What do Pro Cyclists Eat?
“How do they do it?”: everyone who sees professional cyclists at work in the Tour de France, the Vuelta or the Giro probably wonders about this. How is it possible that such tendril and slender athletes are able to deliver such great performances? Undoubtedly, the body of a rider suffers during such a multi-day stage race. The non-stop racing, the difference in weather circumstances (during the last Tour de France the riders event went from 30° C to 4° C and snow in a single stage!). The alternation of rest days, followed by heavy mountain stages, then back to flat stages… Only those who are in excellent shape, can come out of this unharmed!
Being in good shape starts with an excellent health and a good immune system. Nutrition plays in important part in this. All that the riders eat, has a direct influence on their overall health, their performance level, but also on the speed of the recovery afterwards. And this can be of crucial importance during such a multi-day race. Nutrition has an important contribution to the shape of the riders. Weight and body fat are also important parameters in this context. During the Tour de France 2015, this issue was a hot topic: “How low can one go in body fat percentage?” was the subject of many discussions and articles.
First of all, during the preparation period, the riders have to aim for a balanced diet with a variation of carbohydrates, proteins, fats, minerals and vitamins. Carbohydrates fuel the muscles, they deliver the energy that is needed for the performance. Proteins are important for the muscle build-up and for the recovery of the muscles afterwards. Fats will be taken in to a limited extend, especially when the riders seeks to have a low percentage of body fat.
The daily energy need of a professional cyclist depends of many different factors. Especially the nature of the effort (intensive or not) and the duration of the effort are important in this context. Generally, it can be stated that the energy-intake of a professional rider is high. During the Tour de France for example, a rider can use 6500kcal during a stage. A mountain stage can raise this amount to 10 000kcal. For comparison: the daily need of a normal man is 2500kcal.
Sufficient variation in the nutrition program is appropriate to have the necessary vitamins and minerals. Some cyclists prefer a bit of support in this area, because of nutrition preferences or unilateral eating habits. They make sure to supplement their diet with multi-vitamins and/or iron. During heavy training periods, or in an intense preparation period, these supplements are standard used.
Nutrition before the stage
Before the race, it’s extremely important to maximize the glycogen reserves (reserves of carbohydrates). In the case of races lasting more than 3 hours, it’s necessary to start by maximizing nutrition several days (2 to 3 days) in advance, whereby training sessions are decreased and the level of carbohydrates increased. In addition, all of this done in combination with limiting fats and fibers in the rider’s diet. This is what’s called ‘carbo-loading’. Professional riders need to carbo-load, because their body fat percentage is very low (6%-10% max), so they don’t have any fats in reserve to burn during the performance.
During multi-day races it is essential to replenish the burned nutritional elements. To do so, the riders take in substantial portions of carbohydrates and proteins. In between, riders often drink or eat energy bars or drinks.
The day of the race
When the riders get up in the morning, they start loading up the carbohydrates. Most of the time, a race starts before noon, so riders will consume a hearty breakfast as their race meal. Breakfast usually consists of white bread, toast, pancakes, cereal, jam, honey, bananas. Some riders eat pasta or rice at breakfast, but this is more about personal preference. After breakfast, they consume more carbohydrates in liquid form, which are easily digested. This can also be dome in combination with energy bars as well.
During the race
Perhaps, the most important task for the riders during the race, is to replenish carbohydrates and fluids. The amount of carbohydrates that is taken in, is dependent on the duration and intensity of the stage. On average, the intake of carbohydrates is about 60g per hour, but in longer races, they aim at 90g per hour. In the professional cycling world, the majority of the races are longer ones, except for the time trials. Making sure they take in those 90g of carbohydrates per hour, is a difficult task. To combat this problem, the ratio of carbohydrates in energy drinks are intensified.
Every riders has his personal preferences. Some riders prefer bars, others prefer using gels. Next to carbohydrates, the replenishing of fluids is another important aspect for riders. To accomplish this, the average fluid intake for riders is 500-750 ml per hour, depending on the weather conditions.
After the race
Immediately after a stage, riders will often consume a “recovery shake” and other small food sources such as sandwiches, energy bars ect.., as a means of replenishing carbohydrates and proteins until such time as they reach the hotel for a formal meal.
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