Sunday, February 07, 2010

Food is fuel

Date: Feb. 7
Mileage: 67
Time: 4 hours, 47 minutes
Weather: 43 degrees, rain showers, southeast wind 10-20 mph (felt like spring. Thanks El Niño!)
Details: Distance road ride on the "southern circuit:" North Douglas, Thane, Back Loop Road; intensity 50-80 percent
Note: Left knee tendons are feeling a lot better but right knee had some light patellar pain while riding into the headwind. Been a while since I felt that.

Endurance athletes tend to develop very literal interpretation of the “food is fuel" mantra. This is especially true of touring cyclists, whose access to different varieties of food becomes more and more limited as they travel through isolated areas and tiny towns. Eventually, quality and nutrition are relegated to the sidelines as energy-starved cyclists go on an indiscriminate calorie hunt.

When this happens, these cyclists will find themselves standing in gas stations, questioning why they should spend $1.75 on an organic, vitamin-fortified Clif Bar when they can get the same calorie punch (and similar fat-protein-carb levels) in a much smoother, much tastier, 75-cent Snickers Bar. When these cyclists start entering multiday races, the situation deteriorates even further, until they’re questioning why they should bother stopping for dinner when four Snickers Bars will provide all of the energy in a fraction of the time.

I found myself buried deep in this rationale during the Tour Divide. By the time I left Grants, New Mexico, I had already lost nearly 15 pounds and was running a deepening daily calorie deficit. Before leaving town, I stocked up with two days worth of supplies, because I didn’t expect to reach another food resupply before Silver City, about 275 miles away. One of the supplies I bought was a pound of Sour Patch Kids. This portion of my “gummy snack” food group was supposed to last two days. I ate a breakfast of pastry, orange juice, fruit smoothie, banana and coffee at the last gas station out of Grants and set out toward Pie Town. It didn’t take me long to crack into those Sour Patch Kids. I continued to mindlessly munch on them until about 15 miles outside of Pie Town, a mere five hours later, when I hit the bottom of the bag. In the matter of a single morning, I had consumed an entire pound of Sour Patch Kids. Do you know how many calories are in a pound of Sour Patch Kids? Sixteen hundred! Guess how many grams of sugar? Three hundred and thirty! That’s a third of a kilogram! Of pure sugar!

I still ate a huge lunch in Pie Town, including a piece of banana creme pie and two cans of Pepsi. I don’t even remember what I ate during the afternoon, but I remember sitting down that night at my campsite to a dinner of two huge cookies, a bag of almonds and dried cherries. And that was just one day. Needless to say, I came home from the Tour Divide very, very addicted to sugar.

Kicking this addiction has been my continuing battle ever since, especially because my life revolves around convenience foods. I genuinely do not have time to cook, plus I don’t like to cook, and I’m not very good at it as well. But my “food as fuel (and only fuel)” mantra has gone too far. I actually still eye king-sized Snickers Bars at the grocery store and think, “Well, that could work for dinner.”

I am not and never will be a food snob; I require about as much culinary variety in my diet as my cat. But I do want to eat at least somewhat healthy, and I want to stop the guilty mid-day gummy bear binges (and the resulting extra pounds now that my calorie deficit has become a surplus.) So my goal from this point on is to drastically reduce my candy intake, limit my simple carb intake, and eat a lot more fresh raw fruits and vegetables (which are already a pretty heavy staple of my diet.) I get around the whole cooking nuisance by making a lot of gigantic salads and veggie-laden sandwiches; using tuna, surimi, black beans, cottage cheese, sushi and hummus as sources of protein; buying only whole-grain bread and tortillas and trying to stick to low-sugar cold cereals (even though my favorites are flavored Cheerios and Honey Bunches of Oats); and snacking on yogurt, flaxseed tortilla chips, fresh salsa and fruit.

If you have any other ideas for relatively healthy, no-cooking-required, can-be-eaten-on-the-go foods, I'd love to hear them. I want to be healthy and strong for White Mountains 100! Hot food is overrated anyway. But Sour Patch Kids will always be little morsels of heaven.


  1. Nutrition gets harder for me the more I train each day and week - I have to eat more and more and I just get so sick of it!
    My staples are:
    -oatmeal in the microwave with walnuts, raisins, yogurt, bananas, flax
    -bananas and peanut butter
    -fruits with yogurt/cottage cheese (hawaiian fave is papaya)
    -tortillas with pb and honey
    -quinoa with onions and carrots is AWESOME and easy (i hate cooking btw), mixes well with cottage cheese, chicken, stir fry, whatever
    -eggs! you can even poach them in the microwave (put in a bowl of water and micro for ~3 mins) and put them on toast with some cheese
    -when i get super constantly hungry i add more nuts, dark chocolate, and full-fat dairies to what i eat

    i don't know, like i said i am bored with everything i eat, but i fuel pretty well and stay away from PHO's and HFCS and whatnot.

    i love your blog.

  2. My on-the-go food include beef jerky, choc chip cookies and 'Pocket Coffee' ( it is chocolate with expresso liquid inside ).

  3. My avoid-candy snack is fruit and veg. Where I work there is ALWAYS vast quantities of candy strategically positioned in bowls so that, even if you aren't hungry, you end up eating tons. My fellow office mates and I have countered. I bring in to work, every day, a big bag of baby carrots, grape tomatoes, anything small and single bite if the fruit, veg or nut department, that requires NO effort in the morning other than opening a bag and dumping it in......those go on my desk and I nibble continuously....then we have a bowl of fruit or veg or whatever on the way out the door of our office, just before we go by the candy stand. Thus our mouths and sometimes hands are already occupied with something healthy and our incursions into the candy stash are minimised.....while your layout/issue is different, having healthy no prep snacks on hand.....avoids the urge.

    Good luck!

  4. I'm sure I can come up with a healthier suggestion, but there is nothing quite like eating PB&J on tour or even on the fly. As you probably know, PB wins in the protein and calories to weight ratio contest. If you want to avoid sugar, look for the just plain peanuts PB or salted PB. If you miss the chocolate replace the J with Nutella or use all three!

    Some of my crazy retro grouch Randonneur friends often boast about making PB&J while riding on ultra long rides by using their massive canvas and tweed handlebar bags as a kitchen. Lol!

    Good luck Jill!

  5. If you're looking for on-trail foods, here are two I love for backpacking:

    Cous-cous. It doesn't *really* need to be cooked, plus it packs extremely light. Grab a box, empty into a zip-lock along with any seasonings that came with it. An hour (or more, whatever) before you want to eat it, add some water to the zip-lock, re-seal, and put it back in your pack. It somehow rehydrates just fine, and if you have parmesan cheese and/or tomatoes to add to it, even better.

    Dehydrated refried beans. I buy them in bulk and use the same rehydrate-in-a-zip-lock strategy on the trail. Great spread on a tortilla with some slices of cheese.

    Actually, why not just cheese? It will last unrefrigerated for several days, and is full of protein and fat.

  6. I would probably still gain 15 pounds on a bike tour like you did. Nutrition and I have a tumultous relationship. But my favorite "grab and go" snacks that are healthy are nuts, string cheese, fruit, cut veggies, hardboiled eggs (boil a dozen ahead of time) and sometimes jerky. Sometimes jerky grosses me out though. Also, dried pineapple is a good high sugar snack rather than sour patch kids.

  7. This is so funny because I would eat like you before I understood the whole "fuel" your body thing. I love sour patch kids, I thought it was the fruit group:) But when I actually started eating more fruit and veggies like dates, nuts and coconut flakes processed together and beets and carrots cut up, my appetite changed and my energy on a bike sky rocketed. I did a 24 hour race on Larabars they are all natural, have good fats in them and taste really good. I did not even get sick of them because they have so many different flavors. I love your blog and pictures!

  8. Get a crock pot. There's no cooking required - only dumping of ingredients into the pot in the morning, turning it on and having a big meal ready for you by evening. You can use frozen, canned and/or fresh ingredients. It can be as simple as putting in a roast or a few chicken breasts and covering the meat with a jar of sauce. Five minutes and you're done!

    My college roommate could NOT cook, and by that I mean she would leave the house and forget to turn the gas stove off after making an egg for breakfast. But she fell in love with the crock pot.

    I also agree with those who eat oatmeal. It's easy, filling and great fuel. You can also fill it with fruit. Pair the oatmeal with some scrambled eggs - quick to make and easy to add stuff like cheese, veggies, meat and/or salsa.

    When I biked across the U.S. two years ago, my team and I survived on peanut butter and honey sandwiches, Fruit Loops, Triscuits (for salt), carrots, bananas, cookies, cheddar cheese, summer sausage and leftover pizza.

  9. I'm the same as you. Can't do it. To try and fix this I just bought a sweet new rice cooker that's all fancy-pants.
    It's got a timer setting that lets you set the time you want the rice to finish cooking. So, the night before, I put the rice and water in (Takes ~45 seconds) close the lid and set it to have the rice cooked at 6 am.
    Then, japanese breakfast of a few raw eggs cracked over hot rice with soy sauce and ground nuts.
    The rice cooker can also cook oatmeal.
    It's the best solution for hot food with no work involved I've found so far........and these new rice cookers are totally badass. (who knew?)

  10. Winter pea pods and baby carrots, grapes, apples, dehydraded fruit of all sorts, nuts, pretzels, and the occasional goldfish for snacking.

    Oatmeal, fruit of all sorts, chocolate milk(can't help it), yogurt, and whatever random granola I might find at the coop for breakfast.

    Pasta or rice made in large batches plain to last a few days at a time, add whatever seasoning/vegtable/meat and serve, reheated or not for lunch and dinner. Sides of fruit something or other, cottage cheese, and some good bread.

    Like washing dishes, cooking and food prep doesn't really take that long. It can all be streamlined into a routine. A big bowl of pasta is like 20minutes for a weeks worth of food. And the options are endless.

    Or maybe you just need somebody to cook for you.


  11. PB&J is the best. Makes you feel like a kid again and it's great fuel.

  12. I am so with you on this one Jill. I don't eat a huge amount of sugar (well, if you don't count my chocolate habit) but I don't like to cook. My staples have already been mentioned by others:

    - pb & banana sandwiches
    - oatmeal with cinnamon and apples
    - bagel, cheese, tomato
    - omelettes (fill with veggies of your choice)
    - ww pasta covered in veggies of your choice: dump in frozen if you can't manage to keep fresh ones from rotting in your crisper
    - yogourt with fruit
    - roasted almonds

  13. Thanks all! I love PB&J, but I do consider it a high-sugar food. Jam, even 100-percent fruit jam, is still pure sugar.

    I forgot to mention that I do cook eggs and burritos on a regular basis. I try to avoid pasta because of the whole simple carb thing; I'd rather make a stir-fry and eat that with a whole-wheat tortilla. I'm kind of in a Tex-Mex phase right now.

    Danni ... I didn't gain 15 pounds, I lost 15 pounds. Toward the end I was inhaling 7,000-8,000 calories a day just to catch up. The last week of the Tour Divide still remains one of the stranger experiences of my life, and it did instill me with a strange relationship with food.

    Thanks for the suggestions! Keep em coming!

  14. How about trying a bento box approach? Here are some ideas:

  15. Jill, I share your addition to Snickers Bar and have been known to eat an entire bag of the minis and then get depressed when they are all gone.

    I am a sugar addict too and have had to cut down because once I start eating it, I can't stop.

    Here are some of the things I eat.

    Oatmeal with 1/2 a scoop of chocolate/peanut butter protein powder and a tablespoon of natural peanut butter. Keep this in my office at all times for a snack or a meal.

    Sweat potato with a little Smart Balance, pecans and sugar free maple syrup or even the real deal. So good with a sprinkle of cinnamon on it too.

    Peanut Butter and Banana Sandwiches.

    Sugar Free chocolate pudding with frozen bananna that I shave on top of it. I also put in a tablespoon of melted natural peanut butter and its so good when I am craving chocolate which is often.

    This is going to sound gross i'm sure, but I have developed a liking to it and eat it before bed as there is whey protein in it due to the cottage cheese and it's a good protein to have for over night muscle repair. I take 1/2 a cup of low fat cottage cheese, 1/2 a cup of Fiber One, 1/4 cup fresh blueberries and a good sprinkle of sugar free vanilla pudding. Mix it all together and down the hatch it goes. Deeeelicious. :-p.

    Good luck with your sugar cutting quest. It's tough at first but manageable after a while.

  16. Get yourself a pressure cooker and make a quick one pot feast that will last a week (I'm an endurance athlete too I understand quanity!)and is nirvana and seriously energizing: adzuki beans, winter sqaush, onions,sesame oil, ginger and shitake mushrooms(dried is really good) 25 mins. thats all, throw it along side the other grains your friends have mentioned above or with good chewy brown rice or splurge on some white pasta with die for.

  17. Hi Jill.

    This might not be of interest to you but "Racing Weight" by Matt Fitzgerald really lays it all out in simple yet ‘researched backed’ terms. You might discover you are all ready doing 85 to 90% of what you should.

  18. I won't try to add to all the advice. Besides this made me hungry, I gotta go chow.

  19. Not sure if you can get it in Alaska, but here in Manitoba I use hemp seed as a staple trail food when I'm hiking or backpacking. There are sites online you can order out of Canada.

    A typical 2 tbsp (30g) serving size of shelled hemp seed has 160 calories and 11g of protein. I might as well mention that it's the only plant on earth which has all three of the omega's (3, 6, and 9).

    If you are interested, just google "Manitoba Harvest".

  20. I just ate some homemade ravioli with salad, some great Italian bread, and a glass of very good red wine. My advice...

    Take some time to cook for yourself every once in awhile. Don't say you don't have time...make the time. Plus it is fun to experiment.

    Hey! I enjoy a Cliff bar for breakfast from time to time when I don't get a chance to actually make oatmeal.

  21. Vito - If I make the time to cook, where will I find the time for five-hour bike rides? If I go out for a long ride, work for nine hours, and sleep for eight, that basically leaves me two hours to write, blog, read, and eat breakfast and lunch (dinner is usually cobbled together while I'm at work.) I'm just trying to set my priorities. I'm perfectly willing to eat a quick salad in exchange for another hour of writing or cycling time. Sleep of course is nonnegotiable.

    I'm still trying to decide if I'll ever carve out the time to date. ;-)

  22. Larabars are my friend. They have no added sugar, taste good, have some protein and don't wreak havoc with your digestive system.
    I am also partial to parmesan cheese as a trail food. After the second day of the ITI, the only thing I had that tasted good were snickers and Parmesan. Since then, I have discovered that larabars also taste good on long rides.

  23. My step-daughter showed me these:

    whole wheat tortilla filled with hummus, sliced deli turkey, feta cheese, cucumber and tomato...

    I am looking fwd to running into you on the roads here in Juneau, though not literally!!

  24. We passed as you were heading back into town. I was the runner in the bright orange, polka-dot tights. Nice to finally sort of meet you.


  25. What exactly is a food snob?

  26. Awesome Mike! I have to admit, I saw you from about a half mile away and the first thing I thought was, "My eyes are burning!"

    But I guess the point is I saw you from a half mile away. I need to strive to be more visible on roads.

    Next time you should stop me and say hi! I'd love to stop and chat.

  27. Those tights are a a lot louder than my personality. But, I DO want to be visible when running in the murk on the ND Hwy. I'll do that. Better yet would be meeting on bikes -- riding and chatting, best of all things. But, I tend to be a fair weather road cyclist. I live along ND, about 0.7 mile closer to town than when we passed, frequently ride out the road and up Eagle crest. I work at KTOO (while my wife is having an adventure with her sister in Costa Rica -- but, I'm not envious, really). I've seen you riding Pugsley, out there, numerous times -- but, I've been in my car. I'm sure we'll meet on the road, again. I'm hoping to shift back to part time with the arrival of summer and get out much more.


  28. I went low-carb, low-sugar about 2 years ago and my general health & energy are MUCH much better.
    Agree with those who say you should take just 1/2 hr. or so per week to make a big pot of something you can eat throughout (crockpot's a great idea, though I don't have one). Make a giant pot of minestrone w/ mixed veg (frozen if you're really lazy) & canned beans. Make pasta w/ soba noodles -- they cook faster and are much better for you than plain pasta (made w/ buckwheat). Perfect for sesame noodles -- look up an easy recipe (made w/ PB) -- or use a good jarred sauce & grate on some real pamesean. Awesome snack: toast some sunflower bread & rub a little raw garlic on it, then put on 1/2 an avocado w/ some lemon juice, S&P. Good dinners: Make a huge pot of brown rice & then make fried rice dinners w/ leftovers (throw in veg., egg & soy sauce). Great winter salad -- thin sliced red cabbage dressed w/ lemon juice & o. oil. Add baked tofu, chicken, or any other protein.
    Many supermarkets sell cooked rotisserie chickens. But one & have some w/ hummus & salad, then use leftovers all week for burritos, sandwiches, salads, etc.

    Good luck!!!

  29. I found exactly one museli in the supermarket with untoasted oats, protein-filled nuts, and a couple of sultanas for flavour. I just went looking for the highest protein, lowest sugar and lowest fat. This is in Australia, the cereal is Lowan's Original Harvest. In the US I would have no idea what your chances are for a really low sugar brekky but that's how I found it. Most of them have sugar so a lot of people mix their own from oats and nuts.

    Upshot is that I really notice the difference - don't snooze off with the sugar crash at all.

    Cold turkey is the only way I can detox from sugar - it sucks for a couple of days but then it gets better. Protein is your friend.

  30. Jill, glad you are turning your attention to better nutrition. I always have wondered how you survived so well on just sugar and little else when working so darn hard during a race or ride. Good nutrition does require some commitment of time, but the payoff is just huge! Don't begrudge yourself healthy food or let yourself off the hook! Sounds like you tend to eat well. We all struggle to eat better on a regular basis no matter what our pursuits. You might cruise by on bad stuff now, but I guarantee you young missy, (said as an old auntie might say)it really does catch up to you. And not in a good way....

  31. I second all the crockpot ideas, it takes only a few minutes a week to have wonderful, filling, wholesome meals. Some excellent recipies can be found here: And the next time you're in Canada pick up a book called "Slowcooker Dinners" (at least I think that's what it's called..... the cover is orange) by Company's Comming; you can find it in many grocery stores or a book store.


Feedback is always appreciated!