An important component to any cyclist's performance is the optimisation of nutritional practices — or in layman's terms, eating and drinking the right things at the right times.
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Through appropriate and effective on- and off-the-bike feeding strategies, adequate nutritional intake during periods of increased physical work can maximise training adaptations. For the cyclist, this allows for more consistent and intensive training by promoting recovery between training sessions, reducing interruptions of training because of illness or injury, and enhancing competitive performance.
Divided into three components: pre-exercise, during exercise and post-exercise, scientific research over the last three decades has repeatedly shown the benefits of a varied range of nutritional practices to ensure that the performer is achieving the full potential from their nutrient consumption.
Researchers have applied varying strategies of feeding during performance assessment to determine the effect of nutritional intake, but translating some of these laboratory-based feeding practices to the open road can often be problematic.
For example, the approach of providing cyclists with nutrients every 10 minutes during a 90 minute static cycle test to show the positive effect of carbohydrate use, may not convert when performing in a competition, as performers tend to consume when possible, not necessarily at defined time intervals.
The nature of training or competition will therefore impact on the practices that are adopted, and when on the bike you'll need to consider the most appropriate and effective strategies to ensure optimal nutritional intake.
Despite our bodies' plentiful amount of fat, which can be a readily available fuel source during low intensity cycling, carbohydrate stores that can become a limiting factor in the performance of prolonged, high-intensity sessions of sub-maximal or intermittent exercise need to be maintained. This is done by appropriate and effective nutritional intake to meet the requirements of our training and optimise restoration of muscle stores between training sessions. In achieving this, we tend to combine what can be called our 'normal' food intake with dietary supplements, such as powders, drinks, energy bars and gels.
Becoming more popular in the replacement of traditional forms of food due to their ease of use and rapid effects on the body, commercially-available nutritional products for the sports performer have proliferated over the last few years.
Differing products promote a range of physiological effects and, depending on when the products are consumed, may enhance the performer's pre-performance preparation, on-bike performance or after-performance recovery. Commonly cited reasons for the use of such technical foods include the compensation for an inadequate diet and the need to meet increased demands of hard training or frequent competition.
Many view additional intake as a way of benefiting on-bike performance, while others feel they need to keep up with team mates or opponents who are also supplementing the diet with additional sources of fuel. Whatever your reason for choosing technical foods to help with cycling, you can rest assured that you are not throwing money away.
On the road
However, when performing out on the road, recommendations for fuel intake are not always practical and what may have been found within a closed laboratory environment may not translate to the infrequent stacking of food that occurs when training or racing. For the cyclist, consideration as to the most appropriate on-bike feeding strategies will maximise the effective use of such products.
It is often the case that we are limited to the amount of storage space available to use when we are on the bike. With a couple of jersey pockets and normally no more than two bottle cages, we have to consider carefully what would be the best combination of food and drink to take with us.
Consider whether gels and bars could save you space and deliver what you need. Will you be able to consume these safely on the move or do they require a pair of hands to open them? What distance will be covered and what will the intensity of exercise be?
Try to think about feeding on the move and not just the types of food you are going to use
What is important, therefore, is not just the foods, but knowing when you use them. But with such a vast array of technical foods available, finding ones you like and devising a strategy to get the best from them in racing and training is down to you.