Evolution of Cycling Nutrition – What has changed?

Carbohydrate Mouth Rinse, for Dummies
June 23, 2018

Evolution of Cycling Nutrition – What has changed?

Cycling…

A tremendous, thrilling, literally breath-taking sport, whose fans are growing all over the world.

Everything started with someone I used to call in Portuguese “o pirata cor-de-rosa”. I absolutely idolized “il pirata” Marco Pantani and his unique climbing skills, while being told stories about Eddie Merckx by my father and of course, when the Portuguese Rui Costa beat Alejandro Valderde to become UCI World champion in 2013, I truly enjoyed that one.

But let’s get on to business and put insert nutrition somehow on this context.

Back then, I didn’t look at cycling the way I look today or didn’t even wondered about how much those guys on wheels needed to eat and drink during a race. At least after graduating, I thought that was all of it. But I was wrong:

  • Sports Nutrition took a leap and suddenly it could help athletes recover better and much faster.
  • After that, we found that carbohydrate loadings were much simpler than we thought.
  • Then came Asker Jeukendrup and put a Nail in the coffin on how much carbohydrate could we absorb during endurance activities
  • Later on, antioxidants were only beneficial in acute specific moments, not all the season.
  • Suddenly, we didn’t need to “drink carbohydrates” to have performance benefits, we only needed to mouth rinse them and spit the drink.
  • More research showed us that restricting carbs could generate positive training adaptations in a long term.
  • Then popular high fat ketogenic took over, fuelled by social media hype and… (we’ll talk about them soon).
  • Now, isotonic hydrogels emerged with claims of being able to deliver much more carbohydrates per ml of water, with no gastrointestinal distress.

More and more Pro cycling teams have a performance sports nutrition on their team to design the menus, provide snacks during the race, optimize recovery trough shakes and rapid recovery drinks and maximize training adaptations in the pre-season.

“So… Where exactly are we know?”

That’s an easy one.

We are LOST. Wondering around google, Social media influencers, coaching professionals and it seems that having a good photography knowledge is equivalent as having a nutrition degree, at least for Instagram visual standards.

In the past years, cycling changed alongside sports nutrition and we’ve had the privilege to witness a true evolution in the road cycling world, where average speeds are much higher (figure 1), having increased from 26.44 km/h in the 20th century to a stunning 41.19 km/h in 2008.

Figure 1. Mean cycling speed progression curve of the top ten riders in 11 European professional bicycle races. Four periods are observed; the first three included the two World Wars (from P1 to P3). A fourth period (P4) appears after 1993. Adapted from El Helou et al. 2010.

 

Top speeds on the biggest 3 pro cycling races have also been rising in the last years (figure 2.)

Figure 2. Speed records of the three professional bike races. Tour de France (A); Vuelta ciclista a España (B); Giro D’italia (C). Adapted from El Helou et al. 2010.

 

These higher speeds have transformed cycling into a sport with higher intensities, more watts per kilo (w/kg) thus, more energy required through food and supplement consumption. The stages of professional cycling might be shorter in distance, but they have become more dynamic and intense, allowing for superior average speed to be reached.

Though some attribute these changes to prohibited substances, some might argue that bikes are lighter and more efficient, while others believe that that Nutrition and Ergogenic supplements are the main responsible.

It might actually be mix of all of the above, but what we know is that cycling is a tremendously demanding sport where the Sports Nutritionist has a fundamental role in strategically fuelling the cyclists to maximize performance, enhance recovery and optimize training adaptation through nutrient manipulation.

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El Helou, N., Berthelot, G., Thibault, V., Tafflet, M., Nassif, H., Campion, F., … & Toussaint, J. F. (2010). Tour de France, Giro, Vuelta, and classic European races show a unique progression of road cycling speed in the last 20 years. Journal of sports sciences28(7), 789-796.

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