Fuelling for the long run

Marathoners, triathletes and all other endurance athletes, take note: long distance training doesn’t give you license to eat anything you want. Sure, you’re often hungry enough to eat an entire pizza and the box it came in and, yes, I know you’re losing weight even if you didn’t want to. But did you really think candy bars and donuts would translate to optimal recovery and performance?

When you’re pushing your body to its limits, both in terms of intensity and distance you should consider that whatever you put in your mouth is fuel. Low-grade = subpar performance. It’s as simple as that. You can certainly get by for a while eating french fries for lunch but it’s only a matter of time until it all catches up to you. The better you replenish after a tough workout, the sooner you are ready to hit the next one hard. It’s that consistency that will take you where you want to go. This becomes increasingly important as your goals are set higher and you become more competitive in your athletic pursuits.

For many athletes, the weekend long run or ride can be the most debilitating. It’s the one that tests your endurance and mental toughness; it can also be the one that best mimics race day. This is your weekly opportunity to practice hydration and fuelling strategies not just for race day, but also for race week. Fuelling isn’t only what happens immediately before and during the run, it’s the accumulation of the entire week’s nutrition. You can’t expect to eat processed food all week, have a healthy dinner on Saturday night and then magically perform at your peak on Sunday morning.

Today, let’s talk about the long run and how to avoid the bonk. The bonk isn’t about getting tired because you’re exercising for a longer length of time than you ever have before. It’s about the utter depletion of your energy source, when the glycogen stores in your muscles and liver have fallen to such low levels that it becomes virtually impossible to keep moving at your desired pace. The goal, then, is to ensure your glycogen stores are topped up before that long workout or race even begins.

HOWEVER, this does not mean eating bread and pasta all day long. Overdoing the carbs will not only lead to digestive distress, it will also displace the protein you should be eating to repair damaged muscle tissues as well as the nutrient dense fruits and veggies that supply fibre, vitamins, minerals and antioxidants. These nutrients are necessary to maintain the health of your digestive tract, immune system, bone structure and muscle development. Your daily diet should include a variety and balance of all 3 macronutrients (protein, carbs and healthy fats).

Yes, study after study shows that a high carbohydrate diet is the most effective way to delay fatigue during long distance training. Ideally you are consuming roughly 7-8 grams of carbohydrates per kilogram of body weight (or 3-4 grams/lb). For the 125 pound female that translates to about 375-500 grams; for the 165 pound male it comes to 495-660 grams. These numbers are not easy to reach. It’s generally accepted that we tend to train a little on the depleted side but once you taper and “carb-load” for your event you should be topped up before race day. Your training diet should aim to keep your glycogen stores as high as possible to keep you adequately fuelled, especially for the long runs each weekend.

Here are my guidelines for fuelling up in the days before the weekend workout:

  • Peak athletic performance will occur only when you emphasize health, growth and recovery. The best only way to do that is to emphasis nutrient dense whole foods
  • High glycemic carbs increase blood sugar levels very rapidly. If that glucose is not used immediately, it sends you on a sugar high, followed by a crash and is then stored in your body as fat. Examples of high glycemic carbs: white bagels, pasta, rice, cookies, granola bars and gatorade. Don’t eat these foods.
  • EXCEPTION: you want high glycemic goods immediately before, during and after the workouts. Why? Because you will use that glucose as a source of energy and thereby spare muscle and liver glycogen during the workout.
  • After the workout high glycemic carbs are ideal because your body is most receptive to nutrient intake and restoring glycogen levels in the first 20-30 minutes post-exercise. The sooner you replenish these stores, the more quickly you recover and are ready for the next challenging workout. What you ate after today’s tempo run and what you have for dinner tonight will affect Sunday’s 20 miler.
  • You want to eat plenty of complex carbs every single day outside of the immediate pre- and post-workout time frame. This is when you eat plenty of whole grain breads, oatmeal (NOT the instant fake kind), quinoa, brown rice, fruits and veggies. See this article for further explanation as to why these are the carbs you want to load up on.
  • Fruits and veggies are essential to keep your body alkalinized and to minimize inflammation. Your body counters excess acidity (which can be caused by intense training) by leeching minerals from your bones and muscles. In the long run, this could set you up for stress fractures and injury.
  • Here I  must quote from “The Paleo Diet for Athletes” by Loren Cordain and Joe Friel:  “Every calorie eaten from a less than optimal food means a lost opportunity to take in much larger amounts of nutrients from vegetables, fruits and lean animal protein.  The more serious you are about your athletic performance, the more important this is.”

I know this is a lot to take in. Take a couple of days to think about what you do now and what you can improve. In my next post, I’ll compare a “typical” training diet with an “ideal” diet. Remember, the emphasis is on the quality of the carbs and nutrients you’re taking in. Refined carbs and sugary, processed foods = empty calories, zero nutrition, and quite possibly a bonk.

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