British Cycling and Team Sky nutritionist, Nigel Mitchell says, “Preparation is key. We try our hardest to avoid problems, such as dehydration and under-fuelling, because once you are trying to correct it [a shortfall], you are forever playing catch-up.”
Team Sky know all about preparation. Team principal Dave Brailsford is famed for his concept on marginal gains, and how that one per cent can make all the difference. This comes from planning and preparation and looking in the most unlikely of places to find that difference. One of those places is nutrition.
In 2010 Team Sky announced their partnerships with CNP Professional and Gatorade, as well as bringing in an army of doctors, sport scientists and nutritionists. The improvement is already clear to see.
As this magazine goes to press, the British super-team have amassed 20 wins already in 2011, including overall victories at the Dauphiné Libéré and British National Championships, not to mention two stage wins at the Tour de France. During the whole of 2010, they managed just 18 wins.
It seems they have got something right: their riders look stronger, are cycling faster and recovering more quickly. One of the things they got right is the diet.
Team pursuit world champion Dani King’s top tips
“Stay hydrated. Keep drinking throughout the ride. Also, start eating after about 45 minutes and keep eating throughout the ride. Things like bananas and cereal bars are quick and easy to consume.”
CNP and protein
At first glance it seems CNP – an expert in the field of protein supplements and power sports such as boxing, bodybuilding and power lifting – is a bizarre choice for a cycling team.
However, CNP and Team Sky believe not. In fact, they feel there isn’t enough focus on protein when it comes to cycling, and that this is an important element in cycling performance, which many teams and riders often overlook.
“Protein is traditionally associated with power sports,” says CNP. “But there is growing evidence that it boosts performance for athletes, especially in endurance sports such as cycling. Good-quality protein supplements help protect, rebuild and repair muscles quickly during and after intensive traumatic exercise.
“Not only does this protect the muscles from long-term injury, it also means the athlete recovers more quickly, can train harder and thus improve.”
What’s best for energy?
Obviously, when we cycle, we need energy. The best source for this is carbohydrates. However, CNP chairman Kerry Kayes believes there still isn’t enough emphasis on protein, which he feels is just as important. He tries to implement this theory for the team riders as well as his customer base.
“Training can be broken down into two categories: cardiovascular training and muscle training. Most CV athletes have it drummed into them that you have to eat carbohydrates. But there isn’t one CV exercise on the planet that you can do without using muscles and, therefore, needing protein.
“When you train, you send a signal to the muscle that it’s inadequate for the workload you put on it, which leads to three steps: trauma, recovery and adaptation.
“All muscles are made of cells, all cells are made of muscle nuclei. The body will lose muscle nuclei during exercise and micro-tears will occur. With protein (amino acids), these micro-tears will repair, but if we don’t get the protein right, the body can’t recover and therefore adapt.
So when we push our bodies again, these micro-tears increase, and we all of a sudden get non-impact rips. We need to repair these tears adequately from the cardiovascular exercise, and this is achieved through protein.”
Considering what these riders go through during a three-week tour, or even intense training for that matter, it’s quite amazing muscle tears aren’t more common.
“We think we’re doing a good job,” says Mitchell. “We work very hard to get nutrition right to avoid these problems and speak regularly with the riders to specifically tweak products for their individual needs. So far, we’ve had very few problems.”
It’s not just CNP that has been brought on board to strengthen the team. In 2010, drinks company Gatorade joined forces with Team Sky as the official team sports drink until 2013.
Speaking at last year’s press conference, Dave Brailsford said: “Gatorade is the most researched sports drink in the world, so it’s only natural we would pick them to be our partner.”
Hydration is such an important part of cycling but is something that can easily go wrong. “Even in professional athletes, it’s common for them to begin exercise dehydrated,” says Dr Ian Rollo, principal science advisor of the Gatorade Sports Science Institute Scientist UK. “Team Sky really appreciate the importance of getting their strategy for hydration right on race days. We’ve been working with Team Sky for a couple of years now.”
It begs the question: How does one keep an eye on the riders during a race? It must be impossible to keep individual tabs on every rider, and even harder to regulate their hydration levels.
Nigel Mitchell explains how they go about maintaining hydration throughout stage races: “It all starts first thing in the morning. When the riders get up, they will all provide urine samples, which they give to the doctor.
From the morning samples, the data will give us an idea as to who is dehydrated. If their urine concentration levels are high and the weight’s down, then that’s an indication that they are a little bit dry.”
In this day and age of fancy gadgets and shiny gizmos, isn’t weeing into a small container a bit out of date?
“Sweat tests are a really good way to measure dehydration. However, out in the field, you haven’t got all the equipment to be measuring sodium, potassium, etc. We use urine tests as they give us a general overall and are much easier to implicate. It would be better to get all the equipment out there to do sweat tests, but it requires carrying a mobile lab, which just isn’t practical. It’s a good idea, though.”
Avoid getting it wrong
During a race, there will come a time when our carbohydrate stores will start to run low. It’s vital that we are efficiently fuelled before we set off.
“When I’m doing high-intensity efforts on the track, I’ll have a two-egg, ham and cheese omelette, as it tends to be pretty light on the stomach and is quick and easy to prepare,” says Jody Cundy. “Although, if I’m out on my bike in the morning, for breakfast, I’ll have porridge with honey and cinnamon and yoghurt, as I’ll get a nice slow release of energy throughout my ride.”
“It’s really important to stay fuelled up so you can effectively supplement the demands that training and competition put on your body,” says Matt Crampton. “So taking on cereal bars or gels for energy, eating around every hour is key.”
However, if we don’t fuel-up, or fail to replenish our energy levels, we could run into trouble, resulting in the dreaded ‘bonk’.
The ‘bonk’ or ‘bonking’ refers to the point when there is not enough carbohydrate energy left in the body to support the effort levels exerted on to your muscles. This will result in you needing to slow down or in some severe cases, stop altogether.
Your body will now be forced to begin the breakdown of protein (such as muscle fibre), which is a much slower process. It must be broken down into amino acids before being converted into glucose.
This is the danger zone, where injury can occur, especially if we have not taken on enough protein as well.
Kayes tells us why this zone is so dangerous: “If you get your fuelling wrong, your blood sugar levels drop. The body needs sugar for energy and this is achieved through gluconeogenesis – where sugar is made through available tissue.
Alex Dowsett spills the beans about his most memorable bonk
“The most memorable was when I was just 14. I attempted a local 100-mile sportive. We hit the 70-mile mark when the ‘bonk’ hit me. I touched wheels, hit the deck and bought down most of the group with me. Dad came out to pick me up, as my bike wasn’t rideable.
He took it to the local shop in the week to get it fixed and met one of the guys I bought down, doing the same. I think he [Dowsett's dad] almost felt obliged to pay for this guy’s bike as well, but he was pretty frosty with my dad so he decided against it!”
It can’t make sugar from body fat – body fat is an energy that goes through the Krebs cycle/citric acid cycle, which is a completely different pathway. So instead, as gluconeogenesis kicks in, it gains sugar now from glycolytic amino acids. This is where the problems occur. If we haven’t eaten enough protein, we have below-baseline amino acids. So it has to eat muscle. Our muscles are now getting battered to make sugar.
“It’s imperative we take on protein to repair muscles and sugars to elevate sugar levels – to stop the body eating the protein for sugar.
“There’s not a team on the Tour de France that doesn’t make sure they are educated on sugar, but if you did a blood profile on them, you would very rarely find amino acids. We feed the guys our protein products, which last several hours in the body. This ensures that they have above-base-line amino acids, and then when they eat extra protein, it’s a bonus.
The body will never cannibalise muscle, meaning it will never slow its metabolism down; it will never cannibalise itself and you will have above amino acids in the body for all vital bodily processes. As we always say to our riders, get it right first, and avoid problems later.”