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Health myths: busted!

29 July, 2011

Confused about conflicting advice regarding what to eat and how to get the most out of riding a bike? You’re not alone!  Alison Walsh asked the experts to set the record straight.

 All fat should be avoided in my diet to lose weight

It is true that if you carry excess body fat, lowering levels can assist riding performance, especially when riding long distances or up hills. The power-to-weight ratio will be higher (in other words, more of your weight will be ‘useful’ or ‘strong’ weight).  However, to do this, you need to look at total dietary intake, not just the fats you eat.  If you are consuming more energy (kilojoules or calories) than you burn up, you will gain weight or be unable to lose it.  This might be in the form of more carbohydrates or protein than you need rather than just dietary fat.

If you feel eating less fat may be the way to go, consider decreasing more of the unhealthy saturated fats before you reduce intake of healthier unsaturated fats.  In other words, fats from foods like olives, avocado, fish, nuts and canola oil contain essential fatty acids needed for healthy bodies, so provide benefits.  On the other hand, fats from animal sources (butter, full cream dairy, skin on chicken, fat on meat) as well as palm and coconut oil can increase heart disease risk and are not conducive to good health.

Also, check your alcohol intake.  If drinking more than two standard drinks daily, without two alcohol-free days weekly, you may be risking more than just your weight.  Alcohol contains more kilojoules per gram than carbohydrate and protein, and worse still, is often accompanied or followed with high-fat foods, further increasing kilojoule intake.

Alison Walsh, Accredited Sports Dietitian  (03) 9853 2017

I need a sports drink each time I ride

No, you don’t necessarily. When riding for less than an hour, on cool days (less than 25°C), you are unlikely to need a sports drink for energy, provided you have eaten some carbohydrate-rich food before your ride. Moreover, if weight management is a goal for better performance on the bike, drinking a sports drink on each ride may be counterproductive.

Having said that, sports drinks are very handy for longer rides (generally greater than one hour), in warm or hot conditions, or when you’ve not eaten any carbohydrate for the few hours prior. Sports drinks contain both electrolytes (salts) to replace those you lose in sweat, as well as quickly absorbed carbohydrates, useful to boost energy levels, mental stamina and keep you exercising harder for longer. Of course, the fluid is also handy to prevent or reduce the risk of dehydration, in a palatable from.  Used under the correct circumstances, they are an excellent performance enhancing tool.

Riding a bike will damage your knees

Whilst knee pain is common in cyclists, cycling is also commonly prescribed by physiotherapists as an exercise treatment for sore knees.  Cycling can be much easier on the knees than running, and provides non-weight-bearing strength training for the surrounding muscles of the knee and hips.

The main cause of knee pain in cyclists is the maltracking of the knee cap.  On most occasions, the solution is ensuring seat height is correct.  The knee cap tracks up and down in a small groove on the femur (thigh bone). If your bike seat is too low, the compressive force on the joint is significantly increased, causing pain. The other reason the knee cap tracks out of its groove, is an imbalance of the thigh muscles. Generally the outer thigh muscles become too strong in comparison to the small inner thigh muscle.

To minimise the chances of knee pain, ensure you have correct seat height. Also, strengthen the inner thigh muscles by doing straight leg lifts while lying on the floor, with your foot turned outwards.  A sports physio can help make sure you are doing this correctly.

Andrew Kokinos, B.Physio (Hons), APA Sports Physiotherapist

Peak Physiotherapy (03) 98172203

Riding a bike is bad for my back

Do you sometimes get off your bike and think, “Gee, my back is stiff and sore?”.  This is a very common complaint, and posture adopted while cycling is often the cause. Many people allow their backs to be arched towards the sky instead of maintaining their spine in a neutral position. When you ride for an hour or two, the spinal joints are on a constant stretch and the muscles are in constant contraction so you feel pain and stiffness. You can liken the feeling to standing and leaning slightly forward for an hour or two!

Correct posture while riding will alleviate pain and stiffness.  Aim to move your chest slightly towards the handlebars while bringing your shoulder blades back towards your mid-spine. Also try to roll your pelvis slightly forward, which will encourage your spine to keep its natural curves.

In addition, hip flexor muscles (front of your hips, called the iliopsoas) are in a shortened position when you cycle and can therefore become chronically tight.  Due to the muscle attachment onto the lower spine, it can pull on the spine, which can also be a cause of back pain.  Always remember to stretch your hip flexor muscles after riding.

Andrew Kokinos, B.Physio (Hons), APA Sports Physiotherapist

Peak Physiotherapy (03) 98172203

More training equals better performance

Have you heard that ‘training harder will bring about bigger improvements in cycling performance’? This assumption has infiltrated the training sessions of many avid cyclists leading to short-term improvements for some, and little change or reduced performance for others.

So, why doesn’t training harder work for everyone? The answer is quite simple!  Differences in a person’s aerobic fitness or ‘aerobic engine’ will result in different exercise intensities (%VO2max) and power outputs being tolerated and sustained. Equate this to a car engine: a larger engine is not only more powerful but can sustain a higher work output for longer. This is a great analogy to use to explain why some of us can tolerate higher workloads in our longer training rides, leading to large performance improvements, while others cannot. The key to improving your endurance cycling performance is to train at an intensity that is both challenging to your physiology (‘aerobic engine’) but at the same time sustainable. This by definition will vary between cyclists in accordance with their engine size (VO2max) and training history.

So the take-home message for performance improvement is to maximise the quality of each training session by individualising the intensity or workload to your own physiology, rather than that of your mate riding next to you!

Dr Melissa Arkinstall- Exercise Research Australia (ERA), Thornbury Vic

For further information contact ERA on (03) 9480 1800

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