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Eat to win

We catch up with Team Wiggins' performance coach David Dunne to find out how you should be fuelling your ride and recovery

9 Mar 2016

Like the pros, we weekend warriors all have our aims for the new season. For some, it’s to best last year’s total mileage on Strava, for others to nail that sportive, or savour the glory of winning a race. So what foods should we be eating prior to leaving it all out there on the road? 

We spoke exclusively with David Dunne, Team Wiggins nutrition supremo, and opened Pandora’s snack box.

‘When you’re looking at any sort of endurance event that lasts a couple of hours,’ Dunne tells Cyclist over an espresso, 'you’re going to need to look at topping up your muscles’ glycogen store. So in the 24 hours before it’s a good idea to run a “carbohydrate load” and for most endurance athletes that looks like 8-12 grams of carbohydrate per kg of body weight. This is how we can top up glycogen while also having enough reserves there for the event itself.’ 

The idea of carb-loading is hardly a new one. In fact, it’s a strategy that’s been employed by long-distance cyclists for years. However, utilising it to the shape of an individual cyclist’s needs is what modern nutritionists like Dunne are working to perfect with the people they work with. 

‘If it’s quite a hilly race,’ Dunne explains, ‘the biggest worry people have is that they’ll feel like they’ve put on a kilo just from eating that volume of carbohydrates prior to the start. So what we try to do is stick to lower-residue, lower-fibre foods 24 hours before the start because they’ll reduce some of the stress on your gut. That’s why you stereotypically get chicken and rice as a pre-ride meal. Rice is a nice high-carbohydrate food but it’s also a low-residue food, which in plain terms means it’s easy on your gut. You can have a high volume of it without feeling bloated. And you can always sneak in some extra carbs with a dash of honey!’  

This is what Dunne acknowledges as eating smart. There are plenty of questionable trends around cycling these days but eating smart is something that appears to actually pay dividends. When it comes to the day of the big ride, your body naturally comes under a lot of pressure and digestion can be affected, which in turn can cause problems. ‘If you’ve got a high-fibre diet in the lead up to a ride, you’ll have a lot of fibre left in your gut when you’re on the road. That’s when people tend to get gut issues like stomach cramps,’ Dunne explains. ‘Lower residue foods, meanwhile, minimise gut stress while keeping fuel stores high for competitions.’  

Train low for high performance

Not that you should be thinking about ditching bread and breakfast cereals. On the contrary, these can both be part of a healthy balanced diet and will actually help prepare your body. As Dunne says, ‘It’s important to keep eating fibrous foods along with more whole foods and antioxidants because it’s vital for your gut health come the day of the target event. So that when you do eat the high-carb, low-residue foods prior to your event, your gut is ready to go.’ In other words, the high-fibre fare has trained your digestive system to cope with the low-residue grub. According to Dunne, the pros at Team Wiggins will keep their stomachs working hard like this before tapering off prior to an event, much like they would with any other aspect of their training so that they’re in optimal condition to race. 

Developments in the world of nutrition from the 1990s onwards – the so-called rise of nutritionism – has meant that today the thinking behind how best to refuel a cyclist
is more accurate than it’s ever been. 

‘If we’re, say, looking at manipulating a rider’s adaptation for an endurance exercise, because we’ve now learned so much about stuff like the train low model in the last couple of years, it’s definitely evolving into more of an exact science,’ says Dunne. 

The ‘train low’ model that Dunne talks of is a method that’s found growing popularity among pro coaching staff, particularly Dr James Morton, the Team Sky Performance Nutritionist. Morton has conducted extensive research into the idea that if you train with low carbohydrate availability you can adapt your body to cope without it. Then, once the availability is upped again, the rider will store energy more efficiently, having trained on less. Dunne elaborates, ‘All of a sudden, your weight is a little bit better. Your weight-power ratio is a little bit better. All because you’ve held back on calories or carbohydrates at certain times but kept protein availability high to maintain or enhance muscle mass.’ 

Incorporating rides into your training plan once or twice a week before and during which you follow these eating guidelines – ie where you’ve refuelled with protein rather than carbs – will help your body work more efficiently on the day of the ride. Not that Dunne is a fan of so-called fasted training, where you eat nothing with the aim of dropping more weight. ‘The worst mistake that people can make,’ he tells us, ‘is to go out on a fasted ride for four hours where they just have nothing. Not only will they start to lose body fat but they’ll lose muscle, too, and that’s the worst scenario when you’re trying to increase your power to weight ratio.’ In other words, supplementing yourself with protein and water throughout a ride gives you the greatest chance of maximising your power to weight ratio – the Holy Grail of road cycling.

As you would with a hillier sportive, or a multi-stage event, altering your dietary plan is also a must if you want to tackle a time trial (TT). Dunne, who was the man who helped fuel Sir Bradley Wiggins’ spectacular smashing of the Hour record last year, gave us a glimpse into how that was achieved. ‘The shorter duration and higher levels of lactate mean you’d want to increase your input of dietary nitrates,’ Dunne explains. ‘These help your body deliver oxygen and nutrients to muscles quicker during sporting activity.’ 

Beetroot juice has been praised for some time in the cycling world, with hotshots like Mark Cavendish tweeting its praises, and Dunne agrees that it’s a great thing to guzzle. ‘Six days prior to your event you should load up on beetroot juice, which is full of nitrates. By doing so, your body will adapt and come race day you’ll have given it a great chance of delivering oxygen to muscles efficiently and quickly. With TTs you’re rarely going to feed on the bike, you’re just going to get your head down and power through, but it’s still important to prepare properly.’ 

Learn from the pros

Being properly fuelled before a sportive is also important, but once the event is underway you’ll also need to keep yourself fuelled throughout. Like the pros, you need to keep feeding your system little and often to maintain your stores of energy. ‘While riding, aim to eat 30-90g of carbohydrate per hour,’ Dunne reveals. ‘This can come in the form of gels, energy drinks, snack bars, rice cakes or fruit and nuts. The biggest problem that many riders get wrong is that their race-day diet hasn’t been practised. Riders will say to themselves, “I need to have 60 grams of carbs per hour for the next four hours,” but if they haven’t trained on this, they’ll be putting a quantity of carbs into their bodies that their guts just aren’t used to digesting. Issues will start to arise in their stomach with cramps or even diarrhoea potentially setting in.’ Dunne’s advice is clear – by trying out your event-day diet plan multiple times before the actual event, your body will be prepared for the quantity and type of calories you blast into it.  

In a world where recovery is just as imperative as the preparation, it’s hard not to think of Graeme Obree. Having failed in his first attempt at the Hour record in 1993, he went at it the again the following day and broke it. This fabled tale is unique in the world of cycling but it’s not to be tried at home! In fact, it’s imperative that you recover appropriately after training or an event, as you’ll be doing yourself more harm than good. 

‘Immediately post-ride there’s a case for the three Rs,’ says Dunne. ‘Repair, restore and rehydrate.

‘Immediately post-ride there’s a case for the three Rs,’ says Dunne. ‘Repair, restore and rehydrate. First you’ve got to repair your muscle. You need to supply muscles with the raw materials like amino acids. Ingesting some protein as quickly as possible is the best way to go. The SIS Whey20 gel is perfect for this, fast-absorbing, rich in amino acids especially leucine. It’ll stimulate muscle resynthesis and keep it elevated.’ 

Leucine is crucial for repairing muscles after their tissue has been broken by exercise. This branch chain amino acid (BCAA) is the trigger for muscle growth stimulation, and ingesting it will kick-start the process of repair, and ultimately muscle growth.

Get your two-day protein fix

However, your protein needs aren’t going to be satisfied just by scoffing a protein gel or two as soon as you get back home from your ride. According to Dunne, after serious physical exertion a rider’s need for protein will stay elevated for the next couple of days. ‘After getting that initial hit in,’ he says, ‘you should look to ingest a further
160-480g of protein over the next 24-48 hours.’ Dunne’s claims are backed up by scientific studies that prove your body cries out for protein 24 hours after serious physical effort and that if you fail to deliver it, muscle repair will misfire. 

With this all this in mind, what should your diet look like? ‘Establishing a good diet is all about eating healthily, getting a routine with your body and seeing what works for you,’ Dunne says. ‘Try a meal once, adjust it the second time you use it to see if there’s a difference in performance, and then make sure the third time you use it, it’s optimised. You’ll find a lot of the high-end cyclists now will know if I tweak something in their food, even if it’s just a little bit. When they try it they’ll know if they are comfortable with it or not and we’ll adjust accordingly.’

When all is said and done, though, if you want to eat like Wiggo you need to get the basics right – it’s a point Dunne mentions frequently throughout our conversation. We may idolise the pros, with their specialist equipment, training and lifestyle, but ultimately, according to Dunne, they’re at the top of their game because they do the simple things better than us – and that includes eating. ‘If people can prioritise good-quality, unprocessed, whole foods, get their protein timings right and make sure they’re fuelled enough for big sessions, they’ll see marked improvements. My advice is to stop looking for fads and just get on top of the basics.’ 

So there you have it. For many of us, nutrition is an afterthought but while French playwright Molière might have reckoned ‘one must eat to live’, as Merckx and Hinault have evolved into Wiggins and Froome, it’s become obvious that, in fact, one must eat to win.

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