The UCI World Tour has returned from lockdown and Team Sunweb's riders have been in great form, with Michael Matthews finishing on the podium at Milan-San Remo.
As an Official Partner of Team Sunweb, PH were keen to find out how the riders have adapted their nutrition and hydration practices during the pandemic, so we caught up with their Nutrition Expert Lisa Nijbroek...
Hey Lisa, it's been a testing time for everyone but how hard was it for the riders to stay focused on good day-to-day nutrition practices without the motivation of racing during the height of the pandemic?
In principle, it wasn't very difficult for them to stay focused on the right nutrition intake as they were still training during that period, although it became more of a maintenance period for them.
In the beginning, it was a bit like starting up after off-season - easy training and riders followed their regular nutrition advice, albeit with a bit more flexibility compared to during race season as it wasn't clear when we'd be able to race again.
When it became clear that we wouldn't race for quite a while, we had talks with all the riders to guide them on how to deal with such a period nutrition-wise. That meant a bit more flexibility to start with so we could make sure that they could be focused again later in the season.
We had the same frequent contact with riders during the lockdown as we would normally have during the season. So we didn’t change anything there. It was a challenging period so, in order to make sure that we knew how all of the riders were doing and coping with the situation, we kept the contact as frequent as usual.
This period was also perfect for (online) data collection for different nutrition topics, including hydration.
What have been the biggest challenges that the pandemic has created for you as the team’s Nutrition Expert?
The biggest challenge was switching my focus from helping the riders prepare for their peak races in the season in March/April time to that peak period being postponed for quite a while.
Our Performance Team always makes performance and Personal Development Plans for each rider. Once those foundations are put in place, we include their nutrition goals based on the performance and PDP plans.
When the pandemic started, our Performance Team had to make new performance plans because the whole race season changed and we had to make new nutrition goals based on new race plans. It was quite challenging to make those new plans for all of our riders in a relatively short space of time.
In practice, this meant that some riders had to gain weight because they were training towards a peak moment (or were in their peak moment) when the pandemic hit. But because races were cancelled, it wouldn't have been optimal or necessary for them to maintain a body composition which would normally be ideal for that point of the season.
For the riders, it was strange for them to actively gain weight in March/April when they're normally in full racing mode, and not knowing precisely when they would have their first races again.
Some riders preferred to stay sharp and on top of their nutrition for 100% of the time in case they could race sooner.
During that period, we guided them to make sure they stayed on top of their basic habits, but also remembered to treat themselves every now and then with something which wouldn't normally fit their nutrition plans before a race.
Now races have started up again, what work have you done to help the riders stay on top of hydration and fuelling when racing in the heat?
We started with measuring each rider's sodium losses in their sweat through Precision Hydration's Advanced Sweat Test last year.
It was so interesting to see that the difference in sodium loss per litre of sweat between riders is so big! This is something that we expected, but it's interesting to see it being confirmed.
Since then, we've developed a matrix for data collection, so that ultimately we would know how much a rider should ideally drink and how much sodium to take based on their expected intensity and the weather forecast.
I have to say that this period without racing was perfect for data collection and practise of the hydration/nutrition plans made for the upcoming races. We've made huge steps there and credit to PH's Andy and Abby for helping us with that.
Since hydration and nutrition is so dependent on the individual, we're able to give individualised advice.
However, I think it's still very common in cycling (and in other sports from what I've seen) to give approximately the same in-competition advice to every athlete of the team.
During the two epic races that we've recently had (Strade Bianche and Milan San Remo), the amount of fluid that each rider drank varied between 750ml to 1125ml per hour.
Normally, when the classic races take place in March/April, the intake is usually between 375ml to 625ml per hour.
This meant that some riders drank almost double the amount that they would when these races take place in the cooler months earlier in the year. You can imagine that some good practise was needed beforehand to minimise the risk of stomach complaints!
In general, our riders did eat the same as they would normally do when the Classics take place in March/April, as we're always aiming for the most optimal intake (90g carbs / hour, combination of glucose and fructose).
However, there were individual differences when they would take a bar, and when they would take a gel.
And what, if anything, are you doing differently from a nutrition/hydration perspective to promote recovery given the compressed race calendar?
It's a way more compressed race calendar, but that also means that riders can't all be at races A, B and C.
So, our Performance Team took a really good look at which rider should perform in which races, to make sure their individual race program is not too full.
We make sure that during races we apply the same nutrition and hydration strategies for recovery as we normally would. We do stay in close contact with riders about their intake at home and how to prepare/recover optimally from those races.
So we're not doing anything overly different because of the compressed race calendar as our Performance Team took a good look at the race programs of riders to make sure it's tailored to each of them as individuals.