Alex Popple

Nutrition plan powers Para cyclists

New Zealand’s Para cycling team hope a stronger focus on nutrition, guided by Senior Performance Nutritionist Alex Popple from High Performance Sport New Zealand, will help give them a competitive edge at the Paralympic Games. 

Alex describes his role as working with the athletes so that they understand what their nutritional requirements are for their training and the competition that they do. 

“I try to base plans around their own food preferences to make sure they can adhere to them long term. You can design the most scientific evidence-based nutrition plan but if it is based on food they don’t want to eat then it doesn’t matter.” 

Since starting work with the Para cycling programme in 2018, Alex has put an emphasis on bringing the team’s nutrition into line, where possible, with strategies used by their able-bodied counterparts for many years. 

“There has tended to be an approach with Para athletes that you focus on their limitations or what their individual disability might be. I’ve tried to approach it by working round that to build a nutritional plan and bring in supplementation to support their goals.” 

New Zealand has six Para cyclists going to Tokyo – Stephen Hills, Rory Mead, Eltje Malzbender, Anna Taylor, Nicole Murray and Sarah Ellington. 

“Nicole and Anna are predominantly focused on the track. Sarah is also doing road as are Eltje, Rory and Stephen. 

“The road riders do a lot more volume so their carbohydrate needs will be a bit higher due to the amount of kilometres they are doing. Track riders are higher intensity, more power endurance based so there is an element of needing a little more protein to help them maintain their muscle mass.” 

Alex’s approach has also seen the Para cycling team increase the use of supplements to complement and enhance their nutrition. 

Supplements include sports foods such as protein powders, carbohydrate sports drinks, electrolyte tablets and carbohydrate gels.  

“As soon as we start looking at supplements, we need to work with batch tested supplements making sure they are trusted and free from prohibited substances. It’s about making good choices and making sure the athletes take them in appropriate ways that support them.” 

That can include the likes of ergogenic aids which are non-essential nutrients that, when consumed in certain amounts, can have a direct effect on human performance. They include caffeine, creatine and beta alanine. Another ergogenic nutrient is nitrate, usually consumed in the form of beetroot juice. 

“The supplements are all used in moderation and on a case by case basis depending on the athlete and their event.” 

Alex notes that for Tokyo, with the heat and humidity, hydration and controlling body temperature are really important. 

“We are focused on making sure they are aware of the right type of products that are going to help them with both fuelling their races and training and helping them maintain hydration levels. 

“We have looked at the options in terms of slushies, frozen gels, blended ice – working alongside physiologist Jako Bekker and making sure we have some good heat management strategies in place, and they are all aware of them.” 

Alex describes the team as very open to the new approach.  

“They are all looking to produce their best performance just like any other athlete. Once we have their nutrition dialled in, they are happy with that, then we can bring some of these strategies in to help them enhance that overall performance.” 

Alex says he is pleased with where they have got to in terms of training in the lead up to Tokyo and he is looking forward to the Paralympics.  

“Tokyo is my first Games working with Para sport. The barriers these athletes have and the outlook they generally have around their sport is quite inspiring.” 

Alex is confident the Para cyclists all have good plans in place and know what they need to do in Tokyo.  

“It’s important to try not to associate success with medals all the time. On the day they can only do what they can do. Did they go out there and provide the best performance they could? That is all you really hope for.”