Summer brings the pointy end of racing for many cyclists so with that in mind Sports Dietitians Australia looks at a hot topic – training your nutrition as well as training your body and mind.
Cycling nutrition: You train your legs but what about training your stomach?
It’s common for cyclists to have a detailed training plan outlining the number of target kilometers per week, hill repeats per session or hours in the saddle, but have you ever considered training gastrointestinal (GI) system?
Physical advantages of training your nutrition
It has been consistently shown that eating carbohydrate during endurance events improves performance. The amount of carbohydrate consumed during exercise is typically influenced by individual experiences, preference and tolerance. However, the delivery of ingested carbohydrates to the muscles is also limited by the rate of absorption across the GI tract. Carbohydrate intakes in excess of the capacity of the GI tract can lead to unpleasant symptoms including bloating, belching, nausea, stomach cramps and diarrhoea – all of which negatively impact performance.
Interestingly, the GI system appears to be ‘trainable’ which may offer an advantage during endurance cycling events. Whilst there is still only limited evidence on the train-ability of the gut, recent research results are promising. Preliminary findings from a study at Monash University suggest 10 days of repetitive nutrition training (over a 14 day period) during endurance exercise, can improve carbohydrate absorption, ability to ingest food and fluids, and reduce gastrointestinal symptoms. Other studies have also shown improved stomach comfort following a series of five training sessions with fluid intake at a rate that matches sweat losses. So, just like we can train our muscles to work at a higher intensity, we can also train our GI system to better manage carbohydrate and fluid consumed during exercise, resulting in improved performance and less risk of negative side effects.
For athletes who struggle to eat before brief, high intensity sessions (like a criterium race), mouth rinsing with carbohydrate may be a useful solution for you. Recent research has identified receptors in the mouth that activate the reward centre of the brain and can lead to improved performance outcomes of ~2-3% with effects more pronounced for athletes exercising in a fasted state.
Practical reasons for training your nutrition
There are also a number of practical reasons for training your nutrition including:
- Allows you to trial your pre-event food and fluids during training so that you arrive at the start line of a race confident that what you’ve eaten is going to sit comfortably in your stomach and enhance your performance
- Develop and refine your race nutrition plan including the ability to experiment with new foods or fluids to work out what works best for you
- Opportunity to practice the logistical aspects of eating and drinking on the bike in different terrains and tactical situations (e.g. peeling a banana on the go or chewing food whilst cycling uphill). This will result in increased efficiency at being able to eat and drink, allow you to refine how you carry your nutrition to improve aerodynamics and even minimise the weight of food and drink that you need to carry - Improve exercise capacity and support the immune system through provision of carbohydrate during training.
Hopefully you’re now convinced of the importance of training your nutrition in advance of competition to reduce the risk of gastrointestinal symptoms, increase the capacity of the GI tract to absorb what you eat and drink, and allow you to refine the practical aspects of your nutrition intake.
Don’t delay – book an appointment with an Accredited Sports Dietitian (AccSD) today to assist you with developing or refining a tailored training race nutrition plan. To find an AccSD near you click this link.
Written by Rhiannon Snipe, Accredited Practising Dietitian, Accredited Sports Dietitian and PhD Candidate at Monash University.