Energy For the Mountains - Tour de France Nutrition

TdF2009

If you love sport, then July is possibly your favourite month of the year.  In Australia we are in the middle of our busy winter sports seasons, but we are also spoilt for choice with international events, meaning lots of late nights and bleary-eyed mornings for armchair spectators! 

I have developed an interest in the Tour de France over the years, although I must admit I haven’t seen too many live stages this time around.  As I get older the timezones don’t seem to work so well for me!  I do love watching the amazing TV coverage of this gruelling endurance feat, and being a sports dietitian I take great interest in what the cyclists eat and drink, as well as when and how.  Juggling food and fluids on two wheels is a skill in itself! 

Getting the food and fluid right on multi-stage events like the 21-day Tour de France can impact on how the athletes feel on the bike, how they recover and how they perform.  Extreme sporting events present a number of challenges, with fuelling and hydration being critical for overall success. 

I had initially planned to write a detailed piece about nutrition for the Tour de France, however over the recent two weeks I have seen plenty of great content already published on other sites.  So rather than re-writing,  I will highlight the nutrition priorities below and provide either my own thoughts or link back to other experts. 

So much food, so little time:

When you are on the bike for a fair chunk of the day, plus all of the travel, preparation and commitments, it can be difficult to find time to eat enough.  A recent post from Asker Jeukendrup, exercise physiologist and sports nutritionist,  highlighted some of the research on multi-stage cycling and predicted energy requirements. The amount of energy expended per day for the major cycling tours is estimated to average 6,000 calories.  On the big hill stages, expect up towards 9,000 calories per day.  There are a number of factors that contribute to energy expenditure and there will be wide individual variation, however these figures are a good indicator of how hard to body is working during these events.  The calorie requirement can be 2-3 times what the average male needs to eat in a day! When you consider that 5-6 hours of the 15 or so awake hours is on the bike it doesn’t leave a lot of time to consume that amount of energy.  Particularly when you think that riding up a mountain at altitude (sometimes in the wind and rain) does not make eating an easy task.

For a short but detailed read on how much energy is needed to fuel an elite professional cyclist go to Asker Jeukendrup’s blog, which also provides a visual comparison of what 9,000 calories looks like in burgers!  Can you guess how many?

Food on the bike:

As mentioned, eating while riding is a practiced skill in itself.  Different types of foods and fluids suit different individuals.  Professional teams these days have support staff including dietitians, sports scientists and chefs who help the athletes to achieve optimal performance nutrition during tours.  For more information about the carbohydrate requirements of cyclists during stage events, go to the Premax blog 'Sugar for Cycling Performance. Part 1: How Much is Enough?'.  I have recently started writing for the Premax blog as a guest nutrition contributor, excited to be involved!.

For some practical ideas for home-made snacks on the bike, The Feed Zone website is a great resource, plus they do some great recipe books about the food the pros eat that you can also do yourself at home.  I have the Feed Zone Portables book at home and it’s great.

Food off the bike:

After a day’s racing is when nutrition really needs to step up.  Recovery goals are similar to other sports, with a focus on protein, carbohydrate, electrolytes and fluid.  Elite cyclists working at such high intensities burn a lot of carbohydrate, particularly during hill stages.  Although carbohydrate and protein are essential, it’s important to also think about overall nutrition and incorporating vegetables – not just endless bowls of spaghetti bolognaise.  If you want an insight into see what professional cyclists REALLY eat, follow Orica-Greenedge’s chef Nicki Strobel on Twitter……definitely not just endless bowls of pasta!

 Hydration:

If you have been watching the Tour this year, you would have noticed that some days are raced in the heat of the day with the European sun beating down on sweat-soaked jerseys, while other days jerseys are drenched by the soaking rain, wind and cold.  Hydration is important in all conditions, but fluid losses are likely to be higher in the heat.  The big challenge for multi-stage events is that you only have overnight to recover before you do it all again, so rehydrating strategies are essential to ensure athletes are hydrated on the starting line the next morning.  Sweat means fluid loss, but also potential salt, or electrolyte, losses.  No room for low-salt diets on the Tour trail, with savoury snacks on the bike also being important rather than predominantly sweet options which seem to be popular with cyclists.

Immune system:

Fuelling and recovery are priorities, but with the stress on light and lean bodies at their physical peak, there is also the risk of illness during an unpredictable event such as the Tour de France.  Food options shouldn’t just focus on protein, carbohydrate and fluid, but also the overall nutrient density of foods.  Intake in the lead up to multi-stage events is also important for preparing the body to be in the best condition prior.

 

This is just the base of the mountain when it comes to Tour de France and endurance nutrition.  Each team and individual athlete will have their own specific nutrition strategies.  Even with the best support team and planning, endurance events are unpredictable, so nutrition plans need to be flexible, and a plan B is always handy.  By the end of the Tour, cyclists will be physically and psychologically exhausted and often a bit lighter on the scales.  Sports nutrition strategies can help throughout a Tour, but are also important in transition periods between events in preparation for the next physical challenge.  

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