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What the pros use: GravelBikes.Online

James Moran is head of nutrition at Uno-X Pro Cycling Team, the professional team with WorldTour ambitions. He also enjoyed the same role at Ineos Grenadiers and British Cycling. Moran took it upon himself to fuel Tobias Johannessen’s second GC finish at the Tour of Britain to rank not only the top five supplements he uses with his riders, but also those that will pay off for recreational riders.

1. Caffeine

Caffeine and road cycling go hand in hand. In fact, coffee makers have long recognized the synergy between the two. Take the Saeco team that was formed in 1996. Saeco is an Italian manufacturer of espresso machines and built a global platform thanks to the extravagant exploits of Mario Cipollini. Saeco merged with Lampre in 2005, forming Lampre-Caffita, the latter a capsule system for making espressos. UAE Team Emirates has the current license.

But the Faema espresso machine is forever synonymous with professional cycling. Faema sponsored a cycling team between 1955 and 1969 and they were the Galacticos of the time. Rik Van Looy, the king of the classics who won the world championships twice plus eight classics victories, including Paris-Roubaix three times; Charly Gaul, the Angel of the Mountains, winner of the 1958 Tour de France and four-time winner of the mountain classification in the Tour and the Giro d’Italia; Eddy Merckx, who, well, won it all. And most recently, Segafredo co-sponsored the Trek team.

Why the love between road cyclists and coffee? It goes beyond taste, says Moran. “Caffeine has been shown to be ergogenic in nearly every exercise and sporting setting that has been investigated. The ‘performance-enhancing’ effects of caffeine appear to be the result of antagonistic interactions with adenosine receptors in the brain and nervous systems, which increases central drive and reduces the perception of exertion and pain during exercise.”

Caffeine has no nutritional value and was therefore previously on the World Anti-Doping Agency’s banned list, so proven were its performance-enhancing effects. That was until 2004 when the AMA recognized that its ubiquity in people’s daily lives made it impossible to ban it.

Therefore, caffeine stimulates peak performance. But how much? “Over the past 10 years, research and thinking about caffeine has focused more on getting the best ergogenic response for the lowest dose,” says Moran. “This is because higher doses are more likely to have negative side effects such as gastrointestinal upset, muscle cramps, increased heart rate and sweating, nervousness, confusion, inability to concentrate and disturbed sleep.”

“Riders will typically ingest 3-5 mg/kg of caffeine about 60 minutes before they want peak blood caffeine concentration,” adds Moran. “This will usually be in the form of caffeinated gum, pills or caffeine energy gels. Riders are educated on the pharmacokinetics of caffeine to understand that it will begin to have an effect on the body within 15 minutes, peak around of 45-60 minutes, it will be at half concentration after four to six hours and has been completely metabolized after 10-12 hours.”

You’ll find that runners usually take a caffeine supplement about 45 minutes before climbing a mountain or with a sprint finish on the horizon.

2. Bicarbonate of sodium

Baking soda or “baking soda” (commonly known as baking soda) is one of the cheapest and most researched sports supplements with studies dating back to the 1930s. “Ergogenic effects have been demonstrated in both and high-intensity repeated cycling,” says Moran.

“During high-intensity exercise, ATP [adenosine triphosphate; form of energy] Muscle production depends on glycolysis [breakdown of glucose to generate energy], which causes the accumulation of lactate and hydrogen ions. Far from being a “waste product” or a bad thing, lactate can be used as fuel by the heart, brain, and other muscle cells and tissues. However, the accumulation of hydrogen ions in the muscle (muscle acidosis) is thought to play a causative role in the fatigue process affecting glycolytic enzymes, calcium sensitivity and ultimately muscle contractile function.”

In other words, a drop in blood pH creates an acidic pool that increases hydrogen ions and reduces performance. This is where baking soda comes in. Because it’s alkaline, it raises the pH of the blood, so when lactic acid spills over from working muscles into the bloodstream, you essentially have a wider acidic bandwidth before the pH levels drop to a level that fatigues the muscles. “This ‘buffering’ of hydrogen ions outside the muscle allows for increased glycolytic rates and higher rates of ATP resynthesis to sustain the higher demands of exercise and delay fatigue,” says Moran.

So all good? Not exactly. The problem is that this alkaline increase often leads to an upset stomach, namely the trots. Experienced roadies may have played around with the standard protocol of 0.3g of sodium bicarbonate per kilogram of body weight ingested 60 minutes before intense exercise. But studies have shown that this is too generic. For some runners, pH levels peaked after 10 minutes; others up to 90 minutes. Also, some benefit from 0.2g; others reach more than 0.3 g.

Measuring your optimal dose and times requires a stopwatch (realistic) and a lactate measuring device (unrealistic) or the time and inclination to play with more realistic times and doses. Start with 0.3g, by mixing the powder with water or the less unpleasant option of a capsule, and an ingestion time of 60 minutes. See how your stomach reacts. If it’s good, do the same followed by a 10 minute time trial effort on your turbo. Repeat with different doses and times over the next few weeks and see how time and power output fluctuate if you have a power meter.

Research by Dr Andy Sparks from the University of Edge Hill in England showed that runners enjoyed an average performance improvement of 2.2% in a time trial, so it’s worth the effort, except that you are in the 15% who will suffer from “food anxiety”. Whatever the dose or timing “Keep in mind that other protocols have looked at small, repeated doses during a road race,” adds Moran. “But more research is needed to determine optimal times and doses for road cycling.”

3. Vitamin D

“Vitamin D is crucial for maintaining many aspects of human health that affect cycling performance, including bone health, muscle function and repair, and immune health,” says Moran. “The main way to get vitamin D is from exposure to sunlight (80-90%) and the remaining 10-20% comes from diet.”

The problem, says Moran, is that sun protection and clothing cause this vitamin D synthesis to be impaired, so that even professionals who train and race in southern Europe all summer are deficient in the vitamin. D. “This is clearly worse during the winter months,” adds Moran. This is bad, as studies have shown negative effects on immune function.

“That’s why runners will usually supplement throughout the year. With a higher dose of 2000-4000IU in the winter and a lower dose of 1000-2000IU in the summer months. In professional teams, the exact dose will be adjusted based on blood tests with the aim of maintaining levels of 75-100 nmol/L.”

Vitamin D isn’t just for health, it also has performance benefits. Research by Professor Neil Walsh of Bangor University involved 967 participants completing a 1.5 mile run. Walsh and his team took a blood sample from each subject and measured the levels of vitamin D circulating in the blood. He then correlated vitamin D status with performance and found that a small increase of 1 nmol/L vitamin D resulted in an improvement of 0.42 seconds during the 1.5 mile run . Vitamin D deficiency has also been linked to reduced levels of testosterone, which affects strength.

4. Probiotics and prebiotics

“I’m a big believer in taking pro and prebiotics for gut health, function, and carbohydrate absorption,” says Moran. Because? Let’s explain it. Inside each of us are trillions of microorganisms—bacteria, viruses, fungi, and other life forms—collectively known as the microbiome. Different organs have different microbial inhabitants, but what has attracted the most attention in the sports world is the gut, specifically the use of prebiotics (fertilizer for existing bacteria) and/or probiotics (adding bacteria) to improve performance.

That said, there is no strong evidence that prebiotics or probiotics directly influence athletic performance. But more importantly, probiotics indirectly facilitate performance by keeping athletes healthy, as there is good evidence that taking a probiotic regularly can reduce the chances of getting an upper respiratory tract infection (URTI). Probiotics may also decrease gut symptoms during exercise, but again, the research on this is somewhat less consistent.

what should you take Well, foods that contain probiotics like yogurt and sauerkraut are great, but compared to a supplement, they offer less certainty about the specific strains and doses you get from eating them.

A final note about supplementing with probiotics and/or prebiotics: these are very helpful if you’re a fasted training fan, where you can go for a long ride before breakfast on water only. This is because studies have shown that restricting carbohydrate intake can lead to a reduction in the number of potentially health-promoting bacteria.

5. Cherries and black currants

“I’m also a fan of fruit-derived polyphenols, such as tart and sour cherry concentrates for recovery,” says Moran. “And New Zealand blackcurrant extracts too.” Let’s see why… A 2015 study suggested that supplementation with Montmorency cherry juice boosted immunity and therefore helped reduce the number of athletes suffering from upper respiratory symptoms after marathon Cherries have also been shown to improve sleep quality because they contain melatonin, a hormone that plays an integral role in the sleep cycle.

But the main benefit is due to the compound “anthocyanin”, which is also responsible for the red color of cherries. Anthocyanins have antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties, and it is this double whammy that is thought to be the role of cherries in recovery. A 2021 meta-analysis looked at data from 14 studies and concluded, “Sour cherry supplementation had a small beneficial effect in reducing muscle pain”; “A moderate beneficial effect was observed for muscle strength recovery.” And “a moderate effect was observed for muscle power.” So no panacea, but potentially beneficial.

As for the benefits of New Zealand berries, this is due to blackcurrant polyphenols that increase blood flow to the muscles. In addition to increasing fat burning, studies have shown that this reduces recovery time and boosts the immune system. Why the New Zealand variety is that they contain one of the highest concentrations of polyphenols, antioxidants and anthocyanins in the world.

*Getty cover image



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