From Cramps to Gut Issues Common Struggles of Elite Cyclists
Reading time: 6 min

From Cramps to Gut Issues: Common Struggles of Elite Cyclists

Reading time: 6 min
They may be professionals, but they struggle with the same problems as you.
From Cramps to Gut Issues Common Struggles of Elite Cyclists

We often see elite cyclists as machines programmed to pedal, always functioning perfectly. The difficulties we see them involved in while watching races on TV screens are mainly mechanical or crashes.

We often forget they are human beings and as such also struggle with common everyday problems, including those related to nutrition.

In this blog, I will present and describe some of the most common problems I stumble upon when working with professional cyclists.

Cramps

Amateurs are not the only ones struggling with cramps. They are a common problem among professionals as well.

The cause of cramps is not yet fully defined. The most likely explanation seems to be their occurrence is neuromuscular in nature, a sort of response of the organism to muscular efforts to which it is not accustomed.

There’s a reason why the frequency of cramping episodes in the peloton tends to be higher during the first races of the season.

Unfortunately, there is not much that can be done to prevent cramps other than to adapt the musculature over time to the required efforts. It seems that taking care of sufficient fluidelectrolyte and energy intake before and during training reduces the risk of cramp occurrence, but these are treated as secondary factors.

However, there is a silver lining. When the cramp starts, all is not lost. A somewhat peculiar strategy may come to the rescue.

In addition to stretching the muscle and trying to relax it, which is not always possible, it seems that drinking pickle juice can stop cramps within a few minutes.

You can rely on specially formulated supplements or use simple vinegar in which the pickles are kept: 60-70 ml to be taken at the moment when the first signs of cramping are felt.

Again, it appears that the mechanism is neurological in origin: the shock resulting from the strong taste of the drink ‘distracts’ our organism from the muscular cramp in progress.

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Gut discomfort

Another very common problem is gut discomfort, which can come in many forms, such as nausea, bloating, feeling full, or even vomiting and diarrhea.

When we as a team find an athlete struggling with any of the mentioned symptoms, the first thing we do is assess, together with the doctor, the potential presence of infection, which could be caused by a weakened immune system.

If necessary, we then isolate the athlete from the rest of the team to limit the possibility of contagion.

If the cause is bacterial or intestinal, it’s the doctor who takes over and recommends any pharmacological therapy.

From a nutritional point of view, it will be important to try to keep the athlete hydrated as best as possible and provide him with as much energy as possible to aid recovery and healing.

Electrolyte rehydrating solutions, whether they contain carbohydrates or not,  provide essential support. They must be combined with simple, easily digestible foods like plain rice or pasta, lightly seasoned protein sources, and liquid foods such as milk, vegetable drinks, or fruit juices.

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This is especially important at stage races, where athletes want to stay in the race and compete again the next day. A full day with lower energy and fluid intake due to these symptoms would certainly compromise his performance in the following days!

If the cause is not bacterial or viral, the nutritional treatment will be similar, but it is important to try to understand the possible cause to avoid making the same mistake in the future.

A too large meal before physical exertion, temperatures that are too high or too low, changes in temperature, too much or too little fluid or carbohydrate intake during activity, ingestion of too much fiber, and poor gut training are just some of the potential causes of these problems.

Feeling empty

The feeling of having empty legs and not being able to push the pedals as one would like is one of the worst feelings on the bike, but also one that is quite common among professional cyclists.

In these situations, the first thing we need to analyze is the previous days:

These are some of the questions that need to be answered to understand the cause of feeling empty.

When we consider carbohydrate loading, we must avoid exaggerating either positively or negatively. Studies have shown that an excessive carbohydrate load on the day before a competition can lead to an accelerated utilization of muscle glycogen stores and, consequently, to an early onset of this empty feeling.

Once the questions of the previous days have been addressed, it is important to analyze the pre-race meal.

The timing of it must be correct, as must be the nutrients it contains. The shorter the time available for digestion, the more you have to rely on easily digestible carbohydrates and limit fiber, fat, and protein.

This meal no longer significantly affects muscle glycogen stores but ensures that the glycogen stores in the liver, which are likely to have been partly emptied during the night, are replenished.

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Finally, it is crucial to assess carbohydrate intake during activity. In races lasting more than 3 hours, you should consume at least 60-90 grams of carbohydrates per hour.

It has become very common among pros in recent years to reach much higher amounts, such as 110-120 grams per hour. A lower carbohydrate intake could certainly come back and bite you on the last climb of the race!

Another big risk factor is outside temperatures, particularly very high temperatures. If you are not adequately adapted, this can lead to trouble due to an accelerated use of muscle glycogen and the discomfort caused by the rise in body temperature.

In these cases, it becomes important to apply all possible strategies for lowering body temperatures, such as cold drinks, slushies, ice socks, cooling jackets, and cold baths before and after activity.

Struggles with meeting fuel demands

It’s not uncommon for me to advise athletes to eat 100-120 grams of carbohydrates per hour during races. But anyone who has tried achieving this can testify that it is not easy, both from a practical and gut tolerance point of view.

Again, the key word here is TRAINING. I like to emphasize that it is not only about gut training. It is also a mental and somewhat technical training.

During a race, it is easy to forget to eat for long stretches of time or to find yourself in situations in which taking a gel, a bar, or even just drinking from a water bottle is not so easy or could even endanger the athlete due to the risk of crashes and falls.

The training lies in making nutrition a habit and a necessity, almost an automatic gesture that the athlete does not even have to think about.

Nrgy Unit Gel by Nduranz for easy fuelingFueling should become a subconscious thing that you start to do automatically. 

Beyond that, you need to learn to understand the best times to eat certain foods or drinks to avoid unnecessary risks while ensuring an adequate carbohydrate intake.

One last thing I want to say is that every cyclist has their own preferences: some prefer more concentrated drinks, some prefer gels, some prefer bars, some prefer rice cakes, and some prefer sandwiches.

The aim is to respect cyclists' preferences as much as possible within the limits of scientific evidence and common sense. The team's soigneurs do an incredible job of ensuring that riders have as many choices as possible on a race day.

A key aspect of reaching certain carbohydrate quotas is variety. Athletes easily tire of always eating the same flavored food, so inserting a few salty foods and varying the texture and taste of carbohydrate sources a lot is one trick to making it easier to get energy and avoid ‘flavor fatigue’.

Conclusion

Spectators like to see professional cyclists as machines and forget about the often overlooked struggles faced by professional cyclists in maintaining optimal nutrition during races. From battling cramps to gut discomfort and feeling depleted, these challenges underscore the importance of tailored fueling strategies.

While there's no one-size-fits-all solution, focusing on hydration, energy intake, and recovery can help cyclists perform at their best. By understanding individual preferences and experimenting with various foods and drinks, cyclists can better navigate the demands of their sport.

Author: Dr. Jean Paul Perret