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The Endurance Athletes Guide to Nutrition Part 4: When to Consume What

Posted Nov 04 2009 10:04pm
As I mentioned in part 2 , a high fat, high protein diet is the basis for the “normal person” diet (based on evolution). However, we need to modify it to fit our needs as endurance athletes by
• Providing high quality, sustainable energy levels needed for training, while not throwing our physiological systems out of whack
• Providing ample protein for recovery, but not too much such that we gain mass & weight

Also mentioned in Part 2 , most of us work, rather than race, for a living. Because of this, our energy needs during the week are not that extensive, depending on the type of training we’re doing. If you have a co-worker who shovels down a keg of cereal every morning, claiming that he needs “to eat through the pain” to make sure he is getting enough CHO, he is in for one mean crash afterwards, not to mention feeling like crap for at least the next few hours. Those CHO calories will eventually be stored as fat, and because he continues to eat a high CHO diet, he goes through an endless cycle of never burning or losing fat.

When To Consume What
Macro Cycle (phase-to-phase basis)

Some of you may be familiar with Joe Friel’s Periodization concepts, or Base-Build-Peak phases.

If you are in early season “base building,” then the majority of your calories should come from fat since you are either just starting to get your motor going after some time off, or are preparing the body for longer distance training. During these periods, you will be training at lower intensities, so the energy demands on your system are not that heavy (in the sense of immediate energy). However, this doesn’t mean you shouldn’t fuel yourself appropriately, it’s just that you won’t need that much CHO relative to another phase like build or peak. Remember, one of the main objectives during endurance training is to increase our body’s propensity to burn fat as a primary fuel source.

During the “build” phase, you are probably getting closer to your “A” race and accordingly, the intensity of your training is probably increasing towards some race pace efforts. This will require more CHO to help fuel workouts and recovery. Physiologically speaking, it’s also a good idea to teach your body to start shifting more to burning CHO as more of a primary fuel since you will probably consume nothing but CHO during the race.

During the “peak” phase (which is essentially your taper), you will probably want to cut back on CHO specifically (until about 2 days before the race), and maybe calories in general. This will help prevent you from gaining weight right before your race.

Micro Cycle (day-to-day basis)

We can take the above guidelines for phases, and start applying that on a day-to-day basis.

The main purpose of carbohydrates is to provide IMMEDIATE fuel for a physical task because they can be broken down so easily. The secondary purpose is to help replenish glycogen stores. The best times to consume CHO are in the morning, and before/during/after a workout. Consuming CHO in the morning helps top off glycogen after coming from a fasting state (sleeping), and to prepare your muscles for a workout at some point later in the day. Also, while exercising, consuming CHO does not spike your BGL to any appreciable level.

Now the types of CHO that you should consume are dependent on the workouts that you have done within the past 24 hours, and what you have later in the day.

If you like to get up early, and knock out a tempo run or hard bike session, I would recommend low/no-fiber, high glycemic foods such as a fruit or juice (non-processed kind) before/during/after. My best recommendation would be to consume some berries, since they have a moderate GI, and are absolutely loaded with anti-oxidants. As for how much – that you will have to experiment. If you finish your workout and are light headed, you probably needed more fuel. If you put down a smoothie afterwards, and can actually feel like you have consumed too much sugar – then alter it for next time.

If you are doing a longer, easier paced workout (long, easy/moderate bike ride), then I would recommend bringing real foods with you such as trail mix, an almond butter and banana sandwich, Larabars, etc. During long workouts where we stay predominately aerobic, it is better to be consuming lots of fat calories from real foods. An added bonus is that real foods are typically less expensive than “race fuels” (powder, gels, etc).

Post Workout Nutrition

The general rule is your % of Fat/Protein to CHO per “meal” should be reversed as time goes on from when you finished your training session. Directly after a workout, you should be consuming lots of CHO, and minimal fat & protein. But, as times goes on, reverse these %’s such that the CHO% decreases, and fat & protein % increases.

"Grazing" helps (as I am sure you have already realized, you finely-tuned machine, you). Remember, it still takes time to process food, which is why grazing (eating many, smaller meals) is better for endurance athletes. Grazing helps keep a steady stream of fuel and anti-oxidants running through your system for proper recovery. It also keeps your from having too low of energy levels, and then eating too much in one sitting (which we all have a tendency to do at times).

For the rest of the day, you can get back onto a higher fat, moderate protein, and low-moderate CHO intake. The key to eating CHO during the day is to consume CHO that has a low glycemic index, and to consume CHO with other fats and proteins as part of a balanced meal. When CHO is consumed with other fats & proteins, your BSL will not spike as much since your body is trying to process other items at the same time. That doesn’t mean you get a free pass to eat a ton of CHO. Your body is an efficient machine, but it’s also innately lazy – it will try and process the easy stuff (CHO) first.

Please note that all of the above is depending on how many calories you have consumed prior to the workout. If you had a big meal, or plenty of calories, then you may not need to consume hundreds of calories right after. Go on feel, but above all, make sure you consume something.

Note about Big Day Training

Have you ever had a really big day of training, only to be absurdly hungry for the next 48 hours? There is a good reason for this. When you shock your system with big day training, no matter how much you fuel during training, your metabolism will spike for up to 48 hours after you finish your workout. This is why nutrition is so important before, during and after. If you do a really long bike on Sunday, and don’t fuel properly, don’t expect to “be feeling it” if you have to bike again on Tuesday.

Hunger vs. Appetite

A lot of endurance athletes think that because they train a lot, that they can eat anything, anytime (I certainly did). Yes, your engine might be burning pretty hot, but that doesn’t necessarily mean you need to eat all the time (unless the size of your stomach rivals that of a field mouse). You may think you are hungry, but that is not always the case. Below are the definitions of “Hunger” and “Appetite” – there is a difference.

Hunger: A need to eat

Appetite: A desire to eat

So often athletes will just eat and eat and eat – sometimes because they need to, sometimes because they want to. But, be careful of gaining weight – especially as an “A” race comes up. If you think you are hungry, maybe try giving yourself what I call "the 30 minute test". If you feel hungry, but you shouldn’t be because of meals you have consumed earlier in the day – have a glass of water and wait 30 minutes. If you are still hungry, then eat. If you aren’t, then you were never hungry.

Summary

When you eat is just as important as what you eat
• CHO before/during/after training and only when necessary otherwise
• Remember, through training, we need to increase our bodies propensity to burn fat as a fuel source
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