Tour de France Nutrition and Supplementation
The Tour is here! From casual sports fans to avid cycling enthusiasts, the world tunes into France every July. Around this time each year, I receive lots of questions from patients and friends about the race and just how riders complete such a grueling three weeks. Everyone wants to know how these guys ensure they can complete - and compete - at the world’s most famous cycling event.
For this article, I’ll focus on nutrition and supplementation. Of course, there is so much more that impacts their ability to perform at the highest level for nearly a month, but this is generally a topic that draws much attention.
Maybe it goes without saying, but the riders at the Tour will eat their way across France! High quality, nutrient dense, REAL food is the cornerstone of the nutritional regimen. In years past, this diet often consisted of overcooked pasta and rubbery chicken breasts each night, but today most teams travel with their own private chefs. The riders are treated to amazingly fresh, often locally-sourced meals for breakfast and dinner each day. They must consume between 5000 and 8000 calories daily, so the food needs to be appetizing. It also needs to be nutritious and sanitary! Food-borne illness can quickly sideline a rider from the race.
While on the bike, riders make use of both prepared foods (such as rice cakes or small panini sandwiches), as well as more sport-specific foods (like Skratch Labs Anytime bars).
As soon as the riders finish a stage, they are handed a recovery drink. Nutritional recovery begins within seconds of the final sprint! Carbohydrates are ingested to begin replenishing the spent muscle glycogen, and protein is used to halt any breakdown of muscle. Skratch Labs Sport Recovery is a perfect example of what is used at the Tour, handed to riders by soigneurs as they cross the finish line.
Once they are back on the team bus, it is back to eating real food. This often consists of a simple carbohydrate source (like rice), a protein (eggs or chicken), and often some salt intake from either added table salt, soy sauce, or similar.
As you can see, the primary focus is real foods; however, products formulated specifically for sport can also play a very important role. My preference is to look for products that use as many natural ingredients as possible.
Given the stress of an event like the Tour, there is certainly a role for nutritional supplements as well. Specific products vary, but these are some common examples.
Multivitamin - Riders’ bodies are subject to extreme stresses during a three-week stage race. In the same way that it can be difficult to ingest all of the calories needed to replenish each day, it can be hard to replace all of the necessary micronutrients. A high- quality, third-party-tested multivitamin (like Thorne’s Multi-Vitamin Elite) is a mainstay for many riders.
Probiotics - An athlete’s gut takes a beating during a Grand Tour. The stress of the race along with the task of digesting all those calories can wreak havoc on gut function. A daily probiotic will improve this, as well as immune function. (Sound Probiotics)
Immune support - An event like the Tour can lead to significant immune suppression, making a rider more prone to contract viral upper respiratory infections or similar. After select stages, riders will often take N-Acetyl Cysteine (like Thorne’s NAC) and/or zinc lozenges. There’s nothing magic about these supplements, but there is some evidence to suggest that they may help fight off such illnesses. Along with the daily multivitamin and probiotic, this provides a reasonable means of supporting immune function during a race.
Iron - During intense training and racing blocks, endurance athletes will often see a drop in their iron stores (ferritin). This can lead to decreased performance if it is too pronounced. Because of this, many riders will take iron supplements (like Thorne’s Iron Bisglycinate) to ensure they maintain those store. One caveat here! Some people have naturally high ferritin levels and should not take iron supplements. I always recommend a blood test first to determine if an athlete might benefit from taking iron.
Fish Oil - Omega fats are potent anti-inflammatories and are used by the body for repair and recovery. A high-quality source of these fats is something that most riders will take daily. Thorne’s Super EPA is a good example of such a supplement.
Nutrition and supplementation for a successful Tour de France is important, but it is not overly complex. There is no magic formula or secret supplements. Adequate caloric intake, appropriate recovery strategies, and a reasonable supplementation protocol will tick all the boxes.
In addition to these basic supplements, there are a handful of other products you’ll definitely find on the Tour, used in a more situationally dependent manner. Here are a few:
AMP Human Performance Lotion - This topical sodium bicarbonate lotion buffers acid when applied to the legs. Sodium bicarb supplementation is well-studied, with many decades of evidence. I admit, I was very skeptical when first introduced to this product; however, independent research backs its effectiveness, and many riders find it helpful with big efforts (punchy climbs and TTs) as well as recovery.
Hot Shot - Developed by a Nobel Prize-winning neuroscientist, Hot Shot is purported to prevent and abort muscle cramps. Now, to be fair, cramps occur for many reasons. This will not fix all of them! But I have seen numerous athletes report that their cramp immediately abated upon ingestion of Hot Shot. You’ll certainly find it in the Tour peloton. If you struggle with cramps, it would be well worth trying.
DZ Nutz Chamois Cream - While not a supplement (unless you decide to eat it), it can still be a product that saves a rider’s Tour de France!
The Tour de France is an event which pushes an athlete’s body to extremes. Coping with this stress requires attention to nutrition and even the occasional supplement. Strategies throughout the peloton are pretty similar, mostly because athletes want evidence-based, tried and true methodologies to get them through such a massive event. This is no time to be trying the latest fad!