Implementing good fueling practices before, during & after races will optimize performance & recovery...
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In my first post, I covered the fundamentals of nutrition for athletes seeking to maintain a healthy diet. Just as important as balancing all the micro and macronutrients is timing nutrient intake to ensure the body can utilize the energy most effectively. Implementing good fueling practices before, during and after hard workouts and races will optimize the body’s ability to perform and recover.
Nutrition before a run is about setting the body up for success. Proper eating beforehand prevents hunger and hypoglycemia, or low blood sugar. When an athlete performs on an empty stomach the ability to maximize performance and reap the most from the workout severely decreases. Carbohydrates are the energy source that the body most readily uses for fuel. The body stores carbohydrates as glycogen in the muscle and liver, and in the form of blood glucose. During initial exercise, the liver can supply the brain with enough glucose to cover the muscle’s increased need so that blood glucose levels remain stable. But as exercise continues, the muscle glycogen stores become depleted, and the body turns to blood glucose as an alternate source of carbohydrates. The rate of glycogen depletion varies with each athlete and depends on the duration and intensity of exercise. When the liver can no longer keep up with muscle glucose up-take during exercise, hypoglycemia sets in, marked by symptoms like feeling cranky, inability to think clearly, headaches, confusion, fatigue, and nervousness.
Consuming carbohydrate-rich foods and fluids in the 3-4 hours preceding a training run or race helps to restore liver glycogen, especially in the morning when the liver is depleted from an overnight fast. To avoid potential gastrointestinal distress when blood is diverted from the gut to the exercising muscles, the carbohydrate and energy content of the meal should be reduced the closer to exercise the meal is consumed. If breakfast is difficult to eat prior to an early morning workout, studies show that consuming just 30g of easily digestible carbohydrates five minutes before exercise may improve performance. Thirty grams is equivalent to a banana, an energy gel, or 16 ounces of a sports drink like Gatorade. It is advised to avoid eating any food that has a high amount of fat, fiber, or protein as these nutrients slow down digestion, increasing the likelihood of gastrointestinal distress. When there is food in your stomach, blood that could be supplying oxygen to the muscles must be rerouted to aid in digestion.
60-90 minutes will refueling with a snack to prevent blood glucose from being used as a source of carbohydrates. Eating during training or racing is different for every athlete; the trick is to find what works for each individual. The simplest response in answering the question of what to eat during exercise is some form of easily digested carbohydrate. Ten miles into a 50-mile race is not the time to be thinking about macros and whole grains. Gummy bears, raisins, GUs or other synthetic gels are quick sources of glucose for muscles and the brain (and they are easily carried). For a more natural route, bananas, raisins, and boiled, baked, mashed, or roasted potatoes and yams work well, too. But be realistic; when you’re zipping down the trail, peeling a banana, or chewing raisins might not be the most practical. Experimenting with different snack options during your training runs is crucial to find the fueling strategies that are the easiest and most convenient for you before the actual race. There is no one right way to fuel during competition, but an athlete should get to know her gut during training to avoid any unnecessary suffering when performance counts.
Like a muscle, the gut is trainable and adaptable when faced with repeated challenges resulting in less problems when eating while running. A recent article in Sports Medicine reviews the evidence that the gastrointestinal system can adapt through nutritional training, once again reinforcing the importance of practicing what and when to eat during training runs with race like conditions.
Nutrition after an intense bout of exercise is about recovery and restoration. Post-race is just as important as pre-race nutrition. Although the tendency is to celebrate that hard-earned finish, it is important to fill up on something other than junk food and beer, preferably carbohydrates with some protein to help replace muscle glycogen stores and jumpstart muscle repair.
Research shows that the body is most receptive to replenishing glycogen stores and muscle repair during the immediate time post-exercise. Eating in the first 20-30 minutes to refuel the body as quickly as possible is ideal, but not necessary if the athlete has time to recover before the next workout. For example, if after a workout the athlete does not plan to work out again for at least 24 hours, then she has the whole day to replenish glycogen stores and consume adequate protein. But if running double days or competing in a stage race, then the sooner calories are replaced, the more quickly the body can recover. The goal is to avoid starting the next effort in a depleted state.
Athletes frequently take to the road, traveling for competition. The next post will cover how to be prepared while traveling and tips for staying on top of nutrition when away from home.
Photos: ©Tad Davis
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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Maria Dalzot is a member of the La Sportiva Mountain Running® Team.
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