Diesel, electric or maltodextrin?

Break a leg by Alex Zanardi

Diesel, electric or maltodextrin? From a fossil fuel, with its potential stored as electricity in a battery, to the most noble of the sugars, which our bodies can use to fuel the combustion in our muscles, I see a link – and I’m not losing my marbles.

Our bodies are quite similar to engines. Well, I should probably say that an engine is a bit like our body. Far simpler, of course, because an engine can only do one thing – burn a single type of fuel, in controlled conditions, to generate energy. We can eat anything, although not everything has the same yield…

Allure of the engine

The engine is undoubtedly one of humanity’s most captivating inventions, perhaps because of this similarity of image and likeness. I have absolutely no intention to make some blasphemous reference to the Lord God, especially because creations made by people almost always have some shortcoming. Exhaust fumes from engines poison the air we breathe. Decades of unchecked exploitation of the earth’s fossil fuels have left environmental pollution…., well, let me put it this way, the bill is coming and it’s far more expensive than we ever imagined.


This is a true issue of our times, but all too often financial matters shoulder and shove their way ahead of what really benefits our planet, of what we, the inhabitants of earth, need. Plus, we all tend to be a little gullible. And the system we’ve created has taught us to look for easy solutions and short-cuts, options that avoid the daily sacrifices of small steps.  Such a system must also, of course, provide us with solutions, or at least sell them as solutions, even when they really aren’t. The future of transport is said to lie along the path of electric cars. Governments seem genuine believers and push incentives to buy full electric or hybrid vehicles.



Electric, knowing is understanding

Let me get back to my line of thinking that draws parallels between an engine and our muscles. An electric car weighs almost twice as much as a normal car. Metaphorically, this is a bit like running a marathon with your wife or husband (if he’s not too big…) on your back!


Let me put it like this. More energy is needed, which clearly has to be generated, but I’m not polluting…because the engine is electric! Okay, but how are you going to recharge your batteries? Increasing the production of electric power is definitely possible, although far from easy as things stand. Only nuclear energy would fit the bill, but the “people” said no when the referendum was held. So what can be done? I certainly don’t want to paint the electric car as the devil, especially because in the city, particularly for busy professionals, it’s a good thing. But what would happen if everyone went out tomorrow and bought an electric car?


Let me hazard a guess! At say, seven or seven thirty in the evening, millions of people would head home for dinner and, at the same time, they’d plug their cars into the grid to recharge the batteries… And then household TVs, microwave ovens and lights would go off.  Streetlights would follow, then signs, automatic booms, traffic lights…even hospitals! Guess what? We’re ignorant. This is not all bad, particularly because everyone has the right to trust people who claim to know about topics we tend to ignore. Perhaps, though, when it comes to some topics, the way such informed people present the facts looks rather like manipulating the less well informed.

Work and nutrition? A wondrous combination!

How often have badly thought out solutions to one problem actually led to further problems? This isn’t the place for such a discussion, but since I’ve already played with our similarity to engines, with our output heavily tied to what we eat, well, this issue is definitely of interest to the readers of these pages. While we might not run on petrol, diesel or even electric power, we have absolutely amazing potential.

The combination of work and nutrition is able not only to improve the performance of our engine but actually change its fundamental features.

Okay, imagine you have to run the 100 m. You’ll need an incredibly powerful engine. It might as well be electric since torque is linear, so acceleration is explosive. Consumption isn’t an issue; nor is battery weight, since you only need to go 100 m. If for every kilogram you add in construction – metal in our metaphor, muscles in the case in hand – your increase in power exceeds what you expend from carrying the extra weight, who cares about the additional kilos?



Glycogen reserves: mix of food and supplements

Leaving aside the metaphor I’ve crafted, a hundred-metre sprinter needs to focus on strength training, short reps at maximum speed, and explosive acceleration, at full capacity. One should never train fasted and never lack protein following training.

Nutrition needs to be carefully studied to ensure one’s body never lacks anything, so it gets used to always giving its best. The experts have told us that using all the resources from our diet for physical training means we won’t get fat, and it won’t harm our health either.

The same holds, at least to some degree, for people who do relatively short races, such as track cyclists or time-trial specialists, where the exertion rarely lasts over 40 minutes. Such athletes can run on premium-grade fuel alone, as far as possible only using the glycogen reserves that our bodies replenish and store through eating properly and using supplements wisely.

Fats: fuel for endurance

Marathon athletes, cyclists who focus on longer distances and, of course, Ironman hopefuls have to deal with a completely different picture. Such drawn out exertions require the body to cherish glycogen reserves and favour fats as fuel.

Fasted training helps our bodies to learn how to do this.  Such bodies need to be lean, with minimal fat, and long, elastic muscles. In my earlier terms, the engine loses some power, but it learns to run efficiently. Lightness becomes a strength. The less one carries around, the more efficiently one can cover long distances.

Well, isn’t this really what our cars should be doing to pollute less? A sort of small Euro 6 diesel. Yes, I mean precisely that diesel that is always vilified as belonging to the polluting past! In truth, using such technology with a light chassis, made of moulded, composite materials – i.e. relatively cheap options – would produce small cars that could do up to 30 km on a single litre of diesel.  Can you see the sort of impact this would have on the environment?



First, the goal

Okay, I’ll be honest, I’ve touched on an array of topics that are seemingly unrelated, but they’re all meant to illustrate how proper common sense can show us the path to take, rather than simply blindly following the latest trend being plugged. It is absolutely vital to carefully think through what our true goal is before deciding on how to get there. Having our destination clearly in mind allows us to choose the tools we truly need, not just the most exotic ones.


The same holds for sport. “What is our goal?” And once this has been decided: «What can we do to better equip ourselves to become better athletes in the chosen discipline?”. We’re not in the realm of science fiction. True experts have explained we can actually change the type of engine that drives our body. Plus, work and nutrition that is based on the work we’ll be doing will help to keep us healthy provided the use of any supplements is in line with the food burnt doing the work in question.

Quality and quantity making the difference

Let’s find out before deciding on the best option, by listening to the right people, in the right critical spirit. I’d be a little suspicious of people who offer too much, too quickly, of people who claim some foods should be banned completely and others can be consumed without worrying about quantities. A high protein diet is never going to help us build muscle mass if, between one nap on the sofa and the next, we do nothing more than jog through the park. Nor will we become as lean as the fastest of the Ethiopians even if we spend a week fasting for a marathon… In both cases, the only thing we’ll achieve is to harm our bodies, because specific foods might not cause harm, but the wrong quality and quantity can.

Overcoming our own ignorance greatly magnifies our efforts.  As does being able to recognise the thousands of snake oil salesmen who appear each day with new recipes based on phantom research.  Being able to bring everything together, to summarise, is also a way of achieving.

No free lunches

If you are reading what I’ve written, I reckon you’ve come to the right place to get your own ideas nice and clear, but not because of what I can tell you. No, it is because of the experts who write in this magazine so passionately and honestly, offering concrete solutions for goals that any of us might have.

Let me end with a saying. These words aren’t my own, but are from Vince Lombardi, one of the greatest coaches in the history of American football: “The only place success comes before work is in the dictionary!

So, all the best in your work ahead. And remember, there’s no such thing as a free lunch!

Alessandro Zanardi, detto Alex, nasce a Bologna il 23 ottobre 1966. Sposato con Daniela, ha un figlio, Niccolò. A 14 anni inizia la sua avventura automobilistica nelle gare dei Go-Kart. In otto anni vince tre titoli nazionali e un europeo. Nel 1993 è in Formula 1 con la Lotus. Nel 1996 entra a far parte del Team di Chip Ganassi nella serie americana CART World Championship Series. Ci resta giusto il tempo di vincere due titoli Mondiali. Nel 1999 torna in Formula 1 a bordo, però, di una Williams. Nel 2001, sul circuito tedesco di Lausitzring, in Germania, un terribile incidente lo priva delle gambe. Potrebbe fermarsi, invece è la svolta. Nel giro di pochi anni, le sue strabilianti imprese lo eleveranno all’olimpo dei grandi campioni dello sport. Nel 2007 scopre l’handbike e si iscrive alla Maratona di New York: il quarto posto è tutto suo. Nel tempo, forza di volontà, entusiasmo e cura nei dettagli sono le qualità che affina sempre di più per fregiarsi del titolo di pluricampione olimpico nell’handbike. A Londra 2012, infatti, porta a casa 2 ori individuali nella cronometro e in quella in linea. E a Rio 2016, alla soglia dei 50 anni, grazie al lavoro svolto sotto la guida del suo preparatore atletico, Francesco Chiappero, e da tutto lo staff di Equipe Enervit, stravince nella cronometro e nella staffetta. Intanto, tra un’Olimpiade e l’altra, raccoglie altri ori nelle diverse edizioni del Para-cycling World Champioship. Tutto questo, senza mai trascurare il suo primo amore: le auto. Nel 2014 accetta di rivestire il ruolo di Ambasciatore di BMW nel mondo e rimette i panni di pilota nel Campionato Blancpain GT Sprint con la BMW Z4 GT3 ufficiale. Prosegue l’attività para-ciclistica e conquista la Coppa del mondo, il titolo di Campione mondiale nella gara a cronometro e in quella a squadre a Greenville, Stati Uniti. Ma il 2014 sigla anche l’importante incontro tra Alex Zanardi ed Enervit, che seguirà il campione nel suo debutto nella gara più massacrante del Triathlon: l’Ironman World Championship Final di Kona, alle Hawaii. Lo chiuderà in 9 ore, 47 minuti e 14 secondi, classificandosi al 273esimo posto su oltre 2000 partecipanti. C’è dell’altro, però: lo sfidante evento si trasformerà nell’occasione giusta per chiedere ad Alex di diventare Ambasciatore Enervit. Nel 2017 completa l’Ironman di Barcellona in meno di 9 ore. Nel 2018 conquista l’ennesimo oro nella cronometro nel Para-cycling World Champioship. E all’Ironman di Cervia, il tabellone sulla linea d’arrivo registra 8 ore, 26 minuti e 6 secondi: record mondiale per gli atleti con disabilità, all’interno del circuito Ironman. Mentre la classifica generale lo vede al 5° posto assoluto su quasi 3000 atleti in gara. Nel 2019, a Emmen, in Olanda, vince il titolo di Campione mondiale di paraciclismo. Una manciata di giorni dopo è all’IRONMAN Italia di Cervia per una sfida che sa di impossibile: cimentarsi nell’IRONMAN Full distance e il giorno successivo tentare il 70.3. Lo scopo? Verificare, insieme all’Equipe Enervit, il recupero e lo stress, in vista di Tokyo 2020. L’impresa riesce alla grande. Batte se stesso e stabilisce il nuovo record mondiale nella Full distance in 8 ore 25 minuti e 30 secondi e termina il 70.3, registrando il tempo di 4 ore 31 minuti e 38 secondi. La leggenda continua.