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Nutrition for Endurance Sports Training
Training for endurance sports has a high energy requirement. Quality nutrition is a key component of training success. In this conversation with Registered Dietician Sally Hara of Kirkland, Washington, I had posed some of questions which often come up in coaching conversations.
John Colver: How much protein do I need?
Sally Hara: Most athletes require 1.2 to 1.4 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight (1 kilogram is equivalent to 2.2 pounds). Ultra-endurance athletes may require up to 1.8 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight. This is typically not difficult for an athlete to get if he or she is eating a balanced, nutrient-dense diet and is responding appropriately to hunger cues. An ounce of meat, fish, poultry, or cheese contains about 7 grams of protein. Other good sources of protein are 1 to 2 tablespoons of nut butter, one egg, 1/4 cup cottage cheese, and 1/2 cup cooked legumes. A slice of bread, 1/3 cup of pasta or rice, or 1/2 cup cooked oatmeal can contain about 3 grams of protein each - check the nutritional label to be sure.
JC: How much water should I drink?
SH: The general recommendation for daily fluid intake is about 64 to 80 ounces per day. This includes all fluids consumed, not just water. When you factor in endurance exercise, an athlete’s fluid needs will increase. Although specific needs may vary depending on duration and intensity of the exercise, the ambient temperature and humidity, altitude, and individual differences between athletes, the following are general recommendations appropriate for most athletes.
• 2 to 3 hours before exercise? Drink about 20 oz. water or sports drink
• During exercise? Drink 6 to 12 oz. every 15 - 20 minutes
• After exercise? At least 20 oz. after exercise, with continued regular hydration for the remainder of the day. Ideally, enough to replace water lost via sweat, urine, and respiration. Consume 24 oz. for every pound of body weight lost during exercise.
*Source: ADA. Position of the American Dietetic Association, Dietitians of Canada, and the American College of Sports Medicine: Nutrition and Athletic Performance, 2009
JC: How often should I eat during a normal day?
SH: To optimize metabolism and both physiological and psychological performance (including mood, focus, and efficiency), I recommend eating every three to four hours. Serious athletes sometimes need to eat at least every two hours because of their high metabolism and energy needs. Spreading food intake throughout the day helps ensure that your brain and body will have enough energy to function properly during the day. Eating at regular intervals helps prevent overeating at the end of the day caused by extreme hunger. It seems paradoxical, but eating frequently can actually help regulate body weight better than skipping meals and snacks. If a person is in tune with their natural hunger and fullness signals, the best advice is simply to eat when you’re hungry and stop when you’re satisfied. Unfortunately, people who have a history of dieting often are disconnected from these signals because they have a history of ignoring them. If you are truly hungry, eat high-quality, nutrient-dense food. Hunger is a signal that your body is asking for more energy. Just respond to hunger with the most nutrient-dense food available.
JC: How do I know when I’m getting the correct mix of macronutrients (carbohydrates, proteins, and fat) to enable my best performance?
SH: This is one issue a sports dietician can help you determine. Most athletes think they need much more protein than they actually do, and many vastly underestimate their need for carbohydrates. While protein is necessary to build and repair muscles and other tissues, carbohydrate is the preferred fuel for exercise (even for strength training). Protein is building material, carbohydrates are fuel. The more you work out, the more fuel you need.
JC: Do I have to eat breakfast?
SH: For optimal health and performance, yes. When we wake up in the morning, our glycogen stores are significantly depleted, because that is our primary energy source when we sleep.
JC: What do you eat before a morning training session?
SH: Usually a light but balanced meal or snack is best; something that contains mostly carbohydrate and a little protein for longer workouts is ideal. The size of the meal depends on the duration and intensity of the workout. Yogurt with granola or fruit can work well. Including a combination of simple and complex carbohydrates provides both an immediate energy source (simple carbs) and one that is digested more slowly, giving you more energy over time (complex carbs). An example of a meal that serves this purpose could be oatmeal with soymilk and raisins.
JC: Should I eat before a workout? What can I eat and how soon before the workout?
SH: Yes. I recommend a snack with carbohydrates (fruit, granola bar, smoothie, etc.) within two hours prior to exercise. If you will be training for over ninety minutes, it is also good to include a protein source (peanut butter, yogurt, meat, soy products, etc.) to help stabilize your blood sugar for a longer period of time. How close to your workout you eat depends on you. Some people can eat a three-course meal five minutes before intense exercise, while others can barely tolerate a small yogurt two hours before the workout. This is very individual.
JC: What should I eat after a workout and how soon after?
SH: The most important requirements for recovery are carbohydrates, fluids, and electrolytes. The perfect recovery snack is chocolate milk - it offers all of this plus a little protein. There are other options, of course, but the focus should be on carbs and hydration. A small amount of protein may also be helpful for post-exercise recovery, but the bulk of your post-exercise meal should be made up of carbohydrates. Remember to eat something within one hour after exercise to get a jump on replenishing your glycogen stores.
JC: Should I take a multivitamin?
SH: In theory, we should be able to get all of our vitamins and minerals from the food we eat. Even if there is a slightly higher nutritional need in endurance athletes, the increased amount of food necessary to meet energy demands should contain the additional vitamins and minerals needed as well. That said, not everyone has a perfect diet, so a basic multivitamin may not be a bad idea. There is no need to overspend on specialized vitamins, however. For instance, those little packets with four to six vitamin pills in them are mostly a marketing ploy.
JC: I don’t eat fish - should I take fish oil supplements?
SH: Fish oil supplements are an excellent idea. The omega-3 fatty acids in these supplements have multiple documented benefits, including cholesterol balance, anti-inflammatory effects, and mood stabilization. A good substitute for vegetarians would be flaxseed oil.
JC: What type of beverage should go into my water bottle when I’m exercising - something with electrolytes?
SH: For anyone exercising over sixty minutes, I recommend a sports drink containing both electrolytes and carbohydrates. Since you should be fueling as you go, this is a convenient way to take in the recommended carbohydrates.
Alternatively, you could fill the bottle with an electrolyte-only drink and eat solid foods as an energy source. It really depends on the sport and whether or not you typically eat while training. Either way, fluids and electrolytes are both important to have in your sports bottle.
JC: How does alcohol affect my performance?
SH: It’s all about timing and moderation. Alcohol is a known diuretic and can lead to significant dehydration and electrolyte imbalances. If you have an occasional beer, rehydrate before turning in for the night and limit yourself to one to two drinks per day. Alcohol is a known toxin that can hinder liver functions, including the ability of the liver to produce blood sugar from glycogen (for fuel) during exercise.
JC: How much fiber do I need?
SH: The current recommendation is about 30 grams of fiber per day. Consuming whole grains most of the time and getting at least five servings of fruits and vegetables a day will likely provide this amount of fiber easily.
JC: What if I don’t have much time to cook?
SH: This is a big problem in our society. Some strategies could include cooking once a week and freezing several meals that you can easily heat up later. One great tool for athletes is a slow cooker. You can chop meat, vegetables, and spices, put them in a slow cooker for eight hours, and you’ll have wonderful meals. Personally I enjoy curries, chilies, stews, soups, and even baked potatoes. It’s easy, safe (you can leave it on all day), inexpensive ($50 to $100), and nutrient dense, as the cooking method used does not leach vitamins or minerals, nor does it destroy nutrients with excessive heat.
JC: For vegetarians, are there specific things to know about eating for athletic performance?
SH: The basic needs for vegetarian athletes are the same as for other athletes. What differs is the source of some of the nutrients (especially protein, iron, B12 and calcium). A great resource for this is the book The Vegetarian’s Sports Nutrition Guide, by Lisa Dorfman, RD, CSSD.
Vegetarians should pay particular attention to getting enough protein, but it’s not that difficult to do. The main sources of protein for vegetarians are legumes (such as dried beans, peas, and lentils), soy products, and (for non-vegans) milk, cheese, yogurt, and eggs. The good thing about vegetarian protein sources is that most also contain carbohydrates, which are an athlete’s best friend.
Iron, one of the nutrients that all vegetarians must be aware of, is found abundantly in animal products but sparsely in plant products. Some good sources of iron for vegetarians include dried beans and dark green leafy vegetables. Iron absorption is increased by eating foods containing vitamin C together with iron-rich foods in the same meal.
JC: If I am a vegetarian, how can I get enough vitamin B12?
SH: Vitamin B12 is found only in animal products. Lacto-ovo vegetarians can get B12 from dairy products and eggs. Vegans (who eat only plant products) need to supplement their diet with B12 either by including nutritional yeast, foods that have been fortified with it (like some soy milks), or by taking a B12 supplement. The recommended intake of B12 for adults is 2.4 micrograms daily. Inadequate B12 can result in a condition called macrocytic anemia, in which you will be overly tired and have difficulty training and recovering from exercise.
JC: How do I know if I’m getting enough iron?
SH: Iron deficiencies are common in endurance athletes, especially runners. There is controversy over why this occurs. Iron plays a key role in transporting oxygen to the muscles. This increases the need for iron in endurance athletes. Athletes who overtrain will often develop iron-deficiency anemia despite consuming what should be adequate iron, because a body that is in a stressed state from overtraining makes the iron unavailable. If you have a history of iron deficiency (determined by simple blood tests your doctor can order), taking an iron supplement routinely is a good idea. If this doesn’t fix the problem, you may need to examine your training and nutrition habits. Certainly, making sure to include iron-rich foods (especially red meat, which is very high in iron) is very important.