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Nutrition truths for endurance athletes

Some practical wisdom on endurance sports nutrition from the book is “Endurance Sports Nutrition“, reprinted with permission by Human Kinetics

“You are responsible for experimenting in training (before the actual
event or race) to discover and build a repertoire of acceptable foods
and drinks, and any other supplements, that you will use to meet your
fluid, energy, and electrolyte needs during long-distance events and
races. You must figure out the basics—what and how much you need to eat
and drink and when you need to eat and drink it. Don’t neglect to put
your strategies to the test in various weather conditions at your
intended race pace or intensity.

  • The only way that drinking and eating on the move become automatic
    on the day of the event or race is by practicing beforehand. Aim to be
    consistent and stick with what you know. When your favorite or old
    standby is no longer working, however, you must be willing to try
    something new. If you’re contemplating tackling ultralength challenges,
    you first need to establish smart drinking and refueling habits in
    longdistance events and races.
  • Consider how your body processes foods during exercise. Blood flow
    to the gastrointestinal tract falls as your pace or intensity
    increases, making it harder to digest and absorb foods that you take
    in. In addition, your ability to consume and absorb calories when
    running (because of significant jostling of the stomach) is far less
    (by as much as 50 percent) than when cycling. Rely on simple
    carbohydrates during high-intensity efforts or when you need a rapid
    energy boost. Choose electrolyte replacement drinks, energy gels (take
    with water) and sport chews, glucose tablets, and  if tolerated, soda
    or juice. During longer efforts of moderate intensity, add  solid foods
    and high-calorie liquid drinks to boost your calorie intake and your
  • Refuel frequently instead of eating a large quantity at any one
    time, which diverts blood away from your working muscles. In other
    words, spread your hourly energy needs over 15- to 20-minute
    increments. Don’t try to cram it all down on the hour mark. The best
    sports drinks, high-calorie liquid drinks, energy gels, and energy bars
    for you are the ones that go down and stay down.
  • Hitting the wall means that you have essentially depleted your
    muscle glycogen stores. Your legs (and other major muscle groups) have
    gone on strike, even though you may have been consuming adequate fluids
    and calories. Your training, or lack thereof, improper pacing, and
    general fatigue can contribute to this phenomenon. You will often be
    able to continue and finish, albeit not with the desired performance.
  • Bonking, when the body completely shuts down because of a severe
    drop in blood sugar, is a much more serious situation. The glycogen
    stored in muscles and the liver is essentially gone. Muscles and, more
    important, the brain are not receiving sufficient fuel. If left
    untreated, you may become increasingly irritable, confused, and
    disoriented. You could find yourself sitting or lying down and could
    possibly lapse into a coma. Stop whatever activity you were engaged in
    and boost your blood sugar by consuming readily absorbable
    carbohydrates, such as sports drinks, energy gels, soda, fruit juice,
    or glucose tablets, if available. Seek or ask for medical attention if
  • The best way to avoid bonking is to create a calorie buffer. Liquid
    calories in the form of electrolyte replacement drinks and high-energy
    liquid products are favored because they tend to be well tolerated and
    require less effort to get down than solid foods do. Large male
    endurance athletes often have to consciously work to consume enough
    calories (for example, as much as 500 calories per hour of prolonged
    cycling as compared to 300 calories per hour for smaller female
    athletes) to stay in energy balance.
  • Athletes who struggle with sensitive stomachs and other
    gastrointestinal problems are advised to learn beforehand what sports
    drink will be served during races and organized events. They can then
    train with that product or, if they will have access to water, carry
    their own acceptable powdered sports drink in premeasured baggies and
    reconstitute it along the way.
  • The less fit you are, the fewer shortcuts you can take. Knowing
    what you can survive on and still perform well with comes with
    experience. If you are less fit or less efficient (a novice rider or
    trail runner, for example), you need to drink and eat on a regular
    schedule. Set your watch or bike computer and train yourself to drink
    every 15 to 20 minutes and refuel every 30 to 60 minutes to keep pace
    with the energy that you’re expending.”

How to recover after hard cardio

You’ve finished your long aerobic bout, you’re breathing hard, you’re thristy, and you know your body needs something to help recover?  What’s best for recovery after a hard aerobic bout?

The following except comes from Diets Designed for Athletes , reprinted here by permission of Human Kenetics.

“Recommendations on protein recovery products emphasize the importance of high-glycemic carbohydrates. Don’t forget that carbohydrates help make the most of the protein you ingest to aid recovery. Also note that protein affects the rate of absorption of carbohydrates you consume to aid your recovery after an endurance workout.

Protein’s main job may be to help you build and maintain muscles, but you need carbohydrates to fuel them. If you’ve

been running, cycling, or doing any intense cardiorespiratory exercise for more than an hour with your heart working at 60 to 80 percent of maximum, then your liver and muscle glycogen levels might be very low. During the sustained activity, as well as in the hour or two after the activity, a product that helps bring your glycogen levels up can serve you well. You also lose water and sodium during endurance activities, particularly if you do them in the heat, and you affect the balance of your other electrolytes: potassium, calcium, magnesium, and chloride.

There are two ways to address glycogen depletion, dehydration, and electrolyte imbalance with performance-enhancing products: a specially formulated drink or a combination of water and a sports food. The first thing to note is that drinking something is always part of the process. Figure 3.1 highlights the importance by illustrating how dramatically performance diminishes with fluid loss.

If you use a sports drink during an event to aid recovery as you go, be sure it has a low carbohydrate concentration (around 6 percent). Ideally, it should have 14 to 19 grams of carbs per eight-ounce serving—6 to 8 percent. Anything with a carbohydrate concentration greater than 10 percent can be used as part of a carbohydrate loading program, but you want to stay away from high-carb products around race time, because they can cause diarrhea, nausea, or cramping. On the other end of the spectrum, a drink with a concentration of 5 percent or less won’t give you the boost you want.

Follow these broad guidelines on what to look for in sports drinks products and what to stay away from. First, don’t choose a drink that’s carbonated, contains a stimulant, or is full of refined sugar, like a cola drink or one of the clear, bubbly beverages that gives you a jolt from either caffeine or herbs. Second, remember that water alone isn’t enough to support your full recovery after an endurance workout or competition. These insights are based on research and on the experience of elite athletes interviewed for this book.

One piece of research (Brouns, Hawley, and Jeukendrup 1998) studied the effects of different rehydration drinks on competitive cyclists. After their workouts, some of the cyclists were given caffeinated soft drinks, others low-sodium mineral water, and others a carbohydrate-electrolyte solution—a sports drink. The athletes who drank the soft drinks and the mineral water showed a marked loss of every one of the electrolytes. Moreover, the athletes who consumed the soft drinks were at a further disadvantage, because the caffeine provoked urination; essentially, it dehydrated them even more. (Other stimulants, such as ephedra, have the same effect.) In contrast, the athletes who ingested the sports drinks were able to rehydrate and boost their sodium, magnesium, and calcium levels. The drink did not affect their potassium and chloride levels, however. (That deficit will be addressed separately.) The study concluded that drinking water or soda with caffeine after a workout results in a negative electrolyte balance. Consuming a carbohydrate-electrolyte drink with moderate amounts of sodium, magnesium, and calcium definitely helps an athlete recover.

Regarding the carbonation issue, consider that part of your body’s natural process of producing energy relies on the oxygen (O2) you breathe. A byproduct of the process is carbon dioxide (CO2). You don’t want a lot of carbon dioxide in your system because it’s poisonous to cells. It’s important to eliminate the excess, which you generally do through normal cardiovascular processes (blood flow and heart action) and respiratory processes (breathing). Endurance athletes, such as marathon runners, however, demand more than normal functioning from the body. When you push hard aerobically for an extended period of time, you tax your body’s ability to eliminate excess carbon dioxide, and you face a potential CO2 buildup. As your body works to eliminate the extra CO2, don’t choose a recovery drink that’s carbonated—that is, a beverage made bubbly by the infusion of CO2 gas. Ironically, you will sometimes see beverage companies offering bubbly drinks during and after races. At the very least, dilute any carbonated beverage by adding an equal amount of water before your drink it. Otherwise, beware of the most obvious negative reaction: carbonation can cause stomach bloating. In short, you may feel lousy in addition to the beverage not providing the benefits you seek.

Carbohydrate recovery drinks include these options:

  • Powders you mix with water; the amount can be easily adjusted depending on your taste and on whether you consume the drink during or after the event
  • Premixed drinks with a prescribed concentration of carbohydrates and other nutrients and additives; in terms of both composition and packaging, these drinks are usually better suited for use after workouts.

There are other ways to view your drink options, too, particularly in light of the electrolyte discussion. They concern sodium, calcium, and other elements in the drink; herbs for different aspects of recovery; and patented (or patent-pending) formulas that distinguish one carbohydrate mix from another.

Research (Maughan and Shirreffs 1998) has shown that electrolyte loss is a personal matter. The optimum drink for you may be quite different from that of another athlete. This fact is one reason why some top trainers persistently believe that athletes don’t lose enough electrolytes in the first 90 minutes of intense aerobic exercise to require any recovery fluid except water. At the same time, there is widespread agreement that ingesting either carbohydrate drinks or water and a carbohydrate bar, for example, replenishes lost glycogen. The electrolyte research cited previously reflects current thinking that replenishing some of the electrolytes is not only desirable but also necessary for endurance athletes. Your individual metabolism, temperature, and level of exertion all influence the electrolyte loss, however, so the same drink with the same concentration of carbs and electrolytes won’t be ideal for every athlete or even for the same athlete under different conditions.

This variability is one of many reasons you should keep a log to help you refine your workout regimen and your choices of sports food. Pay attention to how you feel after a brutal cardiorespiratory workout, and adjust the amount of fluid you take in according to how you feel. Signs of electrolyte imbalance include fatigue, tremors, diarrhea, and nausea.

The following are electrolytes:

  • Sodium
  • Potassium
  • Calcium
  • Magnesium
  • Chloride

Generally speaking—and this is just a benchmark number—a good sodium level for a recovery drink is 100 to 110 milligrams for every eight ounces. Take a look at what’s out there: the sodium (Na) content in sports drinks ranges from around 10 milligrams to well over 100.

Research indicates that you don’t sweat out vitamins, so even though you should take vitamins to support your athletic goals, your recovery drink doesn’t need to include them.”