by Marcus Leach
Elite sport has evolved a great deal over the past fifteen years, with a greater emphasis on attention to detail seen today. That emphasis extends well beyond the actual sport itself, as the world's best teams look to gain the smallest advantage over their rivals, leaving no stone unturned. One such area that has become far more prominent in this quest for perfection is nutrition.
Gone are the days where a sportsman could get away with eating whatever took their fancy. Now, if you are at the pinnacle of your sport, you can guarantee that there is somebody telling you what to eat and when to eat it. There is a far greater understanding on the impact that food can have on performance today, and as such sports nutrition is a key component for any professional team, from rugby and football through to swimming and cycling.
The Essential Cyclist caught up with Nigel Mitchell, Head of Nutrition at Team Sky and British Cycling, to find out just how important nutrition is for the nation's leading cyclists.
Marcus Leach: What is your background within sports nutrition Nigel?
Nigel Mitchell: Well basically at a young age I decided that I wanted to work in sport and sports nutrition, and having made that decision I went and trained as a registered dietician. I worked full-time as a dietician for the NHS, but at the same time I was working in sport and developing my interest there. My work as a sports science lecturer at Sheffield Hallam University lead on to me consulting on sports nutrition and through that I started working with British Cycling in 2000. I was lucky enough to then work with the England Institute of Sport, and finally when Dave Brailsford was at Team Sky I went to work with him within Team Sky and British cycling.
ML: What is your role at Team Sky?
NM: I'm head of nutrition at Team Sky. So I spend my time trying to ensure that we have the best nutritional environment for the riders so that we can get the best possible results from them.
ML: And just how important is nutrition within the bigger picture?
NM: It's incredibly important. The work and training they do is obviously first and foremost, but without the right nutrition the riders don't get the right changes they are looking for, the right adaptation or the right recovery they need. So nutrition is a really important component to what they need to do as professional riders. The thing with it though is that it is pretty simple to get right, even though a lot of people seem to over-complicate it, and that is when it goes wrong.
ML: How much has the approach to sports nutrition changed over recent years?
NM: If you look at sport in general, not just cycling, you can see that elite professional sport has become more sophisticated, and part of that sophistication is the attention to all of the different areas, with nutrition being one of those areas. Nutrition has become as important a part of the bigger picture as all of the other components. A comparison to this would be how the importance of psychology has developed as well. Twenty years ago that wasn't the case, but both nutrition and psychology are integral to professional sport now. If you look at elite sport we are better at understanding what the athletes need to compete at the highest level and especially the role that their diet plays in that.
ML: How much of the overall nutrition comes from food and how much is down to supplements?
NM: When we say supplements we really need to split that into two categories. We've got what I call sports food, thinks like bars, gels and protein powders, and they are all things we can get from food but often it's much more convenient to get it in a product. So if we start to see a protein shake and an energy bar as food and gels as food we can say nearly all of the nutrition comes from food. To me the actual supplements they use are things like fish oils, multi vitamins. I believe fish oils are one place where everybody benefits from sports nutrition. If we look at the modern diet it doesn’t provide enough omega 3 fats, so I recommend everybody take fish
ML: Obviously you can control what they eat during races, but when they are at home do they have diets to follow?
NM: Yes. It depends on the rider and what they are doing but the idea is that we equip the riders withe the knowledge they need so they know they are eating the right foods at home, and then depending on their goals they will have set nutrition targets to help them achieve that. We also do practical work with some of the riders to help their cooking skills and develop their knowledge. Not so much the Team Sky guys, as these are seasoned athletes, but with some of the British Cycling riders we have a big drive about the practical side of food.
ML: On race days how many calories will the riders get through?
NM: It depends on the actual stage but it will be between five and nine thousand. It can be quite high, but even on the light stages it will still be in the region of four or five thousand calories, which when you think about it is still twice the amount the average person will consume, or should be consuming, in a day.
ML: How difficult is it to strike a balance between keeping the riders lean but also ensuring they have the right amount of muscle for power?
NM: That's one of the really important focuses, on getting that energy balance right. That's something we work on very closely with the riders, understanding the changes in their body composition and then getting the nutrition spot on. We need to make sure they are in the best possible shape for races, so it's about getting the recovery right as well, which is about ensuring they are fuelled properly.
ML: Is it safe to assume that their diets are fairly high carb?
NM: When they are racing it is very high in carbs, especially at the Grand Tours, but in normal training phases the carbs are kept lower as far as over all volume is concerned. We don't want the riders putting on any excess weight and an excess of carbs will not help on that front. But as I said we educate all of the riders and they know what they should and shouldn't be eating.
ML: Do they have specific plans to follow?
NM: When you're working with a squad you tend to have a system that works for the majority of the riders, but then we will have the flexibility and sensitivity to tweak things for people who might not fit the system. At the end of the day you can't please all the people all of the time, so you need to be able to skew the plans so that you have something for everybody.