Nutrition and V8 supercars

By Kerry Leech, SDA Fellow.


During the 2013 V8 supercar season I was fortunate to be given the opportunity to work with one of the V8 Supercar teams, being contracted by a sponsor to work with the drivers & their support staff to improve nutrition for the team.

It was a fantastic experience and allowed me to have insight into the workings of the team from the owners, through to the training and preparation, consulting with the catering, individual work with the drivers, and finishing with observations of race day preparation, including being given full access to the pits during both practice sessions and race day.  Below are my experiences, showcasing where I feel Sports Nutrition can enhance the performance of V8’s and motor racing in general.

Initial meetings were held at the Head Office where I met with the team owners and managers who discussed with me the philosophy of the team, and took me on a tour of the training facility.  The facility included a strength and cardio studio on site – they had previously employed a full time Strength and Conditioning coach but now contracted this out so each driver could use their own advisor.  The training facility also included specific reaction training in a virtual setting.

Physical training for the drivers included regular strength sessions often based around upper body and core strength, and conditioning sessions such as bike and running depending on the preferences of the drivers.  Actual time in the race car for training is limited to testing and preparations at the track. The rest of the time the cars are being prepared in the meticulous workshop or being transported to the tracks around Australia and NZ for racing sessions.  Nutrition support for this time is primarily around the areas of changing body composition, preparation and recovery for training sessions, especially strength work.

My next meeting was with the Catering Manager.  During races the team uses its own catering facility, drivers generally stay in hotels or for longer events they may have a house or apartment and will eat meals away from the track at restaurants or in a home type environment. While they are at the track they will eat meals provided by catering.  There is generally 1 driver per car, 2 for endurance events but the support team can be up to 50, all of whom need to be fed during the event.  The staff are working long hours during a race, from 5am-11pm and catering generally provided for Breakfast, Lunch, Dinner and some snacks.

Drivers have significant commitments during race preparation and the races, not only in the car.  They are highly available to sponsors and the media and this can affect their time management and eating routine.  One of the issues that the drivers found most difficult was meals not being available if there was a media or sponsor activity on at meal times.

The issue of the types of meals available also affected the drivers with a preference towards lighter meals with more of a carbohydrate base than what was enjoyed by some of the other staff.  They also wanted more individually packed meals and snacks closer to where they did most of their work, the pits, so that time was not wasted walking to and from the catering areas.  High energy snacks that are readily available and which do not need refrigeration are helpful to both drivers and crew.

My last meetings were held with the drivers for feedback on what they saw as important and nutrition screening. After these interviews, guidelines for changes were reported and we had the opportunity to see how it all worked at a practice day and race day.

The race that I attended was at the Gold Coast – an endurance event held over two days on a tight street circuit in quite hot conditions.

It is at a race day that you really see the stress that driving a V8 Supercar vehicle puts on the drivers.  The pits are very busy, very noisy areas and the drivers, when not driving, are often fulfilling sponsor and media activities.  Due to the amount of activity it is easy for drivers to forget to eat meals and snacks, planning and supporting the drivers is imperative.

One of the first things you notice is how hot the drivers get, they wear fire retardant clothing that covers 95% of the body with a helmet so there is little ability to transfer heat for cooling.  All drivers in the car are connected to a cooling suit which pumps cool fluids in piping over their body, unfortunately these are connected to the engine of the car and can sometimes fail. Drivers did use ice vests for pre cooling before the race and between driving stages but other strategies such as fans and ice towels could also be used to enhance cooling.  Ice baths could be difficult do due to the practicality of the pit area, but the use of “slushies” and very cold drinks could help and would be more easily accessible.

Doing hydration testing on the drivers helped to show them the importance of being pre hydrated.  USG results indicated that some drivers were not fully hydrated prior to the race. Drivers found it difficult to match fluid intake to fluid losses during the day, fluid intake during the drive is often warm therefore not enticing, not to mention the many distractions encountered while in the car.

Individual sweat testing results helped to give more individualised feedback to each of the drivers as to the types of fluids they would most need, especially in the endurance race setting.

It would be interesting to see how the use of ergogenic aids would aid performance. Caffeine is used but not in a planned manner and drivers are quite nervous about anything that may be detrimental to their reflexes.

In all, I was very lucky to have such a wonderful experience and if any Sports Dietitians get the opportunity to work with any drivers or teams, there are many areas that a Sports Dietitian can contribute their knowledge and skills towards improving the performances of V8 drivers.


Spilling the Beans on Caffeine

It’s no surprise to see a row of bikes leaning up against a cafe wall at a mid-ride turn around point – Ironman Chris McCormack has been quoted as saying his secret weapon when the going gets tough is either Coca-Cola or Red Bull, cricketer Kevin Pieterson reports using Red Bull to help his concentration, and Serena Williams even requested an espresso during a recent Hopman Cup match.

So what is it about caffeine? Can it really be that good for performance?

Let’s have a look at the facts of caffeine and its potential on your performance.


Who can benefit from caffeine?

As you can see from the introduction, caffeine can have positive performance improvements across a range of different sports and in both males and females.

Performance improvements of ~3% have been found in the lab, however, it is difficult to predict precisely the improvements we can expect from caffeine in ‘real life’ training and racing, as other factors such as tactics or weather conditions can influence results. It’s also important to know that individual responses to caffeine are highly varied. Some athletes may find that caffeine can have negative effects on performance while others find that caffeine offers them no benefit at all.


Why use caffeine?

It was once thought that caffeine increased the use of fat as a fuel thereby ‘sparing’ muscle glycogen. However, we now know that the most significant benefits of caffeine come from its effects on the brain. More specifically, caffeine is able to act as an adenosine receptor antagonist. By blocking the action of adenosine, caffeine influences the central nervous system. This can improve your perception of fatigue, resulting in a longer period of sustained work.

In simple terms – you can improve your ability to ‘go harder for longer’ before the effects of fatigue set in, improving your performance.


What caffeine product works best?

Coffee, cola drinks, caffeinated gels, caffeinated gum…the array of caffeine containing products available is huge. But is any one source better than another?

In general, no.

Studies have found that the beneficial effects of caffeine are seen across a variety of different products. Where it becomes tricky is that different products (and even different brands of the same product) have different amounts of caffeine. Knowing how much caffeine you are consuming is important as there can be a fine line between the amount which improves performance and the level at which negative side effects can occur.

The list below provides some examples of how much caffeine is found in a range of products – be aware though, formulations frequently change so it’s best to double check the packing to be sure.

Product Serve Caffeine per serve (mg)
Instant coffee 250ml cup 60 (range: 12-169)
Espresso Standard shot 107 (range: 25-214)
Iced coffee (commercial) 500ml bottle 30-200
Tea 250ml cup 27 (range: 9-51)
Hot chocolate 250ml cup 5-10
Coca-Cola 600ml bottle 58
Diet Coke 600ml bottle 77
Red Bull 250ml can 80
Powerade Fuel 300ml can 96
PowerBar caffeinated sports gel 40g sachet 25
PowerBar double caffeinated sports gel 40g sachet 50
Gu caffeinated sports gel 32g sachet 20-40
Carboshotz caffeinated sports gel 50g sachet 80


When to take caffeine?

Unlike some supplements, you often feel the benefits of caffeine soon after consumption (regardless of when levels peak in the blood). Performance improvements have been found regardless of whether the caffeine is taken one hour before an event, split in to doses over an event or taken only in the latter stages of an event when feelings of fatigue are most likely to really kick in.

The duration of the event will obviously have an impact on timing of caffeine intake. In shorter events (e.g. cycling criterium, sprint triathlon) where there is little opportunity to eat or drink during the event, having caffeine before the event is the most useful approach. On the other hand, during events lasting several hours (e.g. ironman, marathon) having caffeine before the event and/or topping up during the event, or saving the caffeine for the final stages, is more likely to be beneficial. Individuals should practise a variety of different strategies to determine the approach that works best for them.

Regular coffee drinkers can relax – there is no need to stop having caffeine in the days leading up to an event if you want to use caffeine during an event. Withdrawing from caffeine offers no additional benefit and will more likely lead to negative effects associated with caffeine withdrawal (e.g. headaches, irritability).


How can I use caffeine on my ride?

So you’re convinced that there may be more to a quick coffee stop than the chance to rest your legs and escape the howling headwind. Here’s a quick summary of how you can use caffeine to help you go harder for longer:

  • More isn’t better. Usually ~1-3mg caffeine / kg body weight (e.g. 70-210mg caffeine for a 70kg person) improves performance. Higher intakes won’t offer an extra benefit and will more likely have negative side effects (e.g. shakiness or increased heart-rate)
  • You are unique! Individual responses to caffeine are highly varied – start small
  • Do the sums. Make sure you have a (rough) idea of how much you are consuming
  • Be flexible. Trial different amounts, types and timing of caffeine
  • Don’t sacrifice sleep. Will caffeine negatively impact your recovery?
  • Practise! Always trial during training to work out the best strategy for you

And most importantly:

  • Team up with an AccSD – they’ll tailor a plan to best meet your needs. To find one near you, head to our home page.

Nutrition Challenges of the Female Triathlete

By Alicia Edge, AdvSD.


Despite the numerous advantages to being a female triathlete, the drive to achieve and succeed within the sport can create some unique nutrition challenges. Suboptimal nutrition intake can affect both long- and short-term health by impacting hormonal balance, bone density, fertility and compromising performance gains. Achieving ideal balance can be difficult due to the time constraints that accompany the work-life-family-training ‘balance’. Then additional to these pressures, triathletes can be exposed to internal and external pressures to be lean or a certain body composition. Combining these demands with the constant bombardment of diet crazes such as sugar free, paleo, low carb, clean eating, gluten free, sugar free, dairy free or low fat, it is no wonder we find attaining an optimal nutrition intake confusing and very challenging.

However, it doesn’t need to be complicated and you CAN balance intake with all other time commitments you have on a daily basis. Eating well can be done on almost any budget and with the tightest of time schedules. There are just some key principles to keep in mind when getting the balance right between food intake and training requirements.


Poor Energy Availability

Poor energy availability is a common issue in many female athletes, including triathletes. Recently renamed ‘Relative Energy Deficiency in Sport’ (or RED-S), the syndrome encompasses not only what was previously known as the Female Athlete Triad, but also recognises the complexity of symptoms that are related to an imbalance between dietary intake and energy expenditure (Food vs. Training). Energy availability is the term used to explain the amount of dietary energy remaining after all your metabolic processes and needs for exercise training have been accounted for. Athletes may be in a state of low energy availability due to a number of factors, whether this be intentionally (to achieve a specific body composition for performance), inadvertently (not adjusting intake to match increase needs from activity increases) or compulsively (due to disordered eating patterns).

If energy availability is consistently restricted, we may not have enough energy to cover the costs of our training, daily living and metabolic demands. This can impact your metabolic rate, bone health, immune function and also the wellbeing of your heart and mental health. Some of the signs and symptoms to be aware of and to follow-up with your medical professional include: amenorrhoea (absence of menstrual periods); delayed menarche in young active females; disordered eating patterns; poor bone health; depressed mood/irritability; and or susceptibility to illness.


Important Nutrients

Increased activity can influence the amount of nutrients needed for optimal functioning. Female athletes will need more energy and fluid than non-active females, along with needing to be more vigilant with vitamin and mineral intake. Fortunately, most of these nutrients are reached without any adjustments required if choosing a balanced diet and increased energy needs are met. However, some key nutrients may require special attention:

Calcium: Calcium is required for the normal maintenance and development of bone and teeth. Therefore, requirements during periods of growth (e.g. childhood, adolescence and pregnancy) and higher training loads (due to additional losses) are increased.

Iron: Iron is not required at increased levels for the female athlete, however can be limited in the daily dietary habits of women (particularly those who avoid or limit red meat) and can be depleted in athletes due to higher iron turnover. As iron is involved in energy production and plays a key role in training capacity and health status, optimising iron levels should be prioritised for both health and performance.


Body Composition Goals

Entering the triathlon world, often also means entering into discussions that relate to body fat percentages and power-to-weight ratios. All of this can lead us to think that leaner must equal better in terms of performance, however this isn’t always the case and it’s a fine line in finding the balance in achieving the body composition that gives you maximum performance but also the best health. When considering weight loss, it’s important that you consider your motivations to do so and to keep in mind genetic and environmental (energy intake, training, appetite, social and growth stages) factors that influence your ability to achieve your ideal body composition.


Fuelling during training

Fuelling your training sessions is not only useful in making sure you make it home without bonking, but also offers further advantages in ‘training the gut’ and enhancing your immune system. In events or sessions lasting over 60-90mins, carbohydrate intake should be considered. This helps to refuel your depleted muscle stores and assists in maintaining higher exercise intensity. The gut is known to be very trainable to cope with carbohydrate intake during events, however to achieve optimal absorption, it is important to train the gut during training sessions.  This assists in lowering the risk of gut discomfort can also improve performance on race day.


Food Beliefs and Food Fear

With the diverse messages and conflict in recommendations that the internet and social media provides, the fear and misunderstandings regarding food choices are warranted. As a Sports Dietitian, we are not going to demonise the range of different diets and fads that exist today. Instead, our role is to work with each athlete to optimise their intake to best suit their individual requirements and training phase. Accredited Sports Dietitians work with you to periodise what you eat and drink to match your training and body composition goals – just like your coach periodises your training program. This allows you to effectively fuel performance, maximise training adaptations and achieve the body composition that is right for you.

Therefore, it is important to consider all foods as having a function depending on your training phase, personal preferences and social situation. There’s no need to follow any particular fad or trendy diet to eat well, train well and meet your body composition goals. There is nothing boring about enjoying a range of foods, without fear of particular food groups or ingredients!!

Even though female triathletes have some unique nutrition challenges that need to be balanced, the benefits from being active, fit and healthy are well worth it! Focus on following your body’s appetite cues and aim to balance your energy intake with your current training phase. Your body is pretty talented at telling you when and how much food it requires each day, it is just that we are also very good at trying to ignore or change it! By relaxing around your food choices and taking the time to listen, you can reduce the guilt and emotional attachment to food that too often guides our food choices as female athletes.