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Cycling nutrition: How to fuel and recover during stage races like the Tour of Britain

Nick Busca
14 Sep 2017

Harry Tanfield talks us through his nutrition regime from the recent edition of the Tour of Britain

As the battle for the Red Jersey entered its climax at the Vuelta a Espana, in the UK a young English rider was delivering an impressive three-day show at the Tour of Britain. As with every great performance, a structured nutrition plan was a main component in making his effort so solid.

The 22-year-old athlete, Harry Tanfield from the Bike Channel-Canyon team, laid down such a strong effort in the Stage 3 breakaway (Normanby Hall to Scunthorpe) that he received the combativity award at the end of the stage.

The next day, he finished in the top 10 after a bunch sprint won by Quick-Step Floors' Fernando Gaviria (four stage wins at the Giro d’Italia in May).

However, his most impressive result was the individual time trial on Stage 5. Stuck on the hardest gear because his Di2 broke just before the start (58x13), Tanfield averaged 425 watts and crossed the finish line of the 10-miler in 19 minutes and 28 seconds — just nine seconds behind Geraint Thomas (Team Sky) and first among the non-WorldTour riders.

Ride, recover, ride again

Those three incredible days in a row couldn’t have been possible without a good recovery plan — including the recovery phase of nutrition.

Even if the riders push really hard one day, they still need to be competitive the next morning. However, despite what you might think, it’s not all about protein shakes.

‘The carbohydrate replenishment is just as important as the protein,’ says Tanfield.

‘Probably more important than the protein in that first twenty minutes after finishing an effort, when the muscles are more receptive to re-gaining the glycogen you’ve ripped from them during the effort.

'And that’s when we reabsorb most of the sugars and glycogen back into the muscle and ready to go again the next day.’

In that first window after the effort, Tanfield normally consumes a recovery shake composed of proteins and carbohydrates while cooling down on the rollers.

Per serving, the shake contains 30g of protein and 60g of carbohydrates.

The UK brand High5 is the nutrition sponsor of Bike Channel-Canyon. On top of the nutrition products, High5 also provides the team with fundamental advice on what to use, and when.

‘Recovery,’ says Raphael Deinhart, High5 Marketing Manager, ‘is one the key considerations for cyclists during a multi-day event like the Tour of Britain.

'They will need to ensure they eat and drink regularly during the stage to ensure they don't get too carbohydrate depleted.'

He continues, ‘if a rider gets too depleted in carbs then it becomes very difficult to recover from that, starting a downward spiral.

'The riders that look after their nutrition from the word go will be the strongest at the end of a longer stage race.’

Deinhart adds that High5 drink 'EnergySource (2:1) is really high in carbs. It also contains electrolytes to keep the riders hydrated, but the other important consideration for recovery is protein, which helps repair muscles after strenuous exercise.

'A drink like 4:1 contains both carbs and protein to aid recovery both during and after each stage. Of course a good nutritious meal in the evening will also be very important.'

Bedtime drinks

The riders' cool-down is normally followed by a shower and more re-fuelling. After the shower they normally consume something small like a wrap, or a pasta pot, and then have dinner when they get back to the hotel.

Just before going to bed, and particularly after very hard stages, Tanfield (and other riders) tend to consume slow-release proteins to optimise the overnight recovery.

‘If I feel that my legs are hurting in the night and I had a really hard day, I have a slow-release protein powder.

'[That happened] especially after the TT, because I have done so much muscle damage by being on such a hard gear for the whole day.

'I mix it with a bit of water and have that just before going to bed.’

When the new day begins, the process of fuelling and hydrating starts all over again. Breakfast is normally consumed at the hotel’s buffet and it includes toast, yogurt and fruit.

If the race starts late (as in the case of the time trial), the tendency is to bring along an extra pot and eat something close to the race start – porridge or granola being the most common choices.

During the stage, the 'menu' is different, but athletes must constantly fill their bodies with calories and fluids.

‘I typically start on rice cakes, if it’s a four-hour stage, then move on to fruit cakes or flap jacks,’ says Tanfield.

‘It’s just a small little rice cake or a small flapjack, it’s not really a lot,' the rider said.

‘It also depends on what I’m doing and the demand of the race itself. I do prefer to eat a little but often, at least every half hour.

'Even if it’s a proper energy bar of 250kcal, I’ll be having half of it every 20 minutes. It’s more the case of just trying to get in what you can when it’s a good time.’

With all the food that riders take in during a race or a stage race, of course water and fluids also need to be replenished.

A general rule of thumb would suggest to drink at least one bottle of 750ml every hour, but everyone applies it in a different way.

‘I always start hydrated, although people think I don’t drink much during the race. I might only drink three bottles in a stage,’ confesses Tanfield.

‘But it wasn’t particularly hot this year. Some people drink way more than that, but then they stop twice during the race.

'If it’s hot I drink more, but I drink what it feels to be natural. I’m not going to drink a bottle per 45 minutes because that’s what you should drink and it’s the rule.’

Naturally, being in a breakaway requires extra intake of both calories and fluids.

‘In the breakaways I was constantly eating and putting bars down and had an extra 500 kcals than when I am not in the breakaway,’ says Tanfield.

‘Because you look at consuming a 25% more when you’re in the breakaway or 30 when you’re pushing through the wind all day long.’

Photos: Bike Channel- Canyon / Hugh McManus