Holistic Sports Nutrition for Endurance Junkies

Fueling for the Long RunEndurance 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!

12 Comments
Catherine Dickson

June 14, 2010 at 8:15 pm

I love your article (yay, the endurance topic!) Aimee!! Very helpful and informative. What, in your opinion, is the ‘best’ immediate recovery beverage or food for someone feeling lightheaded after a hard yet shorter workout using weights, medicine/swiss balls, machines, the floor, etc.?

I seem to have a few clients on occasion who experience this without having blood pressure issues. Strictly something I feel hovers around the glycogen mention made since the training I do with them is endurance-based and physically demanding in a period of time, typically about 35 minutes in total.

Have any thoughts and/or ideas to share? Much appreciated in advance! 🙂

Aimee Gallo

June 15, 2010 at 10:02 am

I would get a quick, quick carb in right away – preferably something like juice, a gel, or a sweet fruit like mangoes, pineapple, ripe banana. It should make a difference within 10-15 minutes, at which point I would bring in a protein source to prevent a blood sugar crash and facilitate tissue repair. Field test it and let me know how it works for your clients!

Serenity

June 15, 2010 at 5:32 pm

I have heard some controversy about protein shakes. I have two protein shakes a day, combined with some form of whole-food carb, morning and afternoon. It is a whey-based protein shake. The controversy has come from people saying that soy-based protein shakes have a tendency to affect estrogen levels, which for that reason men should stay away from them. I am wondering what your ‘take’ is on what protein shake base foundations are- or if you are in favor at all of protein shakes. I do consume ‘real’ protein at lunch and dinner- like fish, venison, chicken or beef.
Thanks!

Catherine Dickson

June 15, 2010 at 8:15 pm

Sure will and thanks so much for your remedy-based-ideas! The fruit especially sounds feasible in bringing it along to my gym.

Wellness, speed and strength to you and yours always,

Catherine 🙂

Aimee Gallo

June 16, 2010 at 1:52 pm

There are so many variables with protein shakes — quality of the protein, the ability of the individual to digest it, etc. etc.

Research seems to point in favor of whey for it’s immune-boosting and muscle building abilities. Whey protein isolate is favorable over whey protein concentrate, as the lactose and casein have been filtered out, reducing allergic potential. If choosing whey, make certain you are going with an organic source – hormones and antibiotics given to dairy cattle will end up in your protein.

Soy is difficult to digest and, unless it is organic, is most likely genetically modified. There is a huge debate whether or not its estrogenic effect is positive or negative. A lot of that is again a bio-individuality factor – gender, age, genetics, and dietary restrictions will all be play a part in whether or not soy is right for you.

While unprocessed food is always preferable, I have found that many female athletes have difficulty getting enough food in, so protein shakes can be a great starting place or supplemental snack to get started or a go-to source during travel, busy phases, or times of intense increased activity.

Serenity

June 19, 2010 at 10:59 am

Thankyou for your insight on protein shakes.

One of the reasons I have gone to them is that yes, I have had difficulty consuming enough protein. Also as a mom of two small girls, I am often on the go- bringing a protein shake along actually has simplified my life, while still being attentive to my training needs. Packing along a couple chicken breasts just isn’t as easy. 🙂

I have also seen my weight training efforts rewarded with consuming the protein shake after the workout- many thanks to Catherine and others who advised along this road this spring.
Cheers!

Catherine Dickson

June 20, 2010 at 8:27 pm

Hi there Serenity!

Glad to know you’ve benefitted well from the post-workout protein shake. Happy to be of help! 🙂

Many strong wishes for continued health and well-being in days to come. Hope you have a ‘before and after’ pic of yourself. Would love to see your progress at-hand. I’m sure it’s very inspirational and wonderfully encouraging regarding your weight training efforts and accomplishments.

You GO Girl!!! Congrats!!!!

Lori

July 18, 2010 at 3:49 pm

Aimee, I need some advice. I have reactive hypoglycemia and celiac disease (basically an allergy to wheat/gluten) and have been advised to stick to a low carb diet. I keep hitting that wall when I am running and when I keep going I get the ammonia smell (from burning the protein rather than the carbs). Do you have any suggestions for fueling long runs for someone like me?

Aimee Gallo

July 25, 2010 at 12:13 pm

Lori;

This is a tough case, and I can’t give specific recommendations without knowing more about your condition.
How low are your carbohydrates? Which gluten-free sources do you know do not adversely affect your blood sugar?

This is something we can talk about more in detail if you would like to explore specific foods that will work for you. With endurance athletes on limited carbohydrate diets, it’s all about timing, pairing properly and finding sources which do not adversely affect the system.

If you are interested in a complimentary initial consult to review your goals and strategize a plan, feel free to contact me through my website (www.vibrancenutrition.com)

TRISTEN

August 08, 2010 at 5:21 pm

Wow!! I am learning a lot. I am 44yrs old. I have been working out since I was in my teens. Over the past couple years I have realized just how important good nutrition and whole foods have helped me through lifes mind, body and soul changing moments. With so much imformation through out my life I am searching for a simple plan. My most difficult choices come when I walk into my nearest Health Co-op or nutrition store.

My workout six days a week. Most mornings I run on the treadmill, then free weights and sit ups. Other mornings, I pop in a Tae-Bo or Firm tapes…Which later has me going for an evening run.

Question? What is your favorite breakfast suggestion and how long after eating before working out? Also, what Organic Whey Protein Isolate shake do you feel is best for our female bodies after our workout?

Health is a choice….Thank you.

Tristen Price (Boise,ID)

Anna

April 08, 2012 at 4:48 pm

Hi Aimee,

I am an long time endurance runner and typically eat a fairly healthy, well-balanced diet consisting mainly of organic fruits and vegetables, lean proteins and some whole grains. I also tend to eat large amounts of greek yogurt and eggs for additional protein sources, as well as a lot of seeds and nuts.

First, I have heard at times that dairy products should not be a primary source of protein and should be limited – is this in fact true? Also, I have a good friend who does Cross Fit training and often comments that the paleo diet is the way to go. I always assert that this would not give me the necessary carbs needed for endurance training but the argument is that I can get all of my carbs from fruits and vegetables. Do you have any thoughts on this? I struggle with consuming enough food to fuel my body so am always looking for the best approach to be as healthy as possible.

Thanks so much!

Aimee Gallo

April 08, 2012 at 6:18 pm

Hi, Anna!

The only reason I would suggest limiting dairy is due to the highly allergenic potential of dairy products. There are those who argue it is an unnatural food for human consumption (and I can’t disagree with that), but it is a handy and readily accessible form of protein. Many, many individuals have food intolerances and do not know it – symptoms can be vague and difficult to connect to the diet. When we eliminate foods we are sensitive to it can vastly improve our physique and performance. But each person is different, so I can’t say with 100% certainty if dairy is appropriate for you or not without further consultation.

The paleo diet is a fantastic way to transition to a more whole foods diet. Some modifications can be made to make it more suitable for endurance athletes, and this is something I have seen work very well with my clients.

The real question is – are you satisfied with your diet as it relates to your athleticism and physique right now? If everything is working well for you, keep doing what you are doing. A diet based on lean protein, fruit and veg, and whole grain is far healthier than what many athletes consume. If your diet isn’t giving you the results you want or what you believe you are capable of, you’ll need to explore other possibilities to get the results you are seeking.

Best of luck to you, and thanks for asking!

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