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Eat Well, Heal Fast: A Guide to Nutrition for Bikers

Monday, September 29, 2014


Photo Credit: Zach Dischner via Compfight cc

So you’ve been riding a lot of long, hard group rides and have decided you’re going to try this crazy Cyclocross thing.

Or maybe you sign up for an Ironman. You’ve bought a race bike, subscribed to the appropriate magazines, and Strava all your training rides.

You’re stronger, leaner and faster than you’ve ever been. You go to the gym to build strength with weights, cross train with running, and stretch it all out with yoga twice a week.

You’re doing everything right, when suddenly the unthinkable happens; your knee, hip, or ankle starts to hurt.

You decide to ignore it until you're limping around, wincing as you climb the smallest of staircases. Visions of your goals begin to slip away and you wonder if you will ever be able to run or ride pain-free again.

While cycling is widely renowned as a low-impact sport, it is not without risk. The more you ride, the greater your risk for overuse injury. The standard prescription for overuse injuries is the RICE method, which stands for Rest, Ice, Compression, and Elevation.

But anyone who’s been sidelined by injury—especially active people—knows how frustrating this can be. Any many erroneously believe they should stop eating when injured in order to avoid gaining weight, but in fact the opposite is true.

Phases of injury

What and how much you eat when injured plays an important role in healing. There are three distinct phases of injury, each of which have different nutritional requirements: the inflammation phase (Duration: 1 to 4 days), the proliferative phase (Duration: 4 to 21 days) and the injury remodeling phase (Duration: 21 days to 2 years).

During the inflammation stage there is typically a disruption of nutrient rich blood flow and oxygen resulting in cellular death. In an attempt to clear out dead cells and create new cells, the body initiates the inflammatory response, characterized by pain, swelling or bruising, and redness or heat.

Once the inflammation begins to subside and new vasculation occurs, we are left with new “scar” tissue. This is the proliferative phase, during which very light exercise can be resumed, but should be stopped if inflammation flares up.

Eventually the scar tissue will be replaced with type I collagen, which will restore the injury site to at least 80 percent of original strength. During this phase, one may begin to resume activities to help the scar tissue become more functional.

While healing, both athletes and image-conscious casual riders are often tempted to cut calories in order to lose weight, but our bodies actually face increased energy demands when healing throughout each phase of healing. Depending on the severity of the injury, resting metabolic rates (RMR) can be as much as 15–50 percent higher.

Reducing caloric intake at this time can drastically delay healing.

Eating Well to Heal More Quickly

To maximize recovery, athletes need to consume 20 percent more calories than required for normal RMR. For an RMR of 2,000 calories, that means consuming an additional 400 calories a day. This is often less than the required caloric intake for training, but more than the baseline intake for being sedentary.

To reduce inflammation and promote wound healing in Phase 1, increase omega-3 fat intake and drastically reduce omega-6 fat consumption. This can be done easily by omitting omega-6 rich vegetable fats (fried foods, vegetable oils) and taking fish oil or algae sources of omega-3 supplements. The ideal range for maximum benefit is a 3:1 to 1:1 ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fats.

Monounsaturated fats found in nuts, seeds, and olive oil may also reduce inflammatory enzymes.

During the proliferative phase, increased protein is needed to enable the formation of healthy tissue. Taking an amino acid supplement containing glutamine and arginine will also help speed up the healing process. Wound healing requires glucose found in complex carbohydrates, which also contain micronutrients and help to maintain healthy blood sugar levels.

All phases of recovery will benefit from vitamins A and C, and the minerals copper and zinc. Many foods high in these micronutrients are also high in flavonoids— plant chemicals that provide pigment in fruits and vegetables—and can improve the anti-inflammatory response. Choose dark fruits and vegetables to increase your flavonoid and micronutrient intake.

Turmeric and garlic are great anti-inflammatories at every stage of healing; to reach an effective dosage, take high-potency supplements.

Don’t know what your metabolic resting rate is? There are numerous training facilities around town that can order the tests for you.

Regardless of whether you take that step or not, choosing whole, plant-based foods that are colorful and packed with micronutrients will help speed healing. Avoid heavy “comfort foods,” which may psychologically bring a bit of relief, but ultimately tax your digestive system.

Eat small meals and snacks often and eat well, and you’ll heal up and be back on the bike sooner than you think.

Photo Credit: Zach Dischner via Compfight cc

Üma on her bike

Üma Kleppinger is a Portland-based copy writer and advocate for full-contact anti-bummer living. She is a recovering sesquipedalian who writes about life in the saddle and outdoor adventure. She is also the author of BikeYoga, a yoga program for cyclists. When not writing, she can be found riding and racing her mountain bike throughout the Pacific Northwest.


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