Next-level fuelling

Rouleur Performance expert Daniel Healey on free radicals, phytonutrients and antioxidants. Your cycling performance – and life as a whole – will benefit from reading on…

Don’t underestimate the impact of what you eat and drink, not only on cycling performance but also your general wellbeing. Scientific focus on the glycaemic index, micronutrients and food antioxidants have bolstered the old mantra, ‘You are what you eat’. It’s why you must know what foods will best support your cycling lifestyle while looking after your long-term health and fitness.

You are what you eat – science says so 

It sounds dramatic but every time you sit down to a main meal or a snack, you’re making choices that’ll alter the course of your life. This is because our food supply is geared for convenience and profit rather than performance. Humans are genetically wired for hunting and gathering, which was previously fuelled by a diet rich in wholegrains, fruit, wild game, nuts and seeds. Now, each time we visit the grocery store, we’re faced with an endless array of processed and packaged foods that are at odds with our biological heritage.

To realign our wellbeing with our ancient past we must develop a more informed appreciation of the familiar building blocks of our diet. Most people can identify fat, protein and carbohydrate in their daily intake. A select few can discriminate between the merits of wild salmon over a fatty lamb chop. Fewer still can wade through the literature that covers micronutrients. And it’s an understanding to this level of detail that’ll help you successfully navigate the modern food market.

Importance of micronutrients 

Micronutrients are divided into two categories. The first is vitamins and minerals. The second category is an exciting group that you’ll hear more about in the coming years – phytonutrients (‘phyto’ from the Greek word for plant). Phytonutrients are non-vitamin, non-mineral components of food that boost health. Some prevent indiscriminate cell growth; many have anti-inflammatory properties; others facilitate communication between cells. Since the human body is such a complex and highly interdependent system it’s inevitable that some of its interconnecting linkages will break down. When this happens it’s the micronutrients in whole food that provide reinforcements to fill the breech, ensuring your body continues to function at optimal levels.Image: Getty

The most important role of micronutrients is how they function as antioxidants. Just as your car will eventually rust if it’s left outside, so your body can also rust (oxidise) at the cellular level if it’s not looked after. Antioxidants are micronutrient components of whole food that protect us from oxidation on a second-by-second, breath-by-breath basis. 

The basic processes of life are dependent upon oxygen. However, one of the unavoidable by-products of breathing is the production of free radicals. Free radicals are atoms or groups of atoms with an odd number of electrons. Once formed, free radicals are highly unstable and indiscriminate in their drive to restore balance. To do this they’ll target (and take a piece of) almost any bodily structure including DNA, skin, hair or muscle tissue. Free-radical attack occurs on an epic scale and it’s been estimated that each cell in the human body experiences thousands of free-radical attacks each day. This process is accelerated by exercise.

No living organism could survive such an onslaught without a sophisticated internal defence system. This is where antioxidants play their part. Antioxidants are molecules that can safely interact with free radicals and, if available en masse, can terminate free-radical attack. They do this by giving up one of their own electrons to stabilise the previously unbalanced free radical. Once stabilized, a free radical is no longer a threat. And it’s this process of antioxidants vs free radicals that lies at the heart of the observation that certain foods promote health way beyond their basic ability to simply nourish the body. 

Go high on the orac scale

The development of various chronic and degenerative diseases, such as cancer and heart disease, and neural degeneration, such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease, may be attributed, in part, to free-radical attack (otherwise known as oxidative stress). Oxidative stress has also been implicated in the process of aging. Thankfully, a diet rich in fruit and vegetables is an excellent source of antioxidants, which will target many of these pathologies. Some vitamins and minerals may also operate as antioxidants. These include vitamin C, selenium, carotenoids, isoflavones, flavonoids and proanthocyanidins.

The following tables list readily-obtainable fruit, vegetables, herbs and spices. Each list indicates the Oxygen Radical Absorption Capacity (ORAC) score for each food. The ORAC score measures the antioxidant capacity of these foods; in other words, their ability to maintain your wellness. The higher the score, the greater the potential health benefit.

To supercharge your health during periods of hard training, simply include foods with the highest ORAC score in your daily intake as often as you can. Here, I’ve broken foods down into six categories: herbs and spices; fruit; berry fruit; vegetables; liquids; and nuts. It’s that easy!

Herbs and spices

Orac Score





Chilli and pepper

23,636 -27,618










Cinnamon toast, anyone!



Orac Score

Plums (black)


Apples (various)













Plums are also known for their fibrous properties so don’t over-consume, certainly when approaching a race.

 Berry fruit Orac score
Elderberry 14,697
Cranberry 9584
Blackcurrant 7960
Blueberry 6552
Blackberry 5347
Raspberry  4882


Elderberries can be used to make chutneys and jams


Orac score

Broccoli 2386
Sweet potato 2115
Red onion

Red Capsicum



Steamed broccoli with your roast dinner will preserve more of its nutrients.



Orac score

Red Wine, Cabernet Sauvignon 5043

Red Wine, Blend


Tea, Green


Tea, Black


Red Wine, Rose



This is where red-wine’s health properties comes from. Just don’t overdo it if you’re riding the next morn…


Orac score














Pecan nuts are also known for improving your digestion.

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