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Periodised nutrition: eating your way to victory

James Witts
12 Jan 2016

Adjusting your food at throughout the year can transform your performance. Cyclist examines the science behind periodised nutrition.

There was a time when the calendar didn’t impinge on athletes’ diets, just as long as there was enough pasta to go round. ‘The International Olympic Committee’s nutritional advice for years used to be that athletes should consume huge amounts of carbohydrates all the time,’ says John Hawley, professor of exercise metabolism at the Australian Catholic University in Melbourne. ‘Now we look back and say, “What were we thinking?”’

Like an increasing number of experts in professional sport, Hawley’s an advocate of ‘periodising’ your nutrition – adjusting the quantity and composition of your food intake according to the training demands of the time of year. Sports scientists have created numerous models for slicing your annual training into chunks to peak for specific events, but the original is the ‘traditional periodisation’ model. This is where the training year is broken down into three main phases – base, build and competition – with each designed to engineer a certain physiological adaption, whether it’s to increase stamina (base), boost speed (build) or ease off to ensure you’re fresh for racing (competition). As the intensity of each phase varies, so too does your food intake, though there are some nutrition principles that apply all-year round, according to American coach Bob Seebohar, who’s written a book on the subject.

The British Dietetic Association says the average Brit consumes 6,000 calories on Christmas Day.

‘Whatever the time of year, choose foods rich in beta-carotene, vitamin C, vitamin E and zinc to improve immune function,’ he says. ‘Also, choose polyunsaturated and monosaturated fats over saturated fats, and ideally keep a three-to-five-day food diary when you feel that your eating habits are lacking, to begin remedying the situation.’

Seebohar also favours the 80/20 rule for amateurs, so that 80% of what you eat is healthy with 20% left to your own discretion. It means you don’t have to live a monk-like pro lifestyle, but it’s not so indulgent that you turn into an off-season Jan Ullrich, who was famous for ballooning during the winter. So let’s explore that 80%…

Base: winter fuelling

The British Dietetic Association says the average Brit consumes 6,000 calories on Christmas Day. That’s the gluttonous peak of a festive period that commonly sees Joe Public pack on 5lbs. ‘This is why cutting down on carbs is key in the New Year,’ says sports nutritionist Drew Price. ‘By slightly depleting glycogen [the form that you store carbs in the muscle and blood], your body will derive greater energy from burning fat stores, which will help you lose weight.’

Long Sunday rides at an intensity that will assist this fat-burning aim (lower than 70-75% maximum heart rate) also increase aerobic capacity. This means you should reduce carbs and increase the proportion of energy derived from protein and good fats. You might think cutting carbs and increasing fats is counter-productive to losing weight, but excess carbs are absorbed into the body as fat. Good fats, such as olive oil, avocado, nuts and seeds, are more satiating than carbs, so you’re fuller for longer.

‘Depending on your training volume, carbohydrate intake should be between 6-9g per kilo of bodyweight per day,’ says Price. ‘Six is for athletes on less training with a higher body fat percentage. Protein nestles between 1.2-1.6g per kilo with fat around 1.1-1.3g per kilo.’ For a 75kg rider that’s a daily intake of 450g-675g of carbs, 90-120g of protein and 82.5-120g of fat.

Soigneur rice cooker

Following a lower-carb nutrition plan for the first few months of the year will send you some way to morphing into Alberto Contador, who’s known for having a high ‘fatmax’ – meaning he can ride at a high intensity and still supply much of his fuel from fats. A gram of body fat contains around eight calories compared to four in a gram of carbs, so using fat as an energy source is useful if you’re burning up to 1,000 calories per hour. Training your body to do this involves adaptations to mitochondria, where fat and carb metabolism takes place in your cells.

‘The main adaptation from training with fewer carbs at the right intensity is enhanced mitochondrial volume in your muscles, which is a phenomenon known as “mitochondrial biogenesis”,’ says Dr James Morton, head of nutrition at Team Sky and an expert on manipulating an athlete’s diet to stimulate fat metabolism. ‘As a result you use more fat for fuel at a given intensity and you produce less lactate. You also reduce glycogen breakdown, which you can conserve for the harder parts of the race.’

This low-carb, high-fat approach is perhaps the reason why Team Sky riders turn up to February’s Middle Eastern races as lean as they are at the peak of the season. Their low body fat is also attributed to glycogen-depleted sessions, which involve riding before breakfast and consuming only water. Morton, however, stresses that longer glycogen-depleted sessions often shouldn’t be water-only. ‘A lot of the elite guys will go for three or four hours with little glycogen,’ he says. ‘However, they’ll have protein in the morning and a little during the ride.’ This is to prevent the body breaking down muscle for fuel.

Which fasted session you choose depends on you and your fitness, but bear in mind that this can lower immunity, which isn’t ideal as winter can see your risk of catching a cold or upper respiratory-tract infection rise by up to 80%. ‘That’s why you should fill half of your plate with colourful vegetables,’ says Price. ‘These are a great source of vitamins and minerals to strengthen your immune system.’

Build: spring fuelling

Kim Rokkjaer cooking

After a winter that has seen you lose the pounds, now’s the time to add higher-intensity speedwork to your schedule to drop that seven-hour sportive to six. Your food intake should change accordingly.

‘During the build phase, carb intake should rise to 8-12g per kilo of bodyweight,’ says Price. ‘Protein intake also increases to around 1.5g-2g per kilo. Fat is around the 0.9-1g per kilo mark.’ For our 75kg rider that’s 615-900g of carbs, 112-150g of protein, and 67-75g of fat per day.

This increase in carbs allows for higher-intensity training efforts that demand readily accessed energy, and the extra carbs should come from three key areas: general meals (including more pasta and rice), an increase in healthy snacking (hello, malt loaf) and ride food. Healthy snacking keeps your glycogen levels topped up to maximise training efficiency, while sports foods, such as energy bars and gels, help you to maintain high levels through the session.

‘As you’ll be looking to build strength and speed, it’s also important to up your protein intake,’ says BMC Racing nutritionist Judith Haudum. ‘Protein’s role is to repair and rebuild the muscle, so will help you recover faster from intense efforts. Many think you need extra protein through supplements. You don’t. It’s easy to cover protein needs with regular meals and snacks.’

It’s a point confirmed by Alan Murchison, the Michelin-starred chef who’s also one of the country’s strongest amateur cyclists and duathletes. ‘Protein is your friend when it comes to speed work, and that’s why I swear by tinned tuna,’ he says. ‘I also increase my intake of smoked mackerel and eggs.’ Just note that you can have too much protein. It won’t make you ill but it’ll mean you’re too full to take in carbohydrate, which could threaten intensity, so stick to Price’s RDA.

Hannah Grant energy bars

With temperatures rising, hydration also becomes a greater issue. What you drink before, during and after your sessions influences the effectiveness of your efforts, with the traditional model of weighing yourself pre and post-session still one of the more reliable methods of how much you should consume. Avoid energy drinks for sessions of less than an hour.

Finally, don’t ignore sodium requirements. ‘Consider using salt tablets,’ says Seebohar. ‘Depending on the environment and distance – definitely for 100 mile-plus rides – these could be of benefit. Try them during long training rides to see how you cope.’ 

Competition: race fuelling

‘No spices, no restaurant dining and refuse dinner party invitations.’ That’s the stoical advice from Murchison when your event is less than two weeks away. And he has a point – you don’t want to ruin all your good work by drowning in unhealthy fatty foods. That’s why very simple dishes such as pasta with a light tomato sauce are the order of the day. That might be too bland for some, but whatever your domestic menu, pay heed to Seebohar.

‘If you’re racing for less than five hours, you can probably follow the nutrition guidelines in the build cycle,’ says Seebohar. ‘But if you’re racing for longer than that – especially for more than 12 hours – in the last four weeks before your race you should increase carb intake from 7g per kilo up to 19g per kilo, protein between 1.2-2g per kilo and fat from 0.8-3g per kilo.’

The upper range is more for riders competing in ultra events such as the Race Across America, but the lower end is appropriate for most sportive riders, and is the familiar ‘carb-loading’. This sees you increase carb intake so you reach the start line with your glycogen levels at capacity. For pros, this could be around a peak of 500g of glycogen – through years of training, their carbohydrate and fat metabolism stores are optimised. For the rest of us, we’re looking at 300-400g of glycogen, which equates to around 1,200-1,600 of stored calories.

‘Most athletes will benefit from carb-loading during their taper if racing for more than 90 minutes,’ says Hawley, the taper being the one to two-week period up to your goal where you reduce training volume but maintain intensity. ‘Just remember that you’ll put on weight because when you store carbohydrate, you store water. But the benefits outweigh carrying that extra weight early in the race.’

As for what to eat on race day, learn from the masterchef that is Movistar’s Alex Dowsett. ‘Potatoes, brown rice, porridge and a cup of coffee are all good before you set off,’ he says. ‘You could actually double up on that coffee intake. In my experience, while it doesn’t make you any faster, you’re more wired so you concentrate more.’

Keep fibre intake to a minimum on race day to prevent unwanted, er, complications. Now’s the time to replace wholemeal rice and pasta with their white alternatives. As for race feeding, follow the sports food routine you’ve honed in training, though the general rule is around 60g of carbs per hour via drinks, bars and/or gels.

Once you’ve crossed the finish line, it’s time for muscle-repairing protein and glycogen-refilling carbs. In other words, a damn good roast dinner.

The perfect year

Adjust your food intake to ensure your peak come race day

January to mid-April (Base)

  • Reduce carbohydrate intake, increase good fats.
  • Increase fibre intake and experiment with wholefood recipes.
  • Increase antioxidants from fruit and veg to fend off common winter ailments.

Mid-April to June (Build)

  • Increase complex carbohydrate intake as training intensifies.
  • Add extra protein for muscle repair.
  • Experiment with energy bars, gels and drinks in training so you know what works best before race day.

June to August (Competition)

  • Load up with carbs in the days before your race or event.
  • Switch to faster-acting carbs (eg, white pasta rather than brown) on the eve of the race.
  • Increase sodium intake around three days before you race if it is very long or very hot.

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