Explore how professional cyclists prepare for competition and look at how this has changed over the last 10 years. What does the evidence say and are there any lessons to help improve the performance of ‘everyday’ enthusiast endurance athletes?
Much of the content for this blog came from a presentation I gave, in my capacity as a Performance Coach, at the European College of Sport & Exercise Physicians (ECOSEP) “Sport & Exercise Medicine (SEM) Trainee Conference“. (You can find a link to the slides, here.)
I believe that the Performance Coach’s key role is to co-ordinate information from a specialist network and apply this to create an environment which optimises the performance of the athlete. I’m going to share some of the information I’ve gathered, as I’ve helped athletes to improve their performance. However 12 years ago, before I became a coach, I was a full-time racing cyclist myself.
Road Cycling Nutrition c. 2002
In 2002, I moved to France to pursue a career as a pro-cyclist and over the next couple of years moved up the ranks to join an Elite Espoir development team, linked with a professional cycling team.
At the time I was racing, nutrition at both amateur and professional level was unsophisticated, to say the least. With the exception of fluctuations in volume, our diets didn’t change that much throughout the year: pasta off the bike, gels, cereal bars and perhaps some carbohydrate based powder in the bottles, on it.
No-one had taken the time to explore the research that was available. A classic example of this was the approach I took to tackle the cramps I was experiencing towards the end of demanding races.
In the peloton, I’d overheard a couple of guys talking about a pharmaceutical muscle relaxant called ‘Hexaquinine’. Apparently, it was effective in alleviating cramp. I bought some from a local pharmacy (they were pretty relaxed about prescriptions back then), popped a couple of pills towards the end of a race and it worked remarkably well, but I was acutely aware that I wasn’t addressing the root of the problem, I just didn’t have the time or access to advisors who could help me conduct a more thorough investigation. The fact that I skipped straight over possible nutrition and training interventions to a pharmacological solution, and the fact that I was so willing so self-prescribe it, was indicative of the culture of the sport at the time.
Thankfully, this is changing and many teams are applying the wealth of scientific research that’s available to us to support health and improve performance.
What Are The Aims Of Training & Nutrition In Professional Cycling?
- Optimal power:weight
- Improved efficiency
- Power and fatigue resistance
The aim of professional cycling teams is to produce “Highly functional athletes, with low body mass, who can recover on a daily basis.”
Nigel Mitchell: Team Sky Head of Nutrition
Ultimately, training and nutrition should result in the rider:
- Losing weight to achieve an ‘optimal’ power:weight ratio, whilst preserving lean body mass and health.
- Becoming more efficient at using fat as a fuel at high intensity, to preserve glycogen stores.
- Being able to produce repeated very high-power efforts.
These goals will be targeted at different times, according to the training phase. Just as training is altered to suit the demands of a race, nutrition must also be adjusted according to the performance demands and desired outcomes of training.
I believe that a key development in professional cycling can be seen in the way in which teams are combining training and nutrition to create a ‘metabolic performance environment’ as Team Sky would describe it.
In this environment, we see training as the stimulus for the protein signalling pathways that drive adaptation. Nutrition provides the building blocks required for the adaptation to take place.
The Metabolic Performance Environment
In order to determine what this metabolic performance environment should look like, we need to begin by answering some key questions:
- What is the rider capable of now?
- What they need to be capable of to achieve their goal?
- How can we build a logical progression in terms of training and nutrition to take them there?
The Performance Question Model
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Team Sky have a systematic way of approaching this in a continuous process called the ‘Performance Question Model’. It begins by defining the ‘Performance Problem’.
Preparing For The Race: The ‘Performance Problem’
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.
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. To use a Tour de France example, analysis of Vincenzo Nibali’s SRM power file1 from his stage 2 winning ride in the 2014 Tour de France reveals that his average power was 221 watts. This statistic is misleading in some respects, because it fails to describe the short, intense, repeated efforts, significantly above the rider’s ‘threshold’, which were required to escape the peloton, catch competitors and force the strongest riders to emerge.
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. To put that in context, even a good amateur rider may struggle to hold 400 watts for 3 minutes. In the finale, he delivered an incredible 1min52s effort averaging 495 watts, with a 900 watt peak!
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 kilometres 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, all during the same event.
How can we build a logical progression to take them there?
The preservation of glycogen stores for efforts such as Nibali’s 12 minute surge is one of the most significant ‘performance problems’ in professional cycling. In addition to consuming adequate carbohydrate during the stage, during the training phase of his preparation Nibali needed to stimulate the adaptations required to improve efficiency, fat metabolism and preserve carbohydrate.
Most athletes are familiar with the idea of ‘periodised training’, but the concept of periodising nutrition is perhaps less well known. However, as suggested by Dr. James Morton during the 2014 WCSS conference, nutrition may even be more important than the training stimulus itself:
“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 Morton2
Consequently, it may be helpful to think about training and nutrition in two phases: a ‘Performance’ phase and an ‘Adaptation’ phase.
In terms of nutrition during races and prolonged, high-intensity training sessions, the potential for carbohydrate consumption to improve performance has been extensively researched. Stellingwerf & Cox (2014)3 conducted a systematic review of 61 studies on carbohydrate and endurance performance, representing 679 participants, and concluded that 82% demonstrated statistically significant improvements in performance. The consumption of carbohydrate before, during and after races is an important element in a pro-cyclist’s nutritional strategy.
Vincenzo Nibali’s race winning effort on stage 2 of the Tour de France. During the stage, he climbed the ‘Cote de Holme Moss, maintaining 400 watts for over 12 minutes. This effort came after 143 km of racing and this 12 minutes towards the end of it would have been fuelled predominantly by carbohydrate. Ensuring that glycogen is preserved is best achieved through a combination of prior training and carbohydrate consumption before and during the event.
However, in training, we are trying to stimulate adaptations, particularly in terms of fat metabolism. So, whilst a higher carbohydrate approach may be most appropriate for high-intensity sessions which target adaptations for the high power efforts that characterise road races, periods of controlled carbohydrate training may result in adaptations which improve fat metabolism and preserve limited muscle glycogen stores in preparation for this race context.
Whilst training in a low-carbohydrate state (i.e. not eating carbohydrate for a period of time before or during training) has gained a lot of publicity recently, it’s an approach which cyclists have adopted for generations. Anecdotes abound of professional cyclists riding for hundreds of kilometres on a double espresso alone.
Enhancing Adaptations To Training
A number of studies have demonstrated that periods of low carbohydrate training can enhance adaptations which result in improved fat metabolism. Hansen et al. (2005)4 conducted a study suggesting that scheduling periods of training in low-carbohydrate conditions could enhance adaptations to training. Moreton et. al (2009)5 suggested that reduced carbohydrate availability upregulates oxidative enzyme activity. Yeo et al. (2008)6 found that individuals display improved whole body fat utilization following training in a low-glycogen state. Hulston et. al. (2010)7 identified that this form of training also increased IMTG (Intra-Muscular TriGlyceride) utilisation, but as a coach, I’m thinking, “why could this approach work? Is there a plausible mechanism?”.
Dr. Andrew Philip’s suggested the following: We know that training in a low-glycogen state appears to lead to a greater capacity to use fat stores during exercise (Philip et al. (2012)8. When this up-regulation takes place, proteins called PPAR’s (Peroxisome Proliferator-Activated Receptors) may sense alterations in fatty acid profiles in the cell, locking the PPAR protein in an ‘active’ state which drives and enhances adaptations in the mitochondrion (Zechner et al. 2012)9.
The evidence appears to be fairly robust – training in a fasted or glycogen depleted state may actually ‘remodel’ muscle tissue in favour of using fat as a fuel. This enhanced adaptation should help riders to produce higher power-outputs whilst predominantly using fat as a fuel, therefore preserving precious and more limited carbohydrate stores for 12 minute race winning efforts.
Reducing Excess Body Fatness
The finding that training in a glycogen depleted state may improve an athlete’s ability to ultilize body fat as a fuel source also makes the approach attractive for athletes aiming to lose excess body fatness to optimize power to weight ratio, but more research is required.
However, many riders find it psychologically challenging to set off for a training session without eating breakfast. Also, hunger before and during training can compromise motivation. Whilst relatively few studies have looked into this, Team Sky’s Head of Nutrition Nigel Mitchell has observed that:
“Protein feeding before and during fasted rides appears to support training and improve adaptation to endurance training while supporting recovery.”10
Nigel Mitchell: Team Sky Head of Nutrition
The following slide presents a sample session for a rider aiming to enhance fat metabolism, preserve lean muscle or offset the sometimes unpleasant sensations of carbohydrate restricted training:
Some coaches and researches asked whether protein ingestion before and during training could compromise the adaptive response of carbohydrate restricted sessions.
In 2013 Taylor et al. concluding that:
“athletes who deliberately incorporate training phases with reduced muscle glycogen into their training programmes may consume protein before, during and after exercise without negating signalling through the AMPK cascade.”12 (The AMPK cascade is a associated with the AMPK protein which appears to have a strong influence on cellular energy metabolism.)
Protein feeding before low-carbohydrate rides should not negatively impact the adaptive signals of carbohydrate restricted sessions, so enjoy your shakes!
More research is still required: Some of the athletes I work with are working with nutritionists to apply this research in training and I’m sending them for metabolic testing, specifically substrate utilisation tests, to see whether it’s working for them.
Avoid polarising the debate: As a practitioner, I’m acutely aware of the need to individualise recommendations. For example, both ‘high-carb’ and ‘training-low’ can be both right and wrong, depending on the context and the individual. but to summarise, Dr. James Morton made a helpful recommendation in the WCSS conference I mentioned earlier:
“On days when absolute training intensity/duration is not the major goal, train smart (according to the energy demands of the session), but not zero.”2
Dr. James Morton
Sports nutrition products can support both the adaptive and performance phases of a programme, such as in the use of carbohydrate and protein based products.
Ultimately, whether we’re preparing athletes for pro-level events or enthusiasts for sportive rides, begin by establishing what our patients or clients can do, determine what they need to do to achieve their goal, build a logical progression in terms of training and nutrition to takes them there.
- Work with your client to determine a specific goal.
- Understand the demands of this goal.
- Define the performance problem.
- Innovate: surround yourself with experts and apply the knowledge you have gathered.
- Validate the approach by testing it in the lab, or in the field with training or racing.
- Refine the approach (or dump it!) based on the results.
If you’d like to access a free download of the references used in this blog, please follow the link, below.