Fulfil your potential

Life would be boring without a few guilty pleasures, adrenaline from work and the odd late night out, but if you’re overindulging, you’re damaging your health and won’t fulfil your potential in the saddle, says Mark Robinson…

When deciding on your big riding targets, there is always room for improvement when it comes to how you train for them, but also room for improvement on a daily basis away from the bike – in terms of what you consume and how you take care of your body. With the help of a panel of experts, we take a look at five common lifestyle and health hazards and how cutting them out – or drastically reducing them – can improve your general health but especially your cycling…

Junk Food

You can’t seem to look at the news these days without reading about how people are fatter than ever. Alcohol can be a factor but globally we are consuming more fatty and processed foods than ever. Convenience foods may make our lives easier, but they are making them harder in other ways and cutting our takeaways and microwave meals can certainly help make that hill climb easier.

“The key thing relating to processed food is its lack of nutritional ‘bio-availability,’” says Dr Simon Jobson, a physiologist at the University of Winchester.
“This means it’s difficult to get the goodness and nutrients that we need out of those foods. Processed foods contain toxins and rubbish that are worse for you than foods that are fatty but natural.”

“Cyclists need high-quality carbohydrate and protein and you’re not going to receive them from processed foods,” says Dr Carl Hulston of Loughborough University. “Frozen pizzas, canned food and takeaways are some of the worst offenders. Theses have been shown to make people lethargic. I recently completed a study that gave the subjects a diet consisting of high-fat processed foods and we found that physical activity was reduced and insulin resistance and vulnerability to type 2 diabetes rose. These were healthy students and after a few days we found they were less likely to go to the gym and if they did would do less work.”

“One thing active people say is that they can eat what they want because they burn it off; that the threats from these unhealthy foods can be negated by that. There is some protective element involved. If you are burning a lot of glucose then you can eat it because it has somewhere to go. But this does not mean other cells are tissues aren’t affected. So you certainly shouldn’t think you have carte blanche to eat burgers and kebabs every day after you ride.”

We say

Manage your time better – if you have a busy week ahead, make a large nutritious Bolognese, stew or curry on Sunday so you can reheat it in the week instead of buying convenience food.


On a 100 years time, smoking will surely be looked back on by our descendants as one of the human race’s most ridiculous habits. Thankfully the backlash is already well underway with smoking levels among young people lower than they’re ever been, and the prevalence of cigarettes and tobacco in our shops significantly reduced – along with the number of places that people are allowed to smoke publicly.

Despite all the warnings, though, there are millions of people in the UK who still do it – even people who exercise to a high level, cyclists included.

“Where do we start?” says GP Andy Ward when asked about smoking’s harmful effects. “First of all carbon monoxide binds to your haemoglobin more strongly than oxygen does and this severely limits the oxygen-carrying capacity in your blood. The result is that you get tired a lot quicker.

“Smoking also clogs up your blood vessels long-term and increases your resting heart rate. You’ll have an older lung age than is natural, and the longer you smoke the older your lungs become and the airway resistance is increased. On a bike, this will hold you back significantly.”

“The good news is that quite quickly after quitting oxygen levels in the blood will return towards normal values,” says Jobson. “The amount of oxygen in the blood has a huge impact on your endurance ability. We can see how much of an impact it has by looking at the improvements of convicted blood dopers.

“After giving up smoking, oxygen saturation improves in days and hours. With lung capacity, which is compromised by smoking, you can measure the changes in months and feel the benefits quite quickly. Aside from this, your general immune function improves, meaning you are better able to fight off colds because tissues recover quicker. Toxins get into the body in various ways, including through smoking, and the body has to get rid of them. If it’s not having to do that, then it can be doing something else like improving the body’s performance and recovery.”

We say

Stop drinking alcohol for a while if you’re trying to give up smoking – most people smoke when they are drinking alcohol; when you get a particularly strong craving, get on your bike – it will distract you.


The chances are that most of the adults reading this have at some point overindulged with alcohol and suffered from the resultant hangover: lethargy, a rasping thirst, stomach problems and headaches. But even sticking to the government’s weekly recommended units (25 for men and 20 for women) and not bingeing will have an adverse effect on your body, and, consequently, your cycling. And there are long-term general health problems to consider too.

“The first and most obvious point to make about alcohol is that it dehydrates you, and you are more likely to overheat on the bike if you are dehydrated,” says Ward. “You’ll also find that less oxygen can get pumped into your muscles, because alcohol also compromises your circulation. Also, because your liver is working so hard to remove the toxins it is less able to receive and process glycogen, which means you will be mainly relying on your fat stores for energy.

“Finally, when you have a hangover your liver can’t clear lactic acid, which means you are much more likely to suffer from cramp. The reason the liver can’t clear lactic acid is because it’s being overworked by processing the alcohol.”

Dr Jobson, who works with professional and amateur riders, says that reducing your alcohol intake will also improve your riding. Having completely alcohol-free days, regardless of whether you are inside the weekly limits, is a key for Jobson, as are other factors.

“Cutting down on alcohol has a host of benefits from a health perspective and for your cycling,” Jobson says. “From a general point of view, reduced blood pressure, the avoidance of stomach ulcers, heart disease and some cancers are the most significant. A big one is also losing weight, as alcohol is very calorific.

“I’ve tested loads of cyclists in my lab – people who have paid hundreds of pounds for lab tests and expensive lighter bikes. But it’s immediately clear from looking at them that they are overweight and that their money would be better spent shedding the extra pounds and seeing improvements in their power to weight ratio.”

“By reducing your alcohol intake you’ll also recover better from scrapes, bruises and road rash because the liver can focus on aiding healing rather than flushing out toxins. Clotting, for instance, will be much more effective. Alcohol also has a huge effect on post-ride recovery. Your body will try to metabolise alcohol before it deals with carbs, proteins and fats. After a ride we should be trying to replenish energy stores and there’s a very short window for that. If that window is taken up by clearing away alcohol instead of replenishing fuels, your recovery from exertion will take far longer.”

We say

If you do drink alcohol, ensure you have completely alcohol-free days; drive to nights out and parties occasionally to take away the temptation to drink.

Sleep deprivation

“Poor sleep means that you won’t produce ample levels of growth hormone and testosterone levels also drop, which means that your muscles can’t grow properly,” says Ward. “The following day your attention span will drop and so will your reaction times, which can be lethal if you are cycling on a road with other vehicles.”

“There was some research in the press recently when they were talking about the brain being able to wash away toxins, that sleep reduced swelling in the brain and opened up space to wash the toxins away,” says Jobson. “So sleep, in a sense, allows the brain to carry out housework. Reducing alcohol will reduce sleep disruption. People drink before bed as they think it will help them to get to sleep; it may get people to sleep more quickly but you miss out on key phases like REM sleep.

“A lot of the tissue repair processes happen when you are in REM sleep. Better sleep means you’ll get up fresher and more eager to get out on your bike. We mstn’t forget that most cycling events involve early morning starts, so you need to be fresh and functioning at a high mental capacity.”

Sleep deprivation is on the rise according to psychologist Peter Hudson, and not getting a healthy seven or eight hours per night could be one of the reasons why you’ve had periods when you fall out of love with riding a bike.

“We now live in a digital, screen-based age and people spend a lot of time late at night on their phones, tablets and laptops and don’t get the shut-down time that they used to.

“It makes you fatigued in the daytime, and makes it easy to find excuses not to go and ride. You’ll also be drowsy and lack alertness, which is a key safety issue for a cyclist and for other road users. If you’re tired and groggy it also makes it much harder to appreciate what’s going on around you on your bike, and being outdoors and in the fresh air is a huge part of cycling’s appeal for most people. If you’re tired and run down you’re not taking in the good parts and it becomes a chore rather than something you love doing. And if you’re not enjoying it then you’re more likely to stop doing it.”

We say

Turn off your phone or tablet at 21:00 every night and leave it off until morning; create a nightly routine in terms of wind-down time and ensure you stick to it.

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