Hungry for success

Saturday 21 March 2015, Filed in: General

Elite endurance athlete, Dom Irvine gives us more insight into his LEJOG record breaking attempt.

"You’re too heavy.” There was no pulling the punches, it was delivered straight between the eyes. The message was clear - lose some weight. Such are the joys of having a sports coach. We were discussing how I could go faster and his message was get lighter. Everything is relative, you’ll know if you’ve read any of the previous articles that in my spare time, I’m what the cycling fraternity call an ultra-distance cyclist (i.e. riding hundreds of miles without stopping), and specifically, a tandem rider. Instead of the 10% - 11% body fat I have currently, my coach suggested 7% or 8% would be better.

Time for another expert in my life. This time a nutritionist, Renee McGregor at the University of Bath, who, as it turns out is an ultra distance runner. Within a few minutes, Rennee had nailed the problem. As a vegetarian, my sources of protein inevitably came with too many carbs and hence even though I trained a stupid number of hours a week I was probably still consuming too many carbs and not enough protein. After some uncomfortable analysis on the rest of my diet I left with a sheaf of papers prescribing my intake (or lack off) for the next few weeks.

Lesson to self. Never let several experts start talking to each other. I once introduced the physio I was working with to my coach after a car turning right knocked me off my bike and I was trying to work out what I could or could not do in training. Between them they decided the pain I was experiencing was not relevant to the training and carried on scheduling a heavy training load. So much for sympathy.

This time, Renee and my coach hatched up a plan to ‘help me’ lose weight by scheduling some low intensity fasted rides. This translates into get up at 5am, ride for 2.5 hours at an effort where one is slightly out of breath the whole time. Do this without eating anything before or during the ride. And then a small breakfast. If that’s not enough, have lunch, but then don’t eat anything until after you have repeated the same ride in the evening. I have never visualised as much about slices of toast and jam, or a massive bowl of porridge in my life.

On longer rides, there is no getting away from the need to eat regularly in order to keep going. We’re just back from two non-stop long training rides of 335 miles and 270 miles during which we were nibbling every half hour. Over 20+ hours of continuous riding, that’s a lot of grub. But then we have also burnt over 10,000 calories in just the one ride. What has been particularly exciting working with Renee is the discovery of...wait for it...proper food. You’ll have seen in the shops the overpriced sports energy bars or the tubes of what can best be described as gloop. Invariably they have on them words such as ‘max’, ‘power’, ‘burst’ or some such other extreme descriptor. I’ve been a sucker for some of those products (you can’t beat a bit of pseudo science language). After hours of riding, the taste of these products palls. I was expecting Renee to advocate consuming a whole range of these sports products on the longer rides, but no, instead, my saddlebag is filled with chunks of fruit cake, sandwiches with cheese, or peanut butter and just occasionally a handful of sweets. I have also discovered chocolate coated brazil nuts that slip down a treat mid way into a long ride.

Whilst the fasted rides have been tough, following the overall plan has been a revelation as performance has gone up, weight and body fat down. The frustration is having ridden for so many years on what has been an ineffective diet I am left wondering how much better I might have done had I got the nutrition better sorted. And whilst my hunger during the fasted rides is almost as great as my hunger for better performance on the bike, I am so glad that the secret of success has turned out to be ‘eat proper food’.

Postscript: If you see a pair of cyclists looking longingly into a Bakers window, tap them on your shoulder and just say ‘...on yer bike’. We’ll know what you mean. Even with the best paid plans, the smell of freshly baked goods can be just too overwhelming. Please don’t taunt us with a warmed croissant, we’re likely to chew your arm off.

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