“The nutritional preparation”
For every important event or race that you plan on taking part in, there are four key components. It is very much like a chair where each leg is as important as the other two:
- The physical preparation: Train the muscle, improve efficiency, coordination, and technique.
- The technical preparation: Which bike, which tires, what gear ratio, etc.
- The mental preparation: Find and adapt personal and usable tools in order to have the right mindset and attitude in all circumstances.
- The nutritional preparation: Improve and especially maintain a good and viable nutritional scheme, create good food habits to give the body the best fuel available at the right time for training and racing.
In this post, we are only going to discuss one of these legs: the Nutritional Preparation.
No matter what we think of nutrition, sports nutrition has gained enormous grounds and made a huge push to be part of the basis of any preparation. Nutrition is no longer considered one of those “marginal-gains” that everybody is talking about. In the last 15 years, as it usually happens, older and sometimes very established nutrition theories have been debunked and new beliefs have been pushed to the forefront. Because of the marketing efforts of some companies and brand managers, there have been a lot of oversimplifications that try to convince us to just follow a new label or a new trend (gluten-free, Paleo) over another. Therefore, in this exposé, I will not mention these labels or try to convince you to go with one over another. There are plenty of blogs and never-ending conversations going on about that. Instead, I would like to bring back to life the basics of nutrition and how to fuel our bodies.
Like the physical preparation, nutrition is NOT something that you try to dial in five to ten days before a race or an event or try to load into your body at the last minute. That training starts months before the race. Like any other physical training, you need to train your body and, step by step, improve your energy intake and balance the demands of your body. In other words, it should be part of your everyday routine and should be in your mind every single day.
At this stage, let me state clearly that there are no miracle bars, gels, or drinks that will boost your energy levels enough to counteract a bad or mediocre diet.
When feeding your body, there are three specific “pathways”:
- The Glucidic pathway – Related to the well-known carbohydrates
- The Lipidic pathway – Substances commonly called fat, fatty acids, etc.
- The Protidic pathway – Substances commonly called protein, amino acids, etc.
The general idea is to manage these three pathways, balance the energy supply of your body carefully, and train the body to utilize it. It is very much like a hybrid car that has to manage the energy output to the demand from its electrical motor and its internal combustion engine (with the exception that our bodies have three different sources and not two).
To better understand this pathway, we will mainly focus on glycogen and how our body manages its reserve.
The carbohydrates (different sugars, starches, and fibers contained in vegetables, fruits, grains, etc.) that we ingest are broken down and converted in the form of glycogen. Glycogen is then stored in and around the muscle tissues and in the liver. The average person holds about 400-500 grams of stored glycogen in their body (about 100 grams in the liver and 400+ grams in muscle tissues), which translates into 1,500-2,000 kilocalories of available energy. For reference, 1 gram of glycogen is equal to 4 kilocalories.
Muscle glycogen is used to feed the muscle cells, while the liver glycogen converts to glucose for use throughout the body, including the central nervous system.
When it comes to glycogen reserve, there is no solidarity between the muscle groups. If one muscle group is depleted of glycogen, other muscle groups will not assist by sharing or giving away their own reserve. That is why we need to train our body to store the glycogen where it is going to be needed.
In the case of cycling, we want to maximize the glycogen reserve in the lower body: calf, thighs, buttocks, lower back, core, etc. Like any muscle, we need to train these muscles to store as much glycogen as possible. This is done, step by step, by eating what the body needs to deliver the effort and through the well-known overcompensation effect (also called adaptation-effect of the body). It is the very same physiological process that affects our muscles when we train. When damaging muscle fibers, the body will rebuild more fibers than before in order to prepare the muscle for a bigger load or effort. Through training, we force the muscles to empty these glycogen reserves and replenish the “store” with more and more glycogen. With training, the storage capacity of the muscle under stress can be doubled! The body will slowly adapt itself to the demand for glycogen.
This effect of adaptation is linked to the cycles of charging and discharging of glycogen in and around the muscles. Here there is a double strategy that needs to be initiated:
- During the year, it is important to adapt the glycogen load and input to the specifics of each training.
- Before a race or event, it is time to use the mechanism of overcompensation and prepare carefully the necessary glycogen reserve.
In the end, the muscle or muscle groups that will be able to store more glycogen per kilo (total mass or weight of the rider) will be able to work longer and harder!
We just saw that the total glycogen storage is limited from 400 to 500 grams (1,600-2,000 Kcal). On the other end, the average consumption of glycogen is anywhere between 130 and 240 grams per hour (520-960 Kcal). Therefore, the theoretical maximum autonomy (depending on the intensity!) is only 2 to 3 hours. Unfortunately, the assimilation of sugars by our body has limits, too. It means that no matter how many gels and sugary bars we take to compensate the loss, the body can only absorb 1 gram per kilogram (rider’s weight) per hour (typically 60 to 70 grams per hour or 240-280 Kcal).
That is when and why the body looks to find energy from another source: the lipids.
There are a few advantages associated with the Lipidic pathways or source of energy:
- 1 gram of fat delivers 9 Kcal, which is TWICE the amount for glucids or sugars.
- The lipidic reserves are plentiful (we all hate to hear this!). There are around 300 grams in the muscles and 10-12 kg in the tissues all over the body.
So the rider who can best utilize and manage his or her lipid and fat reserve is going to go further and be stronger by balancing from different energy sources.
With that said, digging in the lipids reserve is great for all endurance but glucids are still a better source of fast energy for bursts and short acceleration.
There are some specific trainings to force the body to get it used to “dig” into the fat and less into the glycogen. One good example is the “fasting-training”. This is usually done in the morning without breakfast (just with water) and at a low intensity. This simple method will train the body to get energy from the fatty tissues by default. Exercising on an empty stomach has been shown to be especially great for fat loss, and it’s even been shown that people who train while fasted become progressively better at burning fat at higher levels of intensity (possibly because of an increase in fat-oxidizing enzymes).
In conclusion, the second reserve is abundant and plentiful and it deserves to be managed like the Glucidic pathway and be used to better performance.
We want to push our bodies to their maximum and improve our performance. However, prolonged efforts and the repetition of hard and sustained training sessions can also end up weakening the body.
The protidic reserve is around 10 Kg (muscle, red blood cells, organs, etc.), which is associated with the amino acids (leucine, isoleucine, valine, etc.) and glutamine. If the body does not have regular resting periods or enough rest overall, it can lead to what is called “Hyper-Catabolism”. Catabolism refers to the process that breaks down complex molecules into smaller molecules; it usually releases energy for the organism to use. The opposite of catabolism is anabolism, which refers to the process which builds molecules the body needs; it usually requires energy for completion. Both of these processes are metabolic processes, or phases that are biochemical processes that allow an organism to live, grow, reproduce, heal, and adapt to its environment. When hyper-catabolism occurs, cortisol levels (stress hormones) will rise and testosterone levels (anti-catabolic hormone by excellence) will drop. The body will then deplete itself by eating muscle mass and resulting in a decrease in amino acids in the blood. It will have the opposite effect that we are all aiming for: performance will decrease quickly. The more damage done, the more it will take to get back on track.
Symptoms of muscle loss or melting:
- Decreased muscle efficiency
- Loss of power
- Repeated muscle injuries
- Chronic fatigue
- Lowered immune system (caused by a lower count of glutamine, the precursor of white blood cells).
- Symptoms of lower blood count: General fatigue, Lack of motivation, Less combatitivity,
- All these are associated with an increase in serotonin levels
As was the case for the glucids and lipids, it is essential to train the body to store and make good protein sources available to efficiently build and rebuild the muscle fibers. It is essential to add good, clean proteins into the daily diet and optimize the storage of amino acids (35% of the muscle mass!). Good proteins with help to reinforce the muscle mass as well as the resistance and tonicity of the muscle fibers. Priority should be given to the storage of branched amino acids. Because of this, it is essential that athletes add good proteins to their diet in order to push back and limit the loss of muscle density through catabolism. This can be done using protein supplements like the BCAA (Branched-Chain Amino Acids). The essential BCAA are L-Valine, L-Leucine, L-isoleucine. The advantage of the BCAA over regular amino acids is that the BCAA are directly metabolized by the muscle cells and not through the liver. The body also needs these to synthesize the glutamine and alanine that are lost during training and therefore to avoid the catabolism scenario. As you may have understood by now, the BCAA have an anabolic characteristic and improve the source of energy available to the athlete.
By managing these three pathways together and training your body to manage these sources of energy, you will better prepare your body for races and improved performance.