I am not a long-distance cyclist. I have never biked much past 30 miles at once, let alone a century ride. Rather it’s safe to say I simply enjoy bicycling, full stop, as a way to check out America’s incredible trails.
But I DO love food (I have designed entire vacations after cuisine), and I was very excited to attend the panel, Pedaler’s Palate: Food, Cycling + How They Collide, at SXSW 2018 in Austin—which was moderated by Kate Powlison of Sram, and presented by chef and former Ironman and TEAM USA Triathlon athlete Lentine Alexis, writer/author Tom Vanderbilt (“You May Also Like: Taste in Age of Endless Choice,” Wired, Outside); and former professional cyclist Ted King of UnTapped.
As excited as I was, I admit I was still expecting a lot of discussion to focus on granola and protein bars (which I don’t enjoy)—with maybe a “favorite recipe” for bicyclists thrown in to inspire me. But what I got instead were some great insights on the real foods movement, how motion impacts what we crave, and why listening to our bodies—and not other cyclists (yes, I see the irony)—is so important for keeping our bodies and our minds happy.
I won’t recap the whole thing, as you can listen to it right here! But here are is some high-level “food for thought.”
Don’t overlook the pleasure of eating.
Vanderbilt mentioned sensory-specific satiety, which is just a very fancy way of saying that once we start to eat a food, the pleasure of eating that food immediately begins to decline. And so, improving the long-distance cycling experience (whether you’re an athlete or not) is often about choosing foods that will wake up your palate.
He mentions a ride in Italy where he came to a rest stop and was pleased to refuel on foods such as ribollita stew, sheep’s milk cheese, prosciutto, figs—and even red wine. “It was amazing,” he stated. “The same food experience in different conditions can give you a whole lot of pleasure and affect sensorily how you experience it. At that moment, as depleted as I was, it was a real revelation.”
And there was a shared notion that choosing foods that were emotionally satisfying was an important part of the equation, because health is both physical and mental.
Chicken fried rice helped bring in the real foods movement.
“Food needs to be functional for us,” said Alexis, adding that the satisfaction of our emotions is important in making the types of food choices we need for our physical and mental wellbeing. The former culinary director for Skratch Labs affirmed that this was what inspired Skratch Labs Founder Allen Lim to help usher in the real foods movement after serving chicken fried rice to cyclists and noticing an immediate improvement in both mood and performance.
“You can’t eat chicken fried rice on a bike,” acknowledged Alexis, “but you can take a little more time [beforehand] to prepare something for yourself that doesn’t provide any less benefit than something packaged.”
"The more I attempted to use real food to fuel my cravings, from carrots to donuts, the better I performed as an athlete," she said.
It’s not about permission.
One of the attendees pointed out that the panelists—each in their own way—had touched on the notion in the cycling world of “giving oneself permission” to make food choices; it was in fact a theme that came up throughout the discussion.
King summed up the thought process from his perspective as a cyclist who in Italy had once subsided during training periods on meals consisting of things such as crackers and jam for breakfast, and boiled vegetables for lunch. “The greater success you have … often the more controlled you are, and that’s where the ‘permission’ comes in,” he explained.
Vanderbilt acknowledged the noise (and food shaming) that can come from other riders, and Alexis touched on her own need—as an athlete of 25—to sever the bad relationships/misconceptions she’d had about food as her Ironman career took off.
The consensus from the panelists: Don’t seek permission from others; listen to your own body [and your doctor, of course].
“The more I gave in to what my body was asking for, the better I felt … [and the more proud I was of myself] and what I was able to achieve. That’s an empowering experience,” said Alexis.
And that brings me to my last theme from the talk, which was …
Listen to your body.
There wasn’t really a specific food that every panelist called out as the one (though cookies and figs seemed to be popular). The primary focus of this talk—one that rang loud and clear—was that cyclists and athletes ultimately need to listen to themselves and their bodies when it comes to making food choices.
There was, of course, some useful nuggets of advice. For example, King urged riders to “Be aware of the bigger picture,” mentioning that individuals should always consider their larger goals and aspirations in mind—for the week, and for the month and beyond.
But at the end of the day—it was all about listening to your own body tell you what it needs. “If you’re craving something salty, there’s probably a reason. If you’re craving carbs, there’s probably a reason,” said Alexis.
“Feeling like a vibrant person—everybody has the opportunity to decide what that feels like. Trust your body and what it’s asking for.”