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The feedzone: Nutritional Challenges of the Tour de France

By Monique Ryan

With 16 days of hard racing behind them, the peloton is headed for the last day in mountains.

From a nutritional perspective, the biggest challenge of a three week stage race like the Tour de France is not only eating to achieve full muscle glycogen recovery off the bike, when riders have large team meals and recovery snacks available to them. But they must also meet the demands of glycogen depletion on the bike, an almost impossible task given the intricacies of race dynamics, stomach and intestinal tolerances, and the gargantuan fuel demands and fluid losses that occur during a stage.

Researchers have actually quantified the nutritional consumption of riders in the Tour de France (1991 Tour), and the Tour of Spain (1998 Tour), and measured that riders average a daily food intake of 4,000 to 8,000 calories. You may have your own experiences of consuming several thousand calories daily during hard training and your own stage racing experience. Consider your own challenges of meal planning, packing food, and negotiating restaurant meals over two to three days. For Tour de France riders, even with the assistance of an organized team, soigneurs, and perhaps a team chef, eating enough food around long stages and maintain this high nutritional intake for three weeks can be challenging. As fatigue sets in over the course of a race appetite can decrease and the race diet they consume off the bike may become routine and unappealing.

Of course race morning starts with a very large breakfast, typically three hours before the start, a digestion period that works well for both for pro and middle of the pack Cat III riders. Food choices should be kept to easily digested and trusted items for any rider. Your own breakfast can consist of cereal, dairy or soy milk, juice, and toast with plenty of carbohydrate rich jam. Before a very long stage, Tour de France riders consume these types of foods but may add in some protein from eggs and egg whites, protein powder, and even add in a large bowl of rice and pasta. Of course most riders start the day with plenty of coffee to lift their brain power and energy levels. Moderate doses of caffeine should be well tolerated and provide a legal performance boost. You can have your own lean protein portions before a long race, but make sure that you experiment with tolerances in training.

A large breakfast not only raises liver glycogen stores and blood glucose levels, it can also top off muscle glycogen stores for the depleted Tour De France riders. It is estimated that the Tour de France requires a carbohydrate intake of 13 g/kg (6 g/lb.) of body weight, and they need to intake these amounts day after day. Your own long training days may demand carbohydrate fuel at a level of 7 to 10 g/kg (3-4.5 g/lb.) daily. By week three some nutritional boredom can even set in and riders will look for a little variety in their pre-race meal.

While three hours allows for good digestion of the right food choices, Tour de France riders can also pay attentions to their energy and especially carbohydrate needs right up to the start. They may consume easily digested energy drinks for hydration purposes as well, and an energy bar in the one to two hours before the start. Your own pre-race meal can be topped off with these items and others such as energy gels for a quick pre-race carbohydrate boost.

Of course long stages in the Tour are challenging from a hydration and fueling perspective and how riders keep up can make a difference in their contribution to the team. Mountain stages can make it more difficult to access food and it can be tricky to eat and drink on the descents. Optimally riders need to consume over 60 grams of carbohydrate per hour. Sports drinks are a great option as they also replace some of the sweat losses of these well-trained athletes. Because of the long stages, riders may also reach for some solid items including items like gels, energy bars, and even bread rolls with jam. Fuel and fluid consumption should start soon after they settle into the stage, to offset fuel depletion early on. Solids tend to work better in the beginning, with gel shots providing a good carbohydrate boost at the end of a long stage. These riders have plenty of practice with consuming both solids and liquids on the bike and riders with a high rate of gastric emptying, as well as lower sweat rates would have an advantage in offsetting fluid losses.

For your own race preparation, focus on your favorite sports drink to replace fluid and fuel. Sweat losses can be high in some cyclists, over 2 liters per hour. At your very best, your drinking efforts may only be minimizing the level of dehydration that can develop during a race. Aim for 1 gram of carbohydrate intake per kilogram of body weight per hour from your sports drink. Drinks with multiple sources of carbohydrate allow for a slightly higher amount of carbohydrate to absorbed through the small intestine. Liquids also tend to be the most appealing on hot racing days. You can add in gels as needed for longer stages.

After a long stage the Tour de France riders quickly down a recovery drink of mainly carbohydrate and some protein. Ideally 1.2 g of carbohydrate per kg of body weight should be consumed immediately after hard efforts. Ten to 15 grams of protein can be added to the mix to help with muscle repair. Sodium containing drinks also speed the rehydration process. Riders may snack steadily until dinnertime on sweets, fruits, and even soft drinks, with a focus on constant refueling. Muscle glycogen resynthesis is speediest immediately after exercise, but is still relatively elevated for 4 to 6 hours afterwards.

Dinner should finally arrive by 8 pm, and the riders are likely to be hungry again. Here they will consume protein such as chicken and fish, plates of pasta or rice, vegetables, salad, and bread. Riders with higher energy needs may snack in the room at night.

Your own recovery nutrition should also continue after meeting your immediate post-training or racing intake. You should aim for 1.2 g carbohydrate/kg body every two hours, combined with moderate doses of protein. Check labels to make sure that your recovery snacks and meals contain sodium to enhance rehydration.