CAN POPPING PILLS MAKE YOU A STRONGER RIDER?
Can you get something from a pill or shake that you can’t get from food?
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