It should go without saying that as long as you eat a well-balanced diet, you don’t need supplements to support your training and racing, regardless of what exercise you like to do. However, there’s also no doubt that supplements can make your life a lot easier in many situations, and if you use the right ones at the right times they can help to boost your performance.
The quickest way to assess which are the most effective supplements is to find out what pros with access to the best support teams and the latest science are using. From there you can pick out what might work for you as an amateur keen on improving without necessarily going to quite the same extent as the pros.
To get the inside scoop on the supplements strategies of the pros we spoke to Professor James Morton, who is director of performance solutions at sports nutrition brand Science in Sport and was previously head nutritionist at Team Sky, as part of the launch for a new range called Beta Fuel.
How often do pro cyclists use supplements?
It depends on the team, and the culture and the philosophy of the team, but from my experience of the peloton and my knowledge of World Tour teams, cyclists use a variety of supplements almost daily. Supplements can be used before training, during training, after training, with main meals and before sleep.
What are the key supplements to use before and during long rides?
Most teams now would probably have some form of protein supplementation before or during the ride, usually in the form of a whey protein drink. They might have some protein at breakfast, or they might have it in a bottle on the bike.
At breakfast, they may also use some vitamin and mineral supplements, and some electrolytes for hydration, and maybe even some caffeine supplements before the ride starts.
During the ride itself, it depends on the duration and the intensity, but they might have protein within the first 60 to 90 minutes. If it is a higher-intensity ride there’s more emphasis on carbohydrates – usually between 30g to 90g per hour in the form of drinks, gels and solid foods. Caffeine normally is used around 30 to 45 minutes before you need its desired effect, so it could be 30 to 45 minutes before a hard interval session or a hard climb.
Why are they using protein early on in the ride?
The daily protein requirements are probably around 30g every three to four hours. A long ride could be six hours long. If you have your breakfast at 8am and start your training at 10am, then you might not be home until 4pm. You’ve effectively gone the whole day under-consuming protein. Then you start to degrade your own muscle protein stores. Consuming protein during exercise protects against that.
Does it matter what kind of carbs you use?
It all depends on the ride and the goal of the ride, but usually riders start with solid foods for the first two or three hours – things like homemade rice cakes, energy bars, bananas, small sandwiches or panini. They tend to be digested slightly more slowly.
Then as they reach the second half or final third of the ride when the intensity starts to pick up, riders will switch towards more gels. Sometimes the fuelling strategy might be entirely based on fluids, if we haven’t got time to physically unwrap food and want to have access to carbohydrate as quickly as possible, or if it’s a really hot race. That’s why we made the Beta Fuel drink, which is 80g of carbohydrate in a 500ml serving, equivalent to four rice cakes.
A lot of carbohydrate supplements give prominence to the ratio of maltodextrin to fructose. Why does that matter?
The traditional ratio is 2:1 of maltodextrin to fructose. That’s widely studied. But actually, if you change the ratio to 1:0.8 [as in Beta Fuel], it allows you to utilise more of the carbohydrate that you’ve ingested. So in other words, more of the carbohydrate is actually delivered to the muscles and used to produce energy. The phrase we use is “oxidation efficiency”.
What would the pros use after a long ride to aid recovery?
More often than not they’ll consume a recovery drink within minutes of finishing the ride. And then usually 45 to 60 minutes later they will have whole foods for recovery.
What would be the key supplements you’d suggest for amateurs?
I’d probably go back to basics and make sure that you have some form of protein supplementation available to help top off your daily protein requirements and aid recovery during your training schedule. That’s normally whey protein, but of course if you want to use plant proteins you can do so. Then on the carbohydrate side, it’s about having access to fluids, gels and energy bars.
Other Cycling Supplements
Carbohydrates and protein are the key supplements for pro and amateur riders alike, but there are several others to consider. We asked Morton to give the details on some other commonly used supplements.
There are several electrolytes, but sodium is the most important one – it’s the predominant one that we lose in our sweat. So electrolyte supplementation before and after exercise is especially important, especially on a hot day when your sweat rate has increased.
Nootropics and caffeine
Nootropics is a term for compounds that can enhance cognitive function. Caffeine is essentially a nootropic, as are other ingredients like theanine and taurine. It’s a broad term for anything that can improve cognitive function. That means reaction times, your ability to make decisions, memory, focus, alertness and so on.
Sodium bicarbonate and beta-alanine
Beta-alanine and sodium bicarbonate are designed to act as buffers against the metabolic acidosis that you get in high-intensity exercise. They effectively allow you to ride at a certain power output for longer.
You would take sodium bicarbonate around 70 to 90 minutes before a hard training session, especially if it’s an interval session. Professionals would also take it before time trials or even during the race itself, around 60 to 90 minutes before a hard climb or a hard stretch of the race.
Beta-alanine is a supplement that you take daily to load within the muscle. Take around 3-6g a day for at least four weeks before your event or consistently during training.
Creatine will help generate energy for high-intensity exercise and also improve recovery in between repeated sprints. It’s traditionally thought of as something used to build muscle for strength or power sports, but it has been proven to help any time that you want to produce force quickly and repetitively. For example,on a 45-minute climb with repeated attacks, creatine could potentially help improve power output.
You normally load creatine and there’s two ways to do that: 20g per day for five days, or 3g per day for 30 days.
We spoke to Professor James Morton as part of the launch of the new Beta Fuel range, which includes drinks, gels and chew bars with carbs in a 1:0.8 maltodextrin to fructose ratio