Any serious athlete knows that nutrition is a critical part of fitness – you gotta stoke the fires to keep the boiler boiling. Every day, it seems, there are new energy bars, gels, and drinks on the market to help athletes maximize workouts and improve performance. Some are better than others, but as a chef and a cyclist, I'm always wary of throwing down gobs of processed foods on the bike. So I try to adhere to the philosophy of Allen Lim and Biju Thomas, the founder and chef, respectively, of nutrition company Skratch Labs and authors of Feed Zone Portables. These guys firmly believe two things: Liquids are for hydration, and foods should be whole foods – nothing processed, no junk.
So does this mean we have to scrap energy bars and gels completely? Well, no, but look for minimally processed products that aren't overly sugar-laden. Or better, start making your own. Not only are they a hell of a lot more delicious than your average packaged bar, but they're not very hard to make. I break down my workout foods into three zones: before, during, and after. Of course, there are plenty of complicated tests to figure out your metabolic rate and dial in exactly how many and what sort of calories you should be eating, but that's too much science for me. I adhere to this basic approach.
Normally I follow a pretty low-carb regimen, but before a workout I'll add in more carbs with a good dose of healthy fat. Lately I've been making savory Irish oats. I'll crisp up some bacon to stir in as you would with a risotto, finishing with some good cheddar, a dollop of grass-fed butter, and some chia seeds. I'll top this with a fried egg. And if I'm going really hard, I'll add avocado. I also love the sweeter route with oatmeal – adding berries and coconut.
During the Workout
Once I'm out on the bike, I keep myself well hydrated and try to maintain a balance of sugar, carbs, fat, and protein, taking care to minimize my sugar consumption until the last 45 minutes. To ensure I don't have too much glycemic yo-yoing, I'll save anything with sugar (such as maple syrup, dried fruit, or dark chocolate) for the end, when I need a final boost. I like to make my own bars out of a combo of dried fruit, nuts, chia seeds, coconut flakes, ground coffee (one of the oldest and safest performance-enhancement drugs). I cut them in squares and wrap them in waxed paper, and I have a perfect meal on the go. For me, a good rule of thumb is to eat every 45 to 60 minutes for any workout over 90 minutes [see the recipe below].
There is a lot of info out there on postworkout food, and, while I'm sure there's some adequate science behind it, I try to schedule my workouts so that they end in time for a real meal, with a good balance of vegetables, fat, and protein. I think a lot of people have a tendency to overload on protein after workouts, rather than focusing on a balanced, healthy meal. Remember, most of us are not ultra-endurance athletes with 5 percent body fat! My favorite postworkout meal? A salad of dark leafy greens, lots of vegetables, some avocado, an egg or two, and some sardines. Good veg, good fat, good protein.
Homemade Power Bars Recipe
- 1 cup roasted almonds
- 1¼ cup pitted dates
1 tbsp unsweetened dried coconut
- ¾ cup water (plus more if needed)
- ¼ cup high-quality cocoa powder
- 2 tbsp espresso-grind coffee
- 1 tsp chia seeds
- 1 tbsp coconut oil
- 1/8 tsp fine sea salt
In a food processor, pulse almonds, dates, and dried coconut with water until combined but still retaining texture.
Remove to a bowl and fold in remaining ingredients, adding water as needed.
Spread evenly on a cookie sheet in a one-inch layer and cool in the fridge.
Once set, cut into bite-size pieces and wrap with waxed paper.