Establishing a healthy, personalized nutrition plan can be a complicated and intimidating task, particularly when there are a lot of competing ideas about exactly what is healthy when it comes to food.
Traditionally, ‘dieting’ is associated with suffering and sacrifice, giving up our favorite foods in an attempt to weigh less. What Rally Cycling’s riders prove every day is that starvation is not the answer – and that health is derived from putting the right food into your body, much more than it is by limiting the amount you eat.
While there is certainly discipline involved in a pro cyclist’s diet it tends to steer more towards portion control than the outright banning of any particular foodstuff. There are plenty of ways to eat what you like while still reaching the nutrition goals you’ve set.
“My approach to nutrition now is to eat when I’m hungry, to try to make healthy choices, but to not feel guilty if I feel like having a gelato or going for pizza for dinner or anything like that,” said King. “Rather than worry about a strict eating schedule, it’s healthiest to eat when you feel the need.”
Regarding specific nutrition goals, King and Koppenburg note that it’s still very important to focus on eating healthy, diverse foods while also implementing a general meal plan based on what part of your body you want to focus on.
“It’s not about the weight, it’s about what’s inside your body,” says Koppenburg. “You can be light and full of fat, or heavy and full of muscle – the weight itself doesn’t say a lot. As long as you fill your body with healthy, good nutrition I think that’s the main thing.”
King noted that different goals require different diets.
“Are you trying to lose weight, gain weight, or build muscle?” he asks. “If you eat more calories than you burn, you’re gonna gain weight. If you want to build muscle, eat more protein. If you want to maintain your weight, eat the amount that you burn, and if you want to lose weight, you have to consume less than you expend throughout the day.”
Anyone trying to positively alter their diet also needs to be aware of the potential dangers. Starving yourself will always come back to bite you. King described his own problems with underfueling and calorie counting, which he said led to the biggest nutritional ‘mistake’ of his 20-year career.
“I’ve been racing my bike for 20 years, so I’ve learned quite a lot about nutrition and what works for me, but I’ve also made some really big mistakes.
“A couple years ago I shared my struggle with… I wouldn’t call it an eating disorder so much as a control issue. I was underfueling. That was a really unhealthy cycle and it was completely unsustainable.”
Not only was it unsustainable, it was actually harming his ability to perform.
“When I reversed that behavior my performance definitely improved. And my weight even dropped when I was fueling properly, because I was able to do more work, burn more calories, and my body wasn’t holding on to every bit of nutrition in starvation mode.”
Regarding calorie counting, King had similarly cautious advice.
“[Calorie counting] can quickly become an unhealthy obsession for people with certain personalities, and I think I have one of those personalities. People that don’t have that personality and find themselves with less of a sense of self control, maybe they benefit from keeping track of what they’re eating year round. It’s all about knowing yourself, it’s very individualized.”
In Koppenburg’s case, even though she was eating healthy foods, her accidental underfueling led to some struggles in her cycling – with dramatic weight loss being the main symptom.
“I didn’t struggle with nutrition, but for the last two years, I was always struggling to get enough energy because I train a lot and I race hard. I lost quite a lot of weight due to lots of training, so nutrition is even more important for me to get as much energy inside my body as I can get.”
Snacking and cooking
Healthy, easy to store snacks can be extremely helpful for refueling while riding. While some enjoy more artificial things to munch on, Koppenburg prefers to stick to the basics.
“I prefer to have real food with me, like a good banana bread or ‘energy balls’ made from nuts, dates, and dried fruits. They give you fast and long energy because the nuts sustain you.”
She also likes to use a carbohydrate-based hydration powder mixed into her bottles, depending on how long the ride is.
“A good mix is really important for the bottles because you have to drink while you ride. It’s easy to get sugar and inside your body, especially if you struggle with eating real food during exercise.”
When it comes to cooking at home, both cyclists enjoy the same things that regular people enjoy. However, King has a more ‘take-or-leave’ approach to the kitchen than Koppenburg.
“I don’t mind cooking because I like to eat,” says King. “The end goal for me is obviously to enjoy a good meal. Cooking a nice dinner with my wife is something fun that we can do together occasionally, but if she wants to cook a nice dinner I prefer that.”
When he does cook, chicken breast is one of King’s simple, “go-to” favorites.
Koppenburg commits a bit more time to making her own food.
“I absolutely love cooking. I think it’s my biggest ambition next to biking. If I stopped my cycling career, I’d dream about my own coffee shop. I love baking and cooking and creating new recipes… so, whenever I’m not on the bike I’m probably in the kitchen making food.”
Koppenburg specifically likes to make food bowls, crediting them for the sheer amount of greens and proteins that can be packed in.
“You can put all the nutrition inside you need. Some roasted vegetables and some kind of protein, whether you prefer chicken or salmon, or some beans like chickpeas. The more colorful my bowl looks the happier I am, and I think you should always have a lot of variation in your food. Just mix it up and make it fun.”