Sports scientists at Rutgers University found that a nine-day supplement of black-tea extract decreased delayed-onset muscle soreness after cycling intervals. "The black-tea extract reduces the oxidative stress of the exercises and speeds recovery between intervals," says assistant professor Shawn Arent, PhD. Try it yourself: "Add four bags of decaffeinated tea to 32 ounces of cold water and steep in the refrigerator overnight," suggests Barbara Lewin, RD, a sports nutritionist who owns Sports-Nutritionist.com. Drink tea in place of water before, during and after rides.
The days of restricting carbs then bingeing on pasta are over, but carbs still rule the week prior to a big cycling event. Glycogen—what a carbohydrate turns into in the body—fuels your engine. "In our carb-phobic society, I don't like to tell people to carbo-load," says sports dietitian Molly Kimball, R.D. "Instead, I say to let carbs take center stage." Consume three to five grams of carbs per day for each pound of your body weight (about 600 grams for a 150-pound cyclist), suggests Kimball. "It's not just pasta and rice. Fruit yogurt, apples, even chocolate milk are great sources."
The branched-chain amino acids in soybeans stop muscle degradation during long rides while the antioxidants help alleviate postride aches and pains. Research published in The Nutrition Journal found that both soy and whey proteins build lean muscle mass, but soy protein also prevents exercise-induced inflammation. "Chocolate soy milk makes an excellent recovery drink," says Barbara Lewin, RD, a sports nutritionist who owns Sports-Nutritionist.com. Also, keep soy nuts in the car or at the office for a great protein-rich snack.
You may cut back on training, but don't cut food. "Cyclists in a taper will feel just as hungry because of all the hard work they've put in over the previous weeks," says Nancy Clark, R.D., a sports dietitian and author of The Cyclist's Food Guide: Fueling for the Distance. Eating during the taper phase keeps your tank full. "Expect to gain two to four pounds in the days before the big event," says Clark. "You'll need it—and lose it—during the race."
Though we don't usually think of fatty foods as performance-enhancers, the omega-3 fatty acids in salmon and tuna go way beyond serving as an energy source. "Omega-3s generally increase blood flow," says Jay Udani, MD, an assistant clinical professor at the University of California, Los Angeles. "This may help wash out inflammatory cells in damaged muscles" that cause pain and swelling. Keep canned salmon and tuna on hand for sandwiches and salads—aim for two to three servings a week.
To keep your blood sugar from dipping, eat every three hours and refuel within 20 minutes of exercise. These guidelines are especially important during the seven days before your event because you don't want to give your body any reason to tap into energy stores. Plus, cells are most receptive to recovering glycogen and muscle immediately after activity. Eat protein, too—it helps muscle cells repair and recover. Use a 4:1 carb-to-protein ratio. For example, a cup of low-fat yogurt, with about 30 grams of carbs and 6 grams of protein, is an ideal snack.
Loaded with a potent anti-inflammatory compound called curcumin, this yellow spice may help to increase endurance and speed recovery. In a 2007 study at the University of South Carolina, exercise physiologists gave mice curcumin supplements for three days before a 2.5-hour downhill run. The curcumin reduced muscle inflammation and increased endurance more than 20 percent the next day. So, make turmeric your go-to spice. Add it to marinades, rice, vegetables and more. You'll hardly notice the subtle flavor.
The time for experimenting with new gels, sports drinks and other foods is over. "What worked for you during your early weeks of training is what you need to stick with now," says Kimball. This goes for all food on your daily menu. Avoid eating new foods, foods you eat infrequently, or foods that upset your system.
In a study at the University of Vermont, students who were given 12 ounces of tart cherry juice before and after strenuous exercises suffered only a 4 percent reduction in muscle strength the next day compared with a 22 percent loss found in subjects given a placebo. "Antioxidants and anti-inflammatory molecules in tart cherries suppress and treat the micro-tears in muscles," says Declan Connolly, PhD. These molecules are also found in blackberries, raspberries and strawberries. Stock up on frozen berries, and add them to smoothies, yogurt and cereal. Or, defrost a few in the microwave for a sweet postride snack.
A plate of brown chow spells trouble if you’re aiming for optimum nutrition. “The more colors in a meal, the more nutritious it is,” says Amy Jamieson-Petonic, R.D., a spokesperson for the American Diatetic Association. Here’s how to go crazy with color:
Red: Tomatoes, watermelon and pink grapefruit contain lycopene, which may help protect the skin against the sun’s damaging UV rays.
Orange and yellow: Carrots, sweet potatoes and yellow peppers get their color from cartenoids, which boost the immune system.
Green: Broccoli and kale rank among the world’s most nutritious foods, and spinach is high in folate.
Blue and violet: Blueberries, beets, blackberries and red cabbage derive their colors from anthocyanidins, anti-inflammatory compounds that promote healthy circulation.
It’s always been a refreshing addition to a summer salad and a cool treat for tired eyes. It’s also a good source of caffeic acid, which helps sooth skin irritation, and silica, an essential building block of connective tissue like muscle, tendons and ligaments, and bone. The flesh contains vitamin C, and the skin is rich in potassium and magnesium.
If you’re riding long, don’t try to subsist on energy gels, sports drinks and bars, which consist primarily of processed sugar and aren’t meant for sustained energy. A savory snack, such as a turkey sandwich, provides a break for the palette and the stomach (remember, at lunchtime it’s expecting a meal), as well as some needed protein and fat.
Rich in immunity-building vitamin A and papain, an enzyme that aids digestion, papaya is a delicious addition to salads and stir-fries.
Cyclists should eat a diet rich in iron, Vitamin B12 and folic acid, says University of Utah dietician Nanna Meyer, R.D., who works with cyclists from the recreational to the elite level. These nutrients help form healthy red blood cells, which cyclists need to enhance endurance. To get all three in one meal, Meyer suggests a veggie-and-beef stir-fry. Stir-fry beef is low in fat, and because the dish cooks quickly, few nutrients are lost in the vegetables.
The world's best cyclists eat these foods and use these nutrition methods to fuel their riding. You can, too.