The simplest way to give you perspective about how a professional cyclist fuels their body is to compare them to a formula one car. You don’t put normal unleaded petrol in a formula one car and expect it to perform at its best. The fuel used for a formula one car is similar to that used in an ordinary car but the mixtures used in formula one cars are more tightly controlled to ensure consistency in high performance. If you think about the fuel (food) that cyclists consume, it’s not that different to what everyday people eat. It’s just the “mix” of food they eat is controlled by them to guarantee consistency in how they perform.
A cyclist should eat meals with a good balance of whole grains, fruit, vegetables and protein. During the course of a stage of the Tour de France, it is possible for cyclists to burn off 6,500 calories. That’s an enormous number of calories that need to be consumed before, during and after a stage. When you keep in mind that the Tour runs for 21 days, with only two rest days throughout three weeks you can imagine if you don’t get your food right on any one of those days, then you’re going to struggle to perform at your optimum.
Cyclists need to consume a lot of carbohydrates, for energy, protein, for muscle repair and growth, and good fats to provide balance and protection to the body. A balanced meal for a cyclist would comprise about half of the plate being made up of vegetables / fruit, one quarter of the plate being made up of higher energy carbohydrates such as grains and the remaining quarter comprising good quality protein. This isn’t dissimilar to what you or I should eat to optimise our health – they just need to eat off a bigger plate!!
Let’s look at a typical example of how a cyclist would fuel himself through a stage lasting four hours or more:
- Race start: Energy bar plus 2 bottles of sports drink / water
- 1 hour into race: Energy bar, energy chews, 1 to 2 bottles of sports drink / water
- 2 hours into race: Energy bar, chicken and salad sandwich, energy gel, 1 to 2 bottles of sports drink / water
- 3 hours into race: Fruit slice, energy gel, energy chews, 1 to 2 bottles of sports drink / water
- 4 hours into race: Energy bar, energy gel, 1 to 2 bottles of sports drink / water
Now that’s a lot of food isn’t it! That’s just the food they eat on the bike, that doesn’t take into account the pre and post ride fueling that they need to consume. Their food regime is almost as tiring as the riding itself! The reality for professional cyclists is that they need to be eating and drinking constantly, about every 15 minutes, to make sure they are able to consume all of this food and keep their bodies completely fueled. Otherwise they will go hunger flat and unable to perform at their best.
The bottom line here is that if you want to get the best out of yourself, perform at your best, reach the goals and dreams that you’ve set for yourself, you need to be very focused on your food! There are NO exceptions!!