The success of Team Sky has been in a big part attributed to its apparent revolutionary training methods and approach to training. Underpinning this has been its adopted ‘marginal gains’ approach to attaining its goals. Quite simply, this means making big performance gains from the accumulation of small improvements. And this does not necessarily solely relate to training, Team Sky riders now famously take their own mattresses to the hotels they are staying in during Le Tour!! No stone unturned to improve you could say…
Outside of riding and advancements to one’s own bike (aerodynamics; weight loss) perhaps the most common approach to gaining improvement comes in the way of taking sports supplements. The sports supplement industry has been experiencing unprecedented growth in recent years, attracting a wider and wider audience of consumers seeking ‘a magic bullet’ towards the delivery of increased health and fitness. All in all, they can offer a lot but do they really deliver?
Let’s start with caffeine. Cyclists love their coffee. This is more than a cliché (it is now 10am and I have already had 3 today!!). Even non-cyclist is more than acutely aware of the beautiful relationship shared by cyclists within our café society, coffee consumption going hand in hand within a session on the bike. So it is pretty good news to know that science supports this relationship, specifically in regards to performance as the evidence is that it adds zip. However, importantly to optimise ergonomic benefits from caffeine digestion it is best to taper your intake prior to events as a performance lift will be less from regular caffeine consumers. It is recommended that you take the caffeine within an hour of the event, or near the end of a long event for a kick to the finish line.
The use of sodium bicarbonate as a sports supplement has been well documented for some time. It is natural and safe, and importantly has been shown to increase performance, although bear in mind that this has been with maximal activity rather than sub-maximal. So if you are looking to achieve a personal best at your next Gran Fondo, don’t go looking towards sodium bicarbonate to offering much in the way of aiding a performance lift. Likewise Creatine and Beta-alanine, both sports supplements with scientific evidence indicating performance benefits, but more for sprint performance than endurance performance.
For endurance performance what is rousing lots of excitement (especially in the cycling world) is beetroot. Some studies have indicated some impressive performance benefits from beetroot juice consumption, specifically that the amount of oxygen needed to sustain sub-maximal exercise was lower when the beetroot juice was consumed, thus increasing riding efficiency and tolerance to high-intensity endurance, and overall endurance. It is believed that it is the high level of natural occurring nitrates in the beetroot juice that provides these performance enhancing benefits.
So when you really down to the true ‘nitty gritty’ of cycling performance, there is no ‘magic bullet’, certainly not in the way of legal, ethical, and safe sports supplementation. Certainly training is still the most important contributor to performance, and lifestyle behaviours will contribute to how much you eventually capitalise from your hard work. However it is nice to know that an expresso may make me go faster!!