Nutrition truths for endurance athletes

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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
    spirits.
  • 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
    necessary.
  • 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.”