The Legal Performance Enhancers The Pros Use
The illicit stuff makes headlines, but there are plenty of perfectly legal ergogenic aids in the pro peloton that help riders, including you, make measurable gains. – By Selene Yeager
The physical demands of the Tour de France are astronomically high. Riders who make it to the finish in Paris will cover over 3,540km, riding more than 90 hours, wrangling race day nerves, often suffering crashes, and burning between 4,000 and 6,000 calories a day. Just staying healthy, let alone delivering optimum performances over that three-week span, takes a lot of nutritional support. That’s where Robert Child, PhD, performance biochemist with the Elite Sport Group, who has worked with Tour de France teams including Cervelo Test Team, MTN-Qhubeka, and most recently Katusha, comes in.
He takes a complete history of the riders, gathering intel on how often they’ve been sick; how frequently they’ve suffered from muscle cramps or fatigue; how well they maintain weight and/or necessary muscle mass, and of course how they’re performing. Then he supplements their daily nutrition plan accordingly. “We want to help them produce more watts, of course, but we also want to keep them healthy,” says Child. Here’s what the riders he sees might use to get themselves across the finish line in Paris.
When riders need to quickly gain muscle mass when coming back from injury or when they’re trying to reduce muscle loss during hard training blocks they often reach for creatine. “Creatine turns on myogenic growth factors in the muscle helping reduce muscle loss during periods of inactivity,” says Child. The substance, which occurs naturally in meat and fish in small quantities, also improves the body’s ability to produce energy rapidly, which is why it may be part of a sprinter’s arsenal. Because weight gain is a side effect, it’s not a supplement favored by willowy climbers and others who don’t need the added muscle.
The most popular energising supplement worldwide is also a perennial favorite in the pro peloton. “Taken before the race, caffeine helps mobilise fat, which improves endurance by helping you spare glycogen. That means at the end of a long stage you have higher energy stores to attack,” says Child. “Taken during the race, the acute effect of caffeine improves muscle contractility for short term high intensity efforts, like launching an attack or going over a mountain pass mid-race. On a long, hot stage, it can also can help with alertness so you can stay focused on navigating the course and making decisions within the race.”
Riders take caffeine before and during long stages in various forms. The preferred vehicle at breakfast is good old-fashioned espresso. Pre race riders will also take caffeine shots—150 mg of caffeine dissolved in water—or will use caffeine tablets or gels, which deliver 75mg to 150mg of caffeine at key points during the race.
This precursor to the natural muscle buffer carnosine is popular with a lot of riders, says Child. “High intensity exercise produces a lot of acids, which contaminate metabolism and reduce your ability to produce energy. The more carnosine you have in the muscle, the more you can resist those changes in muscle pH, and the longer you can go before you fatigue. So it’s useful for sprinters and climbers.” It doesn’t work instantaneously, however. You need to take it over time to increase carnosine in the muscle. “The loading period is six to eight weeks,” says Child. “You need to take it at least three weeks out to see a performance benefit.”
As you might imagine, Tour riders pile on the protein to prevent muscle damage and facilitate recovery. Many also take branched chain amino acids (BCAAs) supplements for extra protection. “Your body will can burn through all the BCAAs you’ve taken through food during a long day of racing, leaving your immune system compromised,” says Child. So some riders will add BCAAs to their drinks or take them as supplements on their own to help boost protein synthesis and reduce their risk of infections during hard training and racing. Formulations combining BCAAs and arginine reduce muscle damage, even when taking tiny doses of 2.5g. Pure BCAA products require doses of 7.5 to produce the similar muscle protecting effects.