ON MY THIRD day I'm back in Burke's office, going over my fitness tests, the results of which fall somewhere between disappointing and devastating. Burke does his best to ease my injured ego, telling me I did better than any other journalists who have come through lately, except for the guys from Bicycling, who, he says, could have kicked my ass. OK, fine. Maybe I should give up cycling and pursue, say, exercise physiology. But not before I have at least harnessed Burke's nutritional strategy—which still isn't perfectly clear. I understand—at least as well as anyone who doesn't subscribe to the Journal of Applied Physiology—how these recovery products work, but I'm more perplexed by how, or even if, they fit into a daily performance diet for someone like me. Is it as simple as chugging Endurox R4 after every bike ride? Why, then, did Burke opt for a fried-chicken sandwich? What about my other meals? How much should I eat, of what, and when?
When I put these questions to Burke, he shunted me over to a colleague named Jackie Berning, a 50-year-old nutritionist-cum-den-mother who works with professional athletes from the Denver Broncos, the Cleveland Indians, and the Colorado Rockies. She is also a spunky, opinionated scientist who believes that many athletes, nutritionally speaking, are lazy, undereducated, and misinformed, and eat like spoiled children when given the chance. I liked her immediately.
Berning took me straight to the local Safeway. With bloodhoundlike intensity, she worked the outside aisles first: breads, fruits, veggies, milk, eggs, and meat—your dietary staples. We stocked up on whole foods. We read labels on processed food to see how the calories shook out. And so on.
Berning's philosophy is a straightforward, food-pyramid-inspired balance of high carbs, low fat, and relatively low protein. Whole foods are preferable to processed; at least half your carbs should come from fruits and vegetables. It's not rocket science, although mapping out your dietary foundation does involve some basic math. And Berning agrees with Burke about the total caloric ratios outlined in Optimal Muscle Recovery—roughly 65 percent from carbohydrates, 20 percent from fat, and about 15 percent from protein. (For the record, Burke, Berning, and many other nutrition experts firmly dismiss high-protein, low-carb diets, touting carbohydrates as the primary muscle-fuel source—and the primary source for stimulating protein synthesis that rebuilds muscle after exercise.)
In practice, every day you should be getting about 3.2 to 4.5 grams of carbohydrate per pound of body weight, 0.8 grams of fat, and 0.5 grams of protein. Recovery meals should steer toward carbohydrates with a high glycemic index (GI), meaning they raise blood glucose rapidly. As your recovery cycle progresses toward your next workout, taper toward moderate- and low-GI foods (see, "Recovery by the Numbers,").
I see you dozing. Well, rest assured, this is the only tough part; you cannot construct a performance diet without at least some analysis of what you are eating. But liberation is close at hand. You need to know your total daily caloric needs (I burn about 3,000 calories per day when training for about an hour and 45 minutes daily) and the ratio of carbs, fat, and protein in those calories, which can be calculated on a Web site maintained by the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion (www.cnpp.usda.gov). All you have to do is type in what you eat during a 24-hour period and follow the instructions. Depending on your level of seriousness, you can estimate portions according to the 65-20-15 ratios above (for a few tips, see "The Performance Grocery Cart,") and let weight gain or loss be your guide. Putting on pounds? You're taking in too many total calories. Drop a pant size? Too few calories (which may be part of your goal).
If the science behind recovery is a bit complex, I've come to understand that a recovery diet boils down to something pretty damn simple: Don't miss the glycogen window after a workout, follow the 65-20-15 carbs-fat-protein balance, eat a wide variety of whole foods, and taper from high-GI foods after exercise to low-GI foods later in the day. I can chuck my pharmacy of supplements and protein powders; everything I need is at Safeway.