You’ve probably seen footage of marathon runners losing control of function as they struggle to end a race. Maybe you've been there yourself! Staggering, falling, “hitting the wall” as some refer to it. Muscles are pushed to their limits as all the body’s energy stores are depleted.
These symptoms are greatly influenced by nutrition. The foods you eat can act as either fuel or weighted garbage when it comes to its effect on your workout. Nutrients before, during, and after an event are essential in performance and recovery.
Endurance exercise is one of four basic types of exercise along with strength, balance, and flexibility. All kinds are encouraged as part of a healthy lifestyle, as stated in the Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans. Aerobic, endurance activities increase breathing and heart rate, keeping your circulatory system healthy. While nutrition is vital in all types of physical activity, this article aims to focus on nutrition for extended endurance activities such as marathon running, swimming, and biking.
What are the most important parts of an athlete's diet? The day to day intake is not all that different from an average, balanced, healthy diet.
1) Endurance athletes should emphasize complex carbohydrates for energy, increased protein for muscle growth, and healthy fat intake. Carbs should make up about 55-65% of intake, or 7 to 10 grams per kilogram body weight; whole grains, fruits, and legumes are all examples of great complex carbohydrate choices. Carbohydrates are converted to glucose for immediate use or get stored as glycogen in the liver and muscles. Well-filled glycogen stores will help during endured physical activity (when the body needs all the energy available), and it also helps the body recover quickly after a workout.
2) “Carb loading” references the theory that loading up on carbohydrates before an endurance activity improves performance. However, this does not mean you should necessarily “load up” on bread and pasta the day before the race “for training.” Research shows that instead, a high daily intake of carbs will prevent chronic glycogen depletion, which benefits both training and competitive performance.
3) In general, protein needs for endurance athletes will be higher than average, about 1 to 1.5 grams per kilogram body weight (as opposed to 0.8-1 grams for the average diet). High protein foods such as fish, lean meats, eggs, beans, and soy will ensure adequate muscle growth. As for fat, fat should be about 30-35% of the daily calorie intake. Endurance athletes burn so many calories; it is important to maintain healthy fat stores to protect organs and provide energy.
4) Now we get to the day of the event! 2 to 4 hours before the activity, eat an easy-to-digest, high-carb meal, that is low in fat, and moderate in protein. Don’t forget to get fluids in before starting the run! As for during the race, carbohydrate, fluid, and electrolyte balance is the focus. You want snacks that have easily digestible carbs and are low in fat and protein, providing energy while not weighing down or upsetting the stomach. The general rule of thumb is that you should consume 30 to 60 grams of carbs per hour when running to prevent exhaustion due to empty glycogen stores. The carb re-load can come from foods such as energy gels, sports bars or drinks, bananas, or pretzels. Try some different foods in your training runs and see what works best for you. Never try a new food or beverage on the day of the race! Water is great to drink during endurance activities, but for intense, exhaustive activity, it is also important to replenish electrolytes for proper body functioning. Aim to consume 2.5 to 4 cups liquid per hour.
5) After completing an endurance activity, you should eat at least a snack within the first hour after. High in carbohydrates plus moderate protein after the activity are the key components of recovery. Liquid or soft foods are sometimes encouraged, as post-exercise you may experience decreased appetite or GI distress. Easily digestible foods will be more comfortable on the stomach while replenishing much-needed nutrients.
A feat of endurance as tested in marathons requires intensive training and a motivated mindset. Don’t neglect nutrition’s significant role in performance and health! Put the right fuel in your body, and you will notice a difference in your drive! To find upcoming races near you, and for training tips, visit Active.com or Ohio Runner.
For more information, pick up a copy of dietitian Nancy Clark's Sports Nutrition Guidebook .