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let's talk nutrition and running

Posted Aug 28 2012 10:05pm
As you know, I took a nutrition class this semester.  One chapter in particular was interesting to me.  It focused on the nutritional needs of athletes, especially endurance athletes like long distance runners. I wanted to share some things I got from this chapter and some opinions.  I'll try to quote the text as often as possible to be accurate.  Let me be clear: I am not an expert, I don't claim to be and am not giving any advice.  I am simply relying information directly from my text and providing my own opinions.  You should use your best judgement to form your own unique opinions and discuss anything else with your doctor or a registered dietitian.

This is the book that I'll be quoting from.

Let's jump right in with the breakdown that they suggest for athletes.  This text suggests the ideal diet for active people is, "high in carbohydrate (60-70% of total calories), moderate in fat (20 to 35 percent), and adequate in protein (10 to 20 percent)."  When you look at that total for carbs, that seems so so high. And maybe it is. Here's a chart for why they feel a high carb diet is the best way to go for endurance athletes: This represents the amount of time your body can go on glycogen stores (energy).  
The chart represents the findings from a study described in the text in which runners were put on the three different diets then tested to see how long they could go before they reached exhaustion.
However, it's important to note that protein should still be considered as important. The text says, "endurance athletes, such as long-distance runners and cyclists, use more protein for fuel than strength or power athletes do, and they retain some, especially in the muscles used for their sport....Without adequate protein intake, athletes will burn off as fuel the very protein that they wish to retain in muscle." 
This very diet that this book, written by experts within the field, recommends? Well, it would be highly criticized in much of the blog world right now. I read a lot of blogs and of those blogs, a whole slew of them are following some type of low-carb diet or the paleo diet. Oh the paleo diet. This is when I start to have a problem with reading blogs. When people boast, "I started crossfit and now I'm going paleo." As if the two things MUST go hand in hand. If you aren't familiar with paleo, it cuts out dairy, grains, legumes, starches, alcohol, sugar, processed foods.  Those last three? Yes, I can get behind that.  The others?  Ehh...I'm not quite as on board.  But, that's neither here nor there.  Here's where my real problem lies. Crossfit isn't some easy peasy activity.  It's hard freaking work (or so I've heard.  I've never done it).  It requires a ton of energy.  So I imagine that the endurance chart up there? It probably translates in some way for working up a sweat doing crossfit things as well.
It's true that the high carb diet may not be the answer for all endurance athletes. I don't think any one diet is one-size-fits-all. There are some things that just don't work for anyone: high sugar, high saturated fat, highly processed (duh).  But, there are definitely some people who may benefit more from one diet over another, especially if they have any deficiencies. So, when I see soooo many people jumping on the paleo bandwagon, especially endurance runners, it's a little scary.  Drastically changing your diet requires talking to someone who knows their stuff (a doc or RD), doing research, and making sure you're actually getting all your proper nutrients.  If you look at that chart, if you follow a high fat/protein diet, the average was 57 minutes of endurance. However, if you don't really understand the diet, you might not be getting enough nutrients to last that long. Here are links to three articles with more information about the paleo diet, especially for endurance athletes, so they can modify to add in more carbs when needed.  Paleo pros and consIs paleo the right choice for runners?  <------this one was especially good,  if you're going to say paleo doesn't work, make sure you know what paleo really is .
Speaking of nutrients, the text made the case that if an athlete is following the diverse diet and eating an array of foods, they don't need to take vitamin supplements per se, because they should be getting an adequate amount from their foods.  (It's important to note that in later chapters, it says that many people actually intake too much of certain vitamins because they take supplements they don't actually need without consulting their doc). The two that they said are of note are iron and vitamin E. "Many physically active young women, especially those who engage in endurance activities such as distance running are prone to iron deficiency."  As for vitamin E, it protects against free radicals and "during prolonged, high-intensity physical activity, the muscles consumption of oxygen increases tenfold or more, which increases the production of free radicals in the body." There is some conflicting research on whether vitamin E supplements will help or not.  In the meantime, they suggest eating antioxidant-rich fruits and veggies and using vegetable oil.
What about water? There was a whole section on hydration and I found this chart to be very helpful:
If you can't read it: 2-3 hrs before drink 2-3 cups, 15 mins before 1-2 cups, every 15 mins drink 1/2- 1 c without overdrinking, and after, 2 c for each pound of body weight lost.
The book says that "endurance athletes can lose 1.5 liters or more of fluid during each hour of activity."  One condition that the text mentioned in conjunction with hydration was hyponatremia.  It means, "a decreased concentration of sodium in the blood." The text goes on to say, "if athletes sweat profusely over a long period of time and do not replace lost sodium, hyponatremia may result. These athletes that sweat profusely may lose twice as much sodium in sweat as other athletes. Hypnotremia may also occur when endurance athletes drink such large amounts of water over the course of a long event that they overhydrate, diluting the body's fluids to such an extent that the sodium concentration becomes extremely low." It suggests to prevent this condition, "athletes should favor sports drinks over water and eat pretzels in the last half of a long race." 
While I don't think I have this condition (symptoms include severe headache, vomiting, bloating, confusion, seizure), I do think I struggled with some sodium issues during marathon training. I am one of those people that sweats profusely no matter how light I work out, so maybe a mild case? Either way, I would be interested to try pretzels sometime during a long run to see if it does help me. 
And wouldn't you know, the book DOESN'T suggest you hydrate with beer. Weird, I know ;)
there goes my new hydration plan.  Just kidding hehe.
I really really enjoyed this class a lot. We had to chart our eats for a week and break down all the nitty gritty details. It was definitely helpful and a great way for me to realize I needed to try to add in a larger variety of things. If you have the chance to take a nutrition class, seminar, etc. DO it. 
Let's chat:
-What are your feelings on paleo? Love?  Hate? Just a fad?
-Anyone else ever struggle with sodium issues during training? Have you tried the pretzel idea before?
-Do you take vitamin supplements?  Why or why not?
-Any thoughts to add on anything nutrition and running related?

Megan


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