Fueling your life vs. fueling your ride?

After listening to episode 259 “Carbohydrates: The good, the bad, and the ugly” with Dr. Jeukendrup and episode 272 “Is there a place for low-carbohydrate diets?” with Dr. Larsen, I still have a question, or maybe it’s a series of questions.

My personal cycling context is one that I think not uncommon for listeners of your podcast: I am in my 50s. I am a recreational cyclist who trains to get faster, sure, but I want to balance my cycling training with overall good healthy habits and a lifestyle that will lead to wellness, longevity, and the ability for me to cycle and do everything else that I love for decades to come. In sum, I wouldn’t want anything from my cycling to negatively impact my health or wellness.

Which brings me to my question about nutrition, specifically, carbohydrate intake. On both of these episodes, there were references to studies that show that people – athletes included – who eat a diet high in carbohydrates (particularly simple sugars) are much more likely to wind up with negative long-term health outcomes like Type II diabetes and cardiovascular problems. To me, this evidence seems to point to a diet including significant simple carbs, meaning eating them in substantial quantities with and between meals. Yes, I understand that the evidence is incontrovertible that no one in my situation would benefit from eating tons of carbs day in and day out because they thought it was needed to maximize their cycling fitness. I get that.

What I am less sure of is whether there is evidence of negative health outcomes for people who eat a healthful, mostly-whole-foods, low-simple-carbohydrate diet but also do fuel long and/or intense cycling sessions with simple carbs (gels, blocks, etc.) and sometimes also consume simple carbs in the form of recover shakes after a long workout. (After listening to ep.# 272, I now understand that it is possible to get good cycling outcomes without fueling with simple carbs, but that in itself does not mean that fueling with simple carbs is unhealthy.)

In other words, if I fuel my life with whole foods but fuel my rides and recoveries with simple sugars, am I still jeopardizing my long-term health?

I am sure the answer is one form or another of “it depends” (or perhaps “it depends on who you ask”) but I am also sure there must be something of a general answer in there that could be helpful. Thanks,

John Hintz
Bloomsburg, PA (come ride UnPAved 2023, the most fun you’ll have on small rocks)

Hi John,
That’s a nice question. If you go back to about 35 min of the podcast we talk about health vs performance. You mention your situation recovering with simple sugars post race. To me it sounds like you have scope to remove that practice. Simple sugars post exercise aren’t necessary (IMO), and likely harming your recovery process (i.e., you’re ramping up inflammation). By about 44 min we start talking about metabolic flexibility (ability to use both your carb or fat system at will). We hypothesize that you can ramp this up or improve it if you don’t do the post exercise sugar load. So just change that up with quality low glycemic food with good fats and protein in the post exercise period. The sugar / gels during HIIT - sure. You can probably get away with that (for me I go without personally). Then Trevor gives an incredible summary of the immune system and the role it plays in this situation with TH17/Treg balance and inflammation with sugar. As Trevor outlines, the TH17 cells are the kamikaze pilots wrecking havoc in you, and they ramp up with sugar. So if you’re always having sugar (exercise or not), you are putting yourself into the chronically elevated TH17 situation, which might lead to autoimmune diseases in the future. He goes on to further explain that HIIT too can promote this situation, so you need to be careful as to how much you’re getting in your training diet, and this supports the polarized training strategy. Anyway, as you are thinking, health is #1. If it isn’t now, it will become so eventually for all of us. So consider your own context and what’s one thing you might start to change in your nutrition practice to lower your sugar burden. I find just changing one thing at a time is a good way to get to where you want to be more long term…
To our health,

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@PaulLaursen , thank you for the helpful reply. I figured the information I wanted was in there, but the weeds can get pretty deep for us laymen sometimes! After reading your response, I guess I have three takeaway summary lessons. Please chime in if you feel like I haven’t gotten this quite right.

  1. Fuel your life with a healthful diet. Eat a variety of whole foods, get enough protein, reduce simple carbs, and, as much as is possible, work toward eliminating added refined sugars altogether.

  2. Go ahead and fuel your hard rides (if you feel it’s necessary) with gels/blocks/drinks. You’re probably not doing substantial long-term harm to your health. However, keep in mind that this sugar-fueling might well not be necessary to keep you riding at the same level of performance. If you work on eliminating refined sugars from even your ride protocol, you may well be optimizing the combination of cycling fitness and health/wellness.

  3. Ditch the sugary recovery shakes. They are (a) unnecessary and (b) possibly damaging. Eat to refuel.

Sound like a solid plan?
Thanks again,

(and apologies for misspelling your last name in the original post)

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Hi @johnhintz,
In my opinion, you’ve put forth the perfect summary of best practice for health and performance that we can take from that series of podcasts on the topic. Well done.
(cc @trevor),

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@johnhintz and @PaulLaursen, I wish I could get everyone to summarize the key messages that well!

You two might find this interesting. I’ve been dealing with AFIB on my rides and while I felt that some traditional sports nutrition was fine on my rides, but I was noticing that my AFIB frequently started soon after I dipped into the candy.

So, I experimented this weekend. I was doing a nine hour ride called The Triple Bypass. My diet in the week leading up was perfect and for the first six hours of the ride I avoided simple sugars. It was the first time in a year I went six hours on a ride without AFIB. Then I stopped and wolfed down a bunch of sugar at one of the aid stations. Here’s the file from the ride (the red line is my heart rate):

I highlighted the two hours after the aid station. It didn’t start until about 20 minutes after the station, but then I was in AFIB or Atrial Flutter for a while.

This is an N of 1 so it should be taken with a grain of salt. That said, it was shocking to me how much of an on/off switch it felt like on the ride.


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Wow @trevor. That’s incredible data to back your experience. Imagining that doesn’t feel great. N=1 yes, but its your N of 1 and for you that’s all that matters. All roads point to causality. Per @johnhintz’s post title… for you, fuelling your ride should probably target a related approach as the way you fuel your life… I know mine does :grin:

@PaulLaursen definitely agree! Glad you found the data interesting. The one thing I can say from my personal experience is that I haven’t found that cutting the sugary sports drinks has hurt my performance. And with my AFIB, right now it just seems to be helping…

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Maybe we need a follow-up podcast with @PaulLaursen something along the lines of “Weaning Even your Rider-Self off of Simple Sugars.” (Maybe don’t hire me to write your episode titles, though.)
I would love to hear more about strategies for fueling w/o simple sugars for various types, lengths, and intensities of workouts.

I’ll say, though, I am very excited about all of this. It seems so obvious now, but forging an integrative approach to cycling fitness and overall wellness is, really, the only sensible path for nearly all of us. The two should not be at odds, ever.

Thanks again for all of this,

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Thanks for suggesting @johnhintz. Love those words and would be great to continue this conversation…

@PaulLaursen @trevor @johnhintz

Many thanks for bringing this up!

I am facing a dilemma with this, too.

I am sometimes struggling with sustaining energy levels on certain rides (any ride longer than two hours where I need to sustain more than Z1 power in a five-zone model for extended bouts).

I also struggle with inflammation post rides.

Based on the the latest research showing the value of increasing CHO intake beyond the old 60g/hour limit, I have found that I maintain energy levels and fell much better DURING long/hard rides by consuming a pretty high quantity of sugar during.

However, I seem to struggle with stiff knees, hips, neck and headaches afterwards. I had figures that this was just age…

For reference, I try and avoid simple sugars as much as possible in my regular diet, eating mostly vegetables, eggs, meats, legumes, whole fruit (in the morning) and seldom easing bread/wheat except on a weekly cheat day or when eating at someone’s place where I don’t do the cooking.

I eat oats (oatmeal) to carb up before long rides.

What would be appropriate substitutes for the sugar during rides that allow to ingest sufficient CHO (80-90g/hour) without triggering the inflammation?

The only way I can function without sugar on long rides is by keeping the intensity super linear and super low.

Based on a 2019 test - i don’t think my physiology has changed much; it is probably even more extreme now even - i am a bit of a diesel and efficient at burning fat up to about tempo intensities, though carbs are being used at anything over 2.3 watts/kg in my case.

Interested in your comments and recommendations!

Hi @CEBorduas,

Hard to give you specific answers without doing a workup on you and seeing how you burn fat vs. carbohydrates.

The reason I say it’s hard to give you an answer is because it’s hard to differentiate what you’re experiencing from just a normal training response. When I do a 4+ hour ride, it’s pretty common for me to be stiff, very tired, and get a mild headache afterwards. That’s just the price of a LSD ride. As I get fitter, that becomes less, but it’s more training than particulars of the nutrition.

So, based on what you describe, I’d still recommend keeping the simple sugars down and find some more natural foods you can consume - even if it’s just less processed bars.

My other suggestion is to keep rides at what’s sustainable - even if that’s just an hour or two to start and build up the volume that you can sustain over time.

Hope that helps!

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Personally, I had to ditch sugar/carbs for years and I was able get rid of my AFib and change all my health markers; Episode 223: Share your stories of "failure" - #18 by smashsquatch

However I’ve been able to bring sugar back for the performances of my life (new PRs from 1hr events to multiday).

Unfortunately depending on your goals, not having processed carbs may impact your ability to perform. Take for instance my fatmax which requires 90g an hour… If I want to do long / multiday events at or above fatmax then real food just isn’t simply an option

Recently I’ve been getting a bit carried away with the sugar outside the appropriate training and I’ve been seeing some shifts in my a1c (still below 5.7). So I recently picked up a CGM and have been using it to prevent the spikes and high loads … And let me tell you, some surprising things can cause glucose spikes to unhealthy levels (grapes are worse than most pastries!). So next up for me is to focus on controlling my glucose outside of training… Hopefully with no impact to my training

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