Endurance Training Nutrition 201

By Jessica Poole, Certified Athletic Trainer
How to use your diet to further your training for an endurance event -- that is the question today.

And here is my answer in as few words as possible.

A disclaimer: nutrition is a whole college degree in itself. I am an athletic trainer, so if you want nutrition advice tailored to your situation, it would be best to work one-on-one with a sports nutritionist or registered dietitian who specializes in sports. Treat the information below as general guidelines.

Fact #1: Just because we are exercising at a high level, we cannot necessarily eat when ever and what ever we want all the time.

We have to make sure we balance the great tasting with the healthy. We must make sure we are eating at the proper times and intervals to optimize our performance demands.

How is this accomplished? Well, that is a tricky question. Nutrient demands are dependent upon the individual and their training load. Gender, body mass index, metabolic rate, training duration intensity and type, prior caloric intake and output all play a factor in what the athlete needs in a given day. 

We need to know our energy needs and expenditure in a given training day. We must be cognizant of what we take in, deplete and replace. The most important factor is to take in enough calories to have the energy to excel and meet your potential as well as enjoy your sport.  Today’s blog will highlight some information to help you do just that.

Guidelines to Prevent “Hitting a Wall”
One of the major problems endurance athletes encounter is “hitting a wall” with training. They get fatigued, lethargic, drop their intensity levels during a training session, drop duration of training or cannot put forth desirable or adequate effort in training.

This is attributed to glycogen depletion (put simply: you don’t have enough carbs stored in your body). You simply do not have the necessary energy levels to keep up with training. Understanding when and what to eat becomes necessary.

So let’s begin with recovery. I find it simpler to wrap my head around a 24-hour recovery session that starts when you end your event and finishes when you are taking your first movement in your next training session. 

We need to remember that 60-80 percent of our caloric intake should be carbohydrates. One could also look at it as 4.5-5.5 grams of carbs* per pound of weight (10-12g/kg of body mass) in every 24-hour period. So a 150-pound person would need 675- 825 grams of carbohydrates each day.

Start with Recovery

In the first 30 minutes after training ends, begin replacing carbohydrates. A simple 32 oz. sports drink (56 grams of carbs plus electrolytes and hydration) gets the ball rolling. At this time there are low stores of sugar in the body and the resynthesis of glycogen (stored sugar) begins at this point and lasts for a few hours. Now is optimal time to refuel.

Think of the body as a fuel tank. Now is the time to fill it back up. Waiting results in the tank being 2/3 full at the beginning of your next session. You begin that session behind and this deficit only gets greater.

Within two hours sit down and have a meal with protein and carbohydrates. Again, this obtains that full tank, preventing huge deficits in calories and essential nutrients needed for fuel.  If a meal is not obtainable, then a food source rich in protein and carbohydrates is acceptable (whole wheat bagel with peanut butter, milk, fruit, Gatorade)

Make sure to rehydrate as well. This will easily come with the previously mentioned advice, however, remember to also consume enough fluid to replace what was lost due to heavy sweating.

After the two hour period, continue with healthy eating habits to consume adequate calories to support your training endeavors. Remember the first two to six hours are the “golden opportunities” to adequately refill your tank.

Pre-Training Meal

Next, depending on schedule and eating preferences before working out, you have a decision to make.  The pre-training meal. What and how? Below are three options.

  • Option A: About 3-4 hours before training, if you have time, or prefer, make sure you take in 1.5-2 grams of carbohydrates* for each pound of body mass. Make sure they are dense foods and low in fiber. This tends to work best for people who train at noon or later.

  • Option B: About 2 hours before training. What if your training is early in the morning? Many of us like to train early and don’t really like getting up at 3 a.m. to eat a meal in order to run at 6 a.m. (Okay, so maybe I am stretching it that you like to get up at 4 a.m.!) Here is the 2-hours-prior-to-exercise recommendation. Consume one gram of carb*/pound of body mass. These need to be quick digesting carbohydrates and low in fiber. Carbs in a liquid form will be easiest to consume. So maybe have a Gatorade to sneak in some hydration, and a low fiber fruit or vegetable or whole grain.

  • Option C: About one hour before training. For those who love to sleep or have a tight schedule or if you can eat and run and not puke, one hour prior to a training session may be when you can take time for a snack. Make sure to grab about 1 gram of carb/pound of body mass and make sure it digests quickly.

During the event
During your event you may find you need to replenish your energy. Usually within the 45- to 75-minute window a sports drink will replace the carbs you need. For an event lasting over an hour to two and a half hours, 30-60 grams of carbs* should be consumed. For over 2.5 hours, 80-90 grams of carbs* should be consumed. This will involve gels, waters, blocks or simple sugars that are easy to eat on the move. Test these before your race!

Final thoughts and reminders
  • Refill your tank. This begins once you finish training
  • Use a food and exercise journal to document your eating and training and energy levels. This may tip you off to good and bad habits and poor energy consumption.
  • Snack or graze nutritiously. Because you need so many nutrients in a 24-hour period for adequate recovery, you may need 4-6 small, nutritious meals.
  • Yogurt, shakes and smoothies are a great and quick way to get your nutrients all in one place.
  • Sports drinks are optimally formulated to empty from the stomach quickly while exercising. They are formulated to be the exact glucose need that the body can handle and use quickly. (Thank you Florida for Gatorade! In all other respects, GO DAWGS!)
  • If you are confused, need help determining more precise caloric intake numbers or need more advice seek the help of a registered dietician or sports nutritionist.  
  • Check out the textbook: Ryan, M. (2012). Sports nutrition for endurance athletes. Velo. All of my information comes from this text as well as numerous other studies and readings rumbling around in my head.

Stay healthy my friends. Happy racing!

*Carbohydrate examples:
8 oz. nonfat cow’s milk contains about 12 grams of carbs
a medium banana contains about 27 grams of carbs,
a 32-ounce sports drink contains about 56 grams of carbs
a whole wheat bagel (Lender’s brand, 81 grams) contains about 35 grams of carbs

For Jessica’s previous posts about fitness, use the blog’s search box, above on the right, and type in Jessica Poole.  To learn more about Gwinnett Medical Center’s complete sports medicine program, including our Running Clinic, visit gwinnettmedicalcenter.org.


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