If there is one thing that cyclists are passionate about, it is food! Properly fuelling your ride is not only important for immediate performance gains, but also to support long-term health and longevity.
Energy demands are high in spring races, with an average expenditure upwards of 2500-3000 Calories during a big one-day Women’s World Tour event. For example, my expenditure on the bike for the Tour of Flanders was close to 3000 Calories! Taking into account that when this is added on top of Basal Metabolic Rate (BMR), cyclists need to eat around 2-3x the calories of what an average person needs to sustain themselves for a day of racing.
In spite of my love for the sport of cycling, it is clear to see some of the flaws that exist in its culture. One such flaw is the emphasis that is placed on body weight. This emphasis leads many riders to experience a complicated relationship with food despite the high-energy demands of the sport. Weight is an important factor in performance, but there is a tipping point where less is not more. I worry about how young riders might be influenced if exposed to the wrong environment, and how this could influence their relationship with food for the rest of their lives. I wish that I could invite young athletes to sit down to meals with the team for a day to see how top riders really fuel themselves to perform at our best. I think most people would be shocked with the amount that we can consume!
We are fortunate to have a positive food culture on Sunweb and access to team dieticians who give us practical and science-based nutrition advice. They encourage us to eat to meet our energy demands, and approach season weight and performance targets in a balanced and healthy way.
A practice that I find very educational and useful is the tracking of in-race nutrition intake. We report our intake of sports drinks, bars and gels, and the intake is then compared against demands of the race. The goal is to hit 60-90 g of carbs/hour of racing. The comparison of actual versus target intake provides immediate feedback, and helps you learn what you can tolerate, and plan for future races with this information. We are also competitive and want to end up in the “green”, so this adds a little extra motivation to remember to eat and drink in the races.
In general, most of us focus on eating a balanced and varied diet with lots of colourful fruit and vegetables, lean protein (ex. chicken, fish, eggs, yogourt, beans, legumes), healthy fats (ex. olive oil, avocado, nuts), and varied sources of carbohydrates (ex. sweet potatoes, oats, rice, bread, quinoa). The balance tips towards increased carbohydrate intake in the lead up to races, with the goal to maximize glycogen stores in order to prepare us for the demands of racing.
My love of baking is not a secret, and my rides are often fuelled by foods such as banana bread and oatmeal trail mix cookies. Long rides with teammates are often planned around café stops in search for the best coffee and treats. My thoughts are that as long as these foods don’t make up the main base of your diet, then it is more than okay to treat yourself for
a mental boost, and to top up those energy stores!
All athletes are unique with what works for them when it comes to food and nutrition, and I find it interesting to observe how cultural differences can influences a rider’s choice of fuel. For example, Coryn is the all American rider, frequently chooses bacon, eggs, kale and potatoes as her pre-ride breakfast of choice. The Dutch riders consume a lot of bread, quark and muesli. Our Danish rider Pernille would love to also have some heavy Nordic rye bread on the breakfast table, while Susanne, the Norwegian, would top her bread with some delicious brown cheese. I love to add maple syrup to everything as a good Canadian, and there is just a universal love of peanut butter on the team!
In speaking with other riders, I realized that there are a lot of misconceptions around nutrition, and especially the long term consequences of under fueling, so thought it would be helpful to mention it here. The consequences of under fuelling can be serious, impacting both short and long-term health and performance. Many athletes are at risk of developing Relative Energy Deficiency in Sport (RED-S), which occurs when there is an imbalance between energy intake and energy expenditure. Without enough energy to sustain basic physiological functions, your body essentially goes into survival mode.
Low energy availability can lead to performance consequences such as decreased power, impaired recovery and response to training. You may experience an increased susceptibility to illness as your immune system is affected. Reproductive function is also suppressed to conserve energy. In women, missed periods are an indicator that you may be operating in a deficit. Changes to levels of hormones that help maintain bone mineral density can lead to an increase risk of stress fractures, and a risk of developing osteoporosis if the energy deficiency is prolonged.
If you recognize any of these symptoms in yourself, then I would encourage you to seek out a dietician or health professional to help dial in your nutrition plan and make some changes to improve your health.
It is not always an easy equation to get right, as so many factors can influence daily fueling needs. Even with a background in nutrition and access to knowledgeable professionals, I have underestimated my fuelling needs in the past and experienced the consequences. It was only in identifying and correcting this imbalance that I was able to then get back a powerful feeling on the bike, and improve my overall health and wellbeing to compete at my best.
I want everyone to know that it is possible to be healthy, strong, lean and competitive in your pursuits while maintaining a positive relationship with food and properly fuelling the fire!
Next focus is on racing the Ardennes Classics with the team. I will be back with an update next month, until then you can follow me for some cooking and nutrition inspiration on social media Twitter @L_Kirch and Instagram @leahkirchmann!
Mountjoy M, Sundgot-Borgen J, Burke L, et al The IOC consensus statement: beyond the Female Athlete Triad—Relative Energy Deficiency in Sport (RED-S) Br J Sports Med 2014;48:491-497. https://bjsm.bmj.com/content/48/7/491