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What You Need to Eat to Get Faster and Go Longer

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What You Need to Eat to Get Faster and Go Longer
« on: June 05, 2015, 07:07:39 AM »


The more we
know about nutrition, the more confused we get. It’s natural to assume that if a diet is good for one thing, it must be good for everything. Thus, a healthy diet—however you define “healthy”—should also work for sports performance. And if a diet works for weight loss, we figure it must be a healthy diet, which means it’s also the best diet for whatever our fitness goals happen to be.

These are all safe assumptions for most of us, most of the time. “It’s really about your goals for training,” says Susan Kleiner, Ph.D., R.D., author of Power Eating and a nutritionist with decades of experience working with athletes at every level. As she points out, you don’t need a high-performance diet if your workouts aren’t long enough or hard enough to drain your muscles of the fuel they use for long runs, or high-effort tasks like sprints or hill climbs, or the final minutes of a soccer game, when whoever is least gassed could very well decide the outcome. 

It’s when your training turns ambitious that you need your diet to support those ambitions. The popular diet of the moment probably won’t work. (Whatever your goal—packing on muscle, going the distance, or losing that gut—here are 26 Ways to Feed Your Body for Results.)

“Recreational runners and triathletes are typically more motivated than the average person to change their diet in pursuit of health and fitness goals,” says Matt Fitzgerald, author of Racing Weight and many other books about endurance training and nutrition. “But when they do, they often choose the same diets that nonathletes choose. Fad diets are all they really know, so that’s what they fall back on.”

Fitzgerald believes the problem comes down to branding. “There’s no name for, and very little awareness of, the diet that most professional endurance athletes follow,” he says.

With few exceptions, they use a diet he describes as “agnostic healthy eating.” It’s obviously nutritious, with lots of whole foods that are natural to wherever they happen to live, or typical of their culture. Thus the diet of a Kenyan marathoner will look different from that of an American triathlete or a European Tour de France hopeful.

But while the foods differ, the diets have a lot of common characteristics, which are relatively simple and surprisingly intuitive. We’ll start with the most important one.

1. You must eat enough food to support your training

More often than not, popular diets become popular because they help people lose weight. And all weight-loss diets do the same basic thing: they give you a way to eat less. But a lower-calorie diet works against the goal of athletic performance in two ways.

First, Kleiner says, it reduces your energy output—the number of calories you burn while training. So if your primary goal is weight loss, you give yourself a roadblock if you cut too many calories.

Second, it limits how hard you can work. “Anyone who underfuels for even a few weeks will notice their inability to train at high intensity for very long, or at all,” Kleiner says. (If you don’t have a routine for your race yet, try this Advanced Sprint Triathlon Training Plan.)

The takeaway: Some diet plans suggest cutting 500 or more calories a day, with the goal of losing a pound of fat a week. But Kleiner thinks that’s too much to cut when you’re also training hard. “With my clients, we never say, ‘I only exercise to lose weight,’” Kleiner notes. “Don’t you also want to get better?”

2. You must eat carbs

Your body has two main sources of energy: fat and carbohydrate. At rest you burn slightly more fat, but as soon as you crank up your heart rate, you also crank up the percentage of carbohydrate you use for energy. This isn’t news; we’ve known it since a study was published in 1920. The carbohydrate comes primarily from glycogen stored in your muscles. The longer your workout lasts, the less glycogen you have to work with.

Because your muscles will never give up all their glycogen—they’ll always keep a little in reserve—there’s no advantage to a pure low-carb diet for an endurance athlete. Fitzgerald says that when runners reduce their carb intake, their performance level drops, and notes that this has been shown in the majority of studies comparing high- and low-carb diets for endurance athletes.

A strict low-carb
diet is by necessity high in fat, which is especially problematic in a pre-workout meal. That’s because fat takes a long time to digest, Kleiner says. About half of any fat you eat will still be in your stomach two and a half hours later. Pre-workout carbs will be available as energy much sooner.

For another, hard training takes a huge bite out of your glycogen supply. The following chart, adapted from a classic 2001 study called “The Effects of Increasing Exercise Intensity on Muscle Fuel Utilization in Humans” in The Journal of Phsyiology, is often cited in sports-nutrition research to show what your body uses for energy at different percentages of your max effort.

eating for endurance chart

As you can see, your body becomes much more dependent on muscle glycogen at higher intensities. It’s also much less dependent on fat. The study notes that you have plenty of fat available for use. But for reasons that still aren’t fully understood, you can’t use as much of it when you’re pushing yourself. 

The takeaway: For a recreational runner, Fitzgerald recommends a baseline of 1.35 grams of carbs per pound of body weight per day, plus a half-gram for every 20 miles you run per week.

So a 180-pound guy who runs 20 miles a week would shoot for 333 grams—1.85 grams per pound per day. Since a gram of carbohydrate averages 4 calories, the target would be about 1,300 calories from carbs. This guarantees you’ll have enough glycogen for training, and to rebuild your supply between workouts.

Related: 10 Exercises That Burn More Calories Than Running

3. You must get enough protein

Just being a healthy, active guy means you break down and replace an estimated 1.2 percent of the protein in your muscles each day. Weight lifting accelerates this process, which is why someone trying to increase his strength and muscle mass needs a lot more protein than a guy who isn’t exercising at all. Muscles, after all, are made of protein. It’s like saying you need a lot of dirt to build a mountain.

Related: What and When You Should Eat to Build Muscle

The same thing happens with endurance training. A 2010 study at Ball State showed that protein synthesis increases 50 to 60 percent in the hours immediately following a 60-minute bike ride at a moderate pace. Protein breakdown also increases, but eating a post-workout meal seems to slow it down, leading to a net increase in muscle protein.

Of course the goal of endurance training isn’t to build bigger muscles. For that, you would need an increase in the size of muscle fibers, or myofibrillar hypertrophy. Endurance training leads to an increase in mitochondrial protein, which produces better muscles—that is, muscles that are better at producing energy and are more resistant to fatigue.

Protein, when combined with carbs in a post-workout meal, also increases the rate at which your muscles restore glycogen to pre-workout levels. The speed of recovery isn’t an issue for most of us; we just need to eat whatever is our normal amount of food over the next 24 hours. But if you’re training or competing multiple times a day, or for multiple hours on consecutive days, you probably need to goose the process. Shoot for a ratio of at least 2 or 3 grams of carbs for every gram of protein.

The takeaway: We recommend a daily target of .73 grams of protein per pound of body weight per day for lifters. That amount is also recommended for elite endurance athletes. Recreational runners and cyclists can probably do well with .55 grams per pound per day. (You don’t have to just eat chicken to get your fill of protein. Check out these 20 Healthy, Protein-Packed Smoothie Recipes.)

4. During longer workouts, you should supplement with carbs

“Sports drinks and energy gels are proven to enhance performance in races lasting longer than about an hour,” Fitzgerald says. “So they should always be used in those circumstances.”

In training, though, it’s a different story. “You aren’t often aiming for maximum performance in workouts,” he says. “As a general rule, I tell athletes to consume carbs during their most challenging high-intensity workouts, in no more than half of workouts lasting 2 to 3 hours, and during all workouts lasting longer than 3 hours.”

Sports drinks are
never needed for recovery, he adds. “Regular food will do.”

The takeaway: Sports nutritionist Marie Spano, R.D., recommends 30 to 60 grams for carbs for every hour of continuous work. At the low end, that equates to 4 ounces of a sports drink, which gives you about 7 grams of carbs, every 15 minutes. Start about 30 minutes into your ride or race.

Fun fact: In workouts of an hour or less, swishing a carb-rich drink around in your mouth may give you the same benefit as drinking it. It seems to work by stimulating the parts of the brain that register pleasure and rewards.

5. Trust your body to tell you how much you need to drink

The idea that everyone is dehydrated, and that athletes can’t trust their own sense of thirst to tell them how much fluid they need to replace, has been profitable for companies that make sports drinks and dangerous for those who overhydrate during races and end up with hyponatremia (when the level of sodium in your blood is extremely low). Less experienced athletes, who take longer to complete marathons or triathlons, are at highest risk.

Those with more experience learn to use thirst as their guide. But, Fitzgerald cautions, it only works if you pay attention to your thirst. “I like to add a little nuance and say ‘drink by feel,’” he says. He adds that it’s also important to know when drinking something will trigger gastrointestinal discomfort. “It may be best not to drink in those circumstances.”

The takeaway: This one’s easy: Drink when you’re thirsty, and be cautious about overhydrating during longer events and training sessions. (Eating out after a long workout? Here are 10 Restaurant Meals You Should Eat after Your Workout.)

Putting It All Together

We’ve gone from a time when high-performance diets were recommended for people who don’t need to perform to weight-loss diets being used by athletes who don’t need to lose weight. If you’re an athlete whose workouts and events regularly exceed an hour, and who trains or competes most days of the week, then you need to feed yourself like an athlete. It doesn’t matter if you’re a runner, cyclist, triathlete, backpacker, or soccer player.

The first and most important step is to make sure you’re getting enough food. Sluggish performance and unintentional weight loss are two pretty good signs that you aren’t.

The actual content of that diet is less important than the volume, as long as most of it is food that an objective observer would describe as “healthy.” Most of it should be from whole or minimally processed foods, with a good mix of protein sources, starchy vegetables, whole grains, fruits, nuts, seeds, and fibrous vegetables.

Manipulating that diet to make it unusually low in carbs will probably lead to a series of negative consequences, starting with the challenge of getting enough energy to fuel and then recover from your training, especially when it involves work at higher intensities. But there’s one other consequence of a low-carb diet for a serious endurance athlete: When you recover from longer, harder workouts, your body will use more protein for energy. 

And where will it get that protein? From your muscles. That brings us to perhaps the best advice we can offer, courtesy of Susan Kleiner: “Feed your muscles. Don’t let them feed you.”

For all the training, nutrition, recovery, and race day tips you need to cross the finish line in record time, pick up your copy of The Triathlete’s Training Bible. 

 

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