Leo Kahng
Leo Kahng
Aug 13 · 9 min read
Cycling in Loudoun County, VA — Image Credit: Thai Dao

Back in April I shamefully wiped the dust and cobwebs from my neglected road bike and started pedaling again to get back in shape. I’m a pretty active person overall and stay active year round, but getting back to road biking quickly taught me that I was nowhere near as in shape as I thought I was.

In the first few rides of the 2019 season I marveled at how poor my cardiovascular health had become after the winter — party’s over.

Funny thing, the body just seems to want more when you push it to its limits. After about a month of consistent road biking, I was seeing marked improvements in my cardiovascular health. Resting and peak heart rate numbers had come down considerably and recovery from hard efforts took less time.

This quickly morphed into an obsession to get even more fit and I soon found myself wondering where I could take this, so I signed up for a century ride (100 miles in a single ride) that takes place on August 25, 2019.

For the record, I’m a recreational cyclist and my definition of long-distance cycling may deviate quite a bit from any standards for what is considered “long-distance.” For me, it’s any single ride over 50 miles. I don’t race, nor do I possess the level of fitness or genetic gifts that would allow me to ride consecutive 100+ mile stages or ultra-distance courses. So, the following may or may not be relatable to you.

Why Did I Do the Whole 30 Right Before a Bicycle Century?

I don’t “diet.” I’ve tried a number of diets — Zone, Atkins, Primal and variations of Paleo, and have adopted certain principles from each into my current nutrition program.

I came to learn of the Whole 30 elimination diet through a good friend of mine who’s had great success hacking her own nutritional requirements to achieve an advanced level of wellness and fitness. Ironically, she’s never done the Whole 30 since she’s vegan and the program appears to focus on animal products as a primary protein source.

So, why did I take my friend’s advice even though she’s never done the Whole 30? Also, why would I do this less than two months from a 100-mile ride?

Three Key Reasons:

  1. Since entering the latter half of my 40’s I’ve noticed that I experienced quite a lot of bloating, water retention and other undesirable symptoms after I eat most things. I wanted to know if certain foods were the culprit. These symptoms were getting worse as I increased the intensity of my cycling.
  2. I’ve been trying to achieve the next level of fat loss for some time and my diet needed to be cleaned up. I’d been putting off making changes and getting more and more frustrated with myself for making poor food choices, which I did not want to sustain.
  3. I wanted to know if I could put cleaner fuel in my body and achieve a high level of cycling performance. The energy gels and bars I’ve been consuming make me feel bad, so I’d love to find an alternative. This is further complicated by the fact that I’m 10 years older than the last time I rode with this kind of volume.

How Did It Go and How Did It Impact My Cycling?

To be clear, I am not a healthcare professional, nutritionist or fitness authority. I’m just a middle-aged man in Lycra (MAMIL) sharing what I experienced.

One of the more interesting articles about the Whole 30 is the Whole 30 Timeline. For your convenience, it goes like this (headings taken directly from Whole30.com).

Day 1: So what’s the big deal?
Days 2–3: The hangover
Days 4–5: Kill ALL the things
Days 6–7: I just want a nap
Days 8–9: For the love of Gosling, my pants are TIGHTER
Days 10–11: The hardest days
Days 12–15: Boundless energy! Now give me damn Twinkie
Days 16–27: Tiger blood!
Day 21: I am so over this
Day 28: 28 is as good as 30…right?
Days 29–30: Holy Oprah! It’s almost over, what am I going to eat now?
Day 31: Deep breathing. And maybe some ice cream

I’ll spare you from a day-by-day recap of my Whole 30 (July 1–30, 2019), but will share how being on the diet impacted my cycling — your mileage may vary.

DAYS 1–5: Rage Against the Machine
Many dieters note actual hangover like symptoms when they drastically cut carbs and sugar — a withdrawal response, and it can really bring you down. I never felt the hangover, but I definitely experienced an incredible level of irritability that lasted for 3–4 days.

The diet is very restrictive and one of the most frustrating experiences was going to a 4th of July party and literally not being able to eat a single thing.

During the first 5 days I attempted a 20/20 ride, an informal goal of riding 20 miles at a 20MPH average speed. I fell way short and averaged 17.9MPH and felt quite weak afterwards.

On July 5th, I set out on a longer training ride of 65 miles and at the end of it I was totally gassed and completely bonked. I was perplexed because I had a breakfast of 2 eggs and some shredded potatoes, a banana, then ate 3 Lärabars while on the ride — approximately 1,000 calories. This left me very concerned about what was to take place in just over 7 weeks.

I had no idea how I was going to complete a 100-miler and was wondering if I should ditch the diet and pick it back up again after the century. I was really pissed off about the diet and let everyone know!

DAYS 6–20: Can I Borrow Some Watts, Please?
I was feeling like I was running at 80–90% all the time and it seemed like I could never get to 100% energy or brain function. This didn’t seem to affect my work or anything, but I just felt like I was in a fog for the first two weeks.

I was getting in my rides, but did so out of obligation to build my training volume and aerobic base. I felt unmotivated and just never really pushed very hard. When I did push a little, I just burned out and lost the drive to keep hammering. My concern about being able to ride the century was growing.

DAYS 21–30: Maybe This Tiger Blood Thing Does Exist?
“Tiger blood” came late for me according to the Whole 30 timeline. According to Whole30.com, Tiger Blood is when you come out of the fog and are allegedly flooded with boundless energy and confidence — supposedly your outlook is really positive and you can even be stronger in your workouts.

Day 21 is when I really felt a surge of energy throughout the day, having fully come out of the fog that persisted for about the first 3 weeks. The energy isn’t all day long. It comes in waves, but the lows are elevated and the highs are through the roof — the expression that comes to mind is “I feel like I can run through walls” (not recommended).

On July 22nd, I set out on a 30-mile training ride and was just gonna take it easy. I started out a little faster than I intended to, but it felt good and I felt strong. After the first 5 miles I noted my average speed at 18.0MPH and figured it would drop off from there. At 10 miles, it had crept up to 18.2MPH and it sustained until mile 15. At this point I turned around and started my return thinking, “Hey, can I beat my first 20/20 attempt”?

Having to climb some mild grades, I slipped back to 17.9MPH, but then started a long stretch at a -1% grade. In short, I hit the 20-mile mark at an average of 18.3MPH and stopped my bike computer!

This was the fastest I’d ridden a 20-mile segment in 10 years.

DAYS 1–11 of Reintroduction: I Think It Can Be Done!
Reintroduction is where you slowly incorporate the off-limits foods from the first 30 days to see how your body reacts. This process can take from 10–30 days (usually) depending on how you do it, and you’re not supposed to go completely off the rails and eat pizza and drink beer — which is what I did on Day 2! I’ve since reeled it back in.

On Day 4 of reintroduction, I set out to do an 80-mile training ride, the longest one before the century. I got going a little later than I wanted to so I just had a Lärabar as I drove out to my starting point. I carried 4 more bars and a natural energy gel (honey-based) to provide me up to 970 calories on the bike.

When I hit the 40-mile point I felt really great and decided to keep going. I ended up going another 21 miles, then did the 40 miles back to my car for a total of 101.

I’d only consumed 2 bars on the ride, so 660 calories total including the one I had before the ride. This didn’t make sense as it’s not really enough calories to replenish on the ride — amazingly, I didn’t bonk and it really boosted my confidence.

On Day 11 of reintroduction I rode a 20-mile segment that bested the previous effort and matched my best from 10 years ago, 18.5MPH, and I am very confident that I can continue to make improvements. Will I make the 20/20? Not sure, but I’m sure as hell gonna try!

So, What Have I Learned?

Prior to starting the program I did some light reading on endurance sports and the Whole 30. Opinions covered a wide range — most were negative and advised against even starting until you finished your endurance event. Some said they experienced no decreases in performance at all while on the Whole 30. The only way to find my answer is to try it out.

One of the most impactful things I learned while on the Whole 30 is that so much of our food has added sugar. I’ve been keeping a personal reference list of all the names of ingredients for added sugar or sweeteners derived from sugar or sugar alcohols — I’m up to 80 now, which is rather alarming.

In order to stay compliant during the Whole 30 I turned to the interwebs to research my options and found these very helpful recommendations regarding Lärabars and RX Bars from a site called Olive You Whole. As you learn the rules of the Whole 30 it becomes easier to identify non-compliant ingredients and make a mental list of what will work and what won’t. Thank you Caroline for sharing!

Oh, in case you are wondering, I lost 10.5 pounds of fat which is about 6% of what I weighed before starting (maths). To be more specific, I’m 5’ 11” and weighed 178.7 lbs before I started the Whole 30. I ended the program at 168.2 lbs.

I followed the “no weighing yourself” rule during the Whole 30 and was rather surprised with this outcome. My clothes fit looser and I had to go to the next tighter hole on my belt and even that was loose, so I figured I lost 4–5 pounds, not 10! However, looking at myself, it’s also a little depressing since I think I have at least another 10 to go — still, it’s progress!

What’s Next for Me?

I think I’m addicted to road biking. I’ve signed up for another century, the Campagnolo Gran Fondo New York (gfny.com) next May, to keep me motivated to stay on top of my cycling over the winter.

Though I’ve reintroduced a few food groups, I feel so much better limiting added sugar as much as possible and truly feel that I can do long distance cycling on Whole 30 compliant bars, bananas and plain water.

At 46 years old, I’m in better health and a stronger cyclist than I was 10 years ago. This is just mind-blowing to me and extremely motivating. I hope I can keep this up and make cycling and cleaner eating a life-long habit.

Always learning. Thank you for reading!

Leo Kahng

Written by

Leo Kahng

D.C. Metro based tech industry professional, cycling enthusiast, skier, and hobbyist photographer

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