Tour de France: Cycling and the Gut

The Tour de France, one of the world’s most physically demanding sporting events is heating up as it enters the final stages. Nearly 200 athletes have been pushing themselves to the limit through a gruelling 21-stage course which spans a massive 3,535 km—all in only three weeks with just two days to rest through the entire event.

The average competitor spends between 30,000 and 35,000 km training in preparation for this competition. That’s a whopping 600 km per week! With so much physical exertion, athletes need to follow strict dietary restrictions, to maintain their energy and body composition. Throughout the course of the Tour, they’ll burn a combined total of 25 million calories.

According to Sports Nutrition Specialist Dr. Asker Jeukendrup, daily energy expenditures of athletes in the Tour de France might be as high as 36 MJ. Regaining this amount of energy through daily food intake is very difficult, and if athletes ever suffer gastrointestinal upset, it is “very unlikely that a cyclist will recover and make up for the deficit.”

How Cycling Affects Your Body

While you may not be embarking on a 3,500 km bike race, it pays to understand how intense exercise (such as cycling) affects your body:

  1. Your body prioritises working muscles over digestion by diverting blood flow away from your digestive system towards the muscles in your arms and legs.
  2. Lack of blood flow changes the way your digestive system works. Movement of food becomes irregular and may lead to inflammation in the gastrointestinal tract.
  3. Intense exercise triggers stress hormones which negatively impact your immune system and gastrointestinal motility.
  4. Absorption in the gut is restricted due to lack of blood flow, so digestion slows down. This means bacteria have more time to ferment undigested food in the intestines, which results in gas build up.
  5. The cycling position physically puts pressure on your gastrointestinal tract, which impacts the digestive process and may cause discomfort.
  6. If you’ve recently eaten, you might experience acid reflux or vomiting as stomach contents are pushed back up.

Ways to Prevent Gastrointestinal Distress While Cycling

You can take these preventative measures to maintain good health and improve your comfort:

  1. Speak to your general practitioner if you experience gastrointestinal distress during or after exercise.
  2. Take prebiotics to feed good bacteria which help prevent symptoms such as diarrhoea, flatulence, and constipation.
  3. Eat a varied diet. Professional cyclists need to eat more carbohydrates, but a healthy balance is still important for maintaining the diversity of your gut bacteria.
  4. Stay hydrated.
  5. Avoid stimulants (e.g. coffee and sugars) which might aggravate gastrointestinal problems.
  6. Avoid foods with high fat content before riding.
  7. Try to improve your posture. If you’re bent over too far you might be putting too much strain on your gut.

Whether you’re cheering your favourite team on or embarking on your own cycling adventure, make sure you eat well and stay healthy. 

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