Before I even stepped foot in a gym, my first exercise love was cycling. In Cape Town, where I live, there is an annual cycling event call the Argus Cycle Tour. It’s the pinnacle of the local cycling calendar and covers 109km of gruelling terrain around the Cape Peninsula. The event attracts over 35 000 cyclists from around the globe and is the biggest timed cycling event in the world. The likes of Eddy Merckx, Miguel Indurain and cycling commentator Phil Liggett have all fallen for the charm of the Argus Cycle Tour.
Over the years my interest in cycling waned as I became more interested in weightlifting and through my college years the demands to be a competitive cyclist started to interfere with the my demand for socialising. Racing at 6am on a Sunday is not a good idea with a hangover, trust me! In the past couple of years though, my interest has been rekindled and whilst I’m nowhere near the cyclist I once was, I still like to put in a good showing. I also realised that my knowledge on nutrition and training for weightlifting far surpassed my knowledge for endurance events. Back in the day, I just used to eat a lot of pasta and taper my training to a minimum in the final week, but I knew there had to be a better plan than that.
So just what should you eat and how should you train in the run up to an endurance event?
Firstly, lets tackle the nutrition side of things. Endurance athletes always talk about carbo loading. For those that don’t know, carbohydrate loading is the process of eating higher than usual levels of carbohydrates in the lead up to an endurance event. Any good complex carbohydrates like pasta, rice and breads are good choices. The idea is that by eating excess carbs, our muscle glycogen levels will be filled to the max and come race day, we will have more stored energy in our muscles. People often think that carbo loading will increase performance or V02 max. It won’t. It will hopefully increase your endurance, but it will not make you faster. If you’ve ever hit what cyclists call the ‘bonk’ then you have completely depleted your glycogen levels and are now relying on fat supplies to fuel you. Hopefully, by carbo loading properly and fueling yourself during the race, you’ll preserve enough glycogen to last the race.
So how should you carbo load? I came across quite a few methods, but here is what I’m going with. In the 3 days leading up to the event, carbohydrate intake should be moderately high. You should be getting 7-8g of carbs per kilogram of body weight for each of the 3 days prior to the event, except the last day where that is bumped up to 11g (more on this later).
In the 3 days prior to that, carbs should be kept quite low, but not so low that it affects you final exercise preparations. Around 200g or what ever you feel comfortable with should be fine. The idea behind this is that if you deprive your body of carbs for a few days your body will supercompensate and fill your muscles with above normal levels of glycogen once you hit your carbo loading phase.
You might need to increase your fat and protein intake while in the carbo depletion phase just to keep your calories high. You don’t want to be on a low calorie diet here. The same goes for the carbo loading phase – you may need to drop fat and protein a little.
A lot of people may not like taking caffeine, but it has been established for over 50 years that caffeine helps you exercise longer in endurance events. Caffeine not only stimulates your central nervous system, but it also acts as a glycogen preserver. When supplementing with caffeine, the body elects to burn more fat for fuel instead of depleting your precious muscle glycogen. Another nice side effect is that it decreases perceived effort, enabling you to work harder.
Any excuse for more coffee
If you choose to use caffeine as an ergogenic aid then you should try to cut out all caffeine in the week leading up to the event. If your body is used to getting caffeine often it will lessen the effect, so cut it out for a while if you can.
Caffeine should be taken in doses of 100-300mg. A cup of coffee is around 150mg. It should be taken about 30 minutes before the event as caffeine peaks in the blood stream after 45-60 minutes.
Lasty, people are often concerned with dehydration when taking caffeine, but research has shown that there is no change in hydration levels between athletes who supplement and those who don’t.
This is something that I always used to get wrong. I’d always eat a decent breakfast and race an hour or two later, thinking that a full stomach of food would fuel me to the finish line. Wrong! Eating a meal 1 or 2 hours before a race is actually counterproductive and will hinder your performance. You need to be eating 3-4 hours before the event. If your event is early in the morning then you either need to get up earlier or skip the meal altogether. If you’ve been carbo loading properly, then your muscles should already be full of glycogen. The aim of the pre-race meal is just to top up those levels that might have dropped slightly overnight.
But why not eat an hour or two before the race? While this might seem counter-intuitive, eating this close to the race can lead to something called rebound hypoglycaemia, which is abnormally low blood glycogen levels. This can lead you to feeling slow and sluggish at the start of a race. It can also negatively affect the conversion of fats into fuel and speed up muscle glycogen depletion. If you want all the science behind it, Steve Born does a good job explaining it in The Pre-Race Meal, although I do recommend a larger pre-race meal than he does.
This meal should be predominantly carbohydrates and a moderate serving of protein. Recommendations vary here from a small 200-400 calorie meal to over 1000 calories. I’m going to shoot for 500-600 calories. Pancakes with honey, a glass of milk and a couple of bananas should do for me.
During the race
For high-intensity race day action you’ll need to be refuelling around 60g of carbohydrates and 750ml of fluid per hour, depending on your size, exertion levels and temperature. Believe it or not, but complex carb sources like maltodextrin are better than simple sugars, like those found in most sports drinks. Complex carbohydrate can empty from the stomach at higher concentrations (meaning they need to be diluted with less water) and faster than simple sugars, providing more energy and reducing gastric stress. It’s also important to keep your electrolyte levels up. Try to find a sports drink that has maltodextrin as its main carbohydrate source.
On the 6th, 5th and 4th day before the race, I like to train for a short to moderate distance with a relatively low intensity. This close to the race, you are not going to make significant adaptations to improve your time by training really hard. This week should be viewed as a de-loading and recovery week. This training co-incides with the low carbohydrate days.
The 3rd and 2nd day before the race are rest days. This also co-incides with the beginning of your carbo loading phase, so you want to be resting to prevent any muscle glycogen from being burnt while your trying to super saturate them.
24 hours before the race is time for the final ride. The aim of this ride is to boost the muscles glycogen storage capacity even further than carbo loading alone. This method is based on a 2002 study by Dr Timothy Fairchild at the University of Western Australia. It showed that a combination of a short-term bout of high-intensity exercise followed by a high-carbohydrate intake enables athletes to attain supranormal muscle glycogen levels within only 24 hours. Glycogen levels where boosted from 109 to an astounding 198 mmol per kilogram – that’s almost double!
Here’s what you do:
- Warm up for 10-15 minutes
- Ride for 150 seconds at near maximal effort
- Sprint all out for 30 seconds
- Cool down for 10-15 minutes
- Eat your first high glycemic high carbohydrate meal within 20 minutes of finishing
- Consume 11g per kg of bodyweight in carbohydrates in the next 24 hours before the race.
By race day you should be primed and ready to crush the opposition! If you’ve followed this protocol then you should be giving yourself the best chance to do well. Ideally, you shouldn’t experiment on race day; try all of this at smaller event leading up to the big day. That’s it – wish me luck!