Fuelling track success

One of the many fascinating aspects of track racing is the diverse shape and size of world-class athletes. Just look back at the last round of the 2019-2020 Tissot UCI Track Cycling World Cup in Glasgow, Scotland. Harrie Lavreysen, who added Glaswegian sprint gold to success in Minsk (Belarus) a week earlier, measures 1.81m and weighs 92kg (which helps explain how the multiple UCI World Champion can squat over 200kg!). Compare that with 39-year-old Olga Zabelinskaya, runner-up in the Women’s Omnium in Glasgow. The Uzbekistan rider is 1.70m tall – 11cm shorter than Lavreysen – but weighs 31kg (almost a third of the Dutchman’s bodyweight!) less at 61kg. Why such a difference? Clearly gender is part of the explanation, but it’s also down to the riders’ specialities: Lavreysen is a sprinter while Zabelinskaya is an endurance rider. This has implications for their physiology and their nutritional intake.

Track meetings comprise multiple events as diverse as the individual or team sprint, lasting one to three laps; the 2000m keirin; individual and team pursuits of 3000m to 4000m; and mighty endurance events like the Madison (50km), Scratch Race (10-15km) and points race (25-40km). The duration of these efforts varies from 15 seconds to an hour, while many events comprise multiple heats and finals undertaken on the same day. The Omnium, for example, features four events on one day.

All of this goes into the nutritionist’s melting point when planning their rider’s fuelling strategy but, in general, sprinters like Lavreysen will have a high lean body mass with heavy muscularity, particularly in their lower limbs. This is to generate explosive levels of power over short distances. Endurance athletes are generally lighter and more sinewy, but retaining enough power for the elements of their discipline such as sprints and reeling in an opponent.

How do these two different physical profiles affect what a track rider consumes? Let’s begin with what unites them – nutritional periodisation.

“You should match your food intake to your training load,” says Alan Murchison, the Michelin-starred chef who’s now team chef for British Cycling.

“That means looking at your training plan and planning meals to correspond to your energy needs. A kale smoothie before a sweetspot session, for example, is equally as suboptimal as consuming a 5000-calorie breakfast on a rest day!”

So what is optimal? Individuals vary but let’s look at sprinters generally. They predominantly train at the velodrome, on static trainers or in the gym, focusing on short, high-intensity repetitions with long recoveries. This places huge strain on their muscles, forging millions of micro-tears, meaning sprinters will require higher levels of muscle-repairing protein than endurance athletes. This figure is broadly 1.6-1.8g of protein per kilogramme in sprinters compared to around 1.4g per kg in endurance cyclists. Multiple sprint Olympic gold medallist Sir Chris Hoy cites understanding of protein as one of the greatest advancements in sports nutrition.

Jeffrey Hoogland, who helped the Netherlands to team sprint gold in Minsk and Glasgow, also recognises the sprinter’s higher needs for protein, telling coach Christian Bosse, “When we’re in Papendal [the gym at the Olympic Training Centre where Hoogland trains] and have more training, we stay there for lunch. For lunch we have a lot of protein, like eggs and meat. We rest and relax, and then prepare for the second training session… protein is the base of our diet, so we consume foods that are very high in protein.”

Athletes on vegetarian or vegan diets will source their protein from foods such as chickpeas, lentils and soya products.

A sprinter’s carbohydrate needs are lower than endurance athletes, with the latter group advised to consume more carb-heavy snacks such as rice cakes and bananas, but for both sets of athletes, carbohydrate intake should be periodised across the week and over the year to adapt to different sessions and complement different phases of training. Key sessions and races demand higher carbohydrate intake.

Many teams’ nutritionists and chefs, including Murchison, adhere to the ‘standard rule of thirds’. This means splitting the plate into thirds: a third for protein, a third for carbohydrates and a third for colourful vegetables containing antioxidants. These are vital to clear out toxins, boost immunity and to keep the metabolism working proficiently. As competition approaches, this might be altered slightly, to slightly increase carbohydrate and protein.

When it comes to race day, says dietitian Ali Disher, who works with Australian track riders from sprint through to endurance, the day should begin with a carbohydrate-heavy breakfast, such as porridge.

“The closer you get to race start, the less complex you want the food. So around two hours out from racing, plain pasta or leftover rice is sufficient. An hour out, even more simple, so something like bread and jam. It must be easily digested.”

This simple-carb template also applies between heats. But if a rider’s nerves cause digestion issues, Disher suggests an alternative. “They should go for liquid nutrition,” she says. “Something like a sports drink will be fine. That said, if this is the case, the previous night’s meal is even more important for getting in the carbohydrates and protein.”

Fluid requirements are key to peak performance, too, especially before and after an event as track bikes don’t have bottle cages like road bikes do. How much fluid a rider needs is dependent on a number of factors including exercise intensity and duration, plus the temperature of the velodrome. As a rule of thumb, a rider should consume 1.5 litres of fluid for every litre of sweat lost (the extra takes urination into account). Sipping is better than consuming a large volume at once as it promotes greater fluid retention. Electrolyte drinks are popular because water requires sodium to move from the bloodstream to working muscle cells.

The importance of fuelling correctly cannot be understated. Accurately matching the right intake of calories and macronutrients (carbs, protein and fats) with the specific training and racing load will result in optimum bodyweight and lean muscle for maximum power output at the duration required. And that could be the difference between winning and losing.