Meet Rob van der Werf: Nutritionist

Hardcore training and a healthy dose of perseverance are important for a challenge like Chasin’ the Sunset, but the right nutrition might be just as important. We spoke about this with Rob van der Werf, who has his own practice as a nutrionist but also worked for the professional cycling teams of Giant-Alpecin. On top of that he’s a successful cyclist himself, with a national amateur title in mountainbike racing as one of his standout results.

How can nutrition make a difference in sports?
In cycling, the right nutrition is becoming more and more important, but that’s not yet the case in all sports. There’s a big difference between the various sports and the physical challenges that are associated with them. Because of that, there will always be a difference between the eating patterns of a cycling and that of a BMX rider. The right nutrition is based around the energy systems of a particular sports; what kind of food do you need, and at what times, to perform well? One of the toughest things is that, just as with regular exercise, you might not feel any effects on ‘the day after’ – you might even experience the opposite.

Is nutrition mostly important for experienced athletes who are in good shape already?
I think it can help athletes of all levels, and a nice example are those who, as a form of recreation, do long endurance sessions on the bike on Saturday and Sunday. They may not eat/drink enough, so their energy use is way higher than their energy-intake. As a result, they’re often hungry on Monday, which can result in them eating more (and less healthy) food during the day than they actually want.

Is nutrition important enough when training and supporting athletes?
There is more and more attention for the field. It’s hard to see them as separate, because if you increase the scope and/or intensity of training you’ll also need to modify your nutrition accordingly. Because of that, the cooperation between trainers and nutrionists is getting better and better.

You’ve worked for cycling teams like Giant Alpecin (Team Sunweb) – what’s the role that nutrition has there?
Nutrition has to play a bigger role in order to perform at the highest level. Getting the entire team to speak the same “language” is the biggest challenge there. As a nutrionist you might advise the team to consume 90g worth of carbohydrates per hour during heavy duty training sessions, but the rider, team manager and the soigneur all have to understand what the desired effect of that is.

Do all athletes benefit equally from a targeted approach towards nutrition?
Structured and regular nutrition is crucial, and it’s how you ensure a match between the energy consumption of the baby and the energy intake of the athlete. We don’t just suddenly gain 10kg – that takes time, and you have to give yourself the time to change your behavior accordingly, because we’re likely talking about patterns that have been there for years. A comparison I like to make is that you don’t just win the Tour de France – the body has to be well trained to withstand the physical stress, but also to handle the large amounts of nutrition that you’ll need to recover during the race.

What are some mistakes that are often made?
People underestimate the impact, which in some enthusiasts causes a structural energy deficiency combined with a low intake of carbohydrates while exercising. They often realize that things aren’t working out as they should, but they can’t quite pinpoint what the reason for that is. Taking in extra food often feels like extra ballast for them, meaning its an additional load of kcal that they’re have to burn off again.

Rob van der Werf

How does your own experience as a marathon cyclist help you?
I like that I can feel what the athlete feels: working towards a goal and doing or leaving everything that’s needed in order to get there. The road towards that goal is often full of obstacles, whether it’s getting to the podium during the IronMan in order to get to Kona, or riding a cyclo event.

Chasin’ the Sunset is 300 km per dag for three days – what’s the role nutrition plays there?
It will have a crucial role in feeling good while sitting on the bike the next day. If the body isn’t trained for this – and I’m not just refering to the physical condition but also the gastrointestinal system – you might experience a range of problems, from gastrointestinal issues to dehydration. You have to know what you’re doing and how it impacts the body, and let’s not forget that weather conditional can also play a large part in all this.

What advice can you give athletes looking for new goals in 2021?
Start thinking in possibilities! I’ve noticed that I’m spending less time on the road, and that’s given me more of an opportunity to balance exercise and relaxation. You always hear that fitness and health are important, so try and set yourself a realistic goal. Account for how (un)trained you currently are, and take up that challenge with yourself. One thing that’s certain is that it won’t magically happen, but that’s also one of the nice things about challenges: how are you going to adapt, and how flexible are you?