If you’re serious about cycling, you’ll know what an important role nutrition plays in your performance. We caught up with Olympic medallist, National Road Race Champion and Cycleplan Ambassador Lizzie Deignan to find out how she fuels her champion training regime…
What are the biggest challenges of eating a vegetarian diet while also being a high-level competitor?
I find the biggest challenge is finding nutritious and balanced meals whilst travelling. I spend around 150 days a year on the road, so I sometimes have to rely on motorway service stations or airport cafes for food – in the UK this is relatively straightforward! There seems to be an increase in the number of vegetarians in the UK and so the range of food available to us has increased too.
However, in Europe I am often stuck without any vegetarian options, let alone a healthy one! This means I need to be well prepared and have food with me to ensure I can still recover properly post training or racing. The food I have might not be fresh but at least I know I will not be left hungry or lacking sufficient protein, which is essential after a hard race.
Do you find getting enough protein and carbohydrates a challenge? What foods would you recommend to other vegetarian cyclists, both on training days and when resting?
I don’t find getting enough protein or carbs a challenge – I’ve had plenty of practice creating different recipes to fulfil my needs. A favourite of mine in the summer post-training would be scrambled eggs with avocado, spinach and tomato quinoa. I sprinkle my eggs with paprika to give them a little extra flavour.
This is a well-balanced meal that’s easy to prepare post-training. When I’m in the UK and need something warm after training, another favourite would be beans on whole grain toast. Again, it’s very simple, but it provides both carbs and protein.
Do you think there are any particular benefits of being a vegetarian athlete and, if so, what do you think these are?
Being an athlete, you have to consider whether your meals have enough of everything you need. As a vegetarian, you are forced to be creative, which I find makes me more adventurous with my cooking.
Following a strict diet based on performance can be tedious, but because I enjoy the variety of my diet, it makes it easier to follow.
What do you eat on an average training day? Do you have set meal plans or do your meals vary?
The only meal that stays the same every day is breakfast. I always start with a big bowl of porridge, made with oats, chia seeds, coconut oil, milk, almond milk and raisins. I always have a double espresso to help wake me up too! During any ride that’s over 2 hours, I then eat flapjacks or bananas or a croissant at the cafe stop.
I usually have lunch as soon as I get off the bike. A go-to for that would be salad and an omelette with some kind of carbs.
I usually plan my evening meals 3 days in advance, based on what training I have planned – there may be a higher carb meal if I have a lot of hours lined up. I personally find it more enjoyable to plan 3 tasty different meals – it also saves money and food waste!
How (if at all) does your diet change in the run-up to an event such as the Tour de Yorkshire?
Any change I make to my diet is very minimal. I find that maintaining a rhythm in my diet and sleep are really important – I don’t respond well to extremes. If I have a big race coming up and I need to be as lean as possible, then I start cutting out my ‘treats’ about 5 weeks out.
That doesn’t mean that I stop having desserts totally! It’s more about paying attention to small things such as how much sugar I put in my coffee, choosing an espresso instead of a latte etc.
After you’ve completed an event, do you allow a few days where you don’t worry about nutrition? Or do you carry on with your diet plan?
I’ve reached a point in my career where I can maintain my weight without overly restricting myself, so I don’t feel the need to overindulge. When I was a younger athlete, I would always binge after a race because I made bad choices and would get into a pattern of being hungry then binging.
With experience, I’ve learned to eat a diet that’s maintainable and gives my metabolism a fair chance of knowing what to expect from my diet. Post-race, you’re very likely to be in a calorie deficit and enjoy a bigger meal than usual anyway!
When you’re refuelling after a ride, what’s your favourite snack/meal?
My favourite food to refuel with is eggs. They can be made so quickly and easily and in so many different ways.
What advice would you give to any cyclists who are thinking about going vegetarian?
If any cyclists are thinking of becoming vegetarian, then I would suggest giving it a go. There’s definitely no harm in trying it!
Be prepared to be experimental and open to new foods – you can’t just take out meat from your existing meals, you need to learn new ways of eating.
How often do you have to consult with a nutritionist (if at all), and if you do, what do you discuss with them?
I don’t use a nutritionist because at this stage in my career I feel like I know my body well enough to know how to fuel it.
Nutrition is a vital part of performance and general health, so I would definitely advocate getting advice from an expert if you think you are neglecting this part of your training or daily life.
And finally, if you could have any cheat meal in the world without worrying about nutrition what would it be?
Cheesy chip butty with lots of salt and vinegar!