Para-cyclists and nutrition: food for thought

Jul 8, 2019, 15:14 PM

Many para-cyclists have very specific needs, and because of their conditions, this encompasses nutrition. But that doesn’t mean they can’t enjoy a performance-boosting diet, says sports dietitian Liz Broad in her book ‘Sports Nutrition for Paralympic Athletes’. “Part of the challenge to a sports nutritionist working with these athletes is changing their mindset from that of rehabilitation to that of performance,” Broad says. “It’s a substantial shift and isn’t always easy or practical. Take someone with a spinal-cord injury. They’ll deliberately restrict fluid intake before travelling long distances to avoid visiting the bathroom.”

The challenges these athletes face vary considerably, and we focus on three para-cyclists with different conditions, different needs and different approaches to nutrition.


Managing diabetes

Thirty-year-old para-cyclist Tom Staniford, Great Britain, is a former national para-cycling champion who, in 2011 at the age of 21, became the country’s youngest-ever rider to win an individual senior title.  Staniford’s also just one of eight known people in the world battling an extremely rare condition called MDP Syndrome; a complex, progressive disorder that’s characterised by numerous features, the most visible of which is the body’s inability to store fat beneath the skin.

The sad irony is that Staniford naturally stores more fat around his organs than the average healthy individual, meaning he must be extra careful with his diet. He has also developed Type-2 Diabetes – a condition more commonly associated with obesity. Staniford’s inability to process fat in the normal way has led to his body’s cells becoming insensitive to insulin because those cells don’t absorb as much glucose. It’s led to medication to control his blood-sugar levels and changes to his diet.

“In general, I avoid foods high in sugar and carbohydrates,” says Staniford. “I much prefer protein and fibre. You can’t go wrong with eggs for breakfast, and I try to eat low glycaemic-index foods like whole-wheat pasta, quinoa and bulgur wheat, with lots of vegetables and protein.” Good sources of protein, in addition to eggs, include lean chicken, tuna and salmon.


Chocolate at altitude!

Canadian Keely Shaw was just 15 when she took her horse out, as usual, on her family’s Saskatchewan farm... but that day something spooked Shaw’s horse, flinging Shaw to the ground.

Her father found her unconscious and although it was originally thought that Shaw had suffered solely from concussion, a broken blood vessel in her brain caused partial paralysis. “At my worst, I couldn’t move anything on my left side,” Shaw says. “I couldn’t wiggle my toes; I couldn’t roll over in bed. When I got to the point where I could eat on my own, it had to be a liquid diet because half my oesophagus didn’t work.”

That was in 2010. Since then, after cycling took over from hockey as her sporting love, Shaw has won a host of honours, most recently in March, her first-ever UCI Para-cycling Track World Championships medal: silver in the individual pursuit in Apeldoorn, Netherlands.

Shaw’s relationship with food has, she admits, at times been unhealthy: “I became absolutely obsessed with optimised fuelling, whether it was the timing of food, the macro-nutrient composition or even the different micro-molecules within the food,” she reveals.

After working with dietitian Heather Hynes, Shaw’s on a much healthier path, albeit nutrition still holds a very strong interest. When not riding and racing, Shaw is working on her Masters’ thesis, which examines the effects of dark chocolate on metabolic and performance parameters of exercise in trained cyclists at altitude.

“I’m intrigued by how what we put in our bodies can affect physical performance,” Shaw continues. “Being a high-performance athlete, I’m always looking to improve – and I really like chocolate!”

We await Shaw’s results, aware of the work in a similar area by sports scientist and former pro road cyclist, Lieselot Decroix. She showed that the flavonoids that are abundant in dark chocolate reduces the oxygen cost of moderate-intensity cycling; in other words, you can ride longer and stronger.


The blind food blogger

Lora Fachie is a Paralympic and UCI World Champion in the tandem. Lora’s blind and she loves food. And we mean loves food. When not cycling her way to success, Fachie’s a food blogger. Her site, Blindingly Good Food, gives her perspective of nutrition on elite performance for an athlete who’s totally blind.

“My love for food and cooking was truly ignited in my mid-20s,” says Fachie. “My mum had encouraged me to get involved in the kitchen from a young age, showing me how to both cook and bake, but it really developed when I moved away from home.”

Fachie’s aim is to showcase her love of food, reveal what she eats as an elite athlete and show how she adapts recipes and cooking techniques in order to do them safely. “Too many people with disabilities lack confidence in the kitchen, as there is a higher risk factor,” she says. “They rely on shop-bought ready meals that are quick and simple to prepare but lack a lot of nutritional value. I hope to demonstrate that it’s not difficult to navigate yourself around a kitchen to prepare quick and simple, nutritious meals with very little skill involved.”