Science and Cycling: To supplement or not to supplement?

“I’m not sure there’s an official definition, but roughly, the word ‘supplement’ covers anything you eat that would raise eyebrows if you served it at a dinner party, and which is taken with the intention of making you ride a bike faster but which isn’t a banned drug”

That is a quote from former cyclist Michael Hutchinson’s book, “Faster”, in which I believe he describes supplements perfectly. I am currently lucky enough to be working as a researcher into the effects of nutritional supplements on exercise at the University of São Paulo in Brazil. I intend to write about my areas of interest and research and their effects on cycling in several future posts. However, I believe it is important to cover some of the very basics prior to this because it is important to remember that no matter how efficient certain supplements are, they won’t make you an elite athlete on their own. Indeed, they are generally just the tip of the iceberg, a minute gain that comes after several other far greater and important steps on the road to becoming a better athlete. Obviously, not everyone out there is trying to win the Tour de France and are merely looking for some minor gains but I believe the general direction is the same for everyone.

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Supplements are generally the tip of the pyramid. Adapted from Craig Sale.

It is a common occurrence to hear people ask what supplements they should use because they are about to engage in a training regime, be it strength training or aerobic training. However, this attitude and direction is all wrong. The first question should not be regarding alternative and additional methods but rather whether their current diet provides sufficient sustenance (energy intake; carbohydrates; protein; fat etc.) for the specific training they will undertake. Only if their diets are lacking in one or several important nutrients should they then look to adapt their diet to make up for any substantial deficiency. Then, and only then, should you search out alternative methods to obtain further gains, likely in the form of nutritional supplements. It is important to handle these first steps though; remember, there is a physiological upper limit to everything, meaning that an excess of something may not result in any extra gains and will just be excreted by the body. Therefore, you could end up wasting a lot of money on products that are surplus to your requirements; you could literally be pissing your money away! Furthermore, an excess of something could actually be causing more harm than good. For example, if you are planning a long cycle, it is generally accepted that you need to ingest significant amounts of carbohydrate to aid performance but ingestion of excess carbohydrates during exercise can actually impact negatively due to increased gastrointestinal discomfort (Jeukendrup, 2007).

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Supplementing yourself into a cyclist isn't so straightforward.

I think one of the key things to remember about supplements is in the name. These are nutritional compounds to supplement the diet, not replace the fundamentals. We all have our opinions and believe that all cyclists take every supplement (illegal or not) under the sun but this isn't the start of their regime, these are the finishing touches that can provide the minute differences between winning a stage at the Tour de France and finishing. Nonetheless, I do think supplements can make a difference whether you are an elite athlete or recreational cyclist and will be discussing some of my research on the matter in the coming weeks. In the meantime, before you head straight to the supplement store to stock up on pots full of powder and pills or packs of bars and gels and expect them to turn you into Bradley Wiggins, just get on the bicycle and see how you fare and maybe you’ll find that for the moment your money is best spent on multi-coloured cycling tops and stylish cycling caps instead.