This year EF Education-NIPPO welcomed Will Girling, MSc, SENr, as our new cycling team nutritionist. With years of experience guiding elite athletes to improve their performance through better nutrition, he’s an exciting addition to our staff. We caught up with Will to learn more about his background and the role he plays in the team’s cycling performance.
Tell us how you got here. What’s your background?
I’m from London, born and bred. As far as my nutrition background goes, I think many people who get involved in nutrition are perhaps like myself. I was actually quite an overweight kid, even as a young teenager. And then I found fitness. I found the gym and became obsessed. At age fifteen I started going to the gym, I continued that into adulthood, and it’s ultimately what led me to this line of work.
Professionally, when it came time for me to decide upon a career, I chose not to pursue my initial interest in art, and instead I became a personal trainer. While working as a trainer I realized that, of all the elements of fitness, people often seem to struggle with nutrition the most. I was intrigued with that.
My history and relationship with food, which has been an interesting one, was also a driving force in my focus on nutrition. In the early part of my life, being at the larger end of the body mass scale and having a sometimes negative relationship with food gave me an understanding of those challenges. And then later in my life getting really involved in nutrition, kind of swinging the other way, becoming obsessed and almost over-involved in it, gave me another sort of perspective. Having spent time at both ends of the spectrum has given me a really great context for working in food.
Where does cycling fit into your story?
I found my passion for cycling through bike packing. I’ve done a number of bike packing trips: the width and length of Spain, the length of France, and I have toured all over Croatia. Fueling for efforts like that is fascinating, it’s really unique. That’s what I really love about some of the things that Lachlan [Morton], for example, is doing with the alternative program. It’s a unique fueling challenge. The nutrition implications for ultra-endurance events, especially self-supported, are nuts.
What makes fueling for professional cyclists unique?
I think the difference is in the incredible demand on pro cyclists’ bodies. For instance, in a Grand Tour, to ride an intense five hour day every day for three weeks with only two rest days, is completely different from any other sport out there. The demand they face and, thus, the fueling they require, is so unique. The sustained effort required for a Grand Tour is unrivaled.
What does your day-to-day role with the team look like?
The best part of my job is working with the riders. Chatting with a rider, having a conversation about food, talking about their training and what they’re eating; that’s the part I enjoy most. Guys talk to me about issues that come up during training or racing, how they’re feeling, what their goals are. Gut training, for example, is something we work on so the guys can take in more carbs per hour without feeling sick. And we recently had a race fueling seminar with all the riders, which was great.
The more complicated part of the job is the logistics. Some people may not realize that when I recommend that a rider should eat, say, 100g of carbs per hour in a race, logistically and operationally that’s pretty complicated to carry out. It means that a soignier needs to do this for that feed and the musettes need these specific things included in them for each guy. Additionally, we need to see what the chef can provide on a given day.
It’s a collaboration between all of us, a team effort. And it’s important that any decision I make with a rider is also conveyed to the performance team so they know what’s going on with the riders, so a DS knows what that means in terms of a particular rider’s food. There are many people involved in every decision.
What’s one thing that athletes could start doing today to help improve their performance through nutrition?
Two things. First: Practice event nutrition. If you’re going to do a gran fondo, an event or a race where you, presumably, want to perform well, you should practice your event nutrition. This means, for 4 to 8 weeks before the event, at least once a week you should replicate what you’re going to eat on the day of the event using the exact same products you’re planning to use on the day.
Second: Fuel for the work required. It sounds obvious, but if you’re doing an easy training day, you don’t need to eat as much. If you’re doing a big ride, you need to eat more. Often we see people doing a big day on the weekend and they decide that’s the day they’re going to try to restrict calories and not eat as much. If a person goes out for a four-hour Sunday ride, restricting calories and under-fueling, then on Monday, the rest day, they’ll feel ravenous because they’ve under-eaten and they’ll just eat everything. They should do it the other way around! This is so common, but it can be avoided by matching fueling to effort.
What’s one of your favorite post-ride snacks or meals?
Chicken chilaquiles are a really nice post-ride option. It’s fresh and zesty with the salsa and cilantro, and it’s really quick and easy to put together after a ride. Citrus juice is palate-cleansing so after a hard ride, maybe you had some sweet gels or bars, it’s nice to give your palate something fresh and different. Citrus also promotes saliva production, which is helpful if you haven’t fueled or hydrated enough and have a dry mouth. (Dry mouth, by the way, opens you up to higher risk of respiratory infections. Another good reason to add some extra lime.)
Nutritionally, the chicken in the chilaquiles is the protein source to help with muscle recovery and adaptation to physical exercise. Adaptation is building of new aerobic cells, and to build cells you need protein. The tortillas provide the carbohydrates needed to replenish muscle glycogen. The salsa and cilantro and onion provide micronutrients for overall general health. It’s a great all-around recovery meal.
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