Fueling Your Goals

March 22, 2010

MarySpring is starting to make itself seen, little by little.  The sun is up a bit earlier and staying out a bit later.  In the colder climates we are watching the snow melt and some early flowers push through the ground.

We are getting the urge to be outside again and tune up our exercise program, whatever that may be.  Time to hop off the stationary bike, jump out of the aerobics studio, step off the treadmill and breathe some fresh air.  If you have not been active, maybe you are thinking about something competitive…your first 5k run, your first triathlon, your first relay race with your pals?

Get your training plan going, get some good Athleta gear to wear outside, and do it!  Don’t forget a key part of that is your nutrition.  You need to plan that just as carefully as you would plan any other part of the workout or competition.  Nutrition strategy is an important key to a successful day whether you workout or compete.  For very long events, nutrition and hydration are major keys to just being able to get to the finish line.

Now, don’t be saying, “Oh, I don’t need to worry about that.  I am just going 3 miles.”  You are right that you shouldn’t have to worry about it.  You should have a plan based upon the science and follow your plan, no worry involved.


Let’s deal with fluids first, cause they are really simple!  If your weight after exercise as compared to your weight before (in your birthday suit) is more than one pound less, then you did not consume enough fluids and salt to make up for sweat losses. As for salt intake, unless you have severe kidney disease, salt comes out in your sweat so you must consume more to replace it, often much more. Failure to consume enough salt with ultra-distance training almost always leads to major muscle cramping problems. There is a piece of unsound advice out there that you should be aware of. That is to drink lots and lots of water to do anything from “cleanse your system,” “flush out toxins,” or “drink at least a glass of water at each stop, and you will do fine in the marathon.” Most female athletes need at most 20-28 oz of electrolyte solution per hour (after the first hour of exercise) to meet their fluid/salt needs indefinitely. Just ask any woman who has done an endurance event longer than 5 hours. In fact, excess water (not electrolyte drink) intake, far above your needs, can lower body sodium levels to the point of unconsciousness or even death from swelling of your brain (look up dilutional hyponatremia). Nothing about that is good!


It should go without saying, but you need to have fuel in your tank before you start your workout.  So, be sure and have breakfast (the most important meal of the day) or lunch (if you are an after work exerciser).  If you are training for a race, you should try to get at least some of your workouts done in the morning, so you can practice and refine your breakfast plan for race/vigorous exercise day.  It is important to find a combination of carbs, and a little protein that you can digest and that will not upset your stomach with exercise. You should eat at least an hour before a hard workout or race. Don’t do anything different on race day.

A good breakfast will have some carbs, some protein and very little fat.  My favorite (and only) race/training day breakfast is a whole wheat bagel or English muffin with peanut butter, yogurt and a banana.  If it is race day, I bring the banana with me to the race site.  If you regularly drink coffee, have your coffee, but not too much. One price of too much coffee is gut upsets with vigorous exercise.

In general, if your workout is longer than an hour, you need calories.  These calories can be liquid, gel or solid, depending on what your system will accept and what tastes good to you.  If you are exercising vigorously, you will probably need 200-250 calories an hour, starting in the second hour.  (This assumes your ate breakfast or a meal within 2-3 hours before your workout.)  If you are racing, you may need 250-300 calories an hour.  Ultra-distance athletes (races of 5 hours or more) will not be able to eat enough to replenish their nutrition needs during the race and will spend several days making up for this deficit.  (That sounds fun, right?)

Be sure to check the labels of the products to see that you are taking in enough calories to fuel your body.  The current fad is the “no calorie” or “low calorie” drinks.  These products simply give you electrolytes (which is good) but no calories (which is bad).  How can you expect your muscles to work for you if you don’t feed them?  Electrolytes are not food.  They have no calories and are not a source of energy.

Trying different products during training insures that you will have confidence on race day or during long training days that your gut will behave itself and you will be giving your body the nutrition it needs to do what you want it to do.

If you exercise for more than 2 hours, and do not take in enough carbohydrate calories, then you will simply run out of gas! It feels terrible, and in long distance racing is called a “bonk.” Exercising can burn significant fat, but remember that “fat burns in a carbohydrate flame,” and when you are going at your max, burning your own fat probably cannot supply more than 20% of your energy needs.


Guess what is the number one reason women participate in their first triathlon?  Answer: to lose weight.  So, there you are on your first day out there, doing your bike workout or run workout for 2 hours, you come home and quickly jump on the scale…SCORE!  Three pound weight loss!  (Is this an awesome sport or what?!)  The next morning, on the scale…the weight is back.  What happened?  Most likely you didn’t take enough to eat or drink and that 3 pound loss  was dehydration.  (Sorry for the bad news.) Dehydration occurs in cold weather as well as warm weather.

It is essential to replace the energy/calories you have burned, and the sweat you lost during your workout.  If it is a workout of over 1 hour, you will need to replace calories during the workout, as well as hydrate.  In workouts of less than one hour, you can generally get by with hydration only and possibly with just water.  But, you will need to eat within 20-30 minutes after the workout, to replenish your glycogen stores that have been burned.

Research has shown that those first 20-30 minutes after exercise is the “window of opportunity” when your muscles will best absorb the nutrients you are feeding them.  Current guidelines recommend 1-1.2 grams of carbohydrate per kilogram of body weight and 6-20 grams of protein. Short workouts don’t require this, but the longer the workout, the more important this fact becomes. If you are training regularly and hard, especially if your regimen is over 5-6 hours per week, failure to consume enough calories can lead to chronic glycogen depletion and poor performance. Also, not taking in calories right after a big exercise bout can lead to excessive hunger and needless calorie ingestion later. Those later calories can be deposited as fat instead of refueling your glycogen levels.

What should you eat after a workout?  If you read the triathlon, running, biking magazines, each advertiser touts his drink or bar or gel as the key to your recovery.  I encourage my athletes to eat “real food,” when possible.  A turkey or tuna sandwich on whole wheat bread will work.  How about a peanut butter sandwich?  Try some whole wheat crackers and hummus.  Leftovers are often a great post-workout snack.  Just be sure you have lean protein with your carbohydrate.  And don’t forget to hydrate.

If you can’t get to your real food, be sure to check the ingredient list of the recovery food or drink you have chosen.  You would like to recognize each ingredient.  If you can’t pronounce it, maybe you don’t want to consume it.  Be on guard against things like palm kernel oil, high fructose corn syrup, glycerin, and sugar alcohols such as mannitol, sorbitol, xylitol.  The palm kernel oil (often in the icing on bars) is a saturated fat and these fats need to be avoided, in general.  High fructose corn syrup actually stimulates your appetite. (When you start reading ingredient labels, you will see it in nearly every processed food from your crackers and spinach dip to your cookies and ice cream.)

Glycerin is a commercially produced alcohol.  It contributes to calorie and carbohydrate totals, but often these are not included in the labeling.  The sugar alcohols can cause digestive misery.  None of us want that.  And, be on the lookout for caffeine, if you are sensitive to that or would just rather take it in your cup, not your energy bar or gel.

Lastly, let’s get back to that scale and the missing three pounds after your first race/big workout. The scale is a fairly poor judge of your improving fitness with regular endurance exercise. Between daily variations in your state of hydration and your menstrual cycle changes, focusing on your daily weight can drive you crazy. Training consistently will change your body composition in a good way. Muscle weighs quite a bit more than fat, so how you fit into a pair jeans that had gotten too tight will be a better gauge than the scale. As my husband always says, “a hard woman is good to find.”

If we want to be successful in reaching our goals, we need fuel to have the energy to get there!

For more information about recovery nutrition, read Aimee’s article Workout Recovery Nutrition. For even more good information about nutrition check out Nutrition Periodization for Endurance Athletes by Bob Seebohar, MS, RD, CSCS.


  • Reply Catherine Dickson March 22, 2010 at 1:21 pm

    Wow, Mary! You are right on here!! Thank you for your valuable words, specificity, and wisdom shared, most of all!!!! Beautifully said and written.

    Living a life in something physically active wrapped in abundant learning is soo totally awesome and endlessly inspiring to say the least. Let’s go gettum girls, (and guys, too! 🙂 summer is coming…really soon.

    P.S. Yes, I can’t wait to put my Athleta wear on and go, go, go—!!!! I feel soo-o good in it!!!!

  • Reply anne marie March 22, 2010 at 1:33 pm

    nice post on nutrition. and perfect for me right now as I’m realizing i dont get enough calories of the training i’m marked to do.

    and I love bob seebohar! great book rec. i may just have to actually get it now!

  • Reply Gail March 22, 2010 at 4:06 pm

    Great post. Valuable info.

  • Reply sheila March 22, 2010 at 7:04 pm

    very valuable and informative! the electrolyte/carb/excess water info was helpful.

    “In fact, excess water (not electrolyte drink) intake, far above your needs, can lower body sodium levels to the point of unconsciousness or even death from swelling of your brain (look up dilutional hyponatremia). Nothing about that is good!”

  • Reply jean March 23, 2010 at 10:09 am

    Gee Mary~Thanks for all the valuable info.

    ‘Also, not taking in calories right after a big exercise bout can lead to excessive hunger and needless calorie ingestion later. Those later calories can be deposited as fat instead of refueling your glycogen levels.’

    Now I now why I wanted to gorge later on when I didn’t eat enough right after my ten mile run/walk!

  • Reply Katie March 23, 2010 at 10:17 am

    Great article Mary!

    Anyone have any gluten-free favorite training or recovery foods?

  • Reply Catherine Dickson March 23, 2010 at 1:55 pm

    Hi Katie,

    As an endurance weightlifter, I use L-Glutamine, an amino acid supplement powder that aids my muscle recovery, eliminating any soreness. I take it mostly pre-workout (and sometimes after my workouts depending on how I feel).

    I hope this helps you. For me, I do consider it ‘food’ since I mix it readily into my steel oats every morning. Glutamine is listed as a safe gluten free food, see link below for details. 🙂

  • Reply Kristi March 24, 2010 at 11:51 am

    Thanks for this! I’ve been training for my first half marathon and noticed last few weeks that I’m struggling with hydration and fuel to keep going once I get past 6 miles. But so confusing to figure out what you don’t need/do need. This helped alot 🙂

  • Reply stargirl65 March 24, 2010 at 12:58 pm

    Medical studies have conclusively shown that carbohydrate drinks improve extended exercise performance over water. Many of the deaths during/after races are due to hyponatremia (low salt) or electrolyte abnormalities (low potassium and others).

    Another good after race snack later in the day. Chocolate milk. In medical studies was helpful in restoring muscles back to shape due to good mix of proteins, sugars, and fats. I would choose skim or 1% over others. This is not recommended during a race though. 🙁

  • Reply Mary DeLaney March 24, 2010 at 1:54 pm

    I completely agree with all of you! Excellent feedback and it is very clear that this is a subject in which so many women (and men) are interested. There is a lot of pseudo-science out there, so it is important that you get solid information and not be influenced by the “latest and greatest” product. Remember that if it appears too good to be true, it most likely is just that! Oh, and yes, two thumbs up for chocolate milk!

  • Reply Aimee Gallo March 24, 2010 at 9:34 pm


    I’m gluten-free, and here are some of my favorites:

    Millet Bread
    Mary’s Gone Crackers
    Perky’s Puffed Rice Cereal (great in homemade trail mix!)
    mashed sweet potatoes
    yukon gold, red, or purple potatoes
    All sorts of fruit!

    Hope this helps!

  • Reply Katie March 26, 2010 at 8:46 am

    Wow, thanks Aimee!

    Some of my favorites:

    Ener-G Tapioca Bread
    Pamela’s Pancake Mix (anything by Pamela is yummy)
    bakked potatoes
    Kind and Think Bars


  • Reply MJ April 8, 2010 at 10:18 am

    Katie and Aimee –

    Always glad to find fellow GF athletes!

    Some of my favorite post-workout eats: on the weekend

    rice cakes or corn cakes with almond butter, raw honey and sliced banana
    baked (microwave) sweet potato with almond butter

    my regular breakfast (post-workout) on work days
    GF oats or quinoa flakes (a recent add to my list) or a combo of the two, with almond milk (instead of cow’s milk), a scoop of rice protein powder, 1T of chia seeds – then I add berries, canned pumpkin, banana, nuts/nut butter, depending on what I feel like and what’s in the house, and sometimes top with a bit of a crunch item like Perky’s Flax cereal or Rice Chex. Quick tip – you can mix all the dry ingredients the night before in a bowl that’s then ready to make. When I use just GF oats, I can even mix all the ingredients (except the topping) ahead of time and stick it in the fridge. Makes a lovely texture, and in the summer, I don’t even heat it, just take it out of the fridge when I’m grabbing my workout drink and let it come to a cool temp instead of cold. That and tepid/iced coffee help cool me off in the summer heat post-workout and shower.

    GF friendly products I use:
    Ultima electrolyte drink
    Hammer Gel and drinks
    some Clif products (not the bars – check labels on all)….I’ve found Clif Roks (protein gobs) to be a great travel companion – I can eat as little or as much as I need at any time.

  • Reply Mama Will Tri April 13, 2010 at 12:17 am

    I am training for my first triathlon and I have been struggling with fueling: Trying different drinks, gels, goos, etc. I’ve had a tendency to stick to Hammer products as I know the order which they are used, whereas the other products out there don’t all seem to cover the entire beginning to end of an endurance race. (It’s all just a bit overwhelming with all the different brands!) I did a ‘mock’ sprint tri this past weekend and had that terrible sloshy stomach as I started out for the run. I had only a little oatmeal early in the morning, water after the swim, water before and after the bike, as well as a 8oz of Hammer Heed before the run. Also, I came home feeling fine, but several hours later was stricken with the worst headache. I assumed it could not be from dehydration as I had plenty of water, the Heed, and a recovery drink after the whole event. I proceeded to take a bottle of water with an electrolyte capsule and that seemed to take the edge off, a little. As you can see, my fueling/hydrating is a hodgepodge. An experienced tri friend suggested that I may have needed more calories during the event. I understand the 100 calories per hour requirement, but where does electrolyte replacement fit in? Should I be consuming say, a 100 calorie gel as well as electrolyte tablets every hour after the first hour?

  • Reply Mary DeLaney April 13, 2010 at 4:17 pm

    Hi Mama!

    First, I want to congratulate you on becoming a triathlete! Only when we move out of our comfort zone and challenge ourselves, do we truly grow!

    So, I am assuming you are racing a sprint for your first tri. There are several things that I can see you might want to change. For short course, you should try to eat more for breakfast, such as a bagel or English muffin with peanut butter, a yogurt and bring a banana with you to the race site. Or find something that works for you. As my mom used to say, “It needs to stick to your ribs!” I think you are starting out calorie depleted.

    A short course triathlete should not require much nutrition during the race. If you have had a good breakfast, then you should take 2-3 bottles of your race drink (not water) with you to the race site. One bottle you will work on as you set up transition and get ready to race. The other will be on your bike and you will drink most of it while riding. If you have had stomach problems, then HEED would not be my choice. I think it is not as easily digested as others.

    I do not recommend you drink much water at all. That gives you no calories, only something to slosh around in your tummy. (YUK!) When you transition to the run, take along a gel (that you have tried in training and know you like) and depending on how long you think it will take you to run, maybe a small bottle of your drink. Get a bottle holder for your waist and have it loaded up with the small bottle and the gel and use them only as you feel the need. If you are hungry, and you have been out on the course for over an hour, take your gel. If you are thirsty, sip on your bottle, but don’t gulp it.

    After the race, eat as soon as possible, ideally within 20-30 minutes. But, absolutely eat something solid. I prefer that over the recovery drink. I like to chew and always crave fat, protein and carbs. It is your body’s way of telling you what it needs. Your headache may well have been the result of hypoglycemia (low blood sugar) depending on what you had to eat (or didn’t) that day.

    Electrolytes are needed when it is a very hot day or if you are a “heavy sweater”. You will know that if, when you come in from a workout, you have salt rings on your workout clothes. Otherwise, you probably won’t need electrolyte tabs for a sprint. But, it never hurts to have them in your bag, just in case.

    The per-hour calorie requirement depends on the distance you will be racing. If mixed according the the manufacturer’s specs, most 20 oz bottles will be 250 cals. (I don’t know on what the 100 calories an hour is based.) One 250 cal bottle on the bike should be sufficient. And then refer to what I recommended for the run.

    There is so much literature out there about nutrition, it is confusing. I like to keep it simple. That is what works for me. And, PS, it is usually the least expensive. (I like to save my money for a new bike or a sweet new outfit from Athleta!)

    Train safe and have fun on the race! Look forward to hearing about your successes!

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