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10 cycling training and nutrition truths that bust popular myths

Cyclist debunks 10 common myths around training and nutrition

Cyclist magazine
26 Feb 2020

Chances are we have all been told a few myths and tall tales around how to train and how to fuel when riding your bike – hardly surprising when you consider just how much so-called 'wisdom' is out there.

Misguided advice can range from avoiding all sugar to avoid picking up weight, to neglecting strength work because it isn't necessary on the bike. Ultimately these wide-ranging misnomers can have detrimental effects on your ability on the bike and leave you scratching your head as to why you are failing to improve.

So, with that in mind, Cyclist reached out to some of the industry's leading experts to debunk 10 of these common myths and instead give you advice that's actually true.

1 - Gluten isn’t the devil

‘If you have been diagnosed with coeliac disease, gluten is a disaster. Yet if you don’t have that specific autoimmune disorder, there is no evidence that links gluten intake in healthy people to any adverse effects in health or performance,’ says Dr Asker Jeukendrup, sports scientist and co-founder of online sports nutrition planning tool Core.

‘It is possible that certain people don’t respond well to gluten but in recent years it has simply become fashionable to exclude it. Most people cutting it out don’t even know what it is – it is just a group of proteins that lend an elastic texture to foods.

By avoiding it unnecessarily, people can cause more problems than they solve. Gluten is found in a lot of common foods useful for fuelling cycling – cake being one delicious example. By avoiding it, the rider risks developing deficiencies in other areas.

‘Cyclists, in particular, need a diverse, balanced diet in order to fuel and recover from their exertions. Considering there’s no evidence to support the opinion, cutting out foods based on a trend is not wise.’

2 - Lactate doesn’t impair performance

‘You hear it all the time in cycling commentary: “The lactate must really be starting to burn, he must be hurting now…”’ says Dr Asker Jeukendrup.

‘Lactate has a bad name because early studies found that to fuel intense activity your body breaks down glycogen. The result of that process is pyruvic acid, which gets converted into lactic acid and then into lactate.

As lactate levels correlated with fatigue and muscle pain they were judged to be the cause of a loss in cycling performance, but the association was misconceived.

‘Provided it can be cleared from the muscle, lactate is actually a useful form of potential energy as it can be recycled, where pyruvic acid cannot.

‘It is now thought that the accumulation of hydrogen ions are the bad guys. They make the inter-cellular environment more acidic, which inhibits energy production. That causes the burning sensation and drop in performance.’ 

3 - Don’t bother with detoxing

‘The general principle behind detoxing is to clear any toxic waste from the body in order to enhance health and wellbeing. However, despite the popularity of detox diets, the concept is nonsensical,’ says Dr Mayur Ranchordas, reader in Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism at Sheffield Hallam University and performance nutrition consultant.

‘In nutrition, the term detox has been popular for quite a long time. More recently, various different controversial detox concepts have emerged, such as juice diets and cutting out certain food groups, but there is no evidence to suggest that detoxing works.

‘Our bodies have organs such as the liver and kidneys that are phenomenal at dealing with certain “toxins” like alcohol.

‘A far more sensible and evidence-based approach is to eat a balanced diet that includes plenty of fresh fruit and vegetables, drink plenty of fluids, limit your caffeine and alcohol intake, and undertake some kind of physical activity, which will ultimately enhance your health and wellbeing.’

4 - FTP isn’t the only fitness test that matters

‘Admittedly if you only had to choose one marker of fitness, FTP would be the best one,’ says Dr Asker Jeukendrup.

‘However, there is a lot of useful stuff an FTP value gives no indication towards, and if you want to extrapolate general performance with more confidence, FTP needs to be supported by a suite of other tests.

‘Fuel utilisation tests would be good to track over time – the fitter you get the more fat you burn at a given intensity, which affects how you should fuel – as would oxygen uptake kinetics and sprint performance.

‘Another limitation of FTP is the test protocol. The tests tend to be quite short, and a rider with good aerobic fitness using a shorter test might get an under-representative value, whereas a sprinter using the same test might get an overestimate.

‘The take-home is that while FTP is a great starting point, it’s better viewed as one part in the wider context of cycling performance.’

Watch our explanation of FTP and how to use it in training here.

5 - Strength training won’t hurt your riding

‘For a long time, no cyclist would ever do strength training. People thought it involved using heavy weights, which would take a long time to recover from and interrupt time on the bike, or that more muscle mass could hurt their power-to-weight ratio,’ says Dr Asker Jeukendrup.

‘Several years ago we took Continental-level riders and got them to do some resistance exercise during the winter. It was very specific: high-velocity movements with lighter weight to mimic muscle actions in cycling.

‘We showed it might actually be beneficial, and now there are plenty of studies to show that strength training does indeed have a role in cycling performance.

‘While some riders do need extra recovery time, many can use resistance exercise as part of their regime year-round. Lift lighter weights in fast movements and focus on your core stability.

‘It is likely to improve your performance beyond spending more time on the bike.’

For six exercises to build length strength, read here.

6 - Ketones aren’t a wonder supplement

‘I get asked about ketones a lot nowadays,’ says Dr Asker Jeukendrup. ‘I work with the WorldTour team Jumbo-Visma and it seems that the press is suggesting all of their good riding is down to ketones.

‘It wasn’t how Roglič won the Vuelta. We’re using ketones with the team but only as a test because the research just isn’t there to support it.

‘There are some studies that suggest it may benefit recovery but I don’t think they are very strong studies.

‘Ketones are a fashionable supplement at the moment and they are expensive, which actually works in their favour by enhancing the placebo effect.

‘The science behind their benefit is nice in theory, and it could work, but we just don’t know at the moment.

‘Amateurs certainly can do better things with their time and money to improve performance,’ Jeukendrup adds. ‘Weekend warriors supplementing with ketones are icing a cake they haven’t baked yet.’

For our investigation into Ketones, read here.

7 - Lower isn’t always faster

‘As a rider makes up more than 80% of total aerodynamic drag, bike position has become a really important topic,’ says Dr Asker Jeukendrup.

‘People have interpreted this as having to create the most aggressive position possible – slammed stem and flat back – but a more aero position that compromises power can actually result in slower rides.

‘We worked with professional riders and changed their positions to make them less aero but more powerful. As a result they became faster.

‘By all means try to make your frontal area smaller, but always remember that comfort and sustainability will ultimately trump your CdA.’

8 - Sugar isn’t all bad

‘That sugar is bad for you is one of those generalisations that seeps into areas where it’s not really applicable,’ says Dr Asker Jeukendrup.

‘Very often we mix health messages for the general population with performance messages for the well-trained athlete.

‘Do I agree with reducing sugar consumption in the general population who don’t exercise? Absolutely. But that advice becomes an issue when we talk about someone who cycles several times a week and leads an active lifestyle.

‘In those instances sugar will actually help your performance. If you consume an appropriate amount of sugar and use it to fuel physical activity, you are at zero risk of any adverse health effects.’ 

9 - Carb loading isn’t always essential

‘The concept of carb loading has endured since the 1960s,’ says Dr Asker Jeukendrup.

‘But there are only certain circumstances where carb loading is necessary: when the only focus is performance, the ride is at a constant high intensity, and it’s longer than 90 minutes.

‘If the ride is short there’s no need – our glycogen stores are sufficient. If the ride is long but intensity fluctuates, again it isn’t necessary – you’ll have time to fuel during the activity.

‘More often than not you’re better off making sure you’re well rested and well fed (but not over-fed) rather than stressing about carb loading.’ 

10 - Drinking lots of water isn’t always beneficial

‘Cyclists are so concerned with dehydration but the risks of overhydration are rarely considered,’ says Dr Asker Jeukendrup.

‘Even the message that you have to drink exactly the amount you lose is exaggerated. It’s OK to lose some weight during activity because part of that is the fuel you use.

‘Maintaining weight throughout a ride could mean too much fluid has been taken on. In extreme cases hyponatremia – a low sodium concentration in the blood – could occur, which is very dangerous.

‘So drink sensibly but don’t worry if you lose a little weight. A good meal will replace the fuel that is responsible for that loss.’

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