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Fuelling the Elite: Cycling - Track vs Road

Physiology and Physical Demands

Track cycling events range from a 200m flying sprint (lasting 10 seconds) to the 50km points race (lasting 1 hour). The shorter sprint track events require the cyclist to utilise both the aerobic and anaerobic metabolic pathways. For sprint cyclists fast-twitch muscle fibers will make up the bulk of their muscle mass. 

 

However, endurance road cyclists will utilise the aerobic energy system and slow-twitch muscle fibres will be predominant to process oxygen efficiently. During road cycling events are performed at submaximal exercise intensities and power outputs. The lighter cyclists will have an advantage when climbing hills, whereas heavier riders will have the downhill advantage. The optimum weight for an elite road cyclist seems to be 64-73kg, however, sprint cyclists can weigh over 91kg. Cyclists who are taller than average for their weight will have a higher wind resistance and will therefore have to produce more power.

 

Those who are shorter and more muscular will need less power. However, endurance and speed depend on muscle type and cardiovascular conditioning rather than on the body type. 

 

Training

Typically, elite cyclists will train 20 hours per week cycling for long periods of time to increase their level of endurance, but also incorporate strength training. However, the type of cycling discipline will determine the style of training, for example a 200m track sprint will involve more explosive power in comparison to a six-hour road race. Therefore, track cycling is heavily dependent on strength and interval work. Road cyclists will primarily focus on endurance training by putting in the miles on the road. 

 

Day in the life elite sprint cyclist…


Time Schedule
08:20am Wake up
09:00am Breakfast
09:30am Cycle to the track (30 minutes)
10:00am-12:00pm Gym session – focus on lower body exercises
12:00pm-14:00pm Lunch break (see biomechanist and physiotherapist)
14:00pm-17:00pm Track session (30-minute warm-up then four individual efforts 25-minute rests between them)
17:00pm Massage
18:00pm Cycle home
19:30pm Dinner
20:30pm Relax
22:30pm Bedtime

 

Day in the life elite road cyclist…

Time Schedule
07:00am Wake up
08:00am Core training session (30 minutes)
08:30am Breakfast
09:45am Check bikes
10:00am Training ride (4.5 hours taking in two climbs at threshold)
14:30pm Recovery session (seen by physiotherapists, stretching, ice baths, drink recovery drink)
15:30pm Lunch
17:00pm Massage
19:00pm Core training session (1 hour - group training followed by a tailored individual program.
20:00pm Dinner
21:30pm Relax
22:30pm Bedtime

 

Nutrition

Energy requirements will differ accordingly to the individual cyclist, training intensity and event discipline. On average an elite cyclist’s energy needs can reach over 5,000 kcal per day. Carbohydrate will make up a large proportion of an elite cyclist’s diet, due to the high training intensity.

 

Daily carbohydrate requirements depend on the demands of training, but it is recommended that elite cyclists consume 8-11g/kg/day. For road cycling, carbohydrate loading is recommended during the 48 hours prior to competition. If the road cycling event lasts >1 hour an appropriate fuelling plan needs to be put in place. For events lasting 1–2.5 h, 30–60 g/h of carbohydrate is commonly recommended, ideally consumed every 10–15 min to spare glycogen stores. For events lasting >2.5 h, higher carbohydrate intakes of 60–70 g/h are recommended but may reach up to 90 g/h if tolerable.

 

There is wide range of carbohydrate sources available for cyclists in the form of drinks, gels, gummies and energy bars. The main aim is to minimise the risk of gastrointestinal discomfort and allow for high rates of carbohydrate ingestion and adequate hydration. Symptoms are highly individual but can also be related to the intake of highly concentrated carbohydrate solutions, hyperosmotic drinks, as well as the intake of fibre, fat, and protein prior to exercise.  Therefore, it is strongly recommended the cyclists routinely practice their fuelling plan and work out what their body can tolerate.

 

It has been identified that increased body fat has a triple effect of decreasing performance since it increases the energy cost of acceleration, rolling resistance and the projected frontal surface area of the cyclist. Therefore, low relative body fat is desirable for successful performance. It’s common for elite athletes to try and reduce fat mass, but in some cases to extremely low levels (less than 5% in males and less than 12% for females), through improper weight reduction strategies. This will impair performance and can be truly detrimental to the athlete’s health. For example, excessive energy restriction in athletes will inhibit immune function increasing the prevalence of upper respiratory tract infections.

 

For female’s excessive energy restriction in conjunction with intensive training will result in hormonal imbalances, which can cause menstrual dysfunction and impact bone health. It is extremely important that any weight loss programs are designed by experienced sports nutritionists and monitored regularly with a medical follow up. 

 

Hydration

Elite cyclists prioritise hydration when competing in body ambient and warm  environments, formulating appropriate hydration strategies. The ACSM states that body water loss of more than 2-3% of body weight should be prevented to avoid dehydration and performance impairments. Some athletes may experience small performance decrements at even lower levels of dehydration.

 

Therefore, it is very important the cyclists start the competition in euhydrated state. The cyclists must drink sufficiently between the time they wake up and start of the race to make sure they are adequately hydrated before they start.  Pre-exercise, the cyclist should aim to drink about 500ml of fluid 3-4 hours before starting. The cyclist should then monitor urine colour against a colour chart and drink accordingly. However, hyponatraemia can develop if you consume more fluid than you lose through sweat-  this occurs when the sodium in blood becomes diluted. The symptoms of this include confusion, weakness and fainting. In extreme cases, seizures and even death have occurred.

 

It is important the cyclists determine how much fluid they should consume by comparing pre and post ride body weights in the weather/environmental conditions at which the race is taking place. 

 

Recovery is also vital, the cyclists must consume sufficient carbohydrates to replenish depleted glycogen stores, along with high-quality protein distributed throughout the day to repair the damaged muscle tissue. Also drinking adequate fluid plus electrolytes (sodium) to aid rehydration.  

 

References 

Sawka, M. N., Burke, L. M., Eichner, E. R., Maughan, R. J., Montain, S. J., & Stachenfeld, N. S. (2007). American College of Sports Medicine position stand. Exercise and fluid replacement. Medicine and science in sports and exercise39(2), 377-390.

Thomas, D. T., Erdman, K. A., & Burke, L. M. (2016). Position of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, Dietitians of Canada, and the American College of Sports Medicine: nutrition and athletic performance. Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics116(3), 501-528.

Day in the life of elite sprint cyclist: https://www.cityam.com/day-life-sprint-cyclist-callum-skinner-tokyo-2020-training/ 

Day in the life elite road cyclist: https://roadcyclinguk.com/blogs/guest-blog/a-day-in-the-life-of-a-pro-cyclist-matt-brammeier-rcuk.html

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