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, better known as Alex, was born in Bologna on 23 October 1966. He’s married to Daniela, and they have a son, Niccolò. His first steps in the racing world were aged 14, when he took up go-karting. Over the next eight years, he won three national and one European title. In 1993, he joined the Formula 1 team Lotus. In 1996, he became part of the Chip Ganassi Racing team in the American CART World Championship Series. He managed to win the championship twice. In 1999, he returned to Formula 1, but this time in a Williams. In 2001, while racing on the Lausitzring in Germany, he had a terrible accident and lost both his legs. This could have been the end, but it was a new beginning. In just a few years, his remarkable endeavours took him into the pantheon of Olympic champions. In 2007, he discovered handcycling and entered the New York Marathon. He ended up finishing fourth. Over time, his willpower, enthusiasm and attention to detail were the qualities he truly developed on his road to becoming a multiple handcycling Olympic champion. At London 2012, he took home 2 personal golds in the road time trial and the individual road race. At Rio 2016, aged nearly 50, he cruised to victory in the time trial and the mixed team relay, having trained under the expert eye of Francesco Chiappero and the staff at Equipe Enervit. Between these two Olympics, he also took home golds in various editions of the Para-cycling World Championship. He never forgot his first love though: motorsport. In 2014, he became a BMW global ambassador and also returned to the racing track in the Blancpain GT Sprint Series, driving the official BMW Z4 GT3. He also continued his para-cycling, taking home the World Cup, and the World Championship for the road time trial and road relay, in Greenville, USA. 2014 also marked a critical meeting: Alex Zanardi and Enervit. The latter would be right behind their champion in the most demanding triathlon event of all, the Ironman World Championship Final in Kailua-Kona, Hawaii. He finished in 9:47:14, claiming 273rd place out of 2000 entrants. This challenging event was also the perfect moment to ask Alex to become an Enervit Ambassador. In 2017, he finished the Ironman in Barcelona in under 9 hours. In 2018, he won yet another gold at the Para-cycling World Championship. Then, in the Ironman in Cervia, his finishing time was 8:26:06, claiming the world record for athletes with disabilities on the Ironman circuit. It also meant he took 5th place overall, out of nearly 3,000 competitors. The legend continues.