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Most cyclists are well aware of the importance of carbohydrate (CHO) to fuel hard training sessions and racing. Typically, endurance athletes are advised to consume CHO at a rate of 30-90 g per hour depending on intensity and duration. However, when the intensity is lower (such as steady-state rides), new evidence suggests that deliberately refraining from CHO intake before and during training (e.g. fasted rides/protein only rides) may actually enhance the aerobic adaptations we are trying to achieve in the first place. As such, the modern-day cyclist should be "carb-smart", as achieved by periodising carbohydrates for when we really need them!
In contrast to carbohydrates, endurance athletes often do not appreciate the role of protein in facilitating recovery from training and racing. Indeed, consuming high-quality protein at regular intervals throughout the day (e.g. 20-30g at 3 hour intervals) and after training and competition provides the necessary building blocks (amino acids) to help stimulate recovery. These amino acids are used to build new proteins in our muscles (such as aerobic enzymes and structural proteins) so as to help the muscle become better conditioned to withstand the metabolic demands of the next training session.
In addition to a sound basic diet, a number of supplements can help improve and maintain performance over repeated days of hard racing. As such, caffeine is perhaps the most consistent supplement known to improve cycling performance. To achieve the desired effects, you should aim to consume 2-3 mg/kg body mass at least 30-45 minutes before you wish to obtain the performance benefit. For shorter duration time-trial type events, then this could occur at the start of your warm-up.
Alternatively, for longer duration road stages you could consume caffeine during the ride so as to coincide with the hardest parts of the race e.g. 30 minutes before the final climb of the day. In addition to caffeine, fish oils may help reduce inflammation and increase muscle protein synthesis thereby benefiting the recovery process. Last but not least, probiotics can help to maintain gut function during intensive exercise periods and may be especially beneficial for exercising in the heat, such as the 3 week period of the Tour de France!
Current hydration recommendations are often split into two schools of thought of "drink-to-thirst" or "drink to minimise weight loss" (but not gain body mass). Depending on environmental conditions and exercise intensity/duration, a suitable starting recommendation is to consume 500 ml of an electrolyte drink per hour and your thirst will usually determine if you need more. It is important to weigh yourself before and after training or racing to ensure you are not losing >3% of body mass. It is beyond such losses where impaired performance is likely to occur.
Furthermore, often more important that fluid intake during exercise is to ensure you "commence" exercise well hydrated. In this regard, simple strategies are to consume at least 500-1000 ml of an electrolyte drink 3-4 hours prior to exercise as well as ensuring your urine colour is a pale straw-like colour in the 1-2 hours before exercise. Waking body mass is also an indicator of hydration status where if you notice >1 kg difference on two consecutive days, then you are likely dehydrated.
Without doubt, optimising your power to weight ratio is the holy grail of optimising climbing performance. To achieve these goals, long term strategic planning is required to maximise fat loss whilst preventing any loss in lean mass. In this regard, aiming for 1 kg losses in body mass every 2-4 weeks is a suitable target for which to aim. Although a daily calorie deficit is required to lose body fat, you should always remember to not under-fuel on your hard training days otherwise training intensity can be compromised.
Prof James Morton PhD SENr is a professor of exercise metabolism and nutrition at LJMU and Head of Nutrition for Team Ineos. He has authored over 120 research publications in the fields of sports nutrition, physiology and metabolism, as well as numerous books.
Find out more about Professor James Morton.
Nothing beats a healthy, balanced diet to provide all the nutrients we need. But when this isn't possible, supplements can help. This article isn't intended to replace medical advice. Please consult your healthcare professional before trying supplements or herbal medicines.