switches off hunger, keeping you fuller for longer. You can also time your post ride nutrition so that you use your meals as recovery food –if you ride to work each breakfast once you arrive rather than having a second meal.
There are times after training that I don’t think too much about recovery and food because I’m so tired; what’s a sensible approach for a good recovery.
The immediate post ride period is important for recovery – your body uses nutrients most effectively in the couple of hours after exercise so it’s important to make the most of this period – especially if you’re training multiple times a day.
If you find that you’re tired have something easy to hand – a pint of milk and a couple of bananas is a good start, or a glass of chocolate milk and a couple of slices of toast. Easy meals include a three-egg omelette with bread, a tuna sandwich or oily fish on toast.
Specific recovery products like For Goodness Shakes provide the recommended ratio of carbohydrate to protein, which is convenient but you can also make your own recovery smoothie – blend a large banana with a scoop of whey protein, half a pint of milk and a squeeze of honey or some cocoa.
In the past my stomach has easily got upset with the use of gels and energy bars. What natural foods could I use on the bike while training?
Bars and gels are convenient but that can contain high levels of fructose which can upset stomachs – bananas, raisins and home made sports drinks are good alternatives – you can make your own by mixing 200ml of a full sugar squash with 800ml water and a good pinch of salt, or 500ml water 500ml fruit juice and a pinch of salt.
What is the first thing you eat each day?
A coffee is my first port of call – not sure where I’d be without my espresso machine! As for the first thing I eat it depends on the time of year. During the summer I was in a smoothie phase, but I’m a big fan of overnight oats as they’re great for an on the go breakfast. And at the weekends, its always eggs.
I love bananas and coffee what’s your favourite food?
That’s a hard question! Would be impossible to choose one food I think. Some of my favourites are eggs, avocados and hummus. And some sort of cheese would have to join the list.