The Three Sigmas Of Optimal Nutrition
When we first get into cycling, we don’t care much about nutrition. Riding isn’t about diets or weighing your food—it is about getting out with friends, hopping in a local group ride or race, or just watching the Tour de France and getting pumped to get on the bike. It used to be so simple—we ride, we have fun, and then we do it again the next day.
The concept of nutrition doesn’t come into play until we become more serious about our riding. Maybe that’s why nutrition is one of the most challenging aspects of competitive cycling. A lot of riders don’t think about it until they decide it’s the path to better results, faster times up the local climb, or even a pro contract. Then, it becomes an obsession as riders try to fine-tune their diets to lose weight. From what I’ve seen, there is a lot of confusion out there about what works and what doesn’t. And above all, there’s a general misconception that diet is an “easy button” to make a good cyclist a great one.
A lot of that confusion and struggle comes from a culture that cycling has created for decades. Cycling convention teaches us from a young age that we can simply cut back on food, little by little, to achieve increasingly better performance. The temptation is irresistible. With a bit more willpower, I can eat a little less, weigh a little less, and climb a little better. But that’s not the right way, not the healthy way, to ride your best. The FORM Method’s approach to nutrition is quite simple. You just assess the nutritional needs of your rides and you meet those needs to fuel properly and recover well.
Instead of starting with nutrition and treating it like a volume dial that can be adjusted infinitely without changing the music that’s playing, we should start with the music itself: our riding, training, and racing. How much volume do we need for things to be just right? Are we going to rock out today? Well, crank it up: eat more carbohydrates to fuel a big, hard ride. Is it more of a mellow evening when we play something relaxed? It should probably be soft and low—fewer calories to match a recovery-day spin.
Our 3-Sigma Nutrition System demystifies nutrition and breaks it down into three simple criteria to help you plan the fundamentals of your diet: Purpose, Composition, and Timing.
We’ve all found ourselves at an awkward party at some point in our lives. Unless you’re an immensely outgoing person, uninhibited and happy to break the ice, you’ve probably gravitated toward the food. It’s so much easier to just stand there and pick at the cheese plate or to try all of the different dips than it is to talk to strangers or coworkers you barely know. Admit it though: This is just mindless eating. When we talk about the Purpose Sigma of the 3-Sigma system, this is about as far off the rails as you can get.
Don’t feel bad if you’ve done this before. Food almost always makes us feel more comfortable. It helps pass the time as we snack on gas station junk food during road trips. And it can break up the day, giving us a 60-minute escape from work stress in the form of a turkey sandwich and a bag of chips. Plus, for many people, eating is subliminally tied to time spent with friends and family, like Thanksgiving Day or Super Bowl parties. What’s more, over the course of many years, our eating habits are reinforced by daily practice. This means we are up against well-established, powerful forces when we want to change our eating habits.
First, we need to identify a Purpose that each meal must serve. When you sit down to breakfast before work or head out to grab lunch at the burrito joint next door or cook up your dinner, I want you to ask yourself one simple question: Why am I eating now?
Why Are You Eating?
This question addresses our struggles with eating on autopilot. There are a variety of reasons to eat. The most obvious would be that you’re hungry. That’s fine, but what is making you feel that way, and how does it relate to everything else going on in your life, both on and off the bike?
Some meals should prime you for an important ride coming up that day. If you’re headed out on a hard lunch ride or a throw down at the weeknight crit series, your nutrition should reflect that to fuel your performance. Lots of athletes find that riding before work in the morning is an ideal time for a productive workout. If you take that approach, the “why” of your lunch should be geared toward recovery.
And believe it or not, even some “unhealthy” meals can serve a purpose, too. Overall, I want you to give your nutrition the same focus and commitment as a 100-mile training ride, but there is a therapeutic purpose to relaxing a little bit. If you’re catching up with a few old friends, how much harm would a beer and a burger do? That’s still a purpose. I just want you to make sure you are getting the desired outcome of the food you consume. If you always start with the “why” of a meal, the rest will follow.
It is pretty straightforward to understand the general relationships between the food you eat and the physical effect it has on your body, but getting more specific, like calculating just how much of a food you should eat, is unfamiliar to a lot of people. That is why we developed the 3-Sigma Nutritional Calculator that helps you calculate your macro-nutritional needs based on your workout plan and your body weight.
When you’re eating to fuel your next workout or a race, the food you should eat will generally emphasize carbohydrates with a share of protein. Fat is important, but you won’t need to go out of your way to consume it. (More on that in a moment.)
Mid-ride nutrition is primarily carbohydrates, which are easy to digest and process to fuel your muscles.
And afterward, for recovery, we again combine carbohydrates and protein. There will be a higher proportion of protein in the mix to aid muscle repair and recovery.
Throughout all my years as a pro cyclist I tried many diets, always searching for the perfect way to lose weight. One thing was the same for all of them: When October came around, I gave up whatever I was doing during racing season, and I went crazy. I drank tons of beer, ate ice cream, and simply let myself go, bingeing on all the foods I denied myself—and gained a bunch of weight. Lots of my teammates were like this, too.
The world beyond pro cycling has this same problem. I bet you have a few friends who are always trying trendy diets only to give it up after a few months. Whether you’re a cyclist or an average person hoping to lose weight, diets always seem too complicated. I think that’s why for a lot of us, diets are never permanent. So, with the 3-Sigma system, I’ve broken down nutrition into the simplest terms, macronutrients. We’ve also made it a sustainable program that is doable for anyone long-term.
What Are You Eating?
The composition of our diet is essential to meeting these needs and therefore it’s important to understand the two different types of nutrients it can be split into: macronutrients (carbohydrates, proteins, and fats) and micronutrients (vitamins and minerals).
The three macronutrients all have their own specific roles and functions in the body and supply us with calories, or energy. As athletes, we need these nutrients in relatively large amounts for our bodies to grow, develop, repair, and function at a high level. Each macronutrient is almost always found in every item of food, whether that’s an energy bar or a raw vegetable; the only difference is how the macronutrients are balanced. For example, the nutritional composition of an avocado is generally made up of 75percent (good) fats, 20 percent carbohydrates, and 5 percent protein, and therefore it’s clearly a fat-based food. On the other hand, a banana consists of 95 percent carbohydrates and only small amounts of protein and fats. We’ll teach you to identify the macro balance in your foods and develop meals according to how much of each macronutrient is needed based upon the purpose of that meal. The trick is to understand how each macronutrient plays a different role in the body and tailor your diet accordingly.
In case you sold your biology textbooks at your last garage sale, I’m going to start with a very fundamental explanation of how carbohydrates, protein, and fats work in your diet.
For cyclists or any athlete, carbohydrates are critical. They are easily digested, can efficiently fuel activity, and if they aren’t used immediately, the body stores them as glycogen. Glycogen is your fuel tank that you tap into on practically every ride. If you’ve made the mistake of skipping dinner the night before a big ride, you probably felt what it’s like to have a low or empty fuel tank. Carbohydrates can also be stored as fat in your body, if your glycogen-carrying capacity is maxed out. When we talk about your Endurance PTZs using fat as a fuel, this is the fat we’re talking about, not the dietary fats in an ice cream cone or a hunk of cheese.
We touched on this in chapter 1 but I want to reiterate that macronutrient composition is affected by exercise intensity. Research suggests that when you’re training at 50 percent of maximal aerobic capacity, 45 to 55 percent of energy comes from fat. This drops to about 10 to 30 percent when you’re training at 75 percent of maximum and zero when you’re practically blind through exertion. As intensity increases, a greater proportion of energy comes via glucose. Viewing macronutrient use from this lens, it’s clear why carbohydrates are king in the peloton.
As you can probably tell from all of the different food products advertised on TV or in the supermarket, there are many kinds of carbohydrates. Some are simple; some are complex. In general, complex carbohydrates with three or more kinds of sugars are better for athletes like us because they provide sustained energy. Legumes, starchy vegetables, beans, and many fruits are sources of complex carbohydrates. Plus, they provide the added health bonus of vitamins and minerals. Simple carbohydrates, those with two or fewer types of sugar, can produce the sugar rush and then the crash that you get when you eat a cookie or a candy bar. If you see an ingredient on a food label ending in -ose, like sucrose or fructose, chances are it is a simple sugar.
Some carbohydrates are refined; others are unrefined. Whenever possible, try to avoid refined carbohydrates, made from processed, enriched flour. Pasta, bagels, packaged cereals, and other bread products are usually refined. Refined carbohydrates are inflammatory. By definition, inflammation is the immune system’s response to a stimulus. So an inflammatory response means the immune system is fighting against something that it thinks may turn out to be harmful. In contrast, unrefined carbohydrates from food like fruits, vegetables, beans, legumes, and unrefined non-flour whole grains are anti-inflammatory. Anti-inflammatory foods like these are foods that specifically reduce the inflammatory response of your immune system. These foods are also sources of nutrients like antioxidants and phytonutrients, which help round out your diet.
As I mentioned in my introduction, my vegan diet was not the right fit for my nutritional needs as a professional cyclist. One of the greatest deficiencies I struggled with was protein.
Protein isn’t a significant fuel source during exercise unless your body runs low on glycogen, which could happen during a prolonged interval workout. Typically, protein makes up only about 2 percent of the fuel your body uses during a workout, but when glycogen is depleted, protein utilization can rise to as high as 10 percent. Unfortunately, a portion of that protein comes from muscle tissue—and muscle degradation is definitely not what you want during training. This is referred to as “going catabolic.” Catabolism is when the muscles are being broken down, destroyed, and “eaten” to produce the necessary energy to perform—not ideal for an athlete aiming to build strength and muscular output. That’s why it’s essential to keep your muscle- and liver-glycogen stores topped off with carbohydrates during prolonged exercise. This happens because amino acids, which make up protein, are more complex and more challenging for your body to break down than the other macronutrients.
Protein is a crucial source of amino acids, which are often called the building blocks of life. And there is only one way your body can get almost half of the types of amino acids it needs (those called “essential”): by digesting protein-rich food. Once we’ve accessed these amino acids by breaking down proteins, our body can use them to repair muscles, and sometimes even as an energy source. It is very difficult to get an adequate amount of amino acids through a plant-based diet alone, although it does work for some people.
So shouldn’t we be eating as much protein as possible? Lately, some of the trends in nutrition seem to be pointing people in that direction, with high-protein recovery drinks or diets that go light on the carbohydrates and heavy on protein-rich meats. However, there is a limit to how much protein your body can absorb at one sitting. Also, while you need those essential amino acids, which your body cannot produce on its own, you don’t need to consume them at every meal.
Our bodies can’t function without protein, but when it comes to your diet as a cyclist, focus on getting a variety of different protein sources throughout the day. You can always count on eggs, organic chicken, collagen powder, or fish for your lean proteins. But we also recommend plant-based proteins like quinoa, hemp, chickpeas, and pea protein powder. These are high in antioxidants, fiber, vitamins, and minerals, so plant-based proteins are an incredible anti-inflammatory option for you.
As I mentioned earlier, there is a difference between dietary fat and the fat in your body that serves as fuel for lower-intensity efforts. If you eat one pound of fat, it isn’t going to translate into one pound of fat storage in your body to use during the next endurance ride. Your body doesn’t process it as efficiently as it converts carbohydrates into fat storage. That doesn’t mean you should cut out fat from your diet entirely, though. In fact, fat is an energy-rich macronutrient that also helps you feel satiated and full after a meal.
In our method, you don’t have to go out of your way to eat foods that are rich in fat. In terms of overall share of your calories consumed, fat will be a good deal smaller than carbohydrates and protein. Usually, fat is found in the oils we use to cook or prepare our meals, or it’s found in foods like meat or eggs. Even a lean meat like chicken has a little bit of fat in it.
Be sure to avoid unhealthy sources of fat and instead focus on polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats, like those found in nuts, fish, olives, avocado, or other minimally processed foods. Also, note that even though fat is rich in calories, it is much slower to digest and process than carbohydrates. This is why our pre-ride fueling plan doesn’t incorporate much fat at all.
Beyond the three key macronutrients, foods that reduce inflammation are also a key component of your diet. When I was racing, I trained four to six hours a day. I was in amazing shape, but off the bike I felt sluggish and it seemed like my recovery after workouts and races was slower than it should have been. Eventually, I learned how the body finds a balance between alkalinity and acidity, and how intense training can cause an immune system response that further contributes to inflammation.
Let’s go back to high school to look at the concept of pH, which measures the relative acidity or alkalinity of a substance. Pure water is 7 on the pH scale, which goes from 0 to 14. On the acidic side of the scale, lemon juice or vinegar is a 2. Baking soda and milk of magnesia are examples of alkaline solutions, at 9 and 10 on the pH scale, respectively. The average human body finds a good pH balance at around 7.35.
As you’d expect, maintaining your body’s pH balance is ideal for long-term health and performance on the bike. Unfortunately, there are a lot of factors working against us, pushing our body into a state of low-grade acidosis, when our body’s cells are inflamed by the consistently acidic environment. This acid and inflammation can be caused by stress and hard training. It can also be caused by an overly acidic and inflammatory diet. The good news is that your body can usually handle the task of finding a pH balance. The bad news is that this balancing act can stress your body and deplete your immune system.
In the long term, studies have shown that acidosis can lead to problems that are more serious than poor performance on the bike. That long-term inflammation can result in kidney stones, loss of bone mass, reduction in human growth hormone, premature aging, and an increase in body fat.
Anti- body on a higher intake of omega-3 vs omega 6 fatty acids. Omega-6 fatty acids, which come from many oils and meats, are pro-inflammatory; omega 6 fatty acids, found in many seafood and walnuts and flaxseed, are anti-inflammatory. Both are vital to human function, but the modern Western diet has our bodies consuming 20 times more omega-6 fatty acids than omega-3s. Why is this?
Well, the obvious culprit is processed foods, sugar, and white starches. But there’s a bigger issue: As a society we consume more grains and oils than ever before, and our livestock has done the same. Animals, such as cows, chickens and farm-raised fish, have switched from their natural diet to a diet full of grains and oils. This means that the meat products you are buying are lower in omega-3s and high in omega-6 fatty acids.
Your body can’t produce omega-3s and omega-6s on its own; you get them from food. That’s why super-low-fat diets are bad for you—they systematically deprive you of the fats your body needs to function at its best. Omega-3s and omega-6s exist in a ratio to one another. There’s a cap on the total amount of the two that the body can use, so they end up competing for space. You need both, but because of their opposite effects on inflammation, it’s optimal to maximize omega-3s and minimize omega-6s.
The best choices for omega-3 essential fatty acids are cold-water high-fat fish, especially wild Alaskan salmon, sardines, anchovies, mackerel, shad, herring, and trout. Flaxseed oil, flaxseeds, flaxseed meal, hempseed oil, hempseeds, walnuts, pumpkin seeds, Brazil nuts, and sesame seeds are also good options. Avocados, too. Certain dark-green leafy vegetables, including kale, spinach, purslane, mustard greens, and collards, offer omega-3s as well.
So, the anti-inflammatory diet is good for both your near-term goals as a cyclist as well as your lifelong health and well-being. To help your body find balance, the 3-Sigma system incorporates alkaline-forming foods that help buffer the inflammatory effects of acids.
Each of our diet’s macronutrients can help provide anti-inflammatory nutrients. With carbohydrates, look for unrefined, whole carbohydrates like those found in vegetables, beans, legumes, and grains that are naturally gluten free. While some protein sources like red meat and pork can be acid-forming, fish is often a great source of buffering alkalinity due to omega-3 fatty acids. Salmon, sardines, herring, mackerel, and anchovies are especially rich in omega-3s. The third and final macronutrient, fat, is key to how our bodies regulate inflammation. Again, the key is to eat whole, unprocessed, natural sources of fat, not artificial or heavily processed foods.
The 80:20 Rule
At this point, your head might be spinning as you imagine the ridiculous grocery list you’ll need to make to stick to the 3-Sigma Nutrition System. Over the years, I’ve devoted myself to many restrictive diets, so I know that feeling of intimidation you might have. Don’t worry. The 3-Sigma system isn’t as difficult as it seems at first.
The simplest way to start eating well is to start cutting out processed foods that aren’t a good return on your investment. If you are consuming calories, make sure they are high-quality. Look for ingredients you can pronounce, ingredients that you can imagine growing in your home garden or buying at a farmers market. High-fructose corn syrup or palm oil? I don’t think so.
Then, as you gradually shift toward this healthier way of eating, begin integrating alkaline foods into your diet to reduce your body’s inflammation. I noticed a huge improvement in my post-race recovery, sleep quality, and overall energy levels as I shifted into an anti-inflammatory diet. I bet you will too, which will make the effort much more rewarding.
Sure, the reward of better health and better performance on the bike is great, but that isn’t all we have to live for. Even pro athletes can relax and indulge once in a while. You should too, and that’s what the 80:20 rule is about. I tell my CINCH athletes that they should make it a goal to eat healthy foods 80 percent of the time—sticking to the correct blend of macronutrients, eating healthy, natural, minimally processed ingredients, mixing in anti-inflammatory food to buffer acidosis. Then, the other 20 percent of the time, you get the nutritional equivalent of recess. Go out and enjoy yourself, whether that means beers with your friends, ice cream with your kids, or some nachos at a football game.
Similar to how we need regular rest days to recover from the stress of training, we occasionally need refreshing breaks from our nutrition program. I’ve found that restrictive diets that cut out whole food groups or deny you particular foods are not sustainable. I want you to make healthy nutrition a lifelong habit and the best way to keep it going year after year is moderation.
We have talked about the “why” of your nutrition, the Purpose; we went back to high school to figure out the “what” of this food; and finally, the third piece of the 3-Sigma Nutrition System answers the question of “when.” Timing is key to fueling your performance on the bike, and it ties together all of the other details of the first two elements.
With the right timing, you can gain muscle, lose fat, and be properly fueled for any type of ride. If you eat the wrong macronutrients at the wrong time, well, it can be crippling, as I’ve experienced over years of trial and error with my own diets.
Let’s begin with the ride you’d do on any given day and work backward from there. As I’ve already explained, carbohydrates are a key fuel for most rides, and timing their consumption is key for both the ride itself and what happens in your metabolism later in the day. Plan to consume the majority of your carbohydrates in the three hours leading up to your ride and the three hours after. The three hours before serve to prime your body for the activity. In the immediate time frame before, during, and after your ride, carbohydrates that are quickly assimilated are best—choose starchy foods that you can quickly digest. As you get further away from your workout, in terms of timing, complex carbohydrates that are more slowly absorbed are best to keep your blood sugar steady, avoiding the crash that comes after a sweet treat.
One of the keys to timing carbohydrate consumption, regardless of any other fitness or nutrition objective you might have, is the glycogen window. This window opens up right after your ride, and ideally you should consume carbohydrates within the first 45 minutes of that two-hour window. This gives your body a chance to replenish the glycogen stores that were depleted during exercise.
Some post-ride recovery drinks go heavy on protein, but the 3-Sigma system avoids significant protein consumption in the time frame immediately before and after your ride for a couple reasons. Conventional wisdom says you need to repair your muscles immediately after a hard workout, right? And earlier in this chapter, I was explaining how protein’s amino acids are the building blocks that repair your shredded legs after a big day of riding. However, immediately after a ride, the first priority is consuming and absorbing those carbohydrates to replenish your glycogen stores. If you consume too much protein in that time frame, it can interfere with carbohydrate absorption.
The second key to electrolyte intake: Be sure to tailor your hydration to the temperature and workload. Hot day? Coconut water and watermelon juice are refreshing anti-inflammatory options to replenish lost electrolytes. But most days, cold water with lemon and a little Himalayan sea salt will suffice.
Timing your protein intake is important because it takes longer to digest than carbohydrates—a lot longer. Eat a burger for dinner, and you’re probably still processing that protein the next morning. You don’t want to eat a protein-rich meal only a couple hours before a big ride because it won’t be converted into usable fuel in time. In fact, most of the time when your body is tapping its protein reserves to repair damaged muscles, it’s using the protein consumed the day before, which has finally reached the point in your digestive process when the amino acids can be utilized by your body’s cells.
Like protein, it also takes your body a long time to digest and process fat for energy. By this point you should realize that you don’t need to go out of your way to consume fatty foods, but you should avoid them prior to a big ride or workout because the fat will not be ready for use as an energy source.
Post-ride, fat should be consumed after your carbohydrates and protein. I remember walking onto the team bus feeling wrecked after a hard day in a stage race. The soigneurs would have some sort of rice mixture waiting for us. Every day it was different: Mexican, Asian, anything. We would all load up with a big bowl of rice with a little chicken and an electrolyte drink, and we’d go to town. Then, if we had room in our stomachs, we would have a protein shake. Carbohydrates were the first priority, then hydration, and then protein. At dinner we would have a more balanced meal, such as an easily digestible protein—often some fish, more carbs like risotto or pasta, vegetables for nutrients, and some fat in the dressing and sauces.
It is also best to distribute your protein consumption steadily throughout the day because your body can only use 25 to 35 grams of protein for muscle synthesis. Avoid eating it all at once, in part because of the fact that it demands time and energy to digest. So sprinkle protein in throughout your meals. You could have an egg with breakfast, some beans in your burrito at lunch, and a lean piece of meat for dinner. During a hard training block you can even top off your protein stores before bed with low-carb, high-quality protein shake.
Fat and protein are not the primary macronutrients for fueling your rides, workouts, and races. However, they are the keys to teaching your body to shift gears nutritionally and burn slow and steady with your fat stores. Instead of spiking your metabolism every hour with small carbohydrate-heavy snacks, nutrition outside of the time frame before and after riding should focus on protein and fat. Lean proteins, dark leafy greens, and healthy fats are ideal for the times outside of your carbohydrate window. These types of food will increase your satiation, so you won’t feel as hungry. Focusing on proteins and fats will also encourage your body to tap into its energy stores, burning fat instead of carbohydrates.
This isn’t to say that your meals cannot have any carbohydrates outside of the window around your ride. Just make sure you’re focusing on healthy, fibrous foods that provide complex carbohydrates to keep your energy levels steady.
Some examples of how we educate and coach using our 3 Sigma System:
- How to optimally fuel before your workouts.
- How to optimally fuel during your workouts.
- How to optimally fuel after your workouts.
- What the best foods to get your carbohydrates from.
- What the best foods to get your proteins from.
- What the best foods to get your fats from.
- When to optimally eat before, during, and after your workouts.
- How to eat for optimal recovery.
- How to eat for weight loss.
- How to decrease overall inflammation through diet.
- The proper and safest supplement protocol for performance and longevity.