Have you ever wondered what the nutritional requirements are for three-week grand tours in cycling, what professional world tour riders eat during these stages along with how their body composition changes over the three weeks? (Photo Credit: CorVos)
There is little research on the nutritional demands and intakes of elite endurance cycling barring anecdotal scenarios or case studies outside of peer reviewed journals. This post will use a study by Jose Joaquin Muros and colleagues1 as a basis for discussion. A Link to the full text can be found here.
We know the importance of fuelling our training and racing even if we have limited experience within endurance sports. We’ll all know that feeling of glycogen depletion more commonly known as hitting the wall or “bonking”. So, how do professional world-tour riders back up intense racing day after day while minimizing the effects of glycogen depletion, getting adequate protein to support recovery and prevent muscle breakdown while also ensuring fat intake is optimal to provide essential fatty acids and liposoluble vitamins. We also know that changes in body composition are important in terms of performance and general health. This study looked at a UCI men’s world tour team, their intakes of nutrients and body composition over the Vuelta a España.
The aim of this study was to “describe the food intake of an International Cyclist Union (UCI) World Tour professional cycling team and to evaluate the adequacy of nutrient intake in relation to existing recommendations. A further aim was to analyse changes in body composition during the Tour of Spain”.
How did they do this?
Nine male professional cyclists volunteered to participate in the study. Regarding body composition assessment measurements were taken before and after the first and last stages of the race. Markers assessed included weight, height, skinfolds, circumferences and diameters, body mass index (BMI) was also calculated. Bone density was calculated through equations (found in text) while body fat was determined via skinfolds. Muscle mass was also determined.
Nutritional intake data was assessed by two trained professionals during each day of competition. Food the cyclists ate was weighed and noted for both breakfast and dinner. Nutrition consumed during the stages and for post stage recovery was self-reported. These metrics were analysed via dietary analysis software.
What was the outcome?
Physical requirements of typical stages within the race can be seen here.
Average daily energy intake was 5415Kcal±567.
The nutritional daily profile was as follows: Carbohydrate, 12.5±1.8 g/kg of body weight (BW) (65.0±5.9%, percentage of total energy intake) with a consumption of 46.2 g of fibre per day of competition; fat, 1.5±0.5 g/kg BW (17.9±5.6, percentage of total energy intake); and protein, 3.3±0.3 g/kg BW (17.1±1.6%, percentage of total energy intake). The macronutrient split can be seen in the pie chart below.
To put this into perspective a 70Kg rider in this study would be eating a macro nutrient split of 875g of CHO, 105g of Fat and 231g of Protein.
Interestingly and perhaps unsurprisingly the elite professional athletes adhered to the within performance fuelling guidelines eating 90g/hr of carbohydrate on average.
Regarding changes in body composition weight and thus BMI were significantly reduced after the Grand Tour. Sum of skinfolds also significantly decreased along with percentage body fat and fat mass.
Conclusions, how does this apply to us?
It goes without saying that these are not your average nutritional demands. One thing that struck me as interesting was the high levels of protein intake over the day and lower levels of fat intake (high carbohydrate is expected). Protein recommendations generally fall under 2g/Kg body weight per day, but, it has been shown that endurance athletes tend to eat over their required amount2,3. The fat intake was slightly lower than the suggested intake for athletes which is 20-35% of total daily energy4. This could possibly inhibit the absorption of vitamins A, D and E whilst failing to provide the correct quantity of essential fatty acids.
Daily calorie deficits were recorded which led to a loss in weight, BMI and fat mass but interestingly no change in muscle mass. In general, we do not want to be calorie deficit when undertaking endurance training or racing unless under specific observation and guidelines from a professional. Energy deficiency can seriously inhibit performance through a multitude of ways (a topic for another day perhaps!).
In conclusion, we know professional cyclists are top class athletes but they’re also top-class eaters, especially on the bike. This is most likely where most of us could see immediate performance gain and health changes. Having a decreased fat intake doesn’t facilitate performance but rather it inhibits absorption of nutrients. For us fat should not be treated as an “avoid at all cost” nutrient. We should also bring our awareness to our total daily intake when competing in multiday events and aim to limit any calorie deficits which may occur.
If you have any further questions or would like to be put in contact with one of our qualified nutritionists here at Premier Endurance please email email@example.com.
1 Muros, J. J., Sánchez-Muñoz, C., Hoyos, J., & Zabala, M. (2019). Nutritional intake and body composition changes in a UCI World Tour cycling team during the Tour of Spain. European journal of sport science, 19(1), 86-94.
2 Sánchez-Muñoz,C.,Zabala,M.,&Muros,J.J.(2016).Nutritional intake and anthropometric changes of professional road cyclists during a 4-day competition. Scandinavian Journal of Medicine & Science in Sports, 26, 802–808.
3 Rehrer,N.J. ,Hellemans,I.J.,Rolleston,A.K.,Rush,E.,&Miller, B. F. (2010). Energy intake and expenditure during a 6-day cycling stage race. Scandinavian Journal of Medicine & Science in Sports, 20, 609–618
4 Rodríguez, N. R., Di Marco, N. M., & Langley, S. (2009). American College of Sports Medicine position stand: Nutrition and athletic performance. Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise, 41(3), 709–731.