The evening before a mountainous stage in the 2013 Vuelta a España, a multiday bicycle race in Spain, professional racer and Bend resident Chris Horner reached for his go-to secret weapon: a McDonald’s sack filled with a Big Mac, another hamburger, a large serving of french fries and a large soda.

Then he joined his teammates for dessert.

“McDonald’s never let me down,” Horner said. “I always felt good the next morning. I always had a lot of energy during the race, and I was completely satisfied.”

Not only did Horner, now 47, win that particular climbing stage, he won the entire Vuelta a España.

He also solidified his place in cycling history as one of the oldest winners of a famous European bicycle stage race and the loudest champion of fast food.

While it has since become cycling lore, Horner’s love of fast food is one he still doesn’t mind proselytizing, even over the phone while biting into a sandwich at an In-N-Out Burger in California.

“Want some ketchup?” he asked his 3-year-old son at one point.

Horner is one of many Central Oregon athletes who’ve arrived at an understanding of how to best fuel their bodies, whether by trial or error or consulting with a dietitian.

Horner’s choice of food is the least common among competitive athletes and it worked for him.

Local pro cyclist Beth Ann Orton not only tracks macronutrients but is careful about when she eats them, too.

Shawn Mihalik, a jiujitsu fighter, sticks to a high-fat and -protein diet that has let him lose about 70 pounds over two years.

When selecting an optimal diet to fuel performance, athletes need to keep in mind that everyone is operating with a unique “complex biological system,” said Kyle Pfaffenbach, an assistant professor of exercise science at Eastern Oregon University. He has a Ph.D in nutritional biochemistry.

“You have to find the diet that suits you as an individual and as an athlete,” Pfaffenbach said. “When we have these conversations, it’s always really tricky. There is no one right answer.”

Being mindful about training and nutrition is important because they inform each other in a positive feedback loop, Pfaffenbach said. To find the diet that your body best responds to, start with what works, he added.

For some athletes like Horner, the biggest dietary challenge may be to simply consume enough calories for the massive demands he’s putting on his body — but the maximalist approach can have its downside, Pfaffenbach said.

“There was a prevailing thought among endurance athletes that if the furnace is burning hot enough, it will burn anything,” Pfaffenbach said. “A lot of times, it may be better than under fueling, but that doesn’t mean it’s necessarily optimal.”

Horner saw results using his method, but it’s important to be cautious when comparing someone’s individual experience in the context of your own potential outcome, Pfaffenbach said.

Horner likes McDonald’s not only for the taste but for its high concentration of carbohydrates, fat and protein.

While recuperating from injuries at age 34, however, Horner, who’s never hired a dietitian, began counting calories. His body composition had always fluctuated between about 7 to 10 percent in body fat, but Horner became interested in shaving pounds to become faster, particularly while climbing Europe’s mountains. That meant cutting back 10 weekly fast food meals to no more than two to achieve the 5 percent body fat common among other pros.

He began to rely on steak, chicken and salad for much of his diet. He still gave himself a pass to occasionally chow down on fast food, particularly the night before massive climbing stages of a European race series.

A single serving of fast food is packed with calories and often contains a lot of saturated and trans fats, which can quickly exceed recommended daily levels, Pfaffenbach said. Too much saturated and trans fats have been linked to a number of detrimental health effects, such as heart disease.

Now that Horner has retired from professional cycling, he eats more protein than he did during his racing days to fuel the extra muscle that he’s building while riding motocross.

Horner said he’s still a “big believer in fast food,” especially if the athlete isn’t trying to hover at 5-percent body fat.

“I think it has its place — if you’re doing the right sports that burn those kinds of calories,” Horner said.

Trying it all

Orton, a Bend resident who races road and cyclocross, has experimented widely with diets since she began competing.

At its least effective, Orton, 37, described her diet as “disordered eating.”

She tried “a lot of different, funky things,” such as cutting daily calories to between 1,200 and 1,400 during off-seasons. That left Orton feeling cranky, weak and more prone to sickness.

When she began competing in the professional ranks in 2012, Orton toyed with gluten- and dairy-free diets.

Now she abides by a traditional diet of high-quality carbohydrates, which she balances with fats and proteins — the two other macronutrients — or nutrients the body needs in large quantities. Additionally, dairy and gluten are back on the table.

Orton consults with Pfaffenbach, who provides her with a lot of the “why” behind her diet, she said. Pfaffenbach makes sure Orton consumes enough carbohydrates (at least 130 grams), fat (65-70 grams) and proteins (95-110 grams).

If it’s a training day, Orton will eat more carbs while taking in a consistent amount of protein and fat, which are long-term nutrients. Ideal macronutrient levels are individually determined by height, weight and activity levels.

Orton purposefully doesn’t count calories, nor does she weigh herself. While traveling for races, Orton prepares the same go-to breakfast: pancakes — which she makes with the mix she never travels without — eggs and a banana, which she eats about 90 minutes before her race. That’s a time frame she’s figured out through trial and error.

During longer rides or races, Orton continues to eat foods high in carbohydrates and low in fiber, like a sandwich or gluten-free fruit cakes, she said.

Taking out the dietary guesswork not only keeps an athlete’s body primed but also removes doubt before important competitions.

“It really helps (athletes) to work with (a dietary expert) who gives them the confidence that, when they’re on the starting line, they can say, ‘Look, I’ve done everything I can,’” Pfaffenbach said.

High fat fuel

Bend resident Mihalik, 28, has found the paleo diet so effective he has parlayed his devotion into a job as the managing editor of Bend-based Paleo Magazine.

The paleo diet emphasizes protein, fat and few to no carbohydrates, dairy or processed foods. An emphasis is also placed on food quality, Mihalik said.

Years ago, Mihalik was overweight. After a failed experiment with veganism, Mihalik studied and adopted the paleo diet, which allowed him to go from 210 to 140 pounds in two years without any physical activity, he said. When he began lifting weights, he added 20 pounds of muscle.

For the past two years, Mihalik has trained in jiujitsu three to eight times per week and additionally lifts weights two to four times a week. He’s comfortable around 160 pounds, he said.

“It’s a pretty high volume of training,” Mihalik said. “What I find that paleo allows me is a really sustained energy level without any sort of crash.”

That’s because Mihalik has triggered his body to convert stored fat into energy.

“Fat is having its time in the sun with (these) fat-adapted diets like paleo,” Pfaffenbach said.

Mihalik fasts the morning before each match yet doesn’t lack for energy during the several-minute rounds. He attributes this to his body having become adapted to using fat stored in muscle as a fuel.

“Fat is our friend,” Pfaffenbach said, adding that limiting fat is a common mistake that athletes, especially endurance athletes, can make. Mihalik, who says his diet is 95 percent paleo, allows himself the carbs he finds in small portions of oatmeal and rice.

Mihalik tracked his nutrients using an app called MyFitnessPal when he was putting on 20 pounds of muscle, but now he relies on a visceral sense of what his body needs to fuel his training.

In the weeks leading up to a jiujitsu tournament, Mihalik weighs himself every few days to make sure his weight is on track to allow him to compete within his weight class.

In the five to three days before, Mihalik cuts his carbohydrate intake to 20 to 50 daily grams, equal to about one to two cups of oatmeal.

Mihalik considers himself “metabolically flexible,” which means he can gain energy by burning fat or carbohydrates, he said.

Because every athlete’s body responds differently to nutrition, meal plans should be individually tailored to ensure the best results, not only in terms of athletic performance, but general well-being.

“Hard-training athletes should be aware of the unique demands they place on their bodies,” Pfaffenbach said. “In most cases, the stress and effort of hard training require thoughtful and individualized nutritional approaches tailored to the specific needs of the athletes and their sports. … They’re not normal humans.”

(Editor’s note: This article has been corrected. The original version misquoted a source about his specific ability to burn calories. The Bulletin regrets the error.)

— Reporter: 541-617-7816, pmadsen@bendbulletin.com

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