Nutrition: Smart Carb Nutrition for Cyclists
Advanced Sports Dietitian Dr. Gemma Sampson discusses how the dietary intake of elite cyclists is relevant to amateurs.
There’s no doubt about it, your nutrition and the way you eat can play a huge role in optimizing your body composition, recovery and performance as a cyclist. But what is the best nutritional approach to get the most out of your workout? Should you eat high carb or low carb, and what do the pros eat?
Ever since Chris Froome posted a photo of his low carb breakfast during the 2016 Tour de France, many believe that following a low carb diet is the silver bullet that all elite athletes follow for peak performance. As an Advanced Sports Dietitian based in Girona, I have met, worked with and discussed the nutritional practices of professional athletes competing at the highest level.
Many of these elite athletes have at some point tried a proprietary low-carb or ketogenic diet to improve their fat utilization. And while for some it was beneficial from a body composition perspective to get leaner (sometimes), from a performance perspective it had a negative impact. When they followed a low carb diet and avoided eating carbs, they had higher heart rates and better perception of low intensity exertion and were unable to reach their speed and power output. previous high intensity. So many factors that ultimately compromised their racing performance.
The intensity of the exercise influences the source of fuel you use.
The higher the exercise intensity, the more your body uses carbohydrates for fuel. Although low intensity exercises (i.e. recovery rides) use a higher proportion of fat as the body’s primary fuel source, it is never at 100% and quickly begins to drop to lower intensity. approximately 59 to 64% of VO2 max. For me personally as a recreational cyclist this starts to drop to around 135 watts which on the road rides at a very leisurely recovery pace.
A huge misconception a lot of people have is thinking they’re doing low carb fasted rides to “burn more fat” when the actual intensity they’re riding at is using carbs for fuel instead. Without fueling this workout appropriately, it leads to inevitable hunger as their glycogen stores are depleted. In practice as a sports dietitian, I find this results in uncontrollable hunger levels the rest of the day, sugar cravings, snacking, and compromised recovery that can last up to two days later.
All of this can be solved by reducing the intensity of training so that fat is the main source of fuel used, or by fueling appropriately with carbohydrates. Different workouts require different fuel before, during, and after for best results. That’s why a good understanding of your training requirements is important in determining the best way to fuel yourself appropriately.
There are advantages at both ends of the spectrum when it comes to your provisioning.
Training with low carb availability and improving your ability to use fat for fuel definitely has benefits for improving your endurance capacity. If you’re an ultra-cyclist who rides at a low, consistent intensity for consecutive hours or days, there’s definitely a role to play in using low-carb/high-carb approaches to feed this fuel well. But following a low-carb diet exclusively can compromise your intensity, perceived exertion, speed, and performance.
During high-intensity exercise, carbs are king. However, for any cyclist wishing to race, compete, or train at high intensity where speed is involved, incorporating carbohydrates appropriately into your diet based on your training will allow you to perform at your peak.
Elite Athletes Are Eating MORE Carbohydrates Than Before.
One nutritional change that has been extremely interesting to me as a sports dietitian working within the professional peloton is that over the past 2 years, instead of decreasing, the overall carbohydrate intakes of elite athletes increased in training and during races.
In 2019, when I was working with Team Dimension Data, we were aiming for 80-90g carbs per hour while running. Professional cyclists are now training their guts to tolerate 100g and more to fuel peak performance. Athletes who used to train without eating (and were ravenous all the time) are now eating more carbs during their workouts, and getting stronger and leaner in the process, with normal appetite levels.
Elite athletes who have truly adapted their nutrition adapt and manipulate their energy intake and the carbohydrate content of their diet according to their training. Training requirements vary from day to day and nutrition should take this into account. Thus, I have athletes who vary their energy intake which oscillates in the same week between 1800 and 6000kcal!
The difference is that the energy and extra carbs are intentionally focused and periodized around their workout, rather than later in the day trying to catch up. While on a rest day the carb intake may be around 200g, on hard training days you may consume up to 600g of carbs to fuel that effort. As training load and duration increase, carbohydrate intake also increases.
What do professional athletes REALLY eat?
I spent July 2021 at altitude in Andorra with Team Bike Exchange feeding 14 male professional cyclists for 28 days. Each cyclist had different nutritional needs, goals and objectives. Some were aiming to maintain, some were trying to lose weight, and some were actively trying to gain weight. They all ate different amounts of carbs, but there wasn’t a single athlete who didn’t eat carbs daily.
I went shopping every day and filled two shopping carts with food. On one of the most intense training days at altitude which involved 5-6 hours of training, over a 24 hour period between 20 riders and staff, we ate:
1.5 kg of oats
5x packages of tortillas
2.5 kg of bananas
3 kg of nectarines
5.7 kg of sweet potatoes
4 kg of white potatoes
1 kg pasta (raw)
6 liters of orange juice
500g of quinoa
3kg of bread
What they ate depends on their goals, individual physiology, preferences, and training requirements! Rest days and recovery days may have been lower in carbs, but that would also be periodized throughout the day.
Breakfast would start out low carb with omelettes, ham and cheese, but the carb intake would start to increase again in the evening in preparation for training the next day.
It’s not about high or low carbs, it’s about smart carb intake.
Training and nutrition clearly go hand in hand. If you want to apply what professional and elite athletes do, you’ll start experimenting and testing different fueling options based on the goal, duration, and intensity of each specific workout.
If you periodize your carb intake, not just day-to-day, but throughout the day, your body will have access to the fuel and nutrients it needs, when it needs them.
If you want to fuel like an elite athlete, you won’t be following a high carb or low carb diet, but rather a smart carb intake to fuel your training.
Dr. Gemma Sampson is an advanced sports dietitian who works with amateur and professional cyclists and triathletes. His doctoral research explored how endurance athletes fuel their performance in competition, and his Carbohydrate Questionnaire for Competitive Endurance Athletes (CEAC-Q) was designed to guide athletes in how they can optimize their training and race nutrition strategy for peak performance.
Learn more about Gemma at www.gemmasampson.com