In part 1 of this mini-series, learn how:

  • There are few absolutes in nutrition
  • Training & nutrition could have underpinned Nibali’s Tour de France stage winning performance
  • Training and nutrition provide the signals and building blocks to improve performance and enhance adaptations to training
  • Why we must understand the demands of an event
  • How Team Sky use a ‘performance question model’ to structure their nutritional strategy
  • Why professional cyclists may be the ultimate all-rounders
  • What is means to create a ‘Metabolic Performance Environment’


Whilst some members of the scientific community might cringe at the title of this blog series, I’ve called it ‘Cycling Nutrition ‘Biohacks’ for a reason. Whilst usually associated with the unauthorised access to computer systems, in recent years ‘hack’ has assumed new meanings, in this case in relation to biological systems. ‘Biohacking’ may be used to describe the experimentation and management of one’s own biology using a combination of medical, nutritional and even electronic techniques. Professional cyclists and their supporters have a long and sometimes ignoble history of such practices, hence the title of these blogs!

The Science Behind The Tour de France

Jens Voigt Cycling Nutrition

Cycling is one of a small number of sports where riders can eat and drink during racing and training, but on the bike nutrition and hydration is just one aspect contributing to peak performance. Nigel Mitchell, Head of Nutrition at Team Sky, talks of creating a ‘Nutritional Performance Environment’; a holistic approach to nutrition that equips and encourages athletes to make good choices on and off the bike. In this three part series, we’ll explore this on and off-the-bike approach to nutrition through the perspectives of a number of commentators as well as providing some ideas for practical application.

Just two days before the Tour de France’s Grand Depart, Nigel joined a number of contributors at the 2014 World Congress of Cycling Science, to share new research and case studies centered around a common theme: The Science Behind The Tour de France.

Skip to part 2 and explore why athlete’s should periodize their nutrition as well as their training and how ‘new’ approaches to nutrition are helping professional cyclists to enhance adaptations.

There Are Few Absolutes In Nutrition

There is a lot of variation in how individuals respond to nutrition and hydration protocols. What works well for one athlete may cause issues for another. Also, the methods and scope of research varies significantly between studies. Findings must be reviewed carefully and applied judiciously. There are few absolutes in nutrition! Consequently, field based observations play an important part in developing any nutritional strategy. 

In this series, we’ll focus on a road cycling context. Some of the suggestions may be relevant to other endurance events, but as we explore in greater detail later, the demands of road racing are very different to other endurance activities, even within the sport of cycling. For example, the demands of a sportive event for a rider whose objective is to achieve the highest average speed possible will require adaptations and carbohydrate requirements very different to that of a racing cyclists, whose events are characterised by large and frequent changes in pace.

“Science is the tool box, but we need specificity”

Understand The Demands Of The Event

Before thinking about what to eat and drink, we must first understand the event and specifically what we’re trying to adapt the rider’s body to achieve. Is the event short and high intensity such as a track cycling event, or long and relatively low intensity such as a transition stage in a multi-day race? Perhaps it’s a combination of the two: a long event combining large volumes of steady-state interspersed with very high intensity bursts, such as  in a single-day road race. We also need to find out how much recovery time is available before the rider needs to perform again. Is it multiple days, weeks or do you need to be ready to perform the very next day, such as in the Tour de France?

Performance Question Model

Team Sky uses a ‘Performance Question Model’ to inform the process of finding answers to these questions. The variables and demands of an event often define the  ‘performance problem’. For example, professional cyclists need to produce their highest power at the end of races, following many hours of effort. Once the ‘problem’ has been identified, research may inform a new training or nutritional approach designed to address this. This approach will then be tested in training or racing, reviewed to determine how effective it is, before being refined and improved. 

Team Sky Performance Question Model

Professional Cyclists: The Ultimate All-Rounders?

Cycling is like other endurance events in that it requires athletes to maintain a relatively high work-rate for long periods. This requires a well developed aerobic system and fat metabolism. However, the average work-rate, often expressed as average power output, does not tell the whole story about the demands of professional cycling.

Vincenzo Nibali’s Tour de France Stage 2 SRM Power File

Vincenzo Nibali Power Output Tour de France Stage

A casual observer may suggest that the average power from a professional race is comparative to that of a strong amateur rider’s sportive performance. For example, analysis of Vincenzo Nibali’s SRM file from his winning ride in stage 2 of the 2014 Tour de France reveals that his average power was 221 watts. This average power is misleading, because races are usually won (or lost) as a result of short, intense, repeated efforts, significantly above the rider’s ‘threshold’, designed to escape the peloton, force the strongest riders to emerge or catch competitors.

Nibali’s Climb Of The Cote de Holme Moss

Vincenzo Nibali Power Output Holme Moss

During stage 2 on the climb of the ‘Cote de Holme Moss’, Nibali produced 400 watts for over 12 minutes, keeping him in contention for the win. In the finale, he delivered an incredible 1min52s effort averaging 495 watts, with a 900 watt peak!

Nibali’s Race Winning Attack

Vincenzo Nibali Power Output Attack

The demands of these high-intensity efforts require well developed carbohydrate metabolism and anaerobic energy systems, in addition to a well developed aerobic system and fat metabolism. Riders often need to generate their highest power in the closing kilometers of an event, after many hours of riding, so training and nutrition must enhance the rider’s efficiency, enabling them to resist fatigue and test the extremes of endurance, maximum aerobic power and anaerobic endurance, during the same event.

“Read more about energy systems, here. “

Professional riders need to be strong all-rounders just to stay in contention in races: lightweight climbers must be able to produce powerful bursts on the flat to cope with cross-winds and attacks. ‘Sprinters’ must still possess an exceptional power-weight ratio and be able to produce high power-outputs for long periods to stay in the peloton on the climbs and all the riders need highly adapted fat metabolism to preserve precious muscle glycogen stores for race winning efforts. In many ways, professional riders are the all-rounders of the endurance sport world.

Creating A ‘Metabolic Performance Environment’

Training changes the environment in the body. For example, during exercise ATP breaks down to release the energy for muscle contractions. This breakdown of ATP activates a protein signalling pathway involving AMPK.AMPK is a fuel sensor and regulator. This protein signals another protein called ‘PGC-1α’. It’s been suggested that this protein may be the ‘master regulator’ of endurance training adaptation.

Cycling Nutrition Protein Signalling Pathways

Ultimately, the goal of all training is to stimulate the body to adapt. You can read more about training and adaptation here. Nutrition provides the basic building blocks for adaptation. Once these adaptations occur, the athlete can better meet the demands of an event.

Nutrition provides the basic building blocks for adaptation:

  • Fluid
  • Protein/amino acids
  • Carbohydrate
  • Fats
  • Vitamins/Minerals

Nutrition As A Stimulus For Adaptation

An athlete’s nutritional strategy should work in harmony with their training programme because whilst exercise provides one form of  stimulus, nutrition, in addition to providing the building blocks, can provide a stimulus in itself, through its presence of absence in different types and volumes. Appropriate training and nutrition create the performance environment which generates the ‘signals’ resulting in the adaptations the rider is looking for.

In part 2 we delve into the science and uncover how nutrition and training work together in more detail:

Although the nature of the training stimulus (i.e. intensity and duration) is important in determining how we respond to exercise training, the nutritional status of the muscle before, during and after exercise can be the dominant factor in enhancing or blunting training adaptations and competition performance.”

Dr. James Morton (WCSS 2014) 


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