CAN POP­PING PILLS MAKE YOU A STRONGER RIDER?

Can you get some­thing from a pill or shake that you can’t get from food?

Cyclist - - Contents - Words SAM CHALLIS Pho­tog­ra­phy TA­PES­TRY

As sports go, cycling can take an un­usu­ally large phys­i­cal toll on your body. So look­ing af­ter your body prop­erly, al­low­ing it to not just sur­vive but to adapt and progress, should be a top pri­or­ity. The is­sue of whether you can ful­fil your nutri­tional re­quire­ments through your reg­u­lar diet alone is a con­tentious one, and has fu­elled the rise of the sports sup­ple­ment.

A quick in­ter­net search on sup­ple­ments throws up pages upon pages of in­for­ma­tion: what they are, how to use them and which ones are best for you. How­ever, as the sup­ple­ment in­dus­try isn’t as heav­ily reg­u­lated as the drug and phar­ma­ceu­ti­cal in­dus­tries, it can be hard to tell the fact from the fic­tion in de­ter­min­ing whether you stand to gain any ben­e­fit at all, or are quite lit­er­ally just flush­ing money down the toi­let.

‘It helps to prop­erly de­fine them first of all, as the term “sup­ple­ment” can be a bit of an over-gen­er­alised catch-all,’ says Can­non­dale-dra­pac’s head of nutri­tion, Nigel Mitchell. ‘I tend to di­vide sup­ple­ments into two dif­fer­ent types: you’ve got sports foods, which con­tain the macro and mi­cronu­tri­ents you are able to get from your diet, but in a more con­cen­trated for­mat; and you’ve got er­gogenic aids, which are sub­stances that may im­prove per­for­mance.’

You are what you eat

The con­sump­tion of sports foods – an en­ergy gel or re­cov­ery shake, for ex­am­ple – is now syn­ony­mous with cycling at all lev­els. Yet if they don’t con­tain any­thing other than what you could get from whole foods, why are they so pop­u­lar?

‘I think there re­mains an el­e­ment of mis­con­cep­tion,’ says Mitchell. ‘Peo­ple think that just be­cause it’s a sup­ple­ment it has a ben­e­fit over and above whole foods. Re­ally, a re­cov­ery shake isn’t dis­sim­i­lar to some milk and a ba­nana.

‘A lot of it is to do with con­ve­nience. At an elite level teams use re­cov­ery shakes af­ter stages be­cause, with all the post-race rig­ma­role a rider has to go through, eat­ing steak and chips is just not prac­ti­cal.’

But while few recre­ational rid­ers can claim to have this same is­sue, Mitchell ar­gues that this doesn’t pre­clude the use of sports foods in a sim­i­lar way at lower lev­els of the sport. ‘If a rider needs to bol­ster their flag­ging en­ergy lev­els it’s eas­ier to gulp down a gel than chew through a ba­nana or flap­jack, re­gard­less of whether they’re at the Tour or in a lo­cal lane.’

And there are rea­sons to use sports foods be­yond sim­ple con­ve­nience. James Mor­ton, per­for­mance nu­tri­tion­ist

‘If a rider needs to bol­ster their flag­ging en­ergy lev­els it’s eas­ier to gulp down a gel than chew through a flap­jack, re­gard­less of whether they’re at the Tour or in a lo­cal lane’

at Team Sky and re­searcher at Liver­pool John Moores Univer­sity, ex­plains that the quan­ti­fied lev­els of nu­tri­ents in some­thing like a protein pow­der can help ful­fil the nutri­tional re­quire­ments of spe­cific di­ets.

‘If a rider wants to lose weight, a high-protein diet may en­able them to achieve that,’ he says. ‘For those who may find it dif­fi­cult to con­sume the re­quired in­take from food alone, protein sup­ple­ments can be a use­ful ad­di­tion to help meet a tar­get in­take.’

The same rules ap­ply for mi­cronu­tri­ents – those vi­ta­mins and min­er­als your body needs to per­form es­sen­tial but un­der-ap­pre­ci­ated jobs like main­tain­ing hy­dra­tion sta­tus or sup­port­ing im­mune func­tion – although the ex­perts Cy­clist talked to stressed the need to pe­ri­odise mi­cronu­tri­ent sup­ple­men­ta­tion as you would your reg­u­lar diet.

‘Th­ese sup­ple­ments won’t im­prove per­for­mance un­less you’re de­fi­cient in them, but it never hurts to make sure,’ says Mitchell. ‘Just like you would eat more carbs in the sum­mer to fuel more high-in­ten­sity rid­ing, you may need more vi­ta­min D in the win­ter to make up for less ex­po­sure to sun­light. Rid­ers who are train­ing at alti­tude might ben­e­fit from ex­tra iron, given the adap­ta­tions go­ing on in their blood. Or if some­one is go­ing through a par­tic­u­larly in­tense train­ing block, omega-3 oils may pro­mote re­cov­ery.’

‘For a recre­ational rider who isn’t com­pet­ing and is train­ing to a nor­mal level, gen­er­ally speak­ing you’re prob­a­bly bet­ter off fo­cus­ing on your diet, as it’s so im­por­tant to get the ba­sics right’

Short-term sixth gear

Sports foods pre­dom­i­nantly help per­for­mance through im­prov­ing the body’s re­sponse to train­ing adap­ta­tions over the long term – help­ing mus­cles re­cover faster or re­con­di­tion bet­ter. Er­gogenic aids, by con­trast, can po­ten­tially make you faster straight away. They may stim­u­late a re­sponse in the body al­most im­me­di­ately, but once again dosage is key. Too lit­tle and the rider may feel no ef­fect, but too much is likely to in­duce some un­de­sir­able side ef­fects.

‘Of all the er­gogenic aids cur­rently avail­able, only a few are con­sis­tently proven to af­fect per­for­mance,’ says Mor­ton. The ones most ap­pli­ca­ble for cy­clists in­clude caf­feine, beta-ala­nine and sodium bi­car­bon­ate.

‘Caf­feine is a stim­u­lant and may re­duce a rider’s per­cep­tion of ef­fort so they can work harder. Dosage-wise the sweet spot is some­where near 2-4mg per kilo­gram of body mass. Once you ap­proach 6-9mg/kg phys­i­cal and men­tal per­for­mance may de­cline, you’ll get jit­tery and your sleep could be af­fected, which would slow your re­cov­ery.’

At a mid-ride cof­fee stop, a reg­u­lar flat white prob­a­bly con­tains around 200mg of caf­feine, which should be enough of a hit for your av­er­age 75kg cy­clist to re­ceive some ben­e­fi­cial ef­fects for the sec­ond half of their ride.

Beta-ala­nine and sodium bi­car­bon­ate both act as meta­bolic buf­fers (al­beit via dif­fer­ent path­ways) that may in­crease aer­o­bic en­durance, but take too much beta-ala­nine and you may get pares­the­sia, which is a harm­less but un­com­fort­able itch, com­monly on your face and arms. Overdo sodium bi­car­bon­ate and you may spend more time on the toi­let than you do on your bike.

Sports foods have a place in your diet, then, but do the ben­e­fits of er­gogenic aids out­weigh the risks?

‘It all de­pends on what your goals are,’ says Mor­ton. ‘How­ever, for a recre­ational rider who isn’t com­pet­ing and is train­ing to a nor­mal level, gen­er­ally speak­ing you’re prob­a­bly bet­ter off fo­cus­ing on your diet, as it’s so im­por­tant to get the ba­sics right. If you’re an elite ath­lete who has al­ready achieved the nec­es­sary macro and mi­cronu­tri­ent qual­ity of your diet, er­gogenic aids may give that added ex­tra per­for­mance ef­fect.’

So un­less you have a win­ner’s medal or jer­sey in your sights, it might be best to leave that pot of bi­carb un­til you bake your next cake.

Sup­ple­ments can give you ex­tra en­ergy, power and ca­pac­ity to re­cover from ex­er­cise, but they’re not mir­a­cle pills. It will still hurt

Er­gogenic aids such as beta-ala­nine and caf­feine can po­ten­tially make you faster straight away, but they have side ef­fects if you take too much

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