Pizza and cycling go together like, well, pizza and beer. Sure, pizza gets a bad rap—thanks to greasy restaurant chains and frozen food aisles oozing with saturated fats—but forsaking the entire gastronomic genre as a third-rate energy source would be a gross overgeneralization. We spoke with nutrition experts on the topic of toppings in hopes of justifying our undying love for all things circular, cheesy, and delicious. Turns out, pizza can be an effective and delicious fuel for almost every part of your ride. Here’s how to do it without barfing.
First Step: Pick up a copy of the Truly Madly Pizza cookbook, for custom pies to meet all your fueling needs.
Pre-Ride: Thin Crust and Basic Toppings
The aptly named Susan Kitchen (MPH, RD, CSSD, LDN) is a dietitian, endurance trainer, and IRONMAN coach. In addition to providing nutrition consulting and triathlon coaching through her business, Race Smart, she regularly competes in Ironman races. Her pre-Ironman meal of choice? Wood-fired veggie pizza.
“The day before the race, I eat my last meal (pizza) around 3 pm,” says Susan. “Then I have a light snack around 7 pm and hit the sack.” She recommends staying away from overly greasy pizzas, and avoiding broccoli and other tough-to-digest vegetables. Instead she suggests sticking to more basic pre-race pies in order to avoid potential digestive distress, especially when traveling.
“Yes, it’s high in carbs, but athletes need carbs as their primary fuel to provide energy for the body’s metabolic pathways, including the ability to burn fat as a fuel source,” adds Susan. “Meat on a pizza provides the protein, along with the cheese, and the tomato sauce is high in potassium, Vitamin C, and antioxidants. As for the dough, well—that’s where you get the carbs. Typically, the dough is made with white flour, which is exactly what you want pre-race or pre-workout because it’s low in fiber.”
Mid-Ride: Pita Power
We won’t lie, mid-workout pizza is a challenge, because unless you’re going long and easy, the complex ingredients can be difficult to digest on the go. Lucky for truly committed pizza aficionados, there are some options, especially as more companies offer savory ride food to supplement their more sugary fare.
One is a pizza-themed pouch from Clif Bar. Similar in texture and flavor to a salty Margherita sauce, a single serving contains 160-calories, 890 mg of potassium, 600mg of sodium, 5g of protein, and 17g of carbs. And if sucking down your pizza in semi-liquid form doesn’t appeal to you, simply slather that pouch on a pita for a more pizza-like experience. You can even top it with cheese and salami to add more protein and fat for longer hauls (a favorite of bikepackers). Of course, at that point you might just want to stuff a slice of the real deal in your jersey pocket and accept the gastric consequences.
Post Ride: Deep Dish with All the Fixin’s
Post ride, it’s game on! “That’s when you really want to load up on the protein (pepperoni, chicken, sausage, beef) and veggies as pizza toppings,” says Susan.
“Pizza also has carbohydrates to replenish your glycogen stores, and the cheese and meat toppings provide protein for muscle recovery and repair,” says Jennifer Sommer-Dirks (MS, RD, CSSD) a Colorado-based nutritionist for the Peaks Coaching Group. Dirks regularly competes in uphill-heavy, high-elevation races like the Copper Triangle, Iron Horse Bicycle Classic, and Triple Bypass. “The sodium in the sauce and cheese will help replenish electrolytes, too. I don’t worry about thick vs. thin crust after a race—you need the carbs and you earned it!”
The Final Verdict: To Pizza or not to Pizza?
We won’t go so far as to call pizza a superfood, but it’s awesome to know that if done right, pizza can be exactly the fuel your body needs.