Holistic Sports Nutrition for Endurance Junkies
Endurance Sports Season is here! If you are in warmer climes you may have already completed an event or two, but many athletes are now training for fall races and just beginning to get into situations where fueling during the workout becomes essential to performance.
To deny your body fuel during longer workouts creates a set-up to poor performance and injury. None of us would get in a car and expect to get 800 miles north without refueling along the way; likewise it isn’t reasonable to expect your body to perform for hours without refueling. When engaged in our sport, we often do not recognize cues of hunger because we are so wrapped up in our event or our hunger signals are subdued from the nervous system’s response to high intensity activity. However, lack of hunger doesn’t mean fuel is unneeded.
Our body stores carbohydrate in a form called glycogen. At any given time, we have an average of 90-120 minutes of glycogen stored in our muscles and liver (assuming we are working at 70% effort). When we deplete these stores we hit the notorious “wall” or “bonk”. If you’ve been there, you know what I am talking about.
WHAT’S IN YOUR TANK?
When you hit the wall your legs become leaded weights. It feels as though you are trying to pull your body through thick, waist-deep mud or solidifying cement. Your brain can scream commands all it wants and the body just won’t comply. There’s nothing left to give. On a physiological level, you’ve drained your glycogen tanks. Your body simply cannot break down fatty tissue fast enough to keep up the demand being placed upon it. As energy falters mental acuity and form falter as well, creating a perfect scenario for an injury to occur.
Endurance athletes often are frustrated that fasted training doesn’t produce expected weight loss, or that in lieu of gels, their body won’t revert to Easter’s cheesecake still nestled on the thighs. Fat is not easily burned as a substitute for carbohydrate — in fact, fatty tissue needs either a carbohydrate or protein in order to be able to be burned as energy (“fat burns in a flame of carbohydrate”). Once in a glycogen-deficit, your body will take protein from muscle and convert it to a ketone to do the job – but it doesn’t like it and it doesn’t do it well. In such a state, you HAVE to slow down to keep going. Your performance declines significantly, your overall calorie burn decreases, and you eat away at your muscle tissue to do a paltry job of utilizing stored body fat for fuel. Simply put, carbohydrates are high-octane racing fuel for the human body.
FUELING FOR THE LONG RUN
Training for the long haul means eating for the long haul. The type of fueling the body can handle is dependent on sport, individual digestion, and overall intensity. The higher the intensity, the more difficult it will be to digest complex foods. Those engaged in lower intensity activities (ultra-marathoning, cycling, hiking, walking) are most likely to be able to tolerate real food such as potatoes, bite-sized sandwiches, food bars and solid fruit. As intensity increases, the blood supply to the stomach is diverted to the limbs and digestion is compromised. Simpler, rapidly digesting carbohydrate sources such as dates, dried apricots, oranges, gels, honey, liquid carbohydrate supplements are the preferred fuel source for these athletes.
If you haven’t been fueling and you want to start, you may find your body initially rejects the attempt. Begin slowly and deliberately with a liquid supplement watered down. Increase the concentration until you reach normal dosing, then begin trying half a gel with a lot of water to dilute it down. The stomach can be trained to accept fuel with a little patience and perseverance. What you will discover as a result is significantly increased energy, endurance, and ability to recover.
When choosing commercial gels and liquids, choose brands which avoid the use of preservatives such as sorbates and benzoates as well as artificial colors and flavors. These are cheap and unnecessary ingredients. Give your body the gift of real food whenever possible.
If you are an athlete transitioning from commercial products to real food (remember — there was a time before we knew we had to have specially formulated products!), you’ll want to start slow with quickly digested carbohydrate sources. Fruit is an easy go-to — dates and dried apricots are very portable, mashed melon and orange easy to take, but beware of high doses of fruit — you may experience digestive distress! Play with dried fruit, mashed fresh fruit, potato cubes, pretzels and experiment on lower intensity training days where you will be close to a restroom in case of distress. Again — the transition can be made, but like your mileage you may need to increase it in small doses. I’ve had great success transitioning athletes to real food who have, for one reason or another, had difficulty with commercial products.
Fueling during an endurance activity is an essential step in healthy fitness training. It preserves our muscle tissue, allows us to train more effectively, recover quicker, and have a more enjoyable experience while we are engaged in the sports we love. I’d love to hear your favorite fuels, your personal experiences with fueling, and your own wisdom on the subject!