Follower Q & A: How much should cyclists eat during rest days/periods?
What to eat is the next question. First we will address the macro-nutrient question. What should you do with your fats, protein, and carbohydrates?pics put forward by you.
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How much should cyclists eat during rest days/periods?
A question that seems so simple on the face of it, but on that gets exceedingly complex the more you investigate it.
The simple answer would seem to be “eat less”. And overall, that is probably a good recommendation, but there is a lot more to consider here than just calorie intake.
There is also two questions here really. ‘Days’ and ‘periods’. I’m going to define days as what should be pretty obvious, one or two days of easy or no training, while periods may be a recovery/easy week, or ‘off-season’.
To get it out of the way straight away, during the ‘off-season’ relax a bit. Forget about sport and diet to some degree. Relax, enjoy, put on a bit of weight if it means you enjoy some things you haven’t had as much while training hard, and then you’ll be eager and ready to go again when training starts again. But of course, cycling/sport, food, and weight are topics all linked together, so we will address that too.
From there is gets a little more complex. Let’s start with rest ‘periods’ first. Our follower who asked the questions also mentioned they were currently injured, so we will answer that in a section too.
What to eat during rests ‘periods’ (Rest weeks)
The most obvious thing here is certainly eat less. It doesn’t matter if you are trying to lose weight or gain weight, if you are exercising less than normal you will need to eat less than normal. Simple. If it’s just an easy week and that is that, eat normal foods, just less of them. Perhaps replace some of the more calorie dense foods with vegetables to help keep you full and all the other obvious benefits associated with vegetable intake.
Where this gets slightly more detailed is when you want to eek every last bit out of your training and diet.
It depends on how this rest week fits into your overall training plan, and what you hope to achieve. But a rest week may be an ideal time to do a week with lowered carbohydrate intake.
From the most basic standpoint if you reduce carbohydrate you firstly achieve that goal of eating less, but retain most of the protein and fat will are both necessary for repair and general health, but are also more satiating than carbohydrate, so you will feel less hungry, which can be a big bonus when you suddenly have a bunch of free time not occupied by exercise!
But from a training point of view, this may be a good chance to improve your fat burning capacity. During a rest week you will still be exercising, just with lower volume and intensity. So doing some of these rides either fasted, or with a low carbohydrate meal beforehand, along with lowered carbohydrate around the rest of the sessions (talking about this is and will be another blog in itself) can improve you fat burning capacity. Lowered carbohydrate intake will mean you don’t have the same energy available for higher intensity work, but this isn’t really an issue in a recovery week, meaning it’s a great opportunity to do this.
Training with lower carbohydrate availability can also improve the adaptative response to training, at least at a cellular level this seems to work, the effects in practice are still yet to be proven and may be quite individual.
One thing to note is that training with low carbohydrate availability can be extra stressful on the body. So while still useful if implemented correctly during a recovery week, it shouldn’t be overdone, as the aim of the week is to recover and adapt, not dig an even deeper hole!
How much and what to eat on rest days depends on 3 main factors.
1. What you are doing the day(s) after the rest day(s)
2. What you did the day prior
3. What you are aiming to achieve with your training/current training phase.
What you should eat on a rest day really starts after the last ride before that rest day, but first it helps to explain about how to factor in what you are doing the day after the rest day first.
What are you doing after the rest day?
If the session after the rest day is going to be intense, then as soon as you finish the last training session before the rest day it is a good idea to have some fast digesting carbohydrate soon after along with some protein, then ‘normal’ meals with a distribution of protein, fat, and carbohydrate for the rest of that day. The rest day itself, still eat less, but just keep things pretty normal. If the following day will be both intense and long (e.g. 4h with 4x30min Sweet-spot intervals) then don’t drop how much you eat on the rest day too much and focus a bit more on carbohydrate. Remember you are simply fueling for tomorrow. Cutting your food intake, particularly carbohydrate, too severely on the rest day will leave you without enough fuel to get through a tough session the next day.
If you have multiple rest days in a row, two for example, you may wish to reduce how much you eat significantly on the first day just down to what you need for maintenance and avoiding weight gain (if that is a goal), and eat more on the second rest day to prepare for the following days training.
If the session after is going to be longer but not intense, e.g. an endurance ride, then there is less rush to refuel after the last training session before the rest day, and you can certainly eat less on the rest day itself. The question again here, is do you want to restrict carbohydrate after the last session before the rest day, on the rest day, and/or before the next session. Generally, this is not something I advise to do for most people, but it can have great benefits for some. But it is best to talk about this with your coach.
Another factor to consider is not just the session after the rest day, but what is coming in the days/week after that. If you only have one more hard session before another rest day, then fueling is not such an issue, and going a bit lighter on food will probably work out okay. But if you have a couple of big days (a big weekend for example), then you may need to load up quite a bit, and it you have a massive week or hard multi-day training block coming up, then it’s a good idea to use the rest day as a chance to refuel and really get things topped up again while you are doing less exercise rather than as a time to reduce food intake.
How what you did the day prior impacts this
If it was an intense training session, then it’s probably worth refueling with some fast digesting carbohydrate and some protein as soon as possible after. You will have caused quite a bit of damage and stress to the body, so giving it enough nutrients to repairs itself quickly is important. If it was lower intensity (and presumably longer since the rest day is still to come) then it is probably less critical you supply carbohydrate quickly, but certainly it is still worth eating some protein, and unless you are planning on doing some sort of carbohydrate restriction, then eating a ‘normal’ amount of carbohydrate is certainly a good idea.
How does your current training phase and goals impact this?
Quite simply, if you are aiming to improve fat burning, or want to try and get every last little bit of adaptation, and are working with someone who can help you do this, then you may want to reduce carbohydrate.
If you are aiming to lose weight over this period, you can eat normal foods over the rest days, but just eat a bit less, but not so much less that your training suffers the next day.
If you are aiming to gain weight, then still eat less on your rest days, but don’t cut back too much.
If you are currently focused in improving power output and just maintaining weight, or aren’t worried about weight currently as long as you improve power output, then eat plenty of carbohydrate to fuel intense sessions following the rest day.
Remember food is fuel. It can be tempting to cut out food on a rest day in order to lose weight. We’ve probably all seen our weight balloon up significantly after a rest day. Don’t worry too much about that. The amount of fat you might gain in one day is pretty trivial, most of the weight gain will be from glycogen and water. Both of which will help you complete intense sessions to come, which will help you with weight more than skimping on a few hundred calories on a rest day will. While we can restore glycogen (stored carbohydrate in the muscles and liver) reasonably quickly, you can’t rely on simply breakfast on the day of training to provide the fuel you need, fueling needs to start at least the night before, probably the day before, or even a couple of days before if you have a big training block coming up.
What to eat when injured?
The first thing to point out, is what kind of injury is this? A small-moderate niggle in your knee when riding or running is a very different injury to a broken collarbone for example, however, if you are unable to exercise, the majority of the advice is similar anyway.
First of all. How much should you eat in total? This is where the type of injury plays a small role. If you have a sore knee or something similar, then you probably want to reduce your calorie intake if you are wanting to avoid gaining weight, however, this is not a time for weight loss. Negative energy balance will slow healing and recovery, but in the same breath, don’t go overboard. Eating too much while being inactive can reduce insulin sensitivity, and negative changes to fat metabolism which isn’t really a good thing for day to day life let alone your athletic goals.
If you have something like a broken bone or muscle tear, then certainly reduce your calorie intake lower than you would if you were training, but keep it elevated above what would be normal to eat if you weren’t riding. This type of injury requires extra energy to heal, and therefore you need to eat to provide that energy. How much extra depends. 15-20% extra energy intake is probably a good starting point, but one study I read while researching for this article suggested particularly bad injuries could require up to a 50% increase in energy intake. Unless you know your injury is particularly bad then you are probably better in that 15-20% range, which is likely significantly less than you would eat on a typical day when training.
What to eat is the next question. First we will address the macronutrient question. What should you do with your fats, protein, and carbohydrates?
Protein is king here, for two main reasons.
1. Protein helps repair damage, and therefore is important to help heal your injury faster.
2. If you aren’t training you aren’t working your muscles, and they can start to atrophy (get smaller in other words). Increasing protein intake can help offset this to some degree.
How much protein? Somewhere in the region of 2 to 2.5 grams of protein per kg of body mass is a pretty good target.
Carbohydrate should be reduced compared to your normal intake when training (taking care not to drop too much total energy as mentioned above), but it may be unwise to do a low carbohydrate period during injury recovery unless you are already used to this as it will place unnecessary strain on the body and make it harder to maintain energy needs needed to promote healing.
Fats probably don’t need to change too much, though this depends on the fat you eat in your normal diet. If you generally eat quite a bit of fat, then this may be an easy area to cut back on to lower your energy intake a little while you are not training ,while if you normally eat quite low fat, then it would be unhealthy to reduce this much more. Fat is a necessary and important part of the diet.
Now a few other nutrients. We just talked about fat, so let’s now mention fish oil. Omega3 in-particular. Despite being super popular, the jury is still out on just what supplementing with this fat can or cannot do for us. But it is unlikely to be harmful taking this, and healing may be delayed if you are deficient in omega 3, but don’t expect any miracles, and if you eat fatty fish at somewhat regular intervals then you may well be better off saving your money.
Other nutrients of note are things like zinc, vitamin C, and A. But again, these are only likely to have any major positive effect if you are deficient in them, if not, then you are probably just wasting your money. Another quick note is that normally we advocate against taking exogenous antioxidants as they can impair the adaptative response to training, but if you aren’t training then there is probably no harm in taking them, as they aren’t going to blunt an adaptative response that doesn’t exist.
Another final note. Depending on the severity of the injury and how clear it is/isn’t about when you can return to training, it may be a good time to use as a break/off-season. Sometimes injury can be the blessing in disguise that gives you some time to recover, refresh, and be motivated to get going again once you’ve healed. Don’t put all your mental energy into eating perfect and doing everything right during recovery unless you have a super important event on the horizon, or are a pro athlete or similar, relax a little, enjoy the time off and extra time you are afforded while you aren’t training, and then you’ll be ready to train hard soon enough!
I hope that helps, and let me know any other questions you’d like us to address!