Sports Nutrition – How you can unleash the power of food.
Rowe & King’s sports nutritionist, Ben Price MSc, SENr, takes a look at how unleashing the power of food can make you a better cyclist, without even having to do more training…
Ben: ‘The food you eat can have a profound impact on you as a cyclist. Every nutrient you absorb changes the biochemistry within your body and these changes can either be to the detriment or benefit of your goals. Nutrition is a powerful and often underused tool that cyclists have at their disposal and as a sports nutritionist it is my job to help you make the most of it…’
On a normal training day, you might eat 5 times. That’s 35 times per week, equating to a staggering 1820 meals per year. This provides vast opportunities in which to optimise your diet in favour of your goals. Even small adjustments, accumulated over time, can lead to significant changes in your health, training and performance.
There are four key areas in which the food you eat can have a profound impact on you as a cyclist; Health, Training Adaption, Performance and Body Re-Composition. We explore each of these areas in more detail…
Health – Staying healthy and free of injury and illness is of utmost importance to most of the general population and cyclists alike. Injury and illness can rob you of precious training time and lead to subsequent performance setbacks. Your chance of success over the course of a competitive season can be heavily influenced by your ability to avoid picking up injury or an illness. A 5-year study of elite track and field athletes showed that the likelihood of achieving a performance goal increased by a staggering 7-times in athletes who successfully avoided illness/injury and completed >80% of their planned training weeks (Raysmith & Drew, 2016).
Over the course of a season you are faced with an array of stressors, everything from work/family life stresses, sleep disturbances and travel, to psychological and environmental stress, and that’s often before you even get on the bike for exhaustive training! These stressors can leave you more at risk of picking up illness, injury and infections. Your immunity can transiently be reduced by as much as 15-70% in the hours after heavy exertion (Walsh., 2018). Nutrition plays a key role in ensuring the body’s immune system can function optimally and ward off illness and infection. For example, simply ensuring your diet contains sufficient calories to meet the energy demands of your training (often a significant challenge during intensified training) (Mountjoy et al., 2014); preventing nutritional deficiencies in vitamins and minerals (Walsh., 2018); and optimising the timing of fuel after prolonged endurance training sessions (Costa., et al 2009) are just a few examples of how nutrition can play a key role in reducing you chances of picking up illness/infections and maintaining optimal health.
When the worst does occur, and you pick up an injury or illness, what you eat can also play a key role in limiting the loss of training time and providing the nutrients required to facilitate repair and recovery, allowing you to get you back to health and full fitness as quickly as possible (Tipton., 2015).
Training Adaptation – As a cyclist you spend far more time training than competing, however many cyclists focus much of their attention on nutrition around their competition strategies, missing out on a significant time frame where diet can have a profound effect. Training triggers adaptive responses in the muscles, and it’s these responses that allow us to change our physiology to make us stronger, faster and ultimately, better cyclists. The food we eat around training provides the nutrients which facilitates these adaptations, but also can play a role in enhancing or dampening these adaptive responses.
For example, the overzealous use of anti-oxidant supplements around training can dampen the adaptive response in the muscle, reducing the benefit of the training session (Merry and Ristow., 2016). In contrast, the strategic manipulation of carbohydrate feeding around endurance training sessions can enhance the metabolic stress of a session and lead to enhanced adaptations (Impey et al., 2016). Similarly, it is well established that training leads to an increase in protein synthesis (i.e. the creation of new muscle proteins). Combining training with an optimal intake of protein, both in terms of the timing and type of protein, can further enhance the training response, by providing the substrate to repair and rebuilding tissue (Tarnopolsky., 2004).
Even elite cyclists have a finite amount of time in which to train. By manipulating your diet around your training, to increase the training stress and enhancing the adaptive response to training, nutrition can help you get the most out of the effort that you put in.
Performance – In the words of one of the pioneers of the sports nutrition field, Professor Ron Maughan, “a good diet will not make a mediocre athlete into a champion, but poor food choices can turn a potential champion into a mediocre athlete”. You’ve spent months training hard towards a key event, with the goal of achieving your full athletic potential when it counts on race day. So why leave your nutrition to chance? With races often won or lost on tiny margins, even thousands of a second, nutrition could be your key to helping you achieve the result you have been chasing. Focused nutrition strategies around competition can go a long way to helping you achieve your full potential and perform when it counts.
Simply ensuring optimal fuelling (Stellingwerff & Cox., 2014) and hydration (Holland et al., 2017) around competition can help limit fatigue and enhance performance. Similarly, the strategic use of carefully selected supplements that have a proven efficacy within the demands of your sport, can help unlock that extra edge, that may give you the advantage over the competition (Maughan et al., 2018). Putting a well-rehearsed nutrition plan in place during training ready for competition can help reduce the stress of competition and allow you to perform at your best when you need to.
Body Re-Composition – Many cyclists as well as the general population aspire to gain muscle mass; lose fat mass or a combination of the two, often for aesthetic or performance goals. For cyclists this is for the purpose of increasing power to weight ratio a key determinant of performance in cycling!
Trying to lose weight whilst still training and performing can leave you walking a tight rope between maintaining health and improving performance. You don’t have to look far to see examples of where this can go pretty catastrophically wrong… https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EO6Gp3Yp6Y8
For those looking to lose weight, creating a diet that fundamentally produces a sustainable calorie deficit is of vital importance to ensure weight loss occurs (Manore., 2015). Similarly, factoring in adequate energy intake to ensure sufficient energy availability is also important to help reduce the negative health outcomes of weight loss (Mountjoy et al., 2014).
Although cyclists typically focus on the number on the scales when it comes to weight loss, most are more interested in fat loss. Calorie restricted diets typically lead to significant muscle loss, which is rarely a desirable outcome. Ensuring optimal intake and timing of protein during a period of calorie restriction can help ensure lean mass (muscle in particular) is maintained (Hector et al., 2018). Producing a calorie deficit that is sustainable, ensuring sufficient energy availability to maintain health, limiting the negative impacts of calorie restriction on training, and ensuring fat rather than muscle is being lost, are all of paramount importance. Calorie restriction can often lead to a detriment in performance, as vital glycogen stores become depleted and high intensity exercise suffers. Strategic timing of meals and nutrients, the use of ergogenic aids such as caffeine, and the use of supplements such as carbohydrate mouth rinses are all strategies that can be adopted to help maintain performance and training quality.
Improving your Nutrition could be the key to improving your cycling
There is no denying that many cyclists spend a long time in the sport, often with significant success, without ever paying close attention to their diet. However, I hope that I have illustrated to you the profound impact that unleashing the power of food you eat can have on you as a cyclist. In this relatively short article, I’ve barely scratched the surface as to the abundance of ways in which nutrition can help you achieve your goals. In the same way many cyclists invest heavily in their bikes and other equipment to help gain a performance edge, why not invest in the greatest piece of equipment that any cyclist has, themselves, through optimising your nutrition.
Want some help with your nutrition? Get in touch direct for an exploratory chat with Rowe & King nutritionist, Ben Price MSc, SENr.
Thanks for reading,
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