Weird Science

By: Molly Hurford Aug 16

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There’s so much about cycling, above and beyond the basics of pedal, pedal, pedal more, that’s just intriguing to me. There’s the science that goes into making bikes, the way our different muscles and nerves function, the way simple things like nutrient timing can impact a race so intensely, and the more philosophical ramifications of cycling, especially as a woman in a male-dominated sport. Since cycling is my passion, hobby and job, I don’t just ride bikes: I live the bike life.

This column will be all about the different aspects of cycling that intrigue me, whether it’s the mechanics of how the heck these newfangled electric derailleurs work, navigating women-specific cycling equipment that isn’t solely women-specific because it has butterfly decals, and things like new sports medicine studies and their implications for cyclists.

As cyclists, we’ve learned the importance of cramming calories in, shoveling packets of highly refined sugars and chemicals down our throats during rides, slamming bottle after bottle of drinks sweetened with fructose and glucose and who know what other –oses, and of course, the ever important carbo-loading the nights before big races. And then, there’s the beer tent.

But as men and women who spend countless hours training on and off the bike, preparing carefully constructed training plans and agonizing over choices in gear measured in grams, I’ve noticed a surprising tendency toward a lax attitude when it comes to nutrition, especially off the bike. If we are so willing to drop dollars on lighter gear, shouldn’t we be equally invested in dropping unnecessary poundage, or in the case of most racers, who don’t have much weight to drop, isn’t it time we invested equal amounts of money into the foods that are fueling our bodies? I know plenty of cyclists who own PowerTaps but refuse to spend money on whole grains, reasoning that white bread is cheaper.

With so much new information coming in, generally in the form of unintelligible studies, it’s surprising that serious cyclists don’t have nutrition down to a science. Of course, there are plenty of reasons for this oversight: considering the lack of time to cook and shop for fresh, whole ingredients, when training and work take up 90% of the day, not to mention the hefty amount of traveling that most serious racers do during the season, it’s no wonder nutrition gets hefted to the back burner.

When I was a triathlete – suppress your collective shudders and gasps – I read countless articles on how nutrition was the secret “fourth discipline.” Since cycling is a singular sport, shouldn’t that mean nutrition gets bumped up to number two?

This column will attempt to shift a focus on nutrition back to the front burner where it belongs. I will look at new studies being done on nutrition – sports nutrition in particular – and investigate basic nutrition principles, fad diets, and generally look at what information is available and important for cyclists. As I talk the talk, I’ll also be attempting to walk the walk, and will endeavor to report back what the gains or losses associated with my findings are, on a personal level as a racer.

For this first column, I wanted to look more closely at an article that I stumbled across in a medical journal a while ago. This article was later written up in Wired and sent to me by a non-cycling friend, who commented that the concept presented was ridiculous but unsurprising because, having known me for years, he already knew athletes were a little nuts. It’s a strange concept, but certainly an intriguing, if not kind of disgusting one: does a cyclist really need to drink a sports drink while racing, or just rinse and spit it out? While that may not be a thing to do on a group ride in the middle of the echelon, it might improve your time trialing. How could this be? Researchers speculate that for efforts under one hour in duration, nutrition is more neurological stimulation than physical stimulation.

The first opinion article I stumbled upon, presented in the Current Opinion in Clinical Nutrition & Metabolic Care in July and titled “Oral carbohydrate sensing and exercise performance,” is particularly interesting for crit and cyclocross racers – in short, racers who typically race for under one hour. The reason for this, as the study done at the University of Birmingham shows, is that while ingesting carbohydrates during efforts of more than an hour is obviously beneficial to the athlete, in efforts lasting less than an hour, ingesting carbohydrates ceases to be a physical benefit in the way we think it would be, and rather, effects the central nervous system.

The study concludes, “In summary, we have shown that both sweet and non-sweet carbohydrate in the human mouth activate a variety of brain areas, some of which may be involved in reward and the regulation of motor activity.”

The article was referring to a recent study that looked at cyclists doing an hour-long time trial. The study, first published in the Scandinavian Journal of Medicine & Science in Sports back in 2008, had recently been resurrected to act as the basis for the aforementioned article. Entitled “Mouth rinse but not ingestion of a carbohydrate solution improves 1-h cycle time trial performance,” the study showed that when cyclists merely rinsed their mouths out with carbohydrate solution as opposed to a placebo, the power output and lactate concentration were “significantly higher,” despite the fact that the perceived exertion ratings were the same between the carbohydrate and placebo groups. In fact, in the time trial in which the cyclists had to accomplish a set amount of work (975+/-85 kJ), the carbohydrate group finished an average of 2.5 minutes faster than the placebo group. Perhaps more interesting is the fact that when subjects did the same test but ingested the placebo and the carbohydrate solution, the results were comparable between the two groups, suggesting that there is a performance benefit to rinsing rather than ingesting when the effort is shorter.

Also interesting was the fact that the placebo, which relied on artificial sweeteners, didn’t fool the brain and unless real carbohydrates were present, the effects were not seen.

The aim of the study was to demonstrate that even a rinse with real carbohydrates – none of that artificial sweetener nonsense – would ultimately prove as effective as if the cyclists had actually ingested the beverage. Because of this, the researchers have extrapolated from this data that when carbohydrates are detected through an athlete’s taste buds, there is a connection activated in the brain, which causes similar improvements to actually drinking the carbohydrate. Research is still in early stages, and it is unclear exactly how the mouth rinsing with carbohydrates actually affects the brain’s receptors.

So what could this study mean for cyclists doing races consisting of sub-one-hour efforts? Unfortunately, unless you’re talking about a time trial, it doesn’t seem like these findings could have much of an effect, since even the most hardened racer would consider spitting out Gatorade in the peloton to be in poor taste. However, racers in time trials could potentially benefit, and all racers can certainly take heart in the fact that a good portion of the benefits derived from taking in nutrition during a sub-hour race are mental, rather than physical. Of course, that doesn’t mean you should go out on a training ride in this summer heat with only a couple of ounces of Gatorade to get you through it. Common sense, as always, should prevail.



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