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November 8, 2012
With the majority of big events over for 2012, it’s time to start thinking about next year’s goals. Many cyclists will be starting to think about the races and events they plan to target, sitting down with their coaches and working out their training plans for 2013.
But what about your nutrition plan? Do you even have a plan? It continues to amaze me how much cyclists will invest in perfecting their training schedules, clothing and equipment, leaving absolutely nothing to chance. Yet when it comes to what they eat and drink, many cyclists even at the elite level are happy to go with the flow, eating whatever comes their way. Experience tells me that the majority of racing cyclists in Australia eat pretty much the same every day of the week (with some minor additions around training), without stopping to think about whether or not their nutrition is suited to their training plan and racing goals.
Over the last five or so years sports scientists and dietitians have started looking a lot more closely at how nutrition can complement training cycles, goals, and racing schedules. Here I’ll explain about the benefits of periodised nutrition and how it can make a difference for you in 2013. This is the approach I take with my clients, and it’s great to hear feedback from them when they discover what a difference it can make to their training.
Matching nutrition to a training macrocycle
A training macrocycle typically refers to an athlete’s plans for an entire season, and how training changes at different times of the year in order to arrive at key races in peak form. In cycling this usually commences with a base phase, where riders increasingly ride for longer durations, but at a low to moderate intensity. The goals of this phase is to build base endurance fitness, not to hone top end power or speed.
This is the phase of training where it may be most appropriate to achieve (or get close to) the specific body composition goals you have for the season. For example if your aim is to drop some excess body fat, then this is the time to do it. The reason for this is simple – research in the last few years has shown that base endurance adaptations can be achieved without perfect nutritional preparation for each session, so restricting energy (and particularly carbohydrate) before long but only moderately intense training sessions is not a problem. So during this phase don’t be too concerned if you’re heading out for a long ride without a full tank of carbs – even if you have to ride slower to get through the session you’ll still get the same benefit (ie. adaptations happening in the muscle afterwards) as you would have riding harder with extra carbs on board.
The next phase of the cycle is where the intensity ramps up, and where nutritionally supporting your training becomes much more important. A lack of carbs going into a big hill or sprint interval session could likely leave you struggling to produce the watts, the heart rate and the lactate that you’ve aimed for. If the whole purpose of a training session is to adapt to better tolerating high intensity intervals but you can’t achieve the intensity, then what’s the point? So in this phase I’d be paying much more attention to ensuring that you’re well fuelled up with carbohydrate prior to important training sessions, but you can potentially still skimp on the carbs prior to other sessions (which I’ll explain in the microcyle). I would not specifically aim for significant weight loss during this period. Hopefully you’ve already achieved close to your race weight in the earlier cycle – this phase is all about having enough energy to get the most out of your training.
In the lead up to an important race or block of racing there’s often a taper period of a week or so (depending on the demands of your racing schedule) where the training volume drops right down and riders “freshen up”. Again you need to think about your nutrition during this time – if you keep eating the calories you were during your big training block then it’s likely that you’ll be susceptible to gaining back some weight during the taper. Again it’s about matching your nutrition to your training schedule and goals. Of course the day or so before a race there may be some carbohydrate loading involved (depending on the demands of the race), but that’s a story for another day.
Finally, when racing is over for a while and you’re taking some much needed time off the bike (or if you have a crash or significant injury during the season), there’s the significant possibility of body fat gain of you fail to adjust your eating. Different coaches have different philosophies on this, and different athletes have different experiences when it comes to gaining weight and the losing it again for the following some down time. Some people use a 5% or 8% rule (aim to gain no more than 5% or 8% of your competition weight during the off season). Again it’s probably the carbohydrate that needs to be modified during this time (carbs provide 50-70% of the total energy on the average person’s diet), but fat and alcohol that was restricted during the season can also creep in here and needs to be watched closely.
Nutrition for the microcycle
Perhaps even more of a change in mindset for cyclists is the periodisation of nutrition around a training microcycle. The microcycle usually refers to the pattern of training over a one week period, fitting around work, study or other commitments. Periodised nutrition extends this concept so what you eat also matches the microcycle. Nowadays any sports dietitian worth their salt will provide their clients with a 7 day eating plan, built specifically around their training schedule.
The are several potential benefits of adjusting your eating according to your training schedule. Firstly, by providing the appropriate amount of carbohydrate before the longer or harder sessions, you’ll be able to maximise your performance in those sessions and achieve the desired intensities (assuming this is the goal of the session). But by reducing the carbs and total energy on the rest days (or even lighter training days) you can help reduce the total energy eaten across the week. This can help enormously for those struggling to balance the need to reduce body fat whilst still having enough fuel to get through their bigger rides.
Secondly, targeting protein particularly after tough training sessions (and at regular periods over the day) ensures optimal recovery and adaptations occur in your muscles as a result of training. This is a rapidly evolving area of sports science, but for some more general information check out a previous post on protein for cyclists.
Thirdly, using these principles athletes can fill their lower energy days with higher fibre, lower calorie foods. This not only provides variety, but can help prevent hunger on those days when you’re eating less calories.
Periodisation of supplements?
Some sports dietitians are also now looking at the periodisation of sports nutrition supplements and ergogenic aids as well as food. Some supplements are used to achieve very specific goals (eg. beta-alanine for improving high intensity performance), and so it makes sense that their use is targeted towards the training sessions that have the same goal. This requires a bit of planning however – whilst some ergogenic aids have the intended effect from a one-off dose (eg. caffeine or pre-cooling with slushies), others can take several days (6 days for beetroot juice) or even several weeks of use (beta-alanine) to realise their potential. The one-off dose supplements can therefore be built nicely into a microcyle, but other need to be used throughout an entire macrocycle, and often commenced ahead of the cycle.
Because most cyclists have different goals, different training schedules and different nutritional needs, there’s no one formula for building a eating plan that optimises a cyclist’s training. But using both the macro and microcycle principles described here can certainly guide you as to how to change up your diet to maximise the results you get from your training. As a dietitian I generally work with clients to build a 7 day eating plan that’s based on their goals and training schedule for the current macrocycle, then review and adjust the plan each time the client receives their training plan for the next phase of the cycle. [CT: I’ve worked with Alan before on this and can attest to its effectiveness]
Remember that nutrition can play an important role both in the physical performance given during a training session, as well as the adaptation that the body makes after the session is over. By matching your eating to your training you can get the most out of 2013.