Cramp doesn’t affect everyone but when it gets you, it can be crippling! Understanding the complex and unfortunate phenomenon can be helpful in avoiding the painful experience during your race day. Getting your nutrition right on race day is another crucial piece of the performance and enjoyment puzzle not to be overlooked. There are a couple long distance events such as the Cape Town Cycle Tour and ABSA Cape Epic coming up in the next few weeks, and soon after that the popular KAP sani2c, so the time seemed appropriate to call on an expert to talk about nutrition and avoiding cramp on those long days in the saddle!
We reached out to A/Prof Mike Posthumus to give us expert insight into a good race day nutrition strategy and how to avoid race crippling cramp. Prof Mike is a director at Science to Sport and has also been recently appointed as head of Performance for the Specialized Factory Racing team. He is also a research scientist within the University of Cape Town’s department of Exercise Science and Sports Medicine and a Scientific Consultant to the Sports Science Institute of South Africa.
With these endurance events on the horizon, there will be a fair number of riders who are coming in undercooked. They may not quite be in the form necessary to handle the long hours and conditions they will be getting themselves into.
Lots of us are ambitious with our goals but the busyness of life can quickly limit our ability to prepare ourselves well. As a result, concerns of improper nutrition and cramp may be causing a bit of pre-event anxiety! Once it comes to race day they’re isn’t much you can do other than fuel effectively and manage your effort well to get through the task at hand and so with that, let’s have a word with the wise master of cycling performance.
WILD AIR: Thanks for lending us some of your time and expertise Prof. Mike!
With the likes of CTCT and the Cape Epic taking place over the next couple of weeks, what are the key points of nutrition that participants will want to focus on in days leading up to the event?
Prof. Mike: When preparing for a cycle event such as the CTCT, or the Cape Epic, and our goal is optimal performance, it is important that we start the race with full glycogen stores. Let me explain. When we race, our primary fuel source is carbohydrates. But unfortunately we will burn more carbohydrates than we could possibly ingest (and absorb). Therefore it is very important to start with a full fuel tank. When we eat carbohydrates, they are stored in our muscles as carbohydrates. To ensure that you start the race with sufficient carbohydrate stores, aim to ingest a high carbohydrate diet in the few days preceding the start of the race. A high carbohydrate diet, with reduced training load as you taper, will ensure that your fuel tanks are full and ready to race.
WA: When expecting to be out and working hard for 4 hours + , how does the on-the-day nutrition strategy change? Is there something to be said for keeping it simple or is the ideal solution likely to be more complex?
Prof. Mike: Keep it simple. When we talk about fuelling for optimal performance, carbohydrate ingestion is again the most important. As we don’t want complex sources. Why do you want to slow down the delivery of energy. We want simple sugars during exercise. As mentioned above, most of us will burn more carbohydrate than we can ingest (and absorb). For this reason the recommended between 60g and 90g of carbohydrate per hour. Only going >60g of carbohydrate per hour when you use a quality sports nutrition formulation (you want to find a product that has some fructose added). Also very importantly, always ensure that you have tried the specific nutrition, at the amount planned, in training.
WA: Alright so ensuring our carbohydrate stories are well nourished is key in the build up to race day. How does one’s race day nutrition vary between a single day and a multi-day event, if at all?
Prof. Mike: Recommendations are very similar. Only small change I would suggest is the addition of small amounts of protein to your race nutrition during multi-day events. This has been shown to benefit your recovery after that stage and will increase your performance on the subsequent days. Some nutrition products have specific formulation for this purpose. Look for a carbohydrate drink that also contains 8g of protein per bottle.
WA: Good to know! Let’s talk muscle cramps. They can be debilitating for some riders while others never seem to experience the phenomenon. It is known to be a complex issue but to the best of our knowledge, what is going on inside your muscles when cramp sets in? How does it affect the body?
Prof. Mike: Contrary to popular belief, 99.9% of cramps we would see during exercise it is not due to a lack of electrolytes or dehydration. I’m sorry to say, but the cramps we see during cycling races are due to your muscles being pushed past what they are accustomed to doing. When our neuromuscular system fails, we cramp. Cramps may also be the result of your body protecting itself. If you get too hot, or have damaged your muscle, cramps may set it to try and prevent you from doing more damage.
WA: Very interesting! So it is overreaching performances that triggers the cramp. Are there known correlations with type of training, nutrition, or hydration for example?
Prof. Mike: As covered above, we know that in the vast majority of cases (99.9%) it is not a lack of electrolyte or dehydration. The most common correlation is with a lack of training, or not sufficient specificity of training (mimicking the duration, demands and intensity of the race).
WA: So when it comes to what can be done to mitigate the risk of cramping, it’s really all about your preparation and not overdoing the effort on the day.
Prof. Mike: Yes, the best advice would be to pace your race better. Start a little slower, and try to avoid sprinting our of corners where it may not be necessary. In other words, save your matches.
WA: In the case that we do push too hard when we’re out there racing and start to feel the cramp setting in, is there anything that can be done in the moment to prevent if from ruining our ride?
Prof. Mike: Best thing you can do is to try and stretch the muscle. However, trying to stretch the muscle can often cause the antagonist muscle to cramp. In which case you will have to pedal through the cramp. When trying to ride through the cramps, you could try and ride a harder gear. Gearing down, and putting more force (or torque) through your pedals, you are able to stretch the muscle and this can also help to alleviate the cramp.
WA: That sounds pretty uncomfortable.. We’ll try and keep the effort within our normal range thanks and dodge the cramp thanks! Back on the topic of nutrition, we’d imagine that getting your fuelling spot on over the course of a high intensity multi-day event such as the Cape Epic is no easy feat. You yourself have a few Epics under the belt, what would you say is one of the more common nutrition errors people make at a multi-stage race such as the Epic?
Prof. Mike: The number one mistake athletes make is arriving at the event not having trained their guts. Yes, you read that correctly! Your small intestine needs training, just as your leg muscles need training, If you want to be absorbing 90g of carbs per hour, you better be training your gut to be able to do that for several hours a day, 8 days in a row. If not, you may be one of the victims of some gastric distress.
WA: Prof. Mike, it has been enlightening to get some insight from you and we’re sure the readers will benefit from hearing some of your knowledge on the subjects! Will we be seeing you on the start line of either of these events in the coming weeks?
Prof. Mike: Unfortunately not this year. I have decided to take a break from the Cape Epic this year. I will however be supporting Specialized Factory racing as we defend the male and female titles in this year’s Cape Epic.
WA: If riders are looking to benefit more from your expertise in training and improving performance on the bike, where can they go?
Prof. Mike: Please visit our website www.sciencetosport.com
Thanks once again for your time and expertise Prof. Mike. Hopefully the less prepared riders will know to take it easy to avoid catastrophe after hearing some of your wisdom!
To all taking part in the upcoming races, get out there and have a blast! Get your carbs in beforehand, don’t overeat though, and enjoy the time on your bike.