A number of studies have revealed that cyclists who eat a good quantity and quality of carbohydrate tend to perform better during periods of heavy training. The more an athlete trains the more carbohydrate that is needed to keep the fuel in your muscles and liver (stored as glycogen), and in your blood (stored as glucose), topped up. As exercise intensity increases the more we rely on carbohydrates as fuel and the less we use fat, and to an even more limited degree, protein. The problem is, we have very limited supplies of glycogen in our muscles and liver at any one time, so before your event you need to make sure that you are fully topped up.
Carb loading is the process of maximising your glycogen stores in preparation for a long endurance event, usually something longer than 2 hours duration. On average you can only store enough glycogen in your body to sustain 2-3 hours exercise before you bonk or hit the wall. This is also why I tell people that for 60-90 minute training rides you don't really need to be stuffing your face with gels providing that you have eaten a proper meal 1-2 hours beforehand.
So what does a carb loading plan look like? There are plenty of articles about this on the internet that talk about the wet weight of carbs and measuring things out into beakers if you are into that sort of false precision. Through trial and error we think we have a plan that will work for the majority of riders.
I start my high quality carb loading 4 days before the event as part of the taper week, with the emphasis on high quality carbs. Remember that during the taper we should be keeping our training volume low and intensity high. This not only keeps your metabolism firing, it also ensures that you are not burning too much glycogen. Here is a practical guide to how you should eat for the 4 days before your event:
- If possible have 6 small meals a day or 3 regular meals and 3 high quality snacks. The idea here is to stop glycogen levels falling significantly at all during the 4 day period.
- For breakfast (as soon as you wake up) have a bowl of big flake porridge or low fibre cereal with some chopped fruit or 2-3 slices of wholemeal toast.
- Mid morning have a high quality snack such as a slice of wholemeal toast with peanut butter and some fruit or chopped raw vegetables.
- For lunch have a bagel with plenty of salad or steamed vegetables and lean meat such as chicken.
- Mid afternoon have a handful of nuts/seeds or make yourself a fresh fruit and yoghurt smoothie.
- For dinner have wholemeal pasta with sauce or brown rice risotto with a piece of chicken or salmon and plenty of steamed vegetables. Don't go mad on the quantity of pasta or rice though as it will make you bloated.
- Keep fat, including fatty meats, to a minimum to keep gut residue low to ease the transit of food through.
- Keep the fibre content low as well so that you can go to the toilet before your event starts, and shed a few unnecessary grams of weight!
It is also critical that you are well hydrated. Making sure that you are hydrated is one of the easiest, and cheapest means of bolstering performance. Dehydration reduces blood plasma which is the fluid element of your blood. This causes the blood to thicken which means the heart has to work harder to get the blood round your body during exercise. A 2% reduction in body weight from fluid loss results in a 4% reduction in performance so in general you don't want to be hitting any weight records on the week of your Sportive . I don't believe that there is a one size fits all amount of water to drink but 2 litres per day is sensible and then, above that, just drink if you are thirsty.
If you get the carb intake and the hydration right then you might be looking at a performance gain of around 7% which is significant for long distance endurance events. On the event day itself here are some other tried and tested tips:
- On the day of your event try and eat breakfast, assuming that the event starts in the morning, 1-2 hours before the start time.
- Don't go mad and stuff your face, just have your normal breakfast and perhaps an extra slice of toast.
- On the way to the event gently sip on a 500ml bottle of sports drink and aim to have finished that 45 minutes before the start time so that you can go for a pee before the start.
- During the event keep hydrated with a sports drink (I need around 500ml per hour but everyone is different and it depends a lot on conditions)
- Try and take on board some decent quality food such as the Jersey Pocket range of organic cold press energy bars and oat based bars which are around 270 calories. I find that I need a quarter of these every 20 minutes during a Super Sportive lasting 5-10 hours plus some bananas, bread and a few handfuls of nuts and dried fruit. You are welcome to subscribe to the ‘In The Pocket’ emails where they talk about all things health over at www.jerseypocketenergy.co.uk Anyone signing up gets a 10% discount on their first purchase in the online store.
- I also keep a supply of caffeine gels in my back pocket just in case I need them, but I don't really like them and often never use them.
Carb loading will most likely cause body mass to increase by approximately 1-2kg. For every extra gram of glycogen stored you will also store 2 grams of water. This can be a concern for many cyclists, but the potential negatives of setting off slightly heavier are far outweighed by the potential performance benefits. When I started the Liege Bastogne Liege 276km Sportive I was 2.5kg heavier than the week before. I kept hydrated and ate regularly for the 9.5 hours that I was on the bike, having followed the above guidelines on carb intake. At no stage did I feel in anyway low on fuel and my speed through the day remained consistent.
Increasing your intake of quality carbohydrates as described above really does work and not just for me. The Propello team of riders have long been adopting this approach pre event, and it has helped us win a decent haul of gold medal times throughout this Sportive season.
ABCC Level 3 Coach
To improve we have to keep moving forward