Food swaps to boost your cycling fitness (video)

Simple food changes to boost your performance, reduce your waistline and improve your health. Words by Marc Abbott

Forget the latest diet fads — who wants to eat like a caveman, or eat nothing at all for two days of the week? Entering into a restrictive and wholly new way of eating is rarely going to feel rewarding or be sustainable, especially if your aim is to lose weight or become a better athlete. 

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A much more achievable goal for all of us is to give our diet a little spring-clean, and to introduce some new ingredients known to promote better body function, help prevent us from illness or otherwise up our chances of riding harder, further and quicker this year.

The best results come from gradual change, so don’t even think of detoxing or cutting your overall calorie intake in half — just select a handful of easy wins from our simple food swaps to change your dietary habits for the better and hit the summer in the best of nutritional health, and at the peak of your fitness.

Pre-ride breakfast

The most important breakfast rule is making sure you have one. Although it can be easy to skip it, if you’re in a rush or on a weight-loss plan, it’s essential to fuel a morning ride that’s anything more than a low-intensity recovery spin.


Swap: toast with jam
For: toast with peanut butter
Calorie saving: 100

OK, so on the face of it jam seems healthy enough — it’s made from fruit after all. However, because these fruits have been heated to produce the preserve, they’ve been stripped of most of their vitamin C and other nutrients. Jam is also pretty high in sugar.

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And although a smattering of butter won’t harm (it’s arguably easier for the body to process than hydrogenated fats such as margarine), it’s worth avoiding for its calorific impact. Ensuring you spread some peanut butter on your toast (wholegrain toast, if you have it) will help to top up your glycogen stores and to help fuel your ride.

Egg and soldier in egg cup

Swap: white bagel with cream cheese
For: boiled egg and wholemeal soldiers
Calorie saving: 130

A whole white bagel, although incredibly filling and chock-full of carbs (around 50g per bagel), is a starchy affair that’s been stripped of all the potential goodness of a wholegrain breakfast. Besides being very high in calories, they’re no substitute for a small regiment of wholegrain soldiers, which will also bring essential nutrients and fibre to your diet.

A single boiled egg will provide a great deal of your essential vitamins, such as vitamin K for stronger bones and better bloodflow, and B vitamins such as choline, for healthy cells and an altogether stronger immune system.

At the cafe

We’ve all been there; you get to the cafe stop and there is a veritable Alladin’s cave of sweet treats laid out at the counter. Resist! Or at the very least, make these sensible swaps to get you home sensibly.


Swap: chocolate muffin
For: fruit flapjack
Calorie saving: 300

The whopping calorie, sugar and fat content in your beloved muffin relegates it to the ‘avoid at all costs’ category. Yes, there are some claimed health benefits to chocolate — especially dark chocolate that contains more than 70 per cent cocoa, which is high in antioxidants and claimed by some studies to lower blood pressure  — but there are better mid-ride snacks to opt for.  

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A fruit flapjack will top up your glycogen levels, with around 40g of carbohydrate, and the low GI oat content will offer slow-release energy and help you feel fuller for longer, providing steady fuelling for the return leg of your ride.

Espresso coffee

Swap: latte
For: espresso
Calorie saving: 100

The last thing you want when you leave the cafe is a big cup of milky liquid sitting on your stomach, and a latte is worth avoiding as a mid-ride drink for its calorie content alone. Espresso is your best option if you’re in need of an energy boost.

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For the expense of around 10 calories for a single espresso without sugar, you’re getting a very sizeable dose of caffeine — around 200mg, almost double the amount found in a mug of instant coffee. Scientific studies have found the effect to be higher after the intake of carbohydrates, so make sure to eat at the cafe.

This mega-dose of caffeine will also act as a mental stimulant, reducing fatigue and helping you to focus better. Don’t go too crazy, though — the accepted safe level of caffeine intake is 400mg per day.


Swap: a slice of carrot cake
For: a slice of walnut and coffee cake
Calorie saving: 80

Carrots. They’re good for you, though, aren’t they? Well, yes — the beta-carotene found in everyone’s favourite orange veg has been found to have a marked influence on performance, helping to reduce oxidative stress. But the beta-carotene in a carrot cake is nowhere near as much as in a raw carrot.

The amount we can absorb lessens as a carrot is cooked or processed. So all you’re left with from your cake is a few bits of stringy carrot and a heap of sugar-filled icing. With walnut cake you’re including omega-3 for cell regulation and vitamin E for a healthy heart. Plus, some of the tannins and flavanols found in walnuts include antioxidant and anti-inflammatory nutrients not readily available from other foods.

Snacking on the go

Mid-ride snack

A fruit flapjack packed with oats mid-ride will keep you feeling fuller for longer thanks to a low GI level and slow-release energy. 

Post-ride snack

It makes perfect sense to refuel within 30 minutes of your ride, but try to make sure that you’re helping your body to recover properly.

Salmon sandwich

Swap: fish finger sandwich
For: a salmon sandwich
Calorie saving: 50

A fish finger has six times the fat of an equivalent weight of baked cod, and while mashing a few up in a sandwich can be protein-packed comfort food heaven (which also has vitamin B12 for healthy red blood cells), that crunchy coating is a no-no.

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Using fresh salmon in your snack provides a decent 25g of protein per 100g, plus omega-3 fatty acids to promote a healthy heart. In addition, salmon contains antioxidant vitamin A, the tissue-repairing vitamin B and bone-strengthening vitamin D.

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Afternoon munchies

It’s easy to knock your training for six, or add inches to your waistline, with unhealthy daytime snacking. However, with the right choices you can make your nibbling work
to your advantage.


Swap: 30g of yoghurt covered raisins
For: 30g of plain raisins
Calorie saving: 50

A simple, yet incredibly effective swap. Yoghurt-coated raisins might as well be a packet of sweets for all the good they’ll do you. The ‘yoghurt’ coating is likely to be high in fat (about 5g per 30g of weight), and much of this is saturated fat (which is linked to poor cardiovascular health).

You’re also looking at around 20g of sugar — about the same as a Snickers bar! Sticking to plain raisins gives you antioxidant copper and zinc, heart-healthy potassium, the anti-inflammatory anthocyanins and the cholesterol-lowering phyto-chemical compound resveratrol. Dig in!

Cashew nuts

Swap: 30g of trail mix
For: 30g of cashews
Calorie saving: 100

Fruit and nuts: what could be healthier? There’s no denying that nuts are packed with heart-healthy fats and contain useful doses of antioxidant vitamin E, but in a packet of trail mix, the goodness is outweighed by the calorie content and processing of ingredients.

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Often full of nuts with added salt, and sugar-rich fruits, you will even find some of the ingredients have been fried. Stick to a single ingredient you can trust. Cashews contain calcium and magnesium for healthy bones, heart-healthy mono-unsaturated fats, plus antioxidants like copper, plus zinc and magnesium.

Cheese and tomatoSwap: cheese on toast
For: cheese and tomato crisp bread toastie
Calorie saving: 120

Choose a wholegrain crisp bread for this swap and you’re winning on many levels. The big saving is in the calorie content of your snack, but by eschewing thickly sliced cheese and white bread in favour of wholegrain Ryvita, for example, you’re getting a 100-calorie snack that’s relatively low in fat and which also helps to bolster your B vitamins and minerals, to assist with tissue repair, the production of red blood cells and aid with energy production.

Wholegrain is high in iron, for muscle function, and zinc, essential for your immune system.

What if you fancy a drink?

Cyclist drinking wine alcohol

A glass of red wine is not only lower in calories than a pint of beer, it’s high in anti-inflammatory resveratrol, so you can almost claim it’s for ‘medicinal purposes’.

Evening meals

Don’t let all your good work go to pot in the evening. Here are a selection of performance-boosting swaps that will see you through to bedtime.

Tandoori chicken

Swap: chicken tikka masala
For: Tandoori chicken
Calorie saving: 100

Yes, there is such a thing as a healthy curry. If a ruby is top of your Friday night supper
wish-list, making the simple swap from more popular dishes such as tikka masala — and especially korma — will allow you to indulge your passion for spice at the same time as cutting out a huge number of calories and saturated fat.

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Tandoori meals aren’t cooked in sat-fat-laden ghee (instead they’re dry-cooked in a traditional oven), so you’re on to a winner immediately. Then factor in the anti-inflammatory benefits of turmeric and the fact that the dish is served more usually with a salad than rice, and it’s a protein-packed meal fit for an athlete.

Meat steak

Swap: quarter-pounder burger
For: 8oz sirloin steak
Calorie saving: 100

If you’re craving red meat, fling the burger away like a meaty frisbee and get the skillet on. A quarter-pounder is dripping in saturated fat, very high in salt, and also cholesterol. Sirloin is one of the leanest cuts of beef you can find, and is a fantastic source of protein (around 70g from your 8oz steak), if you’re looking for a decadent evening meal to aid recovery. It’s also high in iron, which is essential for the transport of oxygen to your muscles.

Accompany the steak with leafy greens such as kale (which is packed with vitamin K) and you’re also helping to protect yourself from heart disease and bolstering bone density. If you’e frying, use olive oil rather than vegetable oil — it contains omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids, which help to reduce cell damage.

Quorn mince chilli

Swap: chilli con carne and 100g of rice
For: quorn mince chilli and 100g of quinoa
Calorie saving: 250

Minced beef contains almost 20g of fat per 100g of meat, while starchy white rice in the same amount packs around 300 calories. Quinoa isn’t called a ‘super-grain’ for nothing. It’s high in carbohydrate (60g per 100g), high in protein (14g per 100g), contains almost double the fibre content of any other grain, and is bursting with useful nutrients such as iron, plus all nine essential amino acids (including lysine, for the repair and growth of tissue). It’s also particularly high in the antioxidant chemical manganese, which protects cells from damage.

Quorn mince is incredibly low in fat (just 2g per 100g of mince), and still provides around 5g or carbs and 15g of protein per 100g. This swap is perfect for a vegetarian cyclist who might otherwise struggle with getting their protein from plant sources.