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  • 13.11.14

    Interview: Nigel Mitchell, Team Sky and British Cycling nutritionist

    Head of nutrition at British Cycling and Team Sky on diet and fuelling

    Words
    Timothy John
    Photographs
    Alex Whitehead

“When Bradley retires, it’s going to be a much more boring world for people like myself and cycling journalists. If I’ve got the opportunity to support him next year to win Paris-Roubaix, then that’s going to be absolutely amazing.”

Nutritionist Nigel Mitchell has been intimately associated with the most obvious manifestations of the ever changing moods of Sir Bradley Wiggins. Fuelling the track powerhouse to ensure adequate nutrition to prevent injury? Check. Managing a dramatic weight reduction to allow the most efficient deployment of that same power on the vertiginous slopes of the Alps and Pyrenees? Check. And developing a frame to survive the pavé of northern France? “The work has not always been about stripping down,” Mitchell says. “It’s also been about building more muscle.”

He is reluctant to discuss his most famous client and does so only after Rouleur introduces Wiggins’ name to the conversation. Mitchell says he doesn’t like to talk about individual athletes, a statement borne out by the previous 25 minutes of our 'phone call, when not one star in the galaxy of talent that has illuminated British cycle sport for nearly a decade and a half is mentioned by name - and he has worked with nearly all of them, both in roles with the national federation and with Team Sky.

Racing cyclist, close-up, consuming energy gel, CNP gels, Ben Swift, black skinsuit, sunglassesTeam Sky's Ben Swift refuels with a CNP gel. Team Sky nutritionist Nigel Mitchell works with the team's riders to develop the brand's nutrition products. pic: CNP

Mitchell’s answers are clear and concise: the science of fuelling an elite athlete broken down into layman’s terms in an even and professional manner. But in the statement that begins this article, there is an unmistakable note of pride: not quite Kevin Keegan’s “I will love it...”, perhaps, but rooted in a similar conviction. If Wiggins conquers Roubaix next season (and who would dismiss the prospect, given his astonishing career), few will be more pleased for the Londoner than Mitchell, a state-registered dietician who graduated nearly 25 years ago before working in a clinical role for ten year and becoming a nutrition academic for the five years after that. He joined British Cycling in 2000 at the beginning of a revolution ushered in by Lottery funding and now works across track and road programmes.

His voice comes clear across an occasionally broken phone line in the late afternoon of a grey Friday in November, a time of the year in which the Monuments of the cycling calendar and the sunlit days of the Grand Tours seem a distant memory. The riders may be squeezing a year’s worth of enjoyment into the single month of respite that exists between the final race of the WorldTour calendar and the first winter training camps, but Mitchell is busy with reviews of the season past and plans for the campaign to come. Besides, he is responsible for fuelling Great Britain’s track athletes, and with the London round of the World Cup only weeks away, management of their nutrition - specifically, the prevention of injury that results from intense work - is uppermost in his mind. Then there is his role with sports nutrition firm CNP, for whom he is currently developing a new "gel-ly bar" - a product intended for use on mountain stages, offering more "mouth feel" than a gel, but without the bulk of a bar. There is no gurantee that the product will reach the shelves, such is the nature of prototypes, but Mitchell's input will not be lessened by that. He is a busy man.

Nutritionist Nigel Mitchell, black and blue team Sky uniform, portrait image, smiling Mitchell qualified as a dietician nearly 25 years ago and has worked with British Cycling since 2000 and with Team Sky since its inception. pic: CNP

His charges at Team Sky are already starting to "get back on it," he says, grinding out the hard miles of winter after a few weeks letting down their hair. Gain more than 2kg, Mitchell says, and they’ll have serious work to do at winter training camp next month to shed even such minimal baggage. And none of them wants to arrive at camp out of shape. Even in the off-season, the pro cyclist’s idea of indulgence is likely to be at variance with the spectator’s. Rich food is likely to be the full extent of their transgressions; junk food, at any time of the year, is unlikely, Mitchell says, shattering our vision of Geraint Thomas and Luke Rowe steering Chris Froome into a Cardiff chippy for a battered sausage or Pukka Pie.

For riders unable to resist the temptations of the off-season (Mitchell identifies “partying” and “a few drinks” as a greater possibility than junk food) his advice will be not to panic, and to strip back to basics: starting the day with porridge, taking on fish oils to protect the immune system, a green salad with nutrient-rich peppers and chicken or tuna for lunch and similar for an early-evening meal (before 7pm) - a total intake of between 3000 and 3500 calories. “This time of year, we’re just doing steady, ‘grinding away’ training,” Mitchell explains. “We want to enhance the body’s ability to use fat as a source of energy.”

When the winter training camp comes round, and the steady grind is replaced by “deep” efforts, the nutritional requirement will shift in focus, broadly from protein to carbohydrate. “That means paninis, rice cakes, bars, gels…” Mitchell reels off the staples of the pro cyclist’s diet. “If the work is similar to what they do when they’re racing, then we get them to eat similarly to how they would when they race.” It is not always the case that, when returned to what might be described as their natural environment, riders return to the most efficient fuelling strategies. While most are intimately acquainted with the fare, and the need to consume it in sufficient quantity, each year one or two riders ‘under fuel’ and come back “in bits”. Typically, such a harsh lesson need only be learned once.

Professional cyclist, Sir Bradley Wiggins, black hooded sweatshirt, smilingSir Bradley Wiggins has gained and lost weight as the demands of his mercurial career have changed. Mitchell has worked closely with the world time trial champion. pic: Alex Whitehead/SWpix.com

The notion that professional athletes of any stamp are biologically disposed to burning calories isn’t entirely misplaced. Years of conditioning develops efficiency in what might be described as their operating system. Mitchell explains: “Where they do so much work, because of the energy that they expire, their basic system is very conservative. For the amount of work that they do, they’re not consuming as many calories as you would think. It’s an efficiency thing.”

While winter training camps provide Mitchell with an opportunity to try new products with the riders, he does not attend the races. The work of his role can be done remotely, he says, typically in regular conversations - daily in Grand Tours - with the chef, and in regular chats with the team doctor and coaches. Team Sky’s well-drilled carers have little need for regular input from the nutritionist, he explains, except in the case of dramatic change - the freak weather conditions, such as those that have characterised the last two editions of Milan-Sanremo, for example, or a rider injured in a crash with several stages of a race still to come.

Mitchell’s work with nutrition company CNP gives him the opportunity to develop new products for his charges. CNP, in return, gain the not inconsiderable benefit of having their products tested by some of the world’s best cyclists. Mitchell insist that his riders are happy to try new products at any time in the season, but concedes that December is the time of year at which products are developed seriously.

Bicycle storage, black bicycles hanging on wall, componenets abovwMitchell has worked with Sir Dave Brailsford at British Cycling, and when Team Sky was formed in late 2009, became the obvious choice to work as the road team's nutrionist. pic: Alex Whitehead/SWpix.com

“The process is to get some prototypes developed, try them with a couple of riders, get a little bit of feedback, tweak it, and get a batch made up for the December training camp and we’ll try it there,” he says. As with many aspects of life, nutrition is an area in which it is impossible to please all of the people all of the time. Meeting the needs of nine riders with a single product is, Mitchell concedes, impossible. “What you want to do is make sure that there’s something for everyone. Sometimes riders will say 'I don’t like this and that', but there is always an alternative for them."

There are sceptics who question the whole basis of so-called sports nutrition, and who believe that all of the required nutrients for athletic performance can be found in unprocessed foods. Mitchell himself concedes the importance of "mouth feel" in developing new products; that a conventional gel disappears too quickly; and that a bar might be difficult to consume under the sustained effort of climbing in the high mountains. So, left to their own devices, would the riders reach for bananas and sandwiches, and shelve the bars, gels, powders, and supplements?

Mitchell explains: “We have what I call ‘sports food’ - things that are providing nutrients that we can get from our diet, but it’s just more convenient and more quantifiable. With a bar, you know how many grams of carbohydrate you’re getting, but with a banana, it could be 20g, or 30g, or 50g, if it’s a really big banana. Then there are supplements: the things that you can’t get as easily from your diet, and which need to be taken in an additional format - things like fish oils and vitamins.

Professional cyclist, Laura Trott, white world champion cycling kit, track helmetLaura Trott and Great Britain's all-conquering track team will be back in action at the UCI Track World Cup next month. Mitchell oversees nutritional requirements for the track riders, as well as Team Sky. pic: Alex Whitehead/SWpix.com

“We provide the full lot. When we’re on a training camp, we have the rice cakes that we make, gels, we’ve got paninis, we’ve got bananas. Basically, we’ve got a full range that they can feel comfortable with.”

As the winter rolls on, training camps will come and go, and Mitchell will again be consulted for his expertise. And as preparation for the Olympic Games ramps up, his advice will be required by those aiming for victory on the boards as well. A final, glorious chapter for Bradley Wiggins’ road career will also require Mitchell’s assistance. The prospect of Wiggins the Classics king, his 6’3” frame sufficiently bulky to resume on-the-bike hostilities with the likes of Boonen and Cancellara at Roubaix on even terms, is mouthwatering. Mitchell, the dietary expert, is likely to play a key role in developing the necessary ingredients for success.

Nigel Mitchell is head of nutrition at Team Sky and British Cycling. He spoke to Rouleur on behalf of CNP,  supplier of nutrition products to Team Sky.

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