Last week, I had the pleasure of meeting up with the impeccably dressed Stephen Moon, chief executive of Science in Sport, to talk about sports nutrition and, in particular, how SiS views its role in the fight for a clean sport. We met at Soho’s Bar Italia and over mid-afternoon lattes, we discussed everything from Sir Christopher Hoy to the intricacies of digesting carbs, swabbing factories to dodging the restraining order so I can deliver SiS products to Fabian Cancellara.
Kitty: Sir Christopher Hoy is one of your Official SiS Ambassadors. What is the criteria you use to identify the athlete that you want to work with in this capacity?
Stephen: The first thing we do is consumer research across all the countries where SiS is distributed. Anyone who ticks the box of consumer appeal on a global level is someone worth looking at.
Then we look at them reputationally: what is their stance on banned substances; do they have a genuine interest in nutrition and a desire to develop sports nutrition, in particular; what is their general profile in the sport. Sir Chris Hoy was perfect for us because he actually trained as a nutritionist and is extremely knowledgeable. He’s been to our factory to help us develop a new recovery product and he’s genuinely enthusiastic about helping us in product development.
Then it’s how we feel about them as individuals from an integrity point of view. Sir Chris is very straightforward and people respect him for that. So it’s a mixture of what consumers think, their stance on nutrition and what we think of them personally.
Kitty: So how is the Ask Hoy campaign going?
Stephen: We’ve had 8,000 people who’ve signed up for the Ask Hoy programme and about 7,000 minutes of video clips of him giving advice. Our prizewinner meets Sir Chris in the Glasgow Velodrome for a half day on the track this week so it’s gone very well. Our cardboard cutouts have ended up in some unusual places too.
Kitty: How is it different working with teams, as opposed to individuals?
Stephen: Teams are more complicated to deal with. As SiS is still a small, specialist brand, we feel that we can get more return for our investment if we deal with individuals. It’s easy for a small player like us, with a limited budget, to get lost in the noise of working with a big team that has a dozen or so sponsors and a multi-million pound budget. So we prefer to concentrate on individuals.
That said, we do supply product to most of the teams in the pro peloton. There are some who officially use our product, such as Astana and Katusha, but most of the teams use our product in some capacity.
We also occasionally tailor products for certain teams or riders. This year we tailored products for Mark Cavendish, at his request, and sent them out to France during the Tour. And just for a bit of fun, we made a chocolate protein dessert for OmegaPharma-QuickStep for the Tour as well. You can imagine gels and protein drinks morning, noon and night for three weeks can become quite tedious so we thought we’d give them a treat.
Kitty: Which brings us on to how you make these kinds of products both effective and appealing…
Stephen: You can have the best product in the world but if it doesn’t taste good, the guys won’t use it. Even somebody like Sir Chris, the greatest-ever Olympian on a bike, says it has to taste good – so if a nutrition fanatic says that, it has to be true.
If you’re an athlete and you’re on a bike for seven hours a day, consuming upwards of 7,000 calories, being able to absorb and digest them easily is the most important thing. And the longer the event, the more important that is. One of the biggest challenges for an Ironman participant is how not to be ill on the course – same for a cyclist on a five-hour stage.
Our isotonic gel is a medium carbohydrate product – so it has less carbs than other brands. This means they empty out of the gut and become usable energy very quickly. If you take in some of those gels that are all carbs, they have the consistency of wallpaper paste and they’ll just sit there, resulting in gastric distress. Taking our gels regularly works better than going for one big carb hit.
Kitty: Development in sports nutrition has come a long way and there are so many different products on the market. How does the average Joe know when he or she should start using sports nutrition in their training?
Stephen: Any time you go over an hour in exercise, you need some sort of nutrition, even if it’s just decent hydration. Any longer than that, you’ll need some energy and after an hour and a half’s worth of exercise, you need to start thinking about recovery. I don’t think it’s necessary for a leisurely ride – that’s just a hydration need, but anything over an hour, you should think about nutrition. Our biggest customer is Tesco – and that was nowhere two years ago. People are buying sports nutrition as part of their weekly shop so that says sports nutrition has gone mainstream.
Kitty: What are the big trends you’re seeing these days?
Stephen: There’s a big shift to training on low carbohydrate-high protein diets. When you see a rider whose body composition changes and they lose a lot of weight, that is usually due to a shift to a low carb-high protein diet. It gives the body more lean muscle mass and trains it to use different energy sources than just carbs. More protein is really big in the pro and elite ranks now.
The other big trend is recovery. A lot of people are switching on to the fact that recovery after the race is just as important as energy during the race. Both protein and recovery will run for awhile. There are also some leading-edge energy source products in development and we’re at the forefront for one of those so that’s a trend to watch.
We’re also starting to see tailored nutrition – The Feed from Garmin in the States is a good example. You pay a monthly subscription and all your sports nutrition gets delivered to your door.
Kitty: I would think that something like that, some sort of personalised service, would be quite popular.
Stephen: The more someone moves up the ladder of how serious they are as an athlete – moving up from weekend rider to sportives or into endurance sports, etc – the more they want tailored advice. He or she wants a personal conversation. We’re setting up live chats on our website and we also have our team talking to athletes on the phone about their requirements. These are conversations we’re already having with professionals and we’re rolling that out to serious amateurs.
And it’s a two-way street. Mark Cavendish will ring us up and say, “this is what I’m seeing in the peloton, these are the trends” and that’s really useful in developing products. We’ll regularly talk to him about the things we’re developing and he’ll say yes to this and no to that. That conversation is now filtering down to the national level as well.
Kitty: Do you think this interest in nutrition has been fuelled by the fact that the peloton is looking cleaner these days?
Stephen: We could argue who’s doping and who’s not but in general the shift is towards a cleaner peloton and so teams are realizing that nutrition has to play a much bigger part in their training than it used to.
Kitty: Someone had said a while ago that they believed one of the reasons Sky were so far ahead was because if you’re not relying on EPO or other doping products to get the results you have to rely on everything else.
Stephen: Yes, that’s why it’s lots and lots of small things that make the difference. Right now we’re seeing some teams who are really clued up and knowledgeable about nutrition and some who really aren’t. Soon, as training methods get more sophisticated, they’ll start thinking about round-the-clock nutrition.
Kitty: I’ve noticed that SiS goes above and beyond the industry standards to keep banned substances out of your products. What would happen if a rider got done for a banned substance and he or she believed it was to do with your product? What’s the traceability on that?
Stephen: We’ve got the most comprehensive banned substance regime in the nutrition industry and its roots come from work we did with British Cycling years ago. A lot of manufacturers sample finished product batches only, even though they might not come from their own factories. We make all but two of our products in our own factory, we test all the raw materials, we swab the factory itself and then we test the finished products. We can look at the date and the code of any product and trace its product journey all the way back to the raw materials.
We believe that keeping athletes safe and clean is our priority so we invest a lot more money in that. Our business relies on our credibility with our athletes so if one of our products was ever implicated in a positive test, our business would be shot. We’re confident that we’re providing a clean product and we believe this is our way of playing our role in helping clean up the sport.
Kitty: What’s been your proudest moment at SiS?
Stephen: It would be our unpublicized contribution to the Olympic teams for the London Olympics. We had a lot of very successful Olympic athletes that we helped officially and unofficially and I don’t just mean Great Britain. We came out of the Olympics feeling very good about that.
Kitty: So what about a few of your personal favourites. What’s your favourite race?
Stephen: The Giro. It’s the spiritual home of road racing. The course is always more challenging, there’s more real racing and less dead stages. It really captures the romance of cycling.
Kitty: And your favourite rider?
Stephen: Mark Cavendish. I think he’s on track to be the all-time greatest stage winner in pro cycling, but I also like his straightforwardness, which is refreshing. I think sport in general is breeding overly sanitized athletes and I think he always speaks his mind and brings it back to reality. He’s very meticulous to work with. I spoke to him about a month ago and he was already planning, in earnest, his training and nutrition for next year. Incredibly focused.
Kitty: Last but not least, SiS made one of my favourite films, actually – Full Gas with Fabian Cancellara. Next time you guys are sending him his nutrition products, you’ll call me and let me deliver it, right?
Stephen: No problem. Next time we have a delivery going out to him, I’ll make sure you’re taking it.
Kitty: That’s the right answer, Stephen. Make sure I’m going #kingClass on Swiss Air, please.
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(Main photography by Kitty and Alex Oates)