From color codes to flexible cheat days, Trek-Segafredo gives riders tools to tailor their diets
Sports nutrition is an intrinsic part of high-performance organizations like Trek-Segafredo. Our nutrition project is, foremost, responsive. During a grand tour like the Tour de France, riders can’t fuel the exact same way every day. Mountain stages burn more calories than time trials or slow peloton days, for example, so they require riders to eat more beforehand. At the same time, the fastest climbers need to be careful to maintain a light weight so they can stay swift up even the steepest gradients.
Stephanie Scheirlynck has been the team’s nutritionist for the last three years. When she began her career in 2006, road teams didn’t give nearly the same thought to nutrition as they do now. Her experience and knowledge has made her a pivotal part of the performance team, in particular during stage races where one day’s result can be the outcome of months of diligent preparation.
“On the biggest mountain stages, it’s preferable that the riders don’t consume foods with a lot of fiber,” Scheirlynck says. “If you eat a lot of fiber — like oats and whole grain pasta and bread, or certain kinds of fruits and vegetables — your body will maintain more fluids, and you are therefore heavier. This could mean that you’ve been working 12 weeks to get to your perfect race weight, and then the evening before a mountain stage, you gain two kilos.”
Trek-Segafredo isn’t unique in applying strategy towards diet. All across the WorldTour, teams are constantly tweaking their training and diet plans to hopefully shave a few seconds off their times in the biggest races of the year.
But Scheirlynck didn’t want to simply hand riders scientifically-portioned meals. She wanted to give them the same knowledge she has, so that they can carry on with good eating habits when she isn’t around. Even when she is on hand, riders make their own plates from a buffet using a few guidelines.
“For me, the most important part is that riders understand what kind of nutrition helps them to do this and this and this,” Scheirlynck says. “And then it’s up to them to make some decisions as well. I think that works better than to say, ‘OK, just don’t think about it and eat what we give you.’ Because then you don’t learn to know your body.”
Scheirlynck keeps the information practical. Riders don’t need to know the molecular structure of every single type of carbohydrate, for example, but it’s helpful to know the benefits of each and how they function differently. She also developed a color-coded system for in-season nutrition that helps riders understand how heavily they should be fueling for a race (Red correlates to the hardest days, like a mountain stage in a grand tour, or a classic like Paris-Roubaix).
We try to create structure from December until September, but the time in between — for me it's also psychological. If you want to eat french fries, do it. If you want to eat croissants, do it.
Keeping roughly 40 men and women athletes fed across a racing calendar can be a logistical challenge. Riders are often racing in different parts of the world at the same time, each with different sets of dietary needs. Scheirlynck can’t be in all places at once (though she may like to be) so she has to communicate with the doctors, soigneurs and chefs who are with the riders to make sure general guidelines are being followed.
Offseason planning is mercifully easy: For the most part, Scheirlynck encourages riders to eat what they want.
“I say, ‘OK, you get off your bike, also switch off your nutrition switch,'” Scheirlynck says. “If you want, sleep until noon, skip breakfast and have some lunch. Or take breakfast and skip lunch. We try to create structure from December until September, but the time in between — for me it’s also psychological. If you want to eat french fries, do it. If you want to eat croissants, do it.”
Scheirlynck never wants the act of eating properly to feel like a chore. Loosening restrictions in the offseason gives riders a much-needed mental break. Their main goal coming out of a roughly four-week rest period is to not pack on too much weight. Some weight gain is fine, however. In fact, it’s encouraged.
“There are riders that are so strict or so extreme that they have a three or four weeks rest period where they eat so much that they gain six kilos or something,” Scheirlynck says. “They all needed to gain some weight, of course. And if they go into the winter with the body weight and body composition from summer, they’re going to be sick all the time. Their immunity would be a lot lower. So they actually really, really need to be three kilos heavier. But not 10.”
Unsurprisingly, 2020 threw a wrench in many of Scheirlynck’s well-laid plans. The season began on time, and riders were performing well — Richie Porte and Ruth Winder opened the season by winning the Tour Down Under, and Jasper Stuyven won Omloop Het Nieuwsblad on Feb. 29 — but in mid-March racing was shut down due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Many riders were entering their physical peak, but with no end to the shutdown in sight, Scheirlynck told them to get off their bikes and go back into offseason mode.
'OK guys, you are in wonderful shape, but actually now you need to go back into winter mode.
“I needed to say, and everyone needed to say — the coaches, the doctors — ‘OK guys, you are in wonderful shape, but actually now you need to go back into winter mode. You should get off the bike, put it in the garage for one or two weeks,'” Scheirlynck says. “For them, especially in the first lockdown, it was like, ‘What’s happening now? I don’t want to, I’m in perfect shape, my weight’s under control, I need to perform now.’
“It was only when the UCI said, ‘OK, this is the new calendar, the 1st of August is Strade Bianche,’ we knew, ‘OK, now we know what you should do and when.'”
Trek-Segafredo prepared for the restarted season the same way they prepared for the regularly-scheduled season. Scheirlynck gauges how riders’ bodies responded to the time off by looking at body composition and blood results. Typically, they’re much healthier than when they were in the midst of racing.
“They need to be healthy, and sometimes at their peak levels they are really low in all results,” Scheirlynck says. “So I mean low in body fat percentage, but then sometimes low in hormonal levels, or vitamins and minerals, which we try to follow as good as possible.”
After evaluating the riders, Scheirlynck puts together nutrition plans that incorporate a lot of information she gleaned from attending training camps at the beginning of the year. Scheirlynck uses camps to speak to riders individually and learn about their goals and determine when they should be at their peak fitness and weight. They also discuss food allergies and preferences, all the way down to riders’ favorite energy gel flavors.
Scheirlynck typically uses her offseason to work out logistics — for example, a schedule of where she and the team chefs should be at each point on the calendar. However, when the revised, heavily-condensed 2020 schedule was released during the summer, she realized the team couldn’t possibly cover all the ground it needed to.
“This year it was a bigger puzzle,” Scheirlynck says. “At a certain point, everyone was in competition. And normally if we have eight riders doing classics, all the others are at home preparing for the next block, like the Ardennes for example. And then when the guys for the Ardennes are ready, then our Classics guys are back.”
At one point, Scheirlynck says Trek-Segafredo was deploying four freelance chefs to cover the many overlapping races, and that often still wasn’t enough to cover all the riders spread across the men’s and women’s calendars. If riders were at a race without a team chef, Scheirlynck would call hotel chefs and nutrition sponsors to make sure that riders had access to the nutrition they needed.
Within such a chaotic schedule, Scheirlynck’s efforts to educate riders were pivotal. Communicating during a pandemic is difficult, but with their own knowledge and the help of the color-coded system, riders were better able to manage their own nutrition.
That, ultimately, is Scheirlynck’s goal: To create a system that any rider can follow with just a bit of guidance. Even more importantly, it’s a system that riders want to follow. By giving riders so much freedom, Scheirlynck also gives them an opportunity to learn by trial and error. Through that process, they learn just how well the system works.
“Sometimes they text me and they say, ‘OK Stephanie, now I know what you mean because I did a training session for six hours and I only had this and this and this, and oh my god I was so empty,'” Scheirlynck says. “Then I try to explain, ‘OK, now you see why you also need to drink this and eat this in training? Because you do this during races, and isn’t your training as important?'”
Scheirlynck is happy when she sees riders taking the initiative with their nutrition. The importance of diet to athletic success hasn’t been properly appreciated across sports until relatively recently. Now, nutrition strategy is as refined as training practices, and athletes are making beneficial decisions on their own.
“What we would like to see when they come back from the offseason, and that’s just for me but also the coach, is that they are really happy to restart and they miss their bikes,” Scheirlynck says. “That they even miss eating healthy.
“Sometimes they really say, ‘OK, I’ve eaten everything now, so I’ve got it all. I’m good for a couple of weeks or months, so let me eat healthy again.'”