Spring 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.