Winter is a stressful time for the body or at least it can be if certain steps aren't taken to ensure optimal health. We are all individual and the concept applies to our nutritional likes, dislikes and needs

Winter time or when the seasons change can post the most stress on the body, especially when life is busy with work and family as well as trying to keep in shape during the harsh winter months.

When life is run at a million times per hour it’s usually nutrition that takes a big hit. Training under fuelled and therefore in a negative energy balance places a lot more stress on the body than just training does. If the food consumed is missing vital food groups or vitamins then a general feeling of tiredness and regular illness can occur.

Cycling is a sport that requires endurance, even for the pure sprinters some time spent doing low level endurance miles in the off season is required and endurance training takes time. Cycling is also a sport that requires time devoted to the maintenance of equipment, many early mornings and cold evenings I’ve spent in the garage messing around with my bike just to get fit for purpose, that’s before I’ve even begun to look at me!

Cyclists could easily spend a day a week just cleaning the bike, servicing its parts and training. Let alone travel, work, see the family and eat.

A healthy, balanced diet is a great way to help keep the body and mind fit over the coming winter months. Motor racing cars are fuelled with the most elite, purified engine fuel that is currently being made and this is expensive, and not available at the pumps on the petrol forecourt. The same applies to elite athletes.

Cold days still leave you dehydrated

All of the Great Britain cycling squad at London 2012 ate healthy, nutrient dense foods to fuel themselves before and during the games. However, unlike motor racing the fuel elite athletes consume does not have to be expensive and it is easily accessible.

Most of the benefits of the training happen not when you’re on the bike but when you’re off and either resting or sleeping. It is recommended that at least 7 hours of sleep a night is a minimal requirement to allow the immune system to work optimally. Training is often tough so I make sure that when I’m off the bike I eat as well as possible to ensure I get all of those benefits.

Here are some of my top tips and advice for those of you who want to nail your diet over the winter and become a stronger cyclist.

Plan ahead

As with most things cycling related, it’s ideal to set a goal before planning your nutrition. The race season for most can require different quantities of energy. Also, during the winter months it is often the best time to repair and build. If a gym programme supplements your winter training then remember that in order to build muscle you must remain in a positive energy balance before, during and after sessions.

That does not mean using protein as your fuel source mind. During a gym session the muscles main energy requirement is the same as it is on the bike. Carbohydrates and fats, protein would only be used if neither sources are available.

Protein will aid your adaptation but it is only an aid and not the sole or favoured fuel to do this. Remember if training is particularly hard to space the protein intake evenly throughout the entire days meals. Having a large portion at a certain meal can often increase a sense of fullness reducing the amount of much needed fat and carbohydrate intake to fully recover.

Optimal performance requires careful nutrition

Optimal performance requires careful nutrition

Fat during the winter

During the winter months the predominant fuel for long rides is fat. Fat is also essential in the repair process when home from rides and during the night.

It slows the digestive process down as it a complex chain that takes time to breakdown keeping you feeling fuller for longer. Some vitamins are only fat-soluble therefore essential in the diet. Remember the longer the exercise the greater dependence on fat for metabolism and endurance training increases oxidative capacity and increases the body’s ability to burn fat.

Being involved in the elite set up of cycling, I speak to a lot of cyclists and find out what they eat during the winter. Here is a shopping list of some of the best foods we eat, and you can too.

Shopping list 

– Flaxseeds
– Egg noodles
– Oats
– Eggs
– Lean cuts of meat/fish
– Full-fat Probiotic Yoghurt
– Bananas
– Coconut/almond/cows milk
– Seeds and nuts mix
– Lentils/Beans/Pulses provide good quality proteins
– Fresh, Brightly coloured seasonal vegetables (Butternut squash is a great soup to warm up with after a winter ride)
– Brown rice/pasta

Meal Times

Eating out regularly is very accessible nowadays and can even seem the cheaper alternative sometimes (especially if someone is paying!) but it’s unfortunately not conducive to achieve and maintain optimal health.

Restaurants owners want their products to look and taste appealing, often this is achieved by adding sugar and more salt than you would normally at home. Also adding sauces to enhance blander foods like salads and vegetables.

A sauce can contain more calories than expected, making a seemingly healthy meal high in salt, sugar and fat. Eating out isn’t all bad and occasionally, it can make a nice change from cooking at home but starting a recipe from scratch with as many natural and seasonal ingredients as possible is some of the best nutrition around and annually would be much cheaper than eating out.

Fuel your immunity by eating on the go

Making a meal from scratch is time consuming, especially when its being made for the entire family but some simple planning (like would be done on the bike) can make dinnertime easier. Start with a recipe that uses easily bought ingredients and not many of them.

Ensure you like what you are making and try to make more than you need. If you can make enough for a few meals and just freeze the leftovers then on a day when you’re really tired it’s much easier to eat a healthy meal quickly. Adding freshly steamed vegetables to a frozen meal will ensure the vitamin content stays high.

Supplements: cost versus benefit 

Supplements are a household item now but the evidence of their benefits does not match up with the amount that are purchased. A food supplement, whether that be a multi-vitamin tablet or protein shake should not compensate for poor food choices or an inadequate diet.

The IOC in 2010 suggested that a vitamin D supplement might be of benefit when exposure to sunlight is limited but most supplements have little evidence to back up what they say they do. If a balanced diet full of real food is followed the need for a multi-vitamin is limited to potentially the vitamin D content only.

With a busy lifestyle this balance can be hard to follow and so if a supplement is used then it is always recommended to take it for short periods of times when the body is under most stress only. If an end-of-season break were occurring then this would be ideal time to take a break from all supplements and stock up of fresh seasonal vegetables.

There is also the risk of contamination of supplements no matter what level of competition you take part in. Unfortunately no products are 100% clean but simple checks can prevent mistakes happening. Check the label-is it batch tested? There are websites like informed sport and WADA that can help further. Sometimes supplements are an essential part of a diet but this should be under the guidance of a well-informed professional.

Drinking when it’s cold 

On a hot day it seems sensible to be aware of your hydration status, during the winter months this can be overlooked because the awareness of fluid loss is reduced. Dehydration during a winter ride can occur just as much as it does on a summer ride and can stress the body and reduce performance in the same way.

The simplest and cheapest way to assess hydration status during the winter is looking at your urine colour (consult a urine chart) and weighing yourself before and after a ride (weight loss of 2% bodyweight or more suggests dehydration). If you’re on a long ride, expect to need to stop for the loo.

Fruit is your friend

Listen to your body

For me, the best port of call, is to listen to your body and its cravings. If you fancy chocolate or a curry then it could be fat you need. Try to include more healthy fats throughout your meals evenly that day. Also importantly don’t avoid all unhealthy foods.

Going on a ‘diet’ often yoyo’s the nutritional intake. Its better to have a meal you enjoy, worked hard for and deserve once a week than to go three weeks without and over eating due to cravings.  If you were to get 90% of your diet balanced then having a meal or snack a week you fancy will do your body no harm and your head plenty of good.

Fuelling is so important in cycling, and has possibly the biggest effect on your performance. It affects how you train, how you recover, how you feel and how you perform. Keep on top of it, and keep on top of your cycling.

Eat on the go to stay healthy – ward off a cold 

Following heavy training or competition an immunodepression occurs temporarily, lasting from 3-24 hours post-exercise. During this time your more susceptible to infection. Ways to prevent this happening is to keep a positive energy balance and reduce mental stress.

Easier said than done, but a few simple tips can help. Nutrition guide for winter rides of varying length to reduce immunodepression: A ride under an hour. No need to fuel during a ride if a good meal has been consumed in the two hours before setting off. Still take a gel and a banana/energy bar though for emergencies.A ride under two hours.

Before an hour is up start to eat something on the ride. Ideally something slow release like an oaty cereal bar/flapjack or a banana.Longer rides lasting 2-4 hours- Rides especially reaching nearer 4 hours require a lot of energy intake because of the amount being used during and after.

It’s very important to eat something within that ‘first hour’ and ideally slow release quality especially if the ride is lasting 4 hours. If the terrain allows then nibbling little an often throughout the ride (ideally every 20-30 minutes) until the end would ensure maintenance of blood sugar levels until your next meal.

Long rides, 4 hours plus. If a ride is this length then it is most likely to cover at least one main mealtime, therefore it is essential that this meal is not missed and consumed either on the bike or during a scheduled stop. Unless you’re planning to stop at a café/pub for a main meal then a meal that can be carried in your back pocket is required.

Also, something that is gentle on the stomach. Bread, especially brown bread can’t always be easily digested on a ride. White bread and jam for occasions such as this could be less uncomfortable to eat on a ride. Cutting it up into squares so that it’s easier to get out of the pocket when still on the move can help.

Eating out can catch you out when it comes to calories

Simple tips 

Here are some simple tips to keep your diet up to scratch before, during and after cycling.

– Balance is key. Too much of anything is not good for you. That includes vegetables and fruit too. A diet needs to be a good balance of carbohydrates, fats and proteins.
– Eat and drink up until you are home from a ride.
– Eat some carbohydrates as soon as possible after a ride.
– The body can only utilise a small amount of protein every two hours therefore, keep protein intake small and evenly spaced throughout all daily meals/snacks
– Keep wrapped up warm both on and off the bike through the winter
– Be aware of the window of opportunity for infection after heavy training sessions
– Use as many different coloured foods in a meal as possible
– It’s cheaper, less time consuming and healthier to arrive home from a ride and have a glass of milk (ideally semi-skimmed or full-fat) and a banana/flapjack to aid recovery until your next mealtime than buying a protein shake
– Your skin is a mirror of what is happening internally
– No such thing as good or bad foods. There is good and bad timing and portion size though!
– Always read the ingredients label. Marketing is a multi-million pound business and it doesn’t always do as it’s says!

Nutritional tips from the top – Winter survival guide: some top tips from the top tier of cycling

– Regular small meals throughout the day. Aim to not go more than three hours without something nutritious to eat. Avoid feeling hungry! This will place more stress on the body
– Healthy snacks such as fruit/vegetable smoothies
– Pint of milk and a banana post training
– Slow release carbohydrates at meal times. Oats for breakfast, Brown rice/pasta for dinner
– Balanced meals 3/4 times a day combining a little protein, carbohydrates and healthy fats with healthy snacks between meals
– Ensuring properly fuelled for a training session. Eating at least one hour before training and then regularly during training
– Staying well hydrated with water, only use sports products alongside water during training and minimal caffeine intake when not competing
– Minimal meals/ snacks from refined food products and restaurants

This article was first published in Cycling Weekly. You can also read our magazines on Zinio and download from the Apple store.