Proper Fueling: A Note to the Endurance Athlete

Allison Ballina MS,RD,LDN

Think of food as the gasoline to your car, you can’t go far on an empty tank. Athletes spend countless hours per week training for endurance events, leaving everything they have on the pavement. However, many of these athletes skimp on properly fueling their bodies, leaving them at a severe disadvantage. Stunting your fueling program will put up a major roadblock in what your body is capable of achieving with optimal training. When we feed our bodies properly for endurance activity, it can run much more efficiently and for much longer. We avoid “hitting the wall”. If you feel that your fueling could use a makeover, follow the information provided below to help you achieve optimal performance. This article will focus on proper hydration, preparation, and restoration while both preparing for and competing in an event.

First, let’s discuss hydration for the endurance athlete. As an athlete, you should be consuming fluids throughout the entire day but especially before, during, and after exercise. Checking the color of your urine is one of the best ways to determine hydration status. A clear to light yellow urine color indicates that you are well hydrated where as a dark yellow urine color indicates dehydration. This can serve as a useful tool to track your fluid intake because the feeling of thirst is not a reliable indicator. Once initiated, it usually means you are already dehydrated. The goal is to never let yourself get to this point. It can be helpful to carry a water bottle with you throughout the day and choosing foods with high water content. Fruits, vegetables, soups, and popsicles can all attribute to your daily fluid requirement. One hour before the event the athlete should consume approximately 20 ounces of fluid. Every 15 to 20 minutes during exercise calls for roughly 4-6 ounces of fluid. 1 ounce is the equivalent of 1 gulp of fluid. Weighing yourself before and after exercise can provide you with more specific hydration guidelines for your body. Every pound lost in sweat should be replaced by at least 24 ounces of fluid. Everyone has different sweat rates, which is why there is not a one size fits all hydration guideline. Properly hydrating our bodies allows us to avoid hitting the wall, maintains concentration, keeps our decision-making skills, and keeps our electrolytes in balance. What types of liquids should you be hydrating yourself with? Exercise for an hour or less only warrants for water and exercise lasting greater than an hour demands a sports drink.

athlete hyration

When we begin to fuel before an exercise event, it starts at breakfast. Eating adequate meals that include carbohydrate, fat, and protein at both breakfast and lunch will keep the body energized for an evening event. As the event gets closer, the meals should get smaller leading up to exercise. One hour before an event, a meal should consist of 30 to 60 grams of carbohydrate with a small amount of protein. This may look something like a bagel with 1½ tablespoons of peanut butter. Every hour of activity, after the first hour, warrants for an additional 30-60 grams of carbohydrate. This may be achieved through dried fruit, a banana, sports gels, sports drinks, gummy bears, pretzels, or even frozen grapes. Only you can tell what your body can tolerate. Develop a fueling strategy that works for you. It is best to practice your fueling strategies during practice runs to avoid any GI upset or discomfort on race day.

peanut butter banana bagel

After exercise, it is crucial to begin to refuel within 15 to 60 minutes after completion. The sooner you are able to refuel, the better. This time frame is so essential because it is what we call the rebuilding phase of muscle. We need to replace muscle fuel (carbohydrate) that was lost, rebuild muscle tissue that was broken down, and replace water and electrolytes lost in sweat. Doing so will help with delayed onset muscle soreness and allow your body to properly recover for the next event. Endurance activity requires a 4:1 ratio of carbohydrate to protein. For example, if we consume 20 grams of protein, we need about 80 grams of carbohydrate. Make carbohydrate the focus of your meal. Many endurance athletes complain of a lack of hunger after exercise or limited time to sit down for a formal meal. I often explain to my clients that a recovery meal can be as simple as having some chocolate milk, a peanut butter sandwich, and a piece of fruit. However, I do encourage them to sit down for a larger meal that includes carbohydrates, fat, and protein within 2 to 3 hours of exercise. Remember that recovery is an all day process, it can take anywhere from 24 to 48 hours to fully replace those depleted glycogen stores.

chocolate milk

Overall, an optimal training diet should include eating every few hours throughout the day, fueling before, during, and after workouts, getting an adequate amount of sleep, and not skipping meals. Your diet should include fresh fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean meats, and low-fat dairy to maintain a balanced diet. Following these diet recommendations will allow you to push the extra mile without hitting the wall as well as give you the competitive advantage over an opponent.

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