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This post looks at how cycling nutrition and training interact. We examine how dietary manipulation both before and during training and racing can influence carbohydrate stores, training adaptations and race-day performance.

Carbohydrate demands for racing and high intensity training.

Your body uses a mix of two main fuels during exercise, carbohydrates and fats. During a low intensity training session a greater proportion of the energy used comes from fats, while when pushing harder a greater proportion comes from carbohydrates which are stored in the body as muscle and liver glycogen. Strategies like carbohydrate loading can help to maximise glycogen stores before your ride, while blood glucose levels are maintained by the breakdown of liver glycogen to provide glucose to the blood and by eating and drinking carbohydrates during your ride.

Carbohydrate and fat use at different exercise intensities | Custom Cycle Coaching UK

1. Carbohydrates (blue) provide a greater proportion of total energy use as intensity increases. (Romijn et al. 1993.)

Restricted Carbohydrate training sessions

While race-day cycling nutrition strategies focus on maximising carbohydrate availability, certain training adaptations related to aerobic ability can be enhanced by training with low carbohydrate stores. It is thought that training with low muscle glycogen availability affects cell signalling within the body, training adaptations and as a result, cycling performance.

Cycling nutrition strategies to train with low carbohydrate availability include:

  • Training twice per day – a more intense first session depletes glycogen stores then restricting carbohydrate in the recovery period between sessions keeps them low. The second, low glycogen session should be a low to moderate intensity ride.

  • Sleep low-train low – a variation on the first option. An evening training session depletes glycogen stores and a low carbohydrate dinner and breakfast keeps them low for the morning ride.

  • Fasted training – skipping breakfast, or more correctly eating after the morning session, reduces liver glycogen and circulating blood glucose rather than muscle glycogen.

  • High fat diets – chronically restricting carbohydrate in the diet will maintain low muscle and liver glycogen concentrations, but will restrict high intensity training and may reduce muscle protein synthesis.

Maximising carbohydrate availability during training and racing.

Previously, cycling nutrition guidelines were based on the assumption that the maximum amount of ingested carbohydrates the body could use during exercise was around 60g/hour. While this is true when a single source of carbohydrates, such as glucose, is used; more recently we have discovered that multiple sources of carbohydrates, ingested in high loads, can be used at a much higher rate. In some circumstances the body is able to use 90-120g/hour during endurance exercise (Rowlands et al. 2015). There are now a few commercially available drinks and gels containing mixtures of carbohydrate sources in the 'optimal' ratio for high rates of absorption with minimal chances of gastrointestinal problems. Ingesting such high amounts carbohydrate will spare your limited muscle and liver glycogen stores, allowing you to cycle further and faster before fatiguing.

A word of caution, very high carbohydrate intakes during exercise require nutritional training to be effective. If you're not used to these high amounts of carbohydrates you might suffer from an upset stomach. I would recommend trying any nutritional strategy in training before competition and bear in mind that it may take a while to adapt to such a high intake. As such, high carbohydrate training sessions are an important part of your cycling nutrition strategy to 'train the gut' to utilise what you're eating and drinking (Jeukendrup, 2017).

Fuel for the work required – carbohydrate periodisation to maintain metabolic flexibility.

From the previous two sections you will realise that optimal cycling nutrition can vary dramatically based on the training goals and whether you will be racing.

  • For racing and important high intensity training sessions you will want to maximise carbohydrate availability using a combination of carbohydrate sources.

  • On other days, restricting carbohydrate may enhance training adaptations.

  • In order to make use of the latest cycling nutrition guidelines and maximise the use of carbohydrates during competition you should periodically train with high carbohydrate drinks and food to train the gut.

Fuel for the work required | Custom Cycle Coaching UK

2. An example of the 'fuel for the work required' model for an elite cyclist training once per day in the morning. (Impey et al. 2018.)

As such, recent research proposes the principle of carbohydrate periodisation or 'fuel for the work required'. Here, low intensity sessions can be carbohydrate restricted, using some of the strategies we discussed, while high intensity training and racing is well fuelled before and during to maximise performance. Picture 2 shows an example 4-day carbohydrate feeding schedule for a variety of training sessions requiring, low, medium or high carbohydrate intakes (what counts as low, medium or high will depend on the individual).

Here at Custom Cycle Coaching we use the latest research in cycling nutrition to inform our cycling coaching plans and can recommend cycling nutrition products and strategies to maximise your performance. If you'd like to find out more please get in touch.

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