Modern Tour de France riders compete as part of a professional cycling team, with support staff who work to ensure that each individual’s nutritional needs are met. Under such circumstances – as we wrote about recently on The Conversation – getting the ideal food and fluid is relatively straightforward.
For the rest of us, we need to have some understanding of nutrition in order to stay healthy and compete.
Perhaps what’s most noteworthy about professional cyclists current nutritional practices is that they do the basics well, and mostly with whole foods, as the video below shows:
So how can a recreational or sub-elite rider get more out of intense training or competition cycling? Instituting several effective nutritional practices should help.
If your intended exercise is less than an hour in duration, you shouldn’t need to consume fluid, carbohydrates or electrolytes during exercise, provided you ensure that you are starting in an appropriate condition.
Make sure you begin well-hydrated by drinking to your thirst on your race or training day, and drink an additional 5-10 millilitres (mL) per kilogram of body mass (e.g. 350-700mL for a 70kg rider) during the two hours immediately before cycling. As a rule of thumb, your urine should be a pale to very pale yellow.
With shorter endurance events, carbohydrate loading is unnecessary as it’s unlikely to substantially benefit performance, but try having a moderate-sized meal two or three hours prior to exercise and snacks around 45 minutes and 15 minutes before starting.
Use foods you would normally eat, and practise your food choices and meal timing so that you don’t feel overly full nor tired or hungry on the start line.
If you’ll be exercising for more than an hour, follow the same hydration strategy but also carbohydrate load. As one effective strategy, see Paul Fournier’s one-day carbohydrate loading article on The Conversation.
You can get further authoritative advice and a practical carbohydrate-loading diet from the Australian Sports Commission’s factsheets.
Drink (and be merry)
You should also consume fluid and carbohydrates during exercise. Sweating is our bodies’ primary mechanism to prevent a dangerous increase in temperature associated with hot environments and heavy physical exertion; and, as with professional cyclists, it’s vital to address fluid loss both for health and maintenance of cycling performance.
Fluid losses should be kept to under 2-3% of body mass during exercise, and electrolytes should be consumed if sweating is heavy. Commercial electrolyte mixes are available to add into your water.
About 1 gram per kilogram of body mass per hour of carbohydrate (so 70g an hour for the 70kg cyclist) is ideal, but be careful with high carbohydrate intakes or products with lots of fructose (a sugar common in commercial sports drinks) which can cause gastrointestinal upset, especially if you are unused to it. The video below offers some excellent tips on feeding while racing:
After exercise, consume around 1 to 1.4 grams an hour of carbohydrate, but include some protein. Chocolate milk is good but try to identify several snack foods you find palatable and can tolerate, and stick to those until you feel like having a meal.
Standard recommendations are for athletes to obtain 1.2 to 1.7 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight a day (so 84g to 119g a day for our 70kg cyclist); this is easy for most people on a Western diet, even without a nutrition specialist or team cook.
Although an optimal amount of protein to eat after endurance exercise has not been established, consuming about 25g of protein an hour is probably enough.
One commonly asked question is whether the dietary needs of women differ from the male-derived research advice usually offered?
Unfortunately, there is very little available data that’s specific to female athletes. There is some evidence that women may need less dietary protein than men (perhaps 1/3 less) but, for now, stick to the same guidelines as for men.
Practise what you think might be a good strategy during training and, even if it seems to work, refine it. Perhaps most importantly, do not try a new approach on race day.
Even for the elite cyclist, there needn’t be a heavy reliance on popular brands or supplements; some good practical tips can be found in the video below:
And if you are not necessarily satisfied with the message that whole foods are the whole secret, perhaps you might include one or more of Cadel Evan’s Tour Edition energy bars.
Learn by following the best, but don’t become hooked on the idea that the best is necessarily designer brands and costly patented products.
Eat well, replenish sensibly, and enjoy riding!
Conversation articles on the Tour de France
Andre Nelson has previously undertaken research supported by a grant from Nestec Ltd., Vevey, Switzerland. He does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations
Simon Outram does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.