We went behind the scenes at Team Sky to get an idea of how this ultra-professional outfit are preparing their nutrition for the 2017 Tour de France and defense of the Maillot Jaune. Team Sky have won four out of the last five editions of the Tour de France so there's no better team to provide an insight on what it takes to be successful in cycling's biggest and most iconic event.
We spoke with Dr. James Morton, the Head of Nutrition at Team Sky and Knowledge Director at Science in Sport (SiS).
BikeExchange Blog: Is there anything different to prepare for the Tour de France compared to a week-long stage race or one-day event?
James Morton: The biggest challenge is trying to simultaneously promote fuelling, recovery, reduce illness and maintain an optimal body composition across the 21 days. This means that we must adjust our nutritional plan day-by-day according to the demands of the specific stage. Gaining or losing 1.5-2 kilograms could be disastrous from a performance point of view. If a rider is losing too much weight, we are not fuelling them enough and if they are gaining weight we are over-feeding them!
Paying close attention to daily body weights and rider’s recovery and fatigue levels are the main focus. From a logistical perspective, the Tour de France is also challenging as much of our recovery is done on the road during the long transfers from the end of the stage to the hotel. As such, we must devise practical solutions that riders will actually adhere to but which also mean we achieve our nutritional goals.
Fortunately, we have excellent chefs on the team who can translate the science to practice and keep things fresh for the riders over the three weeks.
BE: What timeline do you work off to prepare the riders for the Tour, and do things change as the event approaches?
JM: Our preparations begin six months in advance when the potential riders selected for the Tour de France program will have their annual performance plans developed in terms of what races they will ride and their performance and body mass targets. Six weeks out is usually the last weight loss block where we will try and bring each rider down to their optimal body mass.
For some riders, this could mean a two-kilogram drop in body mass. The final week is then about tapering and freshening up so that we arrive ready to race with hopefully no signs of fatigue from previous races or training camps.
BE: What is the biggest thing you've learned along the way, having completed multiple Tour de France's with great results?
JM: From a nutritional perspective, the biggest thing is to treat each rider as individuals and, of course, as people. We have built up a good understanding of the differing requirements of each rider and all the little areas where we need to pay attention to for each specific rider. For some, it is paying close attention to fluctuations in body mass to not gain weight and hence individualising their food and recovery protocols according to their preferences whilst for others it could be as simple as avoiding excessive dehydration on those really hot days.
Nonetheless, what I have really learned is the intricacies of what makes a great team, both on the bike and off the bike. Cycling is regarded as an individual sport but it is probably the greatest team sport in the world.
At Team Sky, we truly are a team and being part of a talented and hardworking group of people all pulling in the same direction is a privilege to be a part of.
BE: Do sprinters, rouleurs and GC (general classification) riders have different nutritional strategies?
JM: Without a doubt, for the GC riders our focus is maintaining their body mass as to what we perceive is their optimal climbing weight. For the rouleurs, our focus is really emphasising fuelling and recovery so that they can perform consistently each day to protect our GC riders and deliver them in the freshest state possible to the climbs. Put simply, this means our rouleurs would consume more calories each day than our GC riders. These guys will really start to feel the accumulative workload in the third week!
BE: Can you give an idea of the amount of energy expenditure, food and fluid consumption, weight loss, hydration levels etc... throughout the Tour de France?
JM: Daily energy expenditure could vary from 4000 to 9000 kcal per day depending on the rider body mass and of course the intensity and duration of the day. For example, short time trials, flat stages, and mountain stages etc.
We have built up what we consider a good understanding of the different energy demands of each stage for each rider and therefore we try and guide our riders accordingly to adjust their energy intake each day. This means that we very rarely see weight changes over the course of the TDF and we would expect riders to finish the race with no more than 0.5 kg of a difference in relation to their starting weight.
As for hydration targets, we work towards a daily target of no more than 3% body mass loss. Daily carbohydrate intakes can range from 6-12 g/kg body mass depending on the stage demands and the rider’s specific roles on that stage.
Here's what the team will consume across the 21 stages;
- 567 protein shakes
- 1500 bottles
- 890 energy bars
- 1200 gels
- 120 energy gels with caffeine
- 18x 1kg tubs of SiS Overnight Protein
- A total of 25,845 grams of protein
BE: What's an 'average' day of the Tour de France look like?
JM: We are fortunate that we have our own kitchen truck where we can prepare all our own meals. Without a doubt, the emphasis is always on high carbohydrate and high protein intake with each meal.
Breakfast includes porridge, muesli, pasta, rice, bread, fruit smoothies, yoghurts, eggs etc. On the bike fuelling is through our own “rice cakes” and a range of SiS bars, gels and drinks. We aim for between 30-90 g of carbohydrate per hour on the bike depending on what the stage looks like for that day. We also believe in consuming protein on the bike to pre-empt recovery.
Our formal recovery begins immediately after the race via SiS recovery drinks, fruit smoothies and a mix of pasta/rice/potatoes and protein options including fish/chicken/yoghurts etc. Recovery is effectively achieved on the bus during the transfer back to the hotel. Riders will also have a massage when they return to the hotel and then have their dinner around 8 pm.
Finally, the evening meal comprises a variety of carbohydrate options, fish, poultry and red meat alongside plenty of colourful fresh vegetables and salads. The obvious differences between days are greater portions and quantity of on bike fuelling on the mountain days compared with the flatter/sprint stages.
BE: What advice can you give to everyday riders looking to gain an edge and improve their performance?
JM: The first thing would be to change their body composition to improve their power to weight ratio. It often amazes me how much amateurs pay for equipment and how little attention they pay to their diet.
Losing 3-4 kg can really make a big difference to your ride. Then of course, on race day itself, it is simply about ensuring you have fuelled before, during and after to promote performance and recovery.
Whilst we believe that many of our training rides can be performed without carbohydrate (to promote aerobic training adaptations and aid weight loss) we always advise consuming carbohydrate on race day. The principle of carbohydrate periodization and fuel for the work required should, therefore, form the basis of any cycling training and racing program, whatever level of athlete you are.
BE: Thanks for the great insight James, best of luck for the Tour.
This article is sponsored by SiS, the nutrition sponsor of Team Sky.
SiS has some special offers during the 2017 Tour de France that you can take advantage of, including 21% off site wide to celebrate the 21 stages in the Tour and a free bottle on all orders over $70. Also, follow this link to get your free winter training guide, courtesy of SiS and Team Sky