Visit any sports or nutrition store and you’ll find rows and rows of products boasting a variety of benefits and advantages to both your training and actual performance in any given sport. So which products are beneficial for mountain bikers, and most importantly, which ones actually work or have proven benefits?
While there is obviously no replacement for a sound, healthy diet, it is true that there are supplements available which can help improve your performance on the trail and aid in your recovery. Studies have also found that people who are very active may need “higher levels of key energy-producing and muscle-mending nutrients.”
Supplementation can also improve your overall health by addressing deficiencies that may exist in your regular diet. According to Leslie Bonci, MPH, RD, CSSD, RDN, owner of Active Eating Advice and co-author Bike Your Butt Off,
“The more you ride the more you eat, so you’ll naturally get more vitamins and minerals than someone who eats less. But your food choices are key, because some of the ones you need most can be hard to get through diet alone.”
In this article, we’ll explore some of the best supplements, vitamins and minerals for mountain bikers, as well as the benefits they offer active riders.
First things first – before pursuing supplementation, you should start with a solid foundation of a healthy diet and meal plan. A large part of supplementation is addressing gaps and deficiencies in your diet, so first establish a sound diet and take stock of the areas in which you need to compensate or supplement.
So what eating plan is best for mountain biking? What diet should avid riders follow to meet mountain biking’s unique challenges and energy requirements and ensure they’re providing their active bodies with sustained energy throughout the ride? We recommend the paleo diet, but here’s a brief overview.
The Paleolithic diet – most commonly shortened to the “paleo diet” and also known as the caveman diet or stone-age diet – is a diet that consists largely of vegetables, fruits, nuts, roots, meat, and organ meats while omitting grain, dairy and legumes. The diet is based on the foods that early humans ate prior to the Neolithic Revolution, or the period in which humans transitioned from a society based on hunting and gathering to one centered on agriculture.
Grant Hill – NBA All-Star, Olympic gold medalist and paleo follower – sums it up well when he says,
“As a rule of thumb, if it was here a million years ago, then I tend to eat it. If it wasn’t, then I try to stay away from it.”
Those on the paleo diet eat lots of fats for energy, protein to build muscle and maintain health, and limited amounts of carbohydrates for vitamins and minerals.
The paleo diet works to “switch your body from burning carbohydrates to stored body fat as fuel.” It is important to note that paleo is generally not a carb-counting or calorie-counting eating plan. Rather, it is a primal and methodical approach to nutrition.
So why is it better to eat like a caveman? As Nerd Fitness states in its “Beginner’s Guide to the Paleo Diet,” back in the days of the cavemen, grains weren’t part of the diet. Robb Wolf – former research biochemist, New York Times bestselling author and paleo evangelist – uses the example of a 100-yard football field to illustrate the shift in our eating habits. The first 99.5 yards are how long Homo-Sapiens spent as hunter-gatherers. As they became very effective hunters and gatherers, human bodies adapted to that lifestyle over thousands of years. The last half-yard of the field reflects the period after the agricultural revolution, where “our diet has shifted (but our genetics haven’t).”
The hallmark of the agricultural revolution is grain. In his “Definitive Guide to Grains,” Paleo guru Mark Sisson explains that grains are not friendly to our bodies. Grains are made up of carbohydrates and those carbs are converted to glucose, a type of sugar that our bodies use for energy and other functions. Excess glucose that is not used by our bodies is stored as fat.
So, society and the way in which we produce and process food has changed, but our bodies and basic makeup as humans has not. Paleo represents a return to the diet for which our bodies are designed.
“The essential dietary principles of The Paleo Diet for Athletes are straightforward: you can eat as much lean meat, poultry, seafood, fresh fruit and veggies as you like.”
Foods that are not paleo-friendly include “cereal grains, dairy products, high-glycemic fruits and vegetables, legumes, alcohol, salty foods, fatty meats, refined sugars, and nearly all processed foods.”
Protein comes in many forms, but in regards to supplements one of the most common iterations is whey protein, a milk by-product. There is a reason that huge jars of whey protein adorn the shelves of many athletes and exercise enthusiasts – it’s an easy to prepare, no-risk product that gets results. International Mountain Bicycling Association (IMBA) instructor and enduro racer, Gunnar Waldman, recommends consuming “a 25-gram serving of whey protein immediately after a ride or workout to ensure maximum recovery.” Waldman highlights whey’s fast absorption, high bioavailability and “great amino acid profile” as some of its key benefits. Not to mention,
“It’s also easier (and cheaper) to down a protein shake than to prepare a meal immediately after a ride.”
There is a multitude of options available for whey protein powder, as well as bars that contain whey protein. They will all do the job so just head to your local nutrition or health food store and try different products until you find what’s right for you.
Branched chain amino acids (BCAAs)
BCAAs are made up of three essential amino acids: leucine, isoleucine and valine. They are helpful in repairing muscle, as well as energy production.
Waldman suggests BCAAs as a great mid-ride supplement, recommending a scoop in your water bottle. As an added bonus, some BCAA powders also include electrolytes to help curb dehydration.
Confused between BCAA’s and protein? Waldman offers this clarification: “BCAA’s can be taken just before and during exercise, and whey protein is for right after (though there are some studies that show a bit of BCAA’s added to your protein shake after is also beneficial).”
If you’ve spent any amount of time around sports or exercise, you’ve heard about electrolytes, which are “essential for rehydration, assisting fluid balance and absorption.” According to Rick Rockwell of Livestrong.com, electrolytes
“Balanced within your body to allow it to maintain proper water amounts in your body, balance blood acidity, allow for proper muscle action, and to allow other important processes to occur.”
Sweat also releases electrolytes, so consuming foods, drinks or supplements that contain electrolytes is key in order to replenish these critical substances.
It is important to consume electrolytes during exercise, and Waldman says a good rule of thumb is “the longer you are going to ride, the more carbs you need added to your electrolytes (from 0 for short rides to 14 grams per 8 oz of liquid or more for longer rides).”
Known as “the sunshine vitamin,” vitamin D is essential for healthy bodies yet most of us don’t get enough – three-quarters of U.S. teens and adults are deficient in vitamin D according to one study.
“it’s virtually impossible to get enough just through food,”
a fact that can be attributed to few naturally occurring foods that are rich in vitamin D.
Some foods that are in fact good sources of vitamin D include fatty fish like salmon, tuna, and mackerel; cheese and egg yolks; and fortified milk. But as you can tell from this list, the sources are limited and for most people, their intake doesn’t amount to enough to make a real difference. Naturally, you can also get vitamin D from the sun but even the most outdoorsy among us still spends far too much time inside to regularly maintain an adequate level of vitamin D.
So why should mountain bikers care about vitamin D? According to Selene Yeager of Bicycling, Vitamin D is a
“key player in building bones, making and maintaining muscle, and revving metabolism.”
It can also “boost your aerobic capacity, muscle growth, muscle force, and power, and shorten your recovery time from hard bouts of exercise, as well as improve bone density.” Sounds like a pretty solid list of benefits for a mountain biker, right? Not to mention the fact that research has found that a vitamin D deficiency can increase your risk of cancer, heart disease and diabetes.
While vitamin D is good stuff, in this case it is possible to have too much of a good thing. Yeager recommends supplementing with “doses ranging between 1000 and 5000 IU of vitamin D3 (the most effective type for increasing vitamin D plasma levels) per day.”
If you’re prone to colds and other ailments, you’ve probably loaded up on vitamin C before. While vitamin C is definitely an immunity booster, its benefits extend beyond fending off the sniffles. Vitamin C also helps fight cardiovascular disease, ensures healthy eyes and prevents wrinkles.
According to Yeager, a mere 10 to 20 percent of adults get their recommended 9 servings of fruits and veggies each day, the key source of the vitamin. Bonci lists citrus fruits, tomatoes, strawberries, pineapple, peppers, kale, cantaloupe, broccoli, cauliflower, and red cabbage as foods rich in vitamin C. If you’re not seeing much of these foods in your diet, you can make up for it safely with vitamin C supplements. Bonci recommends no more than 500mg a day.
An antioxidant vitamin, vitamin E protects your cells. Vitamin E especially protects cells in the muscles and lungs, which “take a beating during intense cycling efforts—and appears to improve lung health as well as breathing capacity at altitude.”
This essential nutrient is found mainly in oils like olive oil and nuts and based on recent research, is best attained through foods as supplements “don’t appear to offer the same protection —and in fact may be harmful.”
Yeager recommends eating a handful or two of almonds every day. One ounce – roughly 25 nuts – provides over a third of your daily requirement (15 mg per day for adults). Eggs, leafy greens such as spinach, and fortified cereals are also great sources of vitamin E.
Are your joints often sore and achy following a ride? Vitamin K2 may be right for you. According to renowned author and professional mountain bike coach, James Wilson, this little known vitamin found in fermented bean paste can offer relief for the pain and discomfort many riders feel in their joints. How? Wilson says it is because K2 offers two unique benefits: it directs calcium to your bones and joints and reduces chronic inflammation. Wilson especially recommends K2 for mountain bikers 40 and older suffering from sore and achy joints. K2 can be found in foods like chicken breast, salami & egg yolk.
Sometimes referred to as “the food converter,” magnesium is an essential mineral that plays a key role in maintaining healthy blood pressure, bone development, blood sugar, and muscle and nerve function. Magnesium also processes carbs and fats to produce fuel for the body. According to Yeager, magnesium is found “across the food chain in a variety of plant and animal foods: green leafy vegetables, legumes, nuts, seeds, and whole grains; fish, poultry and beef.” Chocolate is also a source of magnesium (ah, now we have your attention, don’t we?)
As the comprehensive list above implies, magnesium is fairly easy to get, but as Yeager states, it is “also easy to lose” because “When you ride hard, you pee and sweat out enough magnesium to increase your requirements by up to 20 percent.” So if you’re not getting your recommended daily allotment of magnesium – 320mg for women and 420mg for men – you will easily become deficient.
Magnesium deficiency is no joke either as it maintains muscle and bone and prevents “loss of both as we age.” In addition to chowing down on the foods above, Yeager recommends that active cyclists consider taking a 400mg magnesium supplement to “keep your levels in the optimum zone.”
Iron is a key mineral due to its role in carrying oxygen. Yeager describes it as “the mineral workhorse” as it builds the red blood cells “that carry fresh oxygen to your muscles via your bloodstream.” If your iron is lacking, you may develop iron-deficiency anemia, which can leave you “chronically tired.” That’s one way to cramp your riding.
Women have an increased risk of iron deficiency due to menstruation as do those who are active because they lose iron through sweat and “red blood cell breakdown.”
Iron is not a difficult to incorporate into your diet, as meat, poultry and seafood are all good sources of “heme iron,” which the body absorbs more easily than other sources of iron such as plant sources.
In order to “maximize the amount of iron your body absorbs,” Yeager recommends eating iron-rich foods with vitamin C-rich foods, such as citrus, peppers, leafy greens, and tomatoes” as vitamin C aides in increasing the absorption rate of plant foods-based iron.
Iron can help ensure your power and efficiency on the bike. Women ages 19 to 50 need at least 18mg of iron a day, while older women and men need 8mg per day. Like other minerals, it is possible to get too much iron so start with natural iron first. If you’re deficient, consult your doctor before taking supplements. But if you are lacking in iron, ensure you find a way to get this key mineral back up as you will definitely notice it in regards to your performance on the bike.
You don’t have to go far to find an article about the incredible health benefits of antioxidants. So what are antioxidants? Antioxidants are powerful substances that prevent or prohibit the oxidation of other molecules within our bodies.
According to Nutrex Hawaii, our bodies naturally produce free radicals, which have damaging effects. Luckily the human body also produces antioxidants to counteract the damaging effects of free radicals. Antioxidants do this by neutralizing and removing free radicals from the bloodstream.
The bad news is that free radicals typically greatly outnumber naturally occurring antioxidants. Thus, it is necessary to ensure you’re getting lots of antioxidants in your diet. How can you up your antioxidant game? Dr. Kevin Currell of Bike Radar offers the following tips for finding common sources of antioxidants and ensuring you consume an adequate amount:
Eat five portions of fruit per day
Eat five portions of vegetables per day
Steam your vegetables rather than boil them
Add herbs to your food
Add extra virgin olive oil and balsamic vinegar to meals
Look for foods which are dark in color such as berries
You might try to avoid these, but in moderation they help provide powerful antioxidants:
Red wine: a glass a day is plenty
Dark chocolate: stick to two or three small squares a day
Looking for a mountain biking superfood that is loaded with antioxidants, portable and delicious? Look no further than the apple. While apples come in second to blueberries in terms of the amount of antioxidants they pack, “they’re easier to carry on the bike than almost any fruit,” says Bob Seebohar, a sports dietitian with the U.S. Olympic Committee.
According to Seebohar, soluble fiber is something else mountain bikers must ensure they’re getting as it “helps escort bad cholesterol out of your body.”
In this category, Seebohar continues his praise of the almighty apple. “Of all fruits, apples are the best at controlling the blood-lipid problems that can lead to heart disease,” he says. He also points out that the sugar found in apples is primarily fructose, which “provides the steady, predictable release of energy you need on long rides.” Whereas fruits like bananas can cause spikes in your blood sugar, apples provide a more consistent level of sugar and energy.
While you may need a couple for longer rides, consider an apple for one of your mid-ride snacks the next time you hit the trail to ensure natural, sustained energy and soluble fiber.
While all of these supplements offer tremendous benefits to mountain bikers, most will be of little use without proper hydration. Hydration is key, especially in relation to water soluble vitamins. If you are not properly hydrated your body will not be able to absorb water soluble vitamins, even if you are supplementing them.
Collegiate athletic trainer, Darren Board, says that riders can “lose up to 67 ounces of fluid per hour during physical activity.” With this in mind, it is critical to ensure you are getting the fluids you need in order to truly enjoy the benefits and overall health improvements that supplementation offers.
It’s the mountain bike trip you’ve been waiting for all year – multiple days on some of the best singletrack around. But after a couple of big days in the saddle, your muscles are sore and tight and you’re only part-way into the trip…the best riding is still ahead! What do you do?
James Wilson relays a similar story from an eight-day mountain biking trip he took to Bend, Oregon – a mountain biking mecca in the western United States. One of the key pieces of his recovery strategy was supplementation to help “plug in any gaps [he] wasn’t getting from food alone and hel[p] control the damage from all the riding [he] was doing.”
Wilson recommends Total Primate Care by ONNIT labs, a “total body and brain supplement.” Total Primate Care consists of day and night packs, filled with targeted vitamins, minerals, herbs, and amino acids.
Waldman recommends lactate buffers like Sportlegs, Hammer’s Race Day Boost or Anti-fatigue caps as supplements to help “reduce fatigue and control lactic acid during really hard efforts and races.”
Before you launch into supplementation, it is wise to come up with a plan. Here are a few considerations and pointers:
Evaluate your diet before buying loads of supplements – If, for example, you regularly eat lots of fresh fruits and vegetables, vitamin C supplements are likely a waste of money. Carefully analyze your diet and any deficiencies before you do anything.
Can you get it naturally? An extension of the point above, but consider whether there are natural, whole food sources before pursuing supplements as, in most cases, natural is better. Are you magnesium deficient? Think about increasing the amount of green, leafy vegetables in your diet before going down the path of supplements.
When in doubt, ask your doctor – If you’re unsure about whether a supplement is safe, compatible with prescriptions, a good idea based on existing conditions, etc. don’t risk it. Schedule an appointment and talk with your doctor about the supplements you’re considering. It is always good to have a second, expert opinion.
Consider your budget – While some supplements like whey protein are relatively inexpensive, others can be quite pricey. If cost is a factor for you, ensure you’re creating a supplementation plan that is feasible for your situation and won’t break the bank.
Establish goals – Paired with some of the considerations above, it’s important to have objectives. Don’t just buy supplements because you were told they’re good for active people, or more specifically mountain bikers. Carefully consider your goals. For example, do you want to recover faster following rides? Are you looking for a supplement to make you a stronger rider? Do you find you often lack energy on a ride? Are your joints often achy? Perhaps you just don’t feel healthy when you’re riding…you always seem to be on the cusp of another illness. Each of these areas may require different supplements and approaches so think through your goals and plan accordingly.
Consider the feasibility of supplements – It is wise to also consider your schedule, lifestyle and routines in the context of a supplementation plan. If you frequently travel or have little free time, an intensive plan that requires you to consume multiple supplements throughout the day, every day may not be realistic.
As the legendary songwriting duo of Lennon-McCartney so eloquently stated, “I get by with a little help from my friends.” A healthy diet is irreplaceable, especially for athletes in a demanding sport such as mountain biking. However, there are vitamins, minerals and other substances that, despite the most well-rounded diet, are often lacking from the average person’s daily regimen. Supplementation can help fill in the gaps and can be a powerful tool for mountain bikers looking to maximize their energy, optimize performance and improve their overall health. If there are areas of your riding that you feel could use improvement or elements of your diet that are lacking, supplementation may be right for you.
So keep in touch and get out on the trails.
About The Author
Like any sport, bicycling involves risk of injury and damage. By choosing to ride a bicycle, you assume the responsibility for that risk, so you need to know — and to practice — the rules of safe and responsible riding and of proper use and maintenance. Proper use and maintenance of your bicycle reduces risk of injury.