Waffle ride sandwich

Waffle ride sandwich (Jeanine Thurston/ Fototails Photography)

When sports physiologist Allen Lim flew to Europe six years ago to work with America's top pro cyclists, he saw a lot of problems in the peloton. Riders complained about the diet of packaged bars, gels, chews and sugary sports drinks that fueled them through races like the Tour de France, and many were experiencing stomachaches, diarrhea and bloating.

"I started seeing that when I used the products given to us by sponsors, I didn't see the performances that the products were claiming," says Lim. In a radical departure from what pro athletes are used to, he steered riders away from engineered foods and focused on feeding them fresh, whole ingredients, on and off the bike.

"Our bodies are used to sitting down and having a meal with friends and family, cutting up the food, chewing and slowly digesting over the evening with a great glass of wine," says Lim, director of sports science and training for the RadioShack pro cycling team, former home to Lance Armstrong.

"We're not used to tearing open a foil package with a deconstructed blob of goo and sucking it down while racing bikes at 30 mph. Sports companies are constantly deconstructing foods to the point where people are eating some key elements of food, not the whole food." Lim says.

Lim brought his vision of healthy eating to chef Biju Thomas and developed "The Feed Zone Cookbook: Fast and Flavorful Food for Athletes" (VeloPress). Newly released, it's packed with 150 recipes, including some low-fiber, calorie-dense, high-glycemic "portables," such as bacon muffins and a variety of fresh rice cakes with bits of egg, bacon and other sweet and savory ingredients, designed to replace sweet, processed, packaged sports foods.

The real stuff tastes better, too, says American pro cyclist Christian Vande Velde, who carries almond butter and honey on a tortilla for shorter training rides and Jamon Serrano (Spanish cured ham) on a baguette with some olive oil and tomato for long, slow rides.

"You want something you look forward to eating that'll give you readily available energy," says Vande Velde. And real foods, he says, tend to satiate better.

Bars aren't all bad

Boston-based sports nutritionist Nancy Clark says her clients are frequently confused about what to eat while training and racing. Some people think they're supposed to eat sports bars, gels, solids and liquids but they don't like them, she said during a recent webinar. One cyclist who was doing the 90-hour Paris-Brest-Paris ride didn't even consider eating real food when he first came to Clark.

There are advantages to engineered products. During workouts, some athletes have an easier time digesting commercial sports products rather than whole foods, says Clark, author of "Nancy Clark's Sports Nutrition Guidebook," (Human Kinetics). They're convenient and can be useful during high-intensity exercise, when you need a burst of energy.

However, Clark notes, the products are more expensive than real foods, and some people "experience 'flavor fatigue,' so they add real foods.

"You need to practice during training and exercise and see what works for you," Clark says. For some people, "pure sugar with no fiber can be easier to digest, but for others, pure sugar creates intestinal chaos. It depends on the person."

Finding your balance

For shorter, harder races, says Clark, an athlete would probably want a gel — it's fast and convenient. "But your body needs a balance of carbs and protein. (Engineered foods) can be just too much sweet, and after two hours of sports drinks and gels, you think, ugh, I can't take any more, and you don't drink the drink or eat the gels and you run out of fuel."

"I think it's OK to have bars and gels because they're super-convenient and target our caloric needs, but we need real food to be healthy and be a human being," says Levi Leipheimer, who has four Top 10 Tour de France finishes and a bronze medal from the Beijing Olympics.

"When you have real food and cut down on processed food, it makes a big impact on digestion," Leipheimer says. "With processed foods, you get bloated for a few hours and the next day you're fine. But I think it's a signal that your diet's not balanced and you're not eating how you should be."

Leipheimer, who worked with Lim and Thomas last season, changed his pasta- and bread-heavy diet to a greater variety of fresh foods, adding more fresh fruits and vegetables. "I definitely have more energy and recover better when I'm eating healthier," he says. "Your brain functions better and more clear."

Lucas Euser is a Denver-based cyclist who spends much of his year racing in Europe with Team SpiderTech PB-C10. In 2006, says Euser, Lim "was thinking outside the box, having us train with real food, even full slices of pizza.

"I'm a 100 percent believer that you could not eat a single gel in a race and be fine.