Friday, September 14, 2012

Endurance race nutrition

One of the questions I hear the most regarding endurance and obstacle racing is "what do I eat"? Food is a hugely important and personal aspect of any athletic event. For many of us, what we eat can make or break our races. Unfortunately, sorting through all of the information available about race nutrition can be almost paralyzing. Here is what I have learned, but be aware that what works for one will be different for someone else.

Lani looking a little uncertain before the Tremblant
I learned this lesson firsthand. Well, OK, secondhand. Last summer my training partner Lani and I ran a 35K on Mt. Tremblant, QUE. This was Lani's first endurance race and she was nervous about her nutrition from the start. Normally, she'll bring a peanut butter sandwich and maybe a banana for a long day and this has always worked well for her. On this day she decided she wanted to do what I was doing since I had had pretty good success with proper fueling for distance events. With an early morning start, I am someone who opts to sleep in and skip breakfast hoping to extend glycogen storage a little, so Lani did too. Not all runners subscribe to this approach, and 15 minutes before the start 2 women who had participated in the event the year before convinced Lani that no breakfast would be a disastrous idea (while I was in the bathroom, of course). By the time I returned, she had pounded nearly a liter of electrolyte/carb/protein drink and was chomping on a Powerbar. Needless to say, her stomach fought back with a vengeance beginning at mile 3 and never let up. She was hardly able to eat anything for the entire race until she got her hands on a banana in the last few miles. I share equal blame in Lani's demise on that day. Rule #1- never, ever try something new on race day.

First and foremost, it is important to know that you will not be able to replace all of the calories, fluid and electrolytes that your body loses during your activity. Your body simply can't process food as quickly as it is burned, so inevitably your body will call upon its reserves to make up the difference. Consuming excess calories, water and electrolytes will not help you: it can actually work against you. So, with that said, here is what I have found works well for me.

#1) Carbohydrates- essential for me for any length of time over 2 hours. You can probably skip feeding for the first hour or so as your glycogen stores will likely carry you through this first hour to two hours. At 5'4" and 120-125 lbs, I generally find I can process about 150 calories in an hour. If it is really hot or I am working really hard, sometimes a little less. During an hour of less exertion, I might be able to sneak 200+ calories without distress.
My preferred choice of carbs are gels, specifically Hammer Nutrition gels, because they are easy to carry and easy to eat. Hammer gels have a complex carbohydrate formula that prevent all of the sugar from being digested immediately followed by a nasty crash about 30 minutes later. Many other companies have started using complex carbs- Gu, Clif, Powerbar are a few. Most of these products have a similar effect, so let flavor and texture be your guide.
Some people prefer to add carbs to their water- aka. sports drinks. These have the same effect, but be careful of the ingredients. Simple sugars process fast and can lead to a crash, while those with complex carbs process slower. I generally look for maltodextrin here as well. Hammer, Gu, Clif, etc. all seem to be making similar products these days. Additionally, many products that come premixed (like Gatorade) contain too much sugar per oz of water. You need water to digest sugar, and a ratio too high in sugar can prevent the body from processing excess sugars. If you must use a premixed simple sugar sports drink, consume equal parts of water with it and be prepared for blood sugar spikes 30-45 minutes later.

#2) Protein- For any event longer than 2 hours of exertion, you need to consider adding protein to your nutrition. At about 2 hours, your body will need amino acids. Without protein in your diet, lean muscle tissue can be cannibalized by your body to release these amino acids. To simplify, this will make you feel yucky and your legs heavy. There are lots of options for protein. If gels work for you, one gel that contains protein is Accelerade. Hammer also makes a couple of powders that can be added to a sports drink or consumed with water that I like: Sustained Energy and Perpeteum. Lots of endurance athletes I know prefer to consume their protein as real food including nuts, peanut butter sandwiches, energy bars, etc. Again, what tastes good is usually your best bet, but you want to make sure that protein is on the menu if you will be out for a prolonged time period. I go with 8 grams or so of protein per hour and that seems to work OK for me.

#3) Electrolytes- a must have to avoid muscle cramping. In hot weather you'll need more, but even on cool days electrolytes are needed. Lots of companies make a capsule electrolyte like Endurolytes and S caps. Others have them in sports drinks already. If you are going to rely on a sports drink, make sure yours has sufficient electrolytes alone. If they don't, you can also add powdered electrolytes like Nuun or powdered Endurolytes. The amount depends on the product you use and the electrolyte profile it contains. Generally, the product information will help guide you to a guideline for quantities that you will need.

#4) Proper hydration- regardless of duration, your body can't process food without water. How much will depend upon your size, needs and the climate. Generally, I find about 24-32 oz per hours works for most people under most circumstances. Overhydrating can cause unwanted problems just as dehydration, so be sure to train with water to learn to understand your body's water needs.

#5) Other stuff- for particularly long endurance events (over 24 hours), I have heard many athletes say that they feel that they need solid food. While there is no real scientific basis for this, a psychological component can be equally pressing. Here are some ideas that I have found are great additions when you are really in it for the long haul.

ENSURE- its not just for grandma. With nearly 250 calories and 10-15 grams of protein per tiny bottle, it is a fast way to get added calories, protein and vitamins with very little preparation, effort or stomach distress. I always knew my grandma was on to something. And it doesn't taste half bad.

Salted potatoes, salted beets, pretzels and bananas- all are good sources of carbs and easy to digest, and beets provide additional nitrogen which is thought to be really helpful.

Peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, granola bars, energy bars, nut mixes- all have a nice mix of carbs & protein- a mini meal in one!

Branched Chain Amino tabs- many athletes I know use these to supply additional amino acids during or after long periods of exertion to avoid lean muscle cannibalization.