Beyond the energy bar: What pros are buying to gain a (legal) edge
Sponsors provide pro teams and riders with all kinds of stuff. There are the usual things, of course, like bikes, wheels, components, and a mountain of team clothing, and occasionally some more oddball stuff, like mattresses and shampoo. More often than not, there’s also some sort of nutrition supplier, with truckloads of drink mixes, bars, and gels. Given how much time these riders spend in the saddle (well, maybe not right now, for obvious reasons), they invariably go through a lot of it, but as much as teams go to great lengths to make sure everyone stays “sponsor correct”, there are limits — especially when it comes to taste buds and stomachs.
“Maybe 40% stick to [the sponsor brand],” said one well-informed neutral source, who preferred to remain anonymous. “But it all depends on volume. Any team probably uses 50% sponsored stuff, 30% real food, 20% others.”
OK, so if a majority of teams are regularly venturing outside of their official supplier for one reason or another, what are they using? And since no one in their right mind can live on energy food alone, what sort of other supplements and performance aids might they be buying that won’t get them in trouble?
To help answer that question, I paid a visit to the folks at The Feed — one of the premier third-party sports nutrition retailer in the United States — for their take on what’s going on behind the scenes.
OK, I know what you’re thinking already: this is just The Feed tossing a thinly veiled marketing pitch my way, which I’m just mindlessly regurgitating here to send business to them. However, that’d be easier to believe if the company was an exclusive distributor for any of this stuff. On the contrary, all of it is available from a variety of other retailers (including manufacturer-direct in many cases) — and after checking out a bunch of addresses on boxes that were heading out the door on the day I visited, I can attest that a surprising number of teams really are buying this stuff from their own budgets.
Nevertheless, take the following with as much cynicism as you personally see fit.
Ketone esters are seriously in
You’ve likely heard of ketones by now, but if not, they’re the energy source that your liver derives from stored fat after you’ve depleted your usual glycogen stores and blood sugar supplies. However, when taken exogenously, the idea is that it tricks your body into using that source first, which essentially saves your glycogen stores (and also reduces the production of lactic acid) for later in an event when you might really want to have that fast-burning source available.
One study suggested that, when taken immediately after a hard ride or workout, and again before bed, ketone esters can improve rider recovery (in terms of sustained power outputs) by as much as 15%. Keep in mind, too, that not only would riders be better able to maintain their fitness for longer periods of time, but they’d also be better positioned to continue to build on that fitness without worrying as much about overtraining.
Currently, ketone esters are seriously expensive, largely because it’s said to be notoriously difficult to manufacture. How expensive? Each 65 mL bottle (comprising one 25 g dose) fetches nearly US$40. But that doesn’t seem to be much of a barrier to those with a vested interest in going fast.
“Some teams and riders are still using it in competition, but teams and riders are primarily buying this stuff to aid in recovery,” said The Feed founder Matt Johnson. “We can’t keep it in stock. The average order is US$20,000, and they’re probably ordering it every other month [or, rather, they were before all the races got canceled – Ed.]. We have eight WorldTour teams that are buying it from us, and at least half of the top-30 of the WorldTour rankings are placing individual orders with us. Each of those riders are spending about US$5,000-6,000 per order. But they’re all a little quiet about it.”
Do ketone esters really work, though? That study mentioned above says they do, but that’s just one study to date, and it’s far from a widely accepted conclusion.
“The jury is still out, and my anecdotal experience doesn’t make me an advocate yet,” said exercise physiologist (and co-founder of Skratch Labs) Allen Lim. “That said, I’m open-minded and there may be other positive applications as a weight-loss aid or to help when carbohydrate availability is limited for whatever reason.”
There’s one thing I can say for sure. I don’t know if ketone esters really work, but the stuff tastes phenomenally awful — so awful, in fact, that there’s simply no other reasonable explanation why anyone would willfully ingest this stuff if it wasn’t having some sort of positive effect. And my word, the aftertaste is just, it’s just … I can’t even.
Shape-shifting energy drinks
An increasingly popular strategy for on-the-bike refueling is to rehydrate with fluids, but take in calories with solid foods, with the thought being that that sort of approach is less likely to cause any gastrointestinal issues. That sounds good in theory, but liquid fuel is still more practical in the heat of the moment. The only problem is that stuff like traditional gels and energy-dense drink mixes can sit too long in the stomach, causing bloating and other gastrointestinal issues.
Maurten is a new energy nutrition company out of Sweden, and it recently debuted an energy drink formula that incorporates a secret blend of pectin and sodium alginate — both of which are thickening agents found in many common foods. It mixes and goes down like your usual energy drinks, but in an acidic environment (like your stomach), it changes into a calorie-dense hydrogel. According to Maurten, that gel then passes intact through the stomach into the small intestine, where it can be digested like solid food, but with the convenience of liquid delivery.
Exactly how much carbohydrate are we talking about here? I count myself as one of the many cyclists who can’t tolerate a highly concentrated drink mix. Skratch became my go-to years ago, and it contains about 20 g of carbohydrate per 500 mL serving. In contrast, Maurten’s standard Drink Mix 160 packs twice as much carbohydrate into the same volume of liquid. And the Drink Mix 320? A whopping 80 g — or about 30 g more than an equivalent amount of Coca-Cola.
Going along with the drink mixes is a ready-made gel with 25 g of carbohydrate and a consistency that’s not too far off from a fruit gelatin that you might have had for dessert as a kid.
I haven’t tried Maurten myself yet, but if it works as claimed, it’s no surprise to hear that pro teams and riders are grasping on to the stuff.
“There are at least six WorldTour teams that are using Maurten,” Johnson claimed.
And like HVMN, Maurten products are anything but inexpensive. A single serving of any of Maurten’s products costs about US$4 apiece.
Baking soda? Really?
I remember seeing the first ads for Topical Edge, a cream hawked by then-pro road racer Andrew Talansky as a way to reduce muscle soreness and temper the negative effects of lactic acid build-up. How’s it work, you might wonder? Well, it’s basically just sodium bicarbonate — baking soda, in other words — in a lotion base that you apply directly to your legs.
Needless to say, I was skeptical. And while I’ve tried it intermittently, I can’t say I devoted enough time and energy to it to really tell if it did much.
The product name recently switched to Amp Human (and secured financial backing from none other than Lance Armstrong, for better or worse), and at least according to Johnson, pro teams and riders are practically bathing in the stuff.
“It started out about three years ago,” he said. “A handful of riders were using it, but everyone was just using it for time trials. But now they’re using it for every day — road stages and everything — and they’re using it for recovery. And that’s across all the [WorldTour] teams.”
Mom and dad always said to eat your vegetables
The performance gains offered by beetroot supplements are fairly well documented at this point, with the main benefit being slightly improved oxygen uptake (and, therefore, slightly increased power output). More recent studies suggest that that effect is less pronounced in highly trained athletes such as professional racers, but the effect is still there nonetheless. And according to Johnson, pro teams and riders are still ingesting the stuff in bulk.
Beetroot extract is currently offered in a variety of different forms (I’ve used EnduroBite’s BetaRed in the past with good anecdotal results), but Johnson says the teams’ preferred version is AltRed, which condenses beet extract into an easy-to-ingest capsule form.
“Teams are buying more and more of that as a legal oxygen booster,” he said. “Two or three teams have ordered it, and more individuals are buying it.”
Grains of salt
Even if you were to take all of these various manufacturer claims at face value, it’s important to keep in mind that none of it will transform an average rider into a Tour de France racer; bike racing is still, after all, mostly a game of genetics and training. And it’s also important to remember that psychology plays a big role at this level of the sport, too — if a rider thinks it works, then they’re going to keep using it (and their friends will probably jump on the bandwagon, too).
But then again, maybe — just maybe — there’s also something real to it, too. Either way, someone’s spending an awful lot of money on this stuff.