The Seasonal Diet of a Pro Cyclist

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With the new year only a few weeks in arears now, resolutions to get more exercise and eat better are still fresh in the minds of many. It’s always tempting right after the over-indulgent holidays to promise to do better and jump right into the fresh year full of intent and purpose to have a healthier lifestyle. For ‘mere mortals’ the challenge is usually to lose weight and get more fit, but what about the elite athlete that continues a training program right through the off season? What changes do they make as the new season rolls around and fitness requirements are once again assessed?

For ‘mere mortals’ the challenge is usually to lose weight and get more fit, but what about the elite athlete that continues a training program right through the off season?

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For Team KATUSHA ALPECIN’s Rein Taaramäe, he pays special attention to his food consumption year-around so he doesn’t have to worry about changing or re-booting his program. “I view my nutritional needs mostly the same throughout the year, but later in the season when we are skinnier from racing and training and therefore need more energy, we don’t have to think about the weight loss side of things anymore. We can eat more or less everything without putting on weight because the body is pretty empty. For example, deep in the season, like November and December, we don’t need a recovery shake after training. But for sure during the racing season it is very important to have a quality energy shake after training” said Taaramäe.

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Teammate Marco Haller sees his body responding differently at the beginning of the season: “At the beginning of the season many riders are still searching for condition, so every detail counts. You really think about which fuel you want to give your body and during this period you also focus on the number of calories you take in. However, later in the season it changes. Take the Tour de France as an example. During the first week maybe you still keep an eye on the quantity so you don’t have to haul unnecessary weight up the mountains. But once you hit the second week, you will automatically be burning more calories than you can eat, so quantity no longer matters. This is when the team chef creates delicious dishes of the highest quality and we all eagerly enjoy our meals as we refuel our bodies. Late in the season when perhaps morale has dropped a bit, as has concern about how you look every moment, you’ll see riders going for a chocolate bar instead of a performance bar, or someone who likes more salt will grab a small baguette with ham – old school style.”

“During the first week maybe you still keep an eye on the quantity so you don’t have to haul unnecessary weight up the mountains. But once you hit the second week, you will automatically be burning more calories than you can eat, so quantity no longer matters”

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Team doctor Thomas Klimaschka is mostly concerned about the rider being disciplined throughout the season, especially the winter, and making good nutrition part of their regular routine. “It’s important to stick to a low fat diet every day and in the morning take in less single carbs. It’s better to eat muesli and dark bread. The meals need to be well balanced. There will sometimes be specialties, but the balanced things are most important. Fatty and single carbs are the most dangerous things, although of course in the races they need the fast carbs, for sure.”

“Fatty and single carbs are the most dangerous things, although of course in the races they need the fast carbs, for sure”

While the general population who are kicked into high gear about losing weight might try to avoid carbohydrates at all costs (“don’t eat anything white!”), a professional cyclist knows the importance of them. Rein sees a difference in his performance immediately. “For me the most important component in nutrition are carbohydrates. Without them I don’t perform well. For a short period of time I can skip protein and fat from my nutrition and I can still feel strong in the races. But without sugars, it’s all over. And with long term low carbs we also start to lose muscle mass.”

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Marco Haller needs some variety in his nutrition to keep him interested. “Quality and taste of the product are very important to me. Good nutrition is the fuel of a cyclist, but you can easily get sick and tired of a specific gel or bar or whatever. It’s good that the suppliers make many different flavours now so we can avoid consuming the same one day after day. Another small trick we like to do, mostly in Grand Tours, is to change food bags or bars with fellow riders from other teams” says Marco.

“Another small trick we like to do, mostly in Grand Tours, is to change food bags or bars with fellow riders from other teams”

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When a rider is at a training camp or a bigger race, the team chef is preparing the meals and making sure the meal is balanced, nutritious and tastes great. But most of the time the rider is training near home with another buddy and eating in his house. Is it hard to stay on top of nutritional requirements when it’s not being handled by a professional cook? “I always buy my own food and I prefer to prepare everything by myself. This way I know exactly what is on my table and what I am putting into my mouth. I always try to find the best quality and fresh food. I eat out in a restaurant from time to time, but mostly I try to avoid them.” says Rein.

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Marco has a different vision in his head – “Well of course being on your own at home can be challenging. You obviously do not have a chef there, but perhaps you have an adorable wife or girlfriend who will surprise you with a proper meal after an exhausting 6-hour ride! If that’s not the case, most riders have some basic skills for the kitchen and can whip up a simple meal. It isn’t too complicated.”

“Perhaps you have an adorable wife or girlfriend who will surprise you with a proper meal after an exhausting 6-hour ride!”

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The world of sports medicine is constantly evolving and Dr. Klimaschka makes it a point to keep up to date: “I stay on top of nutritional changes with reading and studying the newest things in sports medicine.” Marco Haller keeps himself informed too: “As good nutrition is getting more and more common in everyday life, everyone gets more and more knowledgeable along the way. Plus our teams have experts and nutritionists who can guide us and give us tips. But a sportsman usually knows what he needs because nutrition is a very big topic in professional sport.”

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