Grand Tour Nutrition for a Pro Cyclist
Pro Cyclists nutrition during a Grand Tour
Sam Bewley is pro cyclist racing with the Orica-Scott. He has been riding the pro circuit since 2008 and comes from a track background with an Olympic bronze medal from the 2012 team pursuit.
I started working with Sam in 2014, just after I had finished working with BMC. He was interested in his nutrition and had a very straightforward way of taking the advice and following the plans. Over the years, I’ve worked with him throughout the different phases of the season giving him structured plans to follow. I also showed him how to improve his fat adaptation along with all the other pro cycling requests such as weight management, recovery and immunity.
It wasn’t long until I worked out how suited Sam was to following a more fat adapted way of eating as opposed to the traditional high carb diet of the conventional cycling world. He was able to do 6hr rides in a fasted state and his need for high amounts of carbohydrate during big training weeks was never an issue.
Working with pro cyclists over the years always shows the same pattern. Firstly, the lower carbohydrate approach is a massive mental shift as the cycling world is steeped in the traditions of riders eating low fats and as much carbs as they can. However, most riders, once they try it, soon realize that they do not need as much as they thought. Once the mental shift has been made, and their training and power numbers are comparable or improve, then they soon understand that a high carbohydrate diet isn’t necessary. Fat adaptation then leads to better cycling economy, glycogen sparing, lower inflammation, improved body composition and just better all round health. What always has to be remembered is that direct performance improvements is not what we should always be looking for. There are many indirect ways in which performance can be improved. Simply having better appetite control, can help manage weight, which can improve power/weight ratio. Having lower inflammation following a heavy training session can mean the recovery time is quicker so the next training session can be performed better.
These are all factors which I have been studying for years and applying in the field both myself and with the athletes I work with. It is very difficult to measure indirect performance improvements in the lab so this is why we don’t see much research on them.
What you can do is look at the mechanisms and the theory and then the real world affect. That’s what I have been doing and it works. Why wait to see if there is research?
Anyway, back to the main topic here. The other pattern that is noticeable with pro cyclists is the difference between their at home/training nutrition versus team/race nutrition. One simple difference is what’s put in front of you is generally what you eat. When you are cooking at home and following something like a low carb/high fat way of eating, you can choose what you eat. However, at hotels and on the team bus, the foods provided are not conducive to this nutrition approach. That said, many teams have their own chef, and most chefs today are up to speed with providing whole foods without the dependency and boredom of pasta and chicken dishes. In fact, the chef that works with Orica (Nikki Strobel) is a young chef I have been in touch with and he follows a real natural whole food approach with a range of different meats, fish, cheeses, vegetables and his own sourdough bread. With his foods, you could follow a lower carb/higher fat diet but this simply doesn’t work during Grand Tours.
There is no other sport where you are exercising and competing at such a high level for 3 consecutive weeks. There is simply a huge energy demand each day. They have 21 stages, cycling hard for 3-6hrs every day, in every zone, with cold/hot conditions, then a huge amount of physical and psychological stress.
Firstly, then brain demands of glucose are much higher during a tense race situation with a peloton of 180 riders compared to training alone on quite roads. Fatty acids cannot pass the blood brain barrier so even if you are highly fat adapted, the brain still needs glucose. The liver can produce ketones to fuel the brain but this is only during prolonged fasting periods or very low carb diets. Neither of these happen during a day of a grand tour. So this is where more carbs are needed during the race and probably also after. More brain fuel deficits, more stress, higher cortisol release, so more simple carbohydrates needed.
The second obvious factor is the intensity at which they have to race at depending on the race situation. It could be a break, a long hard climb or riding in the wind at the front of the peloton. Power is up, intensity is up, energy/ATP demand is up, and if you measured their V02max, you would see they are well up scale at >70%. Although we haven’t got studies on fat adapted pro cyclists, there is a study on fat adapted elite distance runners which shows that peak fat oxidation occurs at ~70% VO2max. You can read about that here http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0026049515003340 .
Suffice to say for now, that if a pro cyclist over 21 days of a grand tour, is going over 70%VO2max on multiple occasions, they are going to be oxidising glucose a lot. Being able to oxidise fat at every intensity is something I never claimed. The claim is how upregulated you can make your fat burning pathways. In this study I just mentioned, the group of runners on a high carb diet and not fat adapted, had peak oxidation rates at much lower values, @ ~55% v 70%. What does this mean? It means the fat adapted athletes need less carbohydrates to fuel themselves at this intensity. How does that help? Well it means that during a race, less carbohydrate fuelling is required which can prevent GI distress. It also means that carbohydrate in the muscle is spared, so they use less during the race, so it can be therefore used and more available when the intensity significantly increases. Finally, and this is reported in the study, the overall inflammation is less which means that the fat adapted cyclist could recover quicker for the next stage. Arguably the most important factor of them all.
So back to what a pro cyclist eats during a grand tour. They first have to eat a lot. 6-8,000kcal, maybe more, all depending on the day, conditions and their size. Second they have to eat a lot of all fuels as they are using all the systems. And as I already mentioned, one of the important systems they are using more than normal, is the carb burning system for both the central governor and the legs. Equally, if not more important, is that they need to be able to use their fat burning system also. After all, this has the biggest fuel source (~50,000kcal vs 2,000kcal based on a 70Kg cyclist with 10% BF).
Sam Bewley is a fat adapted cyclist. He doesn’t need bowls of pasta 3hrs before race. Here’s a look at his breakfast before a big stage:
A couple of things to notice. The food is all homemade by the chef. So no refined cereals or bread rolls or jars of nutella. Instead, bircher muesli and sourdough toast. These are LowGI carbs also. Then you have plenty of fats – eggs, avocado, cheese’s and nuts. So no bowls of pasta or chocolate croissants i.e. HighGI carbs. What you do have is a lowGI meal with high fats and moderate protein.
On the bike during the race is where the simple carbohydrates are used. The brain/central governor needs them as do the muscles. You will see things like rice cakes, standard cereal/energy bars and gels.
I have never recommended fat to be consumed in race. It doesn’t make sense physiologically nor is it easily digestible. The transporters for carbs (GLUT4) are spiked during exercise so that they can be shuttled quicker to the muscle. There are also other transporters for the brain that become activated to increase supply of glucose to the brain during exercise. Also, insulin remains dormant during exercise so fats can still be oxidised. During a race, fats are oxidised primarily from IMTG stored in the muscle. As mentioned, the rates by which these fats are oxidised depends on the individual’s fat adaptation.
Thus, brain and muscle can very happily consume simple carbs. Another thing to remember is the the sugar reward system in the brain. It is well documented how sugar triggers dopamine release in the brain to give you the feel good/pleasure sensation. If you are 4hrs into a hard stressful stage of a grand tour, with a 20Km climb to go, it makes sense why cyclists like coke and sugary snacks !
Recovery is where the riders are back in the team bus. General protein/carb shakes are used. As are simple fruits and juices. Some teams have rice cookers on board and guys will have bowls of rice with maybe something like tinned fish. It’s not easy to have a proper cooked meal at this stage as the bus is limited with cooking facilities and the team needs to transfer to the next hotel for the next stage. It could be a 3-4hr trip.
So the next real food they are eating is at the hotel in the evening. As I said, a lot of teams have their own chefs and even their own kitchen trucks. Others are left to the hotel buffet which often is pretty poor options like pasta and plain chicken.
The Orica chef prepares real whole foods. Below is an example – rib eye steaks, roasted vegetables, tomato/mozzarella salads, sweet potato wedges and basmati rice.
Another meal here was duck with roasted pumpkin and mushroom.
Team chefs have realised the gluten and refined wheat grains cause digestive problems. Hence why the carbohydrate sources are gluten/wheat free such as sweet potatoes, rice and oats.
Mozeralla/tomato salads, sweet potato wedges, basmati rice.
The issue with some food options is that they only supply carbs and protein e.g. pasta with chicken. If cyclists utilize a large amount of fat, which they do especially when fat adapted, then they need to replenish also, just like the carbs ! So foods like red meats like steak, duck and lamb, the fattier cuts, are better in this instance than the lean white meats. Things like mozzarella cheese contains higher amounts of fat than cottage cheese. And other simple add on fats like avocado/guacamole and extra virgin olive oil can boost the extra fat intake. Again remember, it is also an energy balance race. This means foods with higher energy density and nutrient density are the best options. This is what fats like red meats, full fat cheeses, avocados and olive oil provide. Another principle that I advise is carbohydrate timing. Looking at Sams daily diet, most of the HighGI carbs and quantities are consumed during and recovery. Not massive amounts with breakfast and lowGI. With dinners mainly lowGI again, and a smaller percentage of overall intake compared to earlier in the day.
So there you have it. Real foods first and lots of every type of nutrient to fuel all the energy systems. However, it’s not a 70-80% carbohydrate diet. In Sam’s case, it is more a 40-50% carbohydrate diet. It could be even less, but we haven’t recorded exact quantities.
But let’s just do a quick calculation
6,000kcal total intake for an average day.
40% CHO = 2,400kcal = 600g. 50% would be 3000kcal = 750g.
15% Protein = 900kcal = 225g.
45% Fat = 2,700g = 300g.
What you have is a large amount of every macronutrient. Call it a very high fat, high carb, highish protein diet !
Bottom line: this is a completely different world of nutrition as it is a completely different world of energy demands for a continuous long period of time. If you are an amateur cyclist thinking about fueling for a one day race or sportive, you don’t need to be copying the pro’s.