‘Marginal gains’ is no longer a new idea, in fact it has become so overused these days most riders tune out when it is discussed, some even claim it’s a cover story for nefarious methods of enhancing performance. Team SKY made the concept famous, an explanation for its Grand Tour dominance, so when Science in Sport invited us to meet Dr. James Morton, Team SKY’s head of nutrition, we expected lots of marginal gains discussion.
peloton/ Images Jordan Haggard
What we learned was the team’s focus on nutrition and how it interfaces with different training loads and racing goals goes well beyond any marginal gains. The opportunities for performance gains are huge, and huge gains any rider can take advantage of. Team SKY rider, Ian Boswell a nutrition junkie in his own right, was on hand as well, with stories from the road to reinforce what Dr. James Morton was presenting.
Dr. James Morton has been onboard Team SKY for two years and done enormous research in exercise metabolism and sports nutrition at Liverpool John Moores University, conducting over 1000 muscle biopsies in the process. He came to cycling after working with boxers, MMA fighters and footballers and without the tribal knowledge that can be so hard to overcome in cycling. The methods Dr. Morton uses with athletes are derived directly from his research. It’s important to mention that Science in Sport funded much of that research and has based some of its products on its findings. Science in Sport is also Team SKY’s nutrition sponsor, coming on board with Dr. Morton at his request.
It’s also important to note that you won’t come away from this article with a detailed nutrition plan you can implement. While the broad strokes can be explained quite easily, the details are rider and event specific. It takes a team of specialists to help Team SKY’s riders execute Dr. Morton’s very simple philosophy – fuel for the work required.
Dr. Morton plays macronutrients – carbs, fats, proteins – like the keys on a piano to promote efficient training adaptation, optimal body composition and peak race day performance. It all starts with understanding what fuels an athlete when. Athletes use two main fuels – fat and carbohydrates. We typically focus on carbohydrates as fuel, with carbo-loading parties, gels and sports drinks, but the reality is carbohydrates should be the focus only during high-intensity training and racing. Burning fat or protein can provide almost all the energy necessary for low to moderate intensity, you just have to train your body to utilize it. Low carb rides are traditionally seen as a weight reduction strategy, but riding on protein or fat has many more benefits. A two hour ride on protein can result in the same muscle adaptation as a four hour ride on carbohydrates, but protein alone won’t give you enough energy to tap into it. Too many carbs and you won’t turn on the muscle adaptation, too few and you won’t have the energy to train at all.
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This is where it gets more complex. What is low to moderate intensity and what is high intensity? For Chris Froome averaging 250 watts is like taking a stroll, so on most flat days at the Tour he burns protein all day. For most riders, that would be the most intense ride of their lives and they would be burning carbohydrates. For Froome, carbohydrates are critical on big mountain days and time trials, days when he will try to win the Tour. His daily intake is 6-10grams of carbohydrates per kilogram of body weight on intense days. Even on those carbohydrate days Froome is keeping up his protein intake – 3 grams per kilogram of body weight – to ensure he protects his lean muscle mass. In fact, all of Team SKY starts the first hour of each race with a bottle full of protein – SiS Rego – normally thought of as a recovery drink, and keeps the protein intake up – 20-40 grams – every three hours.
The adaptation to these different fuel types takes continuous work from the riders, but really ramps up at training camp. Dr. Morton creates a nutrition plan that works in concert with the camp’s training goals. Every meal, snack and recovery shake takes into account the goals of the day’s training, building carb intake when it will be intense, prioritizing protein when the intensity is lower. When food is looked at as different kinds of fuels, and the amounts of each fuel necessary for the loads of any specific day is so well understood, the superiority of Team SKY over a three week race seems almost obvious.
How exacting does it get? Knowing the liver can only store carbohydrates taken from fructose – 100 grams of glycogen – Team SKY recovery always includes fresh fruit. During races every rider is weighed twice a day, the team eats their first post race meal on the team bus while transferring to the hotel with nutritionists tweaking and adjusting it all in real time, and in what seems antithetical to tribal race knowledge some riders are asked to gain weight.
It was Ian Boswell who let us in on that fact. During a rest day of the 2015 Vuelta he was asked to gain a kilo and a half as Dr. Morton felt his glycogen stores were too low and the days ahead would be tough. Tour lore is full of stories of riders so paranoid about weight they fast on rest days and as a consequence full of stories of riders suffering bad days after a rest day. Coincidence? Boswell happened to have his best day ever after being told to gain weight, 3rd place on Stage 11 through Andorra the day after that rest day. Boswell claims the nutrition information he has learned while in Team SKY is the single most important thing he has learned in his career, calling education the new doping.
This of course only touches on the very basics of what Team SKY is doing, to fully understand it takes a PhD and lots of charts. There are pre-race meals to consider, post-race recovery, the glycemic index of what is eaten, how much glycogen can be stored, lactate levels, the specific proteins to be adapted and so much more. Science in Sport is making the most of the knowledge and it can be seen readily in its latest product, Whey 20, a low carb gel with 20 grams of protein designed to be taken on the bike to ensure muscle mass is protected and the adaptation only protein can create is readily available. There is nothing marginal about these gains and until the rest of the peloton leaves its tribal knowledge behind and gets scientific about fuel it’s hard to see anything stopping Team SKY and Chris Froome from wracking up another two or three Tours de France.