Is pasta a good cycling food?

Pasta is a traditional cycling food. The traditional thinking was to load up on pasta for slow release carbohydrates before a long ride. Traditionally, cyclists would eat pasta for dinner, and perhaps pasta for breakfast. When I started cycling I was an adherent of pasta, thinking this was the perfect food for energy reserves.


But, in the past few years, pasta has been getting a bad press. The new cycling teams eat rice, lentils, quinoa, buckwheat, yam flour of the Japanese konnyaku imotuber – anything apart from the gluten heavy pasta.

When I read Geraint Thomas’ book, one thing that struck me was the disdain felt towards the Italian teams who are stuck in the past chugging their way through big plates of pasta. It seems eating a plate of pasta, is a cardinal sin within Team Sky, who are more at home with vegetable juices, celery and any of these non-gluten superfoods.

To some extent I have also found myself doing the same. I rarely eat pasta these days, preferring rice and lentils. A packet of pasta can sit in the cupboard for several months – only on rare occasions do I take it.

It is worth noting that once professional cyclists swore by eating raw steak for breakfast. So it does show that the prevailing opinion doesn’t necessarily have a scientific backing.

What’s wrong with pasta?

The argument is that pasta is harder to digest because of the high wheat and gluten content. There is a whole industry devoted to speaking of the ills of gluten and modern forms of wheat. (The old forms of wheat were OK apparently, but the new forms are so heavily modified that they have changed the complexion of the food). Many people find it harder to digest this modern form of wheat and in recent years there has been an upsurge in gluten intolerance (either real or imagined)

According to this site, the problem with pasta includes

  • Is made from processed flour
  • Contains gluten
  • Is difficult for many people to digest
  • Creates a sticky “sludge” in your digestive tract
  • Encourages the growth of pathogenic bacteria and yeast (microflora) in your gut
  • The heavy processing of white flour has removed most nutrients and minerals.
  • It is quite high calorie

Does pasta get a bad press?

  • Pasta is made from a different wheat to bread. It is made from Durum which is closer to the old wild grasses than wheat used for bread.
  • It depends how you take your pasta. If you have a sugar rich tomato sauce, it’s not so good. But, pasta with salad and healthy sauce is different.
  • Pasta has a low glycemic index of 25-45, making it a good slow release carbohydrate. This compares to a GI for potatoes of up to 80.
  • Pasta has been a staple in the diet of Mediterranean countries for many years. Obesity rates are quite low. It is only the younger generation who have shifted to more American style fast food, who have started to put on weight.
  • Pasta gives feeling of being full after a relatively low number of calories, compared to other foods.

Personal experience

I was motivated to write this short post after 10 days in Sicily. I usually avoid pasta, but in Sicily I ended up eating for both lunch and dinner. I didn’t feel any sluggishness of heaviness in the stomach. It was helped by the fact that there was really good selection of other foods to go with the pasta, salad, tofu, e.t.c. It was half pasta, half other raw vegetables e.t.c

10 days in Sicily is a very unscientific study, and back in the UK the attraction of pasta is somewhat diminished. But, maybe pasta isn’t so bad after all.


4 Responses to Is pasta a good cycling food?

  1. Tejvan January 8, 2016 at 10:03 am #

    I forgot to mention, the pasta in Sicily was very tasty.

  2. David Pritchard January 8, 2016 at 12:53 pm #

    I personally try to avoid the “non” wholemeal versions of staples I eat ( rice, cous cous,quinoa, bulgur wheat and even pasta). My main aim is to eat low Gi staples for the slow release. What next, will some “expert” start proclaiming Porrage is bad for you, a whole nation of Scots will laugh and keep tucking into our national grain, washed down with Irn Bru! ( only joking about the Irn Bru)

  3. Simon E January 8, 2016 at 7:55 pm #

    In his e-book ‘The Cycling Professor’ Marco Pinotti mentions the variable (and often poor) quality of food outside Italy, particularly the awful pasta that was often served. This may explain why it was so much nicer in Sicily.

  4. Sascha January 9, 2016 at 7:35 am #

    Let’s see about some of those anti-pasta claims:
    – “Is difficult for many people to digest” -> I see lots and lots of people eating pasta, so there must be a better definition of “many people”. Wouldn’t a cyclist know if he/she can’t digest the stuff, and act accordingly? No need to forbid pasta in general for that.
    – “Creates a sticky “sludge” in your digestive tract” -> in fact everything does, this is what digestion does to food, if it wouldn’t you would have a problem.
    – “Encourages the growth of pathogenic bacteria and yeast (microflora) in your gut” -> AFAIK currently science knows very little about gut bacteria, apart from that we really, really need the stuff, without gut bacteria no digestion. So anybody being able to prove that pasta does or does not do certain things to gut bacteria, and what exactly role those specific gut bacteria have, should definitely hand in a PHD paper or something and become famous in the scientific community.
    – “It is quite high calorie” -> I certainly hope so! I’m a cyclist and I burn those calories like they’re going out of style! Isn’t that the point of eating pasta?

    My personal theory is that I should eat all kinds of stuff and my body will be able to pull out whatever it needs. I’m going heavy on the pasta, because it gives me a lot of calories, fast, but I like my lentils too! And when in a place like Sicily, definitely go for the pasta!

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