NTT DATA Business Solutions
NTT DATA Business Solutions | November 29, 2022

What does it take to become a professional cyclist

Joss on bike

What does it take to become a professional cyclist – A deeper insight into training, habit forming, process setting and some ‘expose’ on life behind the scenes

The racing season has drawn to an end and it’s time to reflect on the successes and the disappointments from the year. In this blog I am going to take you through the demands of living life as a professional athlete; the nutritional requirements, the highs, the lows, how to stay motivated, how to form productive habits and the impact of setbacks.  I will also reveal how to cope mentally and then how I think it impacts the friends and family around us. I hope it’s an interesting read!

This year the big race targets and the goals for the team were for me to perform well at the Giro Donna D’Italia and the Tour de France Femmes. All the processes and good practices were geared towards this. At the beginning of the season, I sat down with the nutritionist, head coach, director sportif, mental trainer and team doctor to work out the strategy to get me in the right place physically to race against the best in the world. We were going after a podium at the Giro and to win a stage at the Tour de France. This really, is the same as managing a project; we have many components to focus on; nutrition, training, rest, weight, psychology, skill, amongst others. We need to bring all these elements together to peak at the right time of the season.

With a plan in place for the year, we focused on getting the small elements right and knowing that plans change at any given moment, we adapt as we go. So we set off with each stream driven to optimise performance. One of the areas that is a big focus for the whole team is nutrition and how we fuel to race, to train and recover.

Our diet when we race would probably shock a lot of you. Gone are vegetables, salad, fruits – all the things you think we would eat for performance. Instead, we consume vast quantities of rice, pasta, white bread, jam, Haribo, rice krispies and brioche. You get the idea – high-energy carbohydrate with minimum fibre.  Fibre sits in the gut and takes longer to digest and can prevent the absorption of energy. They do not want us filling up on vegetables and limiting the amount of carbohydrate we can consume in between race days. Fibre is also heavy so we are reducing the mass that is sitting in our gut too. It is not really that much fun. I finish a race and I am absolutely dying for a salad! We get a nutrition plan for a stage race, with each day broken up into what they expect the energy demand will be for that day. From race day -1 (i.e the day before we start racing) to the last stage, we have an overall carbohydrate target for the day which is broken down into breakfast, snack, lunch, consumption during the race, post-race and dinner.

Before starting a race, I take a photo of all the energy gels and bars I am putting in my pockets for the day so I can work out the amount of carbohydrate I have consumed during the race. I then report to the nutritionist post-race. If the race was harder than expected or I did not manage to eat/drink as much as planned, then the amount of carbs I have to eat that evening increases. Likewise, if I had a chilled day then I might have to reduce the amount a bit at dinner.

This gives you a great insight to our nutrition when racing, but of course when we are home training, we are a lot more focused on the micro-nutrients we need to feed our bodies to perform. We are very focused on ensuring we have plenty of calcium, vitamins and essential minerals wrapped up in the right quantities of protein, carbs and fat. It’s a balancing act and if we get it wrong, we certainly know about it.

The team and I decided that I had a target weight for the summer season that would put me in the best shape to race to win. This meant hitting the summer at ‘race weight’ and therefore dropping a couple of kgs through April and May. This has to be done incredibly carefully as obviously to lose weight you have to be in a calorie deficit but being in a deficit is not good for training as we need lots of carbs to burn when working at a high intensity. We also need energy to recover, so the timing of energy input becomes crucial. I had to ensure I was well fuelled to train, so big, carb heavy breakfasts and a lot of carbs on the bike are required but then much less after training. It proved to be effective and I went into June in good shape and won the National Time Trial champs showing that I had managed to maintain power whilst hitting race weight for the summer. But then, disaster, I got COVID-19 and that was the Giro written off for me. I literally crumbed when I saw the result and knew the race was out the window. What I didn’t appreciate was just how long it was going to take me to recover from it and whilst I raced the Tour de France Femmes, I was barely fit and all the work that had gone into the year to optimise performance, was essentially written off by the infection.

Focus then turns to how to maximise recovery and return to form so now we focused on weight gain, training in a surplus to try and fuel the body to help with recovery as much as possible. We adapt, we adjust, we learn and we move on. It’s a tough sport and if we focus too much on the goals, then we forget that you can nail the processes, but something totally out of your control can make it seem like it was all a failure. Goals are important and ultimately we want to win, but the processes and getting this right are the foundation for any path to success.

Playing around with nutrition, training hours, travel here, there and everywhere obviously has an effect on the social side of life – i.e. impacting on friends and family outside of race days. We are not that easy to live with during the high intensity training blocks and preparation for major races. My family are all athletic and have always been into sport and competition, so everyone is very used to the nuances of this controlled living and ‘performance’ driven lifestyle. But still, I am always aware that when I stay with my family that my routine, mealtimes, things I want to eat or don’t eat, has a trickle-down effect and they all make space. Going out for dinner is of course a nice thing to do but I will not feel great the next day – a change in routine and straying from ‘normal’ food affects sleep and energy levels the next day more than you could ever imagine. I look forward to the off-season not to have a break from riding my bike but to have a break from being a pain to those around me!

With these controls and lifestyle devoid of spontaneity – how do we stay motivated?

I guess the thing is that this level of commitment or lifestyle doesn’t happen overnight, it’s something that builds year after year and becomes more and more the norm, so actually a lot of the things we do happen gradually, so it doesn’t feel so significant.

To adopt new habits, like if we are required to measure and record our oxygen saturation daily, then this needs to become a routine habit and to do that you need to have the repeated signals that remind you to do it every day. This means attaching it to another habit you already do is the best way to ensure that one is complete. And so the day becomes a routine, a series of habits stacked together. I don’t have to think about whether I can or cannot be bothered to go to the gym or do my strengthen and conditioning training – it’s just what happens at the time of day after I’ve had my afternoon snack which is basically the same time every day after I’ve had my rest period (and done my Spanish homework, which I do every day) after I’ve had lunch, which is after I’ve done my training etc.

Do I miss working in the office? Yes, 100%. I of course love my life as a professional cyclist and the mixed schedule, the days racing in other countries, seeing different places, and I love the feeling that this is my job and not just a hobby now. But I really miss using my brain in the way I used to when sat down in front of excel or writing some code. When the weather is bad or I’m tired, or I’ve done back-to-back days of long rides on my own, the idea of being in the office, with colleagues around and getting stuck into some work, is really appealing.

I miss the spontaneity of popping out for lunch or grabbing a drink after work. I miss the people, the projects, the challenges, the satisfaction of fixing something or finding a solution to a problem. I feel incredibly fortunate that in my cycling I am able to work on developing new bits of equipment, testing protocols and data analysis because of the experiences I had at NTT DATA Business Solutions and years of working. I don’t just have to be a cyclist but I do have to push myself to engage and to ‘do’ as otherwise the default of ride, chill, eat, repeat would take over. Maybe I would be a better athlete if I let that happen, but I definitely wouldn’t be as fulfilled as a person! Life, whatever you decide to do is all about finding the right balance.

Till next time

Joss

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