How to Cut Sugar Without Losing Performance – Periodizing

By Jiri Kaloc

Cutting sugar sounds like the right choice for health but nobody wants to suffer the performance drawbacks associated with it. This is where periodization comes in. Let’s take a closer look at when you can cut sugar without losing performance.

We know from the previous article that sugar is necessary for riding at high intensity. We also know that not every ride should be intense. You might be able to use less sugar during those more relaxed, low-intensity rides. In fact, research shows that doing such training sessions without sugar and carbohydrates improves training adaptations. This is why professional cyclists strategically choose to “train low” as a part of their preparation.

Train low to cut sugar

Training low means starting your exercise with low glycogen, the sugar stored in your muscles. In our previous article, we discussed research showing that training with low glycogen availability results in increased creation of mitochondria, the powerhouses of your cells, improved fat burning, and even improved performance.

For example, if you restrict your pre-exercise carbs to around 0,5 g per 1 kg of body mass, you could experience aerobic benefits similar to a much longer session fuelled by a lot more carbs. You should always choose a relatively low-intensity ride of 1-2 hours in duration. You could achieve a similar effect by doing a fasted ride first thing in the morning if you have a low-carb meal the night before. All of the train-low approaches allow you to improve your endurance performance very effectively without any sugar.

Match sugar intake to intensity

It is important to note that doing too much “training low” does have substantial drawbacks such as a higher risk of catching respiratory illnesses, inability to maintain the same training load, and loss of top-end performance. This is why train low is only used strategically, maybe 1-2 per week. The rest of your sessions should include some intensity. Intense rides that are longer than an hour will require some extra carbs. You can still make good choices to minimize added sugar. Check out our previous article to see some examples of meals. In general, this is how to handle your intake before, during, and after an intense ride.

Before – If you include a high-carb meal 2-3 hours before the training session, you will have full glycogen stores when you set off. Use sources of starch, a complex carbohydrate, such as rice, pasta or potatoes instead of quick sugar. A small sugary snack about 20 minutes before your ride may be necessary if your last meal was more than 4 hours ago.

During – On the bike, you can use real-food sources that contain complex carbohydrates, such as rice cakes or sandwiches when the intensity is not too high. During more intense parts of your ride, you have to rely on easily digestible forms of sugar such as energy drinks or gels.

After – Unless you’re in a stage race or a training camp, you don’t need to take in sugar after your ride. You can wait for a regular meal. If you need to speed up your recovery to be fully ready to ride hard the next day, then a small portion of sugar right after training can help.

Make changes throughout the season

There are four general phases in a cycling season – off-season, base training, build phase, and competition. Each of these requires a different type of training and calls for a different amount of intensity. This means that the fuel required should also change when transitioning from one phase to the next. You can use it when trying to limit sugar intake too.

Off-season – During this part of the year, cyclists usually do more cross-training, strength development, and less cycling volume overall. Almost all training sessions can be fuelled by regular meals. There is not much need for added sugar at all. This is when you can keep your sugar intake very low without impacting your training in a negative way.

Base training – This phase calls for a lot more volume but the intensity of training sessions is relatively low for the most part. You probably only need some extra sugar once per week for some intervals.

Build phase – Sugar will become more important and harder to cut in this phase because intensity will be ramping up. You will need energy gels and drinks to finish all training sessions at the required intensity and volume.

Competition – Racing represents some of the highest intensity cycling you will do all year round, so the sugar will be very important in this phase. You can still regulate your intake based on your micro-cycles but don’t hold back during races if you want to perform at your absolute best.

You can read more about periodized nutrition in our previous series. The main takeaway is that the better you get at matching your nutrition to the requirements of your training and racing, the more sugar you will be able to cut without losing performance.