Supplementing peak performance: What the pros use

Sports nutrition is rife with snake-oil proclamations, of delivering personal bests based on little more than marketing hyperbole. But not all. We tapped up one of the most progressive teams in cycling to find out what works

James Moran is head of nutrition at Uno-X Pro Cycling Team, the pro team who have WorldTour ambitions. He also enjoyed the same role at Ineos Grenadiers and British Cycling. Moran took time out from fuelling Tobias Johannessen to second on GC at the Tour of Britain to chart not only the top-five supplements that he uses with his riders, but the ones that’ll pay off for recreational riders, too. 

1. Caffeine

Caffeine and road cycling go hand in hand. In fact, coffee manufacturers have long recognised the synergy between the two. Take the Saeco team who formed in 1996. Saeco’s an Italian manufacturer of espresso machines and laid 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 hold the current licence.

But it’s espresso coffee machine maker Faema that’s forever synonymous with professional cycling. Faema sponsored a cycling team between 1955 and 1969 and were the Galacticos of the time. Rik Van Looy, the Classics King who won the world champs twice plus eight Classics victories including Paris-Roubaix three times; Charly Gaul, the Angel of the Mountains, 1958 Tour de France winner and four-time mountain classification victor at the Tour and Giro d'Italia; Eddy Merckx, who, well, won everything. And, more recently, Segafredo co-sponsored the Trek team.

Why the love between road cyclists and coffee? It goes beyond the taste, says Moran. “Caffeine’s been shown to be ergogenic in almost every exercise and sporting scenario that’s been researched. The ‘performance enhancing’ effects of caffeine seem to result from antagonistic interactions with adenosine receptors in the brain and nervous systems, which increases central drive and reduces the perception of effort and pain during exercise.”

Caffeine has no nutritional value and so it was formerly on the World Anti-Doping Agency banned list, so proven were its performance-enhancing effects. That was until 2004 when WADA conceded its omnipresence in people’s everyday lives made it impossible to ban.

So, caffeine stimulates peak performance. But how much? “Over the past 10 years, research and thinking about caffeine has focussed more on achieving the best ergogenic response for the lowest dose,” says Moran. “That’s because higher doses have more likelihood of negative side-effects such as gastrointestinal upset, muscle cramps, elevated heart and sweat rate, nervousness, confusion, unable to focus and impaired sleep.”

“Riders will typically ingest 3-5mg/kg caffeine around 60 minutes before wanting the peak caffeine concentration in their blood,” adds Moran. “This will usually be in the form of caffeine chewing gum, pills or caffeine energy gels. Riders are educated on the pharmacokinetics of caffeine to understand that it will start having an effect on the body after 15 minutes, peak around 45-60 minutes, be at half concentration after four to six hours and have been fully metabolised after 10-12 hours.”

You’ll find riders will often take a caffeinated supplement around 45 minutes before ascending a mountain or with a finish-line sprint on the horizon.

2. Sodium bicarbonate 

Sodium bicarbonate or ‘bicarb’ (commonly known as baking soda) is one of the cheapest and most researched sport supplements with studies dating back to the 1930s. “Ergogenic effects have been shown in both single and repeated high-intensity cycling,” says Moran. 

“During high-intensity exercise, ATP [adenosine triphosphate; form of energy] production in the muscle becomes reliant on glycolysis [breakdown of glucose to generate energy], which results in the accumulation of lactate and hydrogen ions. Far from being a ‘waste product’ or bad guy, lactate can be used as a 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 cranks up the hydrogen ions and reduces performance. Which is where sodium bicarbonate comes in. Because it’s an alkaline, it raises the pH of your blood, so that when lactic acid tips over from your working muscles to your bloodstream, essentially you’ve a wider acidic bandwidth before pH levels drop to a level that fatigues muscles. “This ‘buffering’ of hydrogen ions out of the muscle allows increased glycolytic rates and higher rates of ATP re-synthesis to sustain higher exercise demands and delay fatigue,” says Moran. 

So all good? Not quite. The problem is that this alkaline rise often results in gastro-distress, namely the trots. Experienced roadies out there might have played around with the standard protocol of 0.3g of sodium bicarbonate per kilogramme of bodyweight ingested 60 minutes before intense exercise. But studies showed this is too generic. For some riders, pH levels peaked after 10 minutes; others up to 90 minutes. Also, some benefit from 0.2g; others come in at over 0.3g.

To measure your optimum dose and timing requires a stopwatch – realistic – and either a lactate-measuring device – unrealistic – or the time and inclination to play around with timings and doses – more realistic. Start at 0.3g, via mixing powder with water or the less distasteful option of a capsule, and 60-minute ingestion time. See how your stomach reacts. If okay, do the same followed by a 10-minute time-trial effort on your turbo. Repeat with different doses and timings over the following weeks and see how time, and power output if you have a power meter, fluctuates. 

Research by Dr Andy Sparks of Edge Hill University, England, showed riders enjoyed an average performance improvement of 2.2% in a time-trial, so it’s worth the effort – unless you’re in the 15% who’ll suffer ‘gastro-distress’ whatever the dose or timing “Also note that other protocols have looked at small, repeated doses during a road race,” Moran adds. “But further research is needed to determine optimal timings 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 we get vitamin D is from sunlight exposure (80-90%) with the remaining 10-20% coming from the diet.”

The problem is, says Moran, is that sunscreen and clothing means this vitamin D synthesis is impaired, so even the professionals who are training and racing in Southern Europe throughout the summer present with vitamin D deficiency. “That’s clearly worse during the winter months,” Moran adds. This is bad as studies have shown the negative effects on immune function.

“It’s why typically riders will supplement throughout the year. With a higher dose of 2000-4000IU in the winter and a smaller dose of 1000-2000IU in the summer months. In professional teams the exact dose will be adjusted based on blood tests with the aim to keep levels 75-100nmol/L.”

Vitamin D’s not just for health – it has performance benefits, too. Research by Professor Neil Walsh of Bangor University had 967 participants complete a 1.5-mile run. Walsh and his team then took a blood sample from every 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 1nmol/L increase in vitamin D resulted in a 0.42sec improvement over the 1.5-mile run. Vitamin D deficiency has also been linked with reduced testosterone levels, which impacts strength.

4. Probiotics and prebiotics

“I’m a great believer in taking pro and prebiotics for gut health, function and carbohydrate absorption,” says Moran. Why? Let us explain. Inside every one of us are trillions of microorganisms – bacteria, viruses, fungi and other life forms – that are collectively known as the microbiome. Various organs feature distinct microbial inhabitants, but the one that’s attracted the most attention in the sporting world is the gut, specifically the use of prebiotics (fertiliser for existing bacteria) and/or probiotics (adding bacteria) for improved performance. 

That said, there isn’t strong evidence that prebiotics or probiotics directly influence athletic performance. But what’s more important is that probiotics indirectly facilitate performance by keeping athletes healthy as there’s good evidence that taking a probiotic regularly can reduce the chances of coming down with an upper respiratory tract infection (URTI). Probiotics may also lessen gut symptoms during exercise but, again, the research on that’s a little less consistent.

What should you take? Well, probiotic-containing foods like yoghurt and sauerkraut are great but, in comparison to a supplement, they offer less certainty in terms of the specific strains and dosages that you get from eating them.

One final note regarding probiotic and/or prebiotic supplementation – they’re very useful if you’re a fan of fasted training, where you might go for a long ride before breakfast fuelled only by water. That’s because studies have shown that restricting carbohydrate intake can lead to reductions in the counts of potentially health-promoting bacteria. 

5. Cherries and blackcurrant 

“I’m also a fan of fruit-derived polyphenols such as tart- and sour-cherry concentrates for recovery purposes,” Moran says. “And also New Zealand blackcurrant extracts.” Let’s see why… A 2015 study suggested that supplementing with Montmorency cherry juice boosted immunity and so helped to slash the number of athletes suffering from upper-respiratory tract symptoms post-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’s down to the compound ‘anthocyanin’, which is also responsible for cherries’ red colour. Anthocyanins feature both antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties, and it’s that double hit which is mooted as cherries’ role in recovery. A 2021 meta-analysis examined data from 14 studies and concluded, ‘Tart cherry supplementation had a small beneficial effect in reducing muscle soreness’; ‘A moderate beneficial effect was observed for recovery of muscular strength.’ And ‘a moderate effect was observed for muscular power.’ So no panacea but potentially of benefit.

As for the New Zealand berry benefits, that’s down to polyphenols in the blackcurrant increasing bloodflow to the muscles. As well as increasing fat-burning, studies have shown 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.

*Cover image by Getty 

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