We look at the latest in cycling diet science, and how the pros are fuelling themselves
Post a couple of photos of your eggs and avocado brunch on Instagram and people think that’s all you eat. Procycling looks at how Team Sky actually fuels its athletes "You need to fuel well to race… but people often try to recreate race- day practices in training. That might be the worst thing they could do" James Morton Performance Nutritionist Team Sky
It usually starts with an Instagram photo. Consider this from the Tour’s second rest day: four poached eggs, some smoked salmon and half an avocado. By lunch the number of views is in the thousands and comments are piling up like snow. Some, the politer ones, quizzically ask where the ‘fuel’ is. Others demonstrate an agenda with the hashtag #CTFU, an acronym commandeered by online nutrition commentators, suggesting in certain terms that Froome should add some carbohydrates in his diet: carb the f*ck up. Google ‘Chris Froome Low Carb Diet’ and after the headlines about how Froome lost 20lb, won the Tour and became a multimillionaire Monaco resident thanks to LCHF (low carb, high fat diet), there are videos. The presenters, brimming with passionate ire, critique a platter sans
les glucides that Froome posted online. “I would say to Froome, if he wants to lose weight, don’t eat this sh*t,” says one Australian vlogger adamantly, when a photo of an arrangement of avocado, two boiled eggs, some supplements and a takeaway tea appeared under Froome’s caption, ‘It’s not all about carbo-loading!’
That people presume to know better and with such certainty is one thing. More to the point, somewhere between the caption (which implies carbohydrates do have a role) and the interpretation of the image, something’s been lost. Of course Froome eats carbohydrates. But the noise of the conclusions being jumped to based on the image of a few plates of food posted to social media perplexes the triple Tour de France winner.
“I think some of the pictures I’ve put on social media about what I’ve been eating happen to be on a low carb day and I guess people see that and say ‘he must be racing like that as well’ – I’m not” says Froome. I believe in high carb, medium carb and low carb.”
Nevertheless there is a story to Froome’s diet. It’s less a case of what he eats, but how and when.
James Morton has been Team Sky’s performance nutritionist since the start of 2015. He’s worked with Liverpool FC, jockeys, MMA athletes and boxers on both sides of the pro-am divide. Underlying his fieldwork, the Northern Irelander is a PhD in Exercise Metabolism with a post in the sports science department at Liverpool John Moores University. Ten years ago, the department cottoned onto evidence demonstrating that when the body is denied ready access to carbohydrate in some training scenarios, it led to better training adaptations and performance. LJMU is one of the few centres around the world to follow the lead in this nutrition theory, dubbed carbohydrate periodisation. “It is one of the most exciting aspects of sports nutrition of the last decade,” says Morton, who took over from Nigel Mitchell, Sky’s previous nutritionist, who was up on the idea of carbohydrate restriction, too.
For 40 years, Morton says, the abiding principle of endurance athletes’ nutrition was that high carbohydrate levels improve performance. And that remains resolutely the case. “Race-winning moves are fuelled by carbohydrate,” he says. “There’s no way that Chris could climb the way he climbs after five hours if there wasn't carbohydrate in his system or his muscles weren’t conditioned to use it as a fuel.” But it’s also led to a widely held belief, Morton adds, that what’s good in races is good in training and that riders should eat enough carb-rich food that the muscles are always well stocked with the ready source of energy, glycogen, but not so much that it isn’t used and turns to fat. It’s a mindset that Morton believes has taken root in the sport. “I definitely
think nutrition has been an undervalued component of cycling. I think it is very valued on race day, this idea that you need to fuel well to race, but what I would say is that perhaps people often try to recreate race-day practices in training. That might be the worst thing they could be doing.”
Morton adds: “It’s not always about performance. In training it’s about adaptations and one of the fundamental goals of endurance training is to increase the amount and function of mitochondria inside the muscle.”
The background. Whether a rider is a Classics man or Grand Tour contender, the process of training a muscle to be good at cycling is predominantly to recruit more power stations inside the cell, called mitochondria. During aerobic training the muscle is stressed and this prompts the cell to start creating more mitochondria.
The more mitochondria, the better the muscle is at reducing lactic acid build-up and using fats as an energy source. For cyclists this means they’re able to pedal at higher speeds but with less reliance on the easy-access glycogen. And then when it comes to race winning moves, there are more glycogen reserves to fuel the effort. What carefully planned nutrition does, says Morton, is enhance the training effect: deny the muscle carbohydrates at certain intensities and the muscle is forced to rely on fats. That stimulates the production of mitochondria. And by keeping the protein and healthy fat intake high, muscles have the nutrients to recover and won’t turn catabolic, which leads to a drop in power.
“I think of a lot of endurance athletes will practice carbohydrate periodisation almost unconsciously,” Morton says. “They’re training multiple times per day – and at least with a cyclist they’re training pretty much every day with long endurance sessions. It’s virtually impossible to have a muscle fully loaded with glycogen all day, every day. What I do is provide some structure and a theoretical framework based on the research at Liverpool John Moores University and that of other researchers around the world.”
In practice, this means overlaying a cycle of meals that is tailored to meet upcoming training efforts – or as Morton puts it, “fuelling for the work required”. Riders’ training programmes are often broken down into four-day blocks. Morton gives the following illustration. If day one is a long ride with intervals or climbs, carbohydrate intake is increased at breakfast, during the ride and afterwards to ensure the rider can hit their efforts and recovery isn’t hindered by lack of nutrients. If day two is a long, low intensity ride, then the evening meal of day one may see some carbohydrate restriction begin, which is carried through breakfast before and into the ride. The lack of carbohydrate stresses the cell in such a way that during recovery, new mitochondria start to be produced. Depending what’s coming on day three – perhaps another round of intervals – carbohydrates may be reintroduced in the latter part of the ride and carried through into the evening meal and the breakfast of day three. This process is tailored to what level of work comes on days three and four.
This process also allows the riders to run a calorie deficit across a fairly broad time period that doesn’t affect training efforts. And a calorie deficit means a gradual decline to race weight.
“It’s not uncommon for riders to lose three to six kilogrammes in the five or six months prior to a Grand Tour,” says Morton. “Periodising carbohydrates according to the fuel for the work required principle provides a practical framework to achieve this. It is, of course, possible to lose weight quicker than this. For instance, some of the professional fighters I work with might lose 10kg in 10 weeks…but they have 24 hours to refuel after making weight and only have to perform for one night. A Grand Tour rider has 21 days and it’s a case of slow and steady weight loss wins the race…pushing it too hard could mean the race is over before you even start.”
Morton, who’s convinced nutrition offers very meaningful gains in performance, is keen to keep much of the detail out of the public domain on grounds of competitive advantage. However, he insists there’s more to understand, boundaries of carbohydrate restriction to be pushed harder. After all, he says self-deprecatingly, it’s taken him 10 years to reach the conclusion that the “meal by meal, day by day approach,” is the way forward.
“We’re constantly getting a better idea how to structure this,” he says. “I do believe there’s a glycogen threshold that you need to have in to activate all these systems. If you start with too high glycogen levels then you don't activate the pathways
“I don’t think it’s normal to do low carb rides. I certainly won't be doing them after I’ve retired. But there’s a reason we do it"
and then if you finish exercise with too low glycogen and you don't recover you switch off the pathways. So there’s a window before and after that we think you should be staying in to amplify all the responses. The hard part is identifying the sweet spot for each individual athlete and, ultimately, this is where careful monitoring and working with the athlete and coach are essential,” he adds.
When Froome approaches race weight he says he feels the sensation of energy sources flooding his muscles when he eats something energy rich, like a banana. “It feels like this fuel which you didn’t have before.”
It sounds far out. Froome doesn’t entirely disagree. “I don’t think it’s healthy or normal to go out and do low carb rides,” he says bluntly. “It’s not natural and I certainly won't be doing those rides after I’ve hung up the bike and retired. But there’s a reason we do them and I think it has been shown that it has helped us to lose weight without compromising power or performance.”
Froome insists that the diet is not prescriptive, merely a set of guidelines. He doesn't weigh his food. “It’s all on feeling and you can judge best yourself by listening to your body. If you get on the bike and you just feel empty then you need to top up,” he adds, though admits that this is where hunger sensations rub up against willpower. “Naturally as athletes there’s a tendency to want to push the limits and hone in on the last few per cent. I definitely think it’s with experience that you just find out where the limits are.”
During competition, Team Sky’s diet is mainly all carbs but by this time muscles are so well tuned, so rich in mitochondria, that even at the pinnacle of competition, there’s a time and a place for a little bit of carbohydrate restriction. And that’s why a photo of Chris Froome’s breakfast on a rest day, two thirds of the way through the Tour de France, when all that looms ahead is a media call and two steady hours on the bike, doesn’t feature toast.
Salmon, avocado and egg looks like a great breakfast, but during a Grand Tour?
Four hungry Sky riders pedal in search of a McDonald's when Morton isn't looking