Training Nutrition: Turnips or Twinkies?
There is nothing complex about proper nutrition, even for the most competitive of athletes. While fad diets will always come and go, I believe most people generally know what they should eat: fresh, whole, nutrient-dense foods; as well as what they should limit: refined sugars, processed foods, and saturated fat. Given the choice between Twinkie and turnip, I can’t imagine anyone being under the illusion that the Twinkie represents the healthier option.
There is, however, some question as to the timing of sports nutrition; i.e., when and what to eat to optimize energy for working out. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had a running partner begin to slow down or get cranky halfway through the run. When I ask what they’ve eaten, they say they haven’t yet. I’ve listened to lifting buddies complain after workouts that they can’t gain muscle, no matter how hard they work out. Meanwhile, they stretch, shower, change, drive home, and it’s two hours before they consume their first post-workout calorie.
This is a simple, functional guide that answers the question, “What should I eat before, during, and after training for endurance sports: swimming, biking, running, and triathlons?” It is written specifically for the endurance athlete interested more in race performance than losing weight, gaining muscle, or getting in shape. With that said, it is my belief that a proper nutrition plan designed to make you feel your best before, during and after workouts will help energize and motivate to get back to it, day after day.
Before the Workout
The goal with your pre-workout training nutrition is to drink enough water and to consume enough carbohydrates to get through the workout without being depleting the body’s stores. This is important for the day’s training session, but just as important for TOMORROW’s session. Spending the rest of your day catching up on replacing glycogen levels will likely mean dragging through tomorrow’s workouts.
The plan is easy: fluids plus 25-45 grams of easily absorbed carbohydrates. You can also aim for up to 12g protein, depending on your personal tolerance. As long as you eat an hour or two before working out, taking in some protein may help, though it is not essential. There will be plenty of time throughout the day to consume protein. 100 to 200 mg sodium is also a fine idea.
What does this look like? Aim for 200-400 calories food rich in carbs two hours before workout. Examples: fruit, sweet potato, legumes, brown rice, toast with peanut butter and banana, or a ‘green’ smoothie w/ almond milk, walnuts, and milk
My personal routine for a morning workout: I wake up early enough to drink a quart of water with a few tablespoons apple cider vinegar, which alkalizes the body. This is an old ayurvedic secret popularized by such diverse figures as Fergie and Rich Roll. I then eat either a bowl of oatmeal with molasses, raisins and peanut butter or toast with peanut butter and banana, and drink a strong cup of coffee before hopping on the bike for the day’s ride.
During Workouts and Races
For a training session or race lasting an hour or less, nothing but water is needed. If you are used to slugging down sports drinks and powerbars during every run, this will take some time and practice to get used to. If you feel depleted and sluggish during a 45 minute run, you are either overtrained or it is time to revisit your pre-workout nutrition plan.
For training sessions or races lasting over an hour, keep it as simple as possible. You will need water, carbohydrates (30-60g/hr), and possibly some sodium. A 20 oz sports drink each hour takes care of all three nicely. Water with a packet of Gu works just fine too. Honey packets are even cheaper and arguably work just as well.
Personal preference and experimentation is important. However, I recommend finding out which sports drink and snacks will be handed out during your race, so you can begin training using these products. Race day is not the time to find out how your body reacts to one product versus another.
Post-training or race recovery
The first priority after working out is to replace fluids lost to sweat, along with restocking glycogen levels and getting protein to rebuild muscles. Sodium, anti-inflammatory healthy fats and antioxidants are your next priority. A 150 lb athlete should aim about 75 carbohydrates and 20 grams of protein within 30 minutes of a workout.
An easy way to get everything you need postworkout is to blend up a large protein shake with fruit juice, almond or coconut milk, protein, leafy greens, a banana, some walnuts, berries, and whatever else you can think of. Make it at least 20 ounces. Drink at least half of it within 30 minutes of your workout. Sip the rest over the next hour while doing light stretching and getting ready for the day’s next adventure.
For particularly long or intense workouts, continue snacking on foods high in carbs for up to two hours after your workout. This is the only time of the day to get away with eating cookies, chips and other forms of “cheap” carbs. The less processed food you consume, the better.
replace fluids lost to sweat
The Rest of the Day
For the rest of the day, until your next training session, your focus should shift from starches and high GI foods back to nutrient dense foods, such as vegetables, fruits, lean protein, nuts, seeds, and berries. Notice the critical point of eating high GI foods only during and immediately following workouts–as much as two or three hours afterwards, depending on the length of the workout.
Especially early on in the training season, if you are used to eating a lot of sugars and starchy foods in your normal diet, you may crave sugar all day long. Instead of gobbling up ice cream or cookies, try to satisfy these cravings with healthier, more nutrient dense options, such as mango, blueberries, or other fruit. As a former ice cream fanatic, often I can get away with tricking my body into thinking whey protein blended with milk, banana, blueberries walnuts and spinach (yes, spinach! you won’t taste it) is the best milkshake I’ve ever had. After a five hours of riding hills, I am easily convinced of this.
Drink plenty of water throughout the rest of the day. Try to drink more early on, so that you don’t have to wake up in the night to go to the bathroom Along with proper nutrition, good sleep is critical to the endurance athlete’s training and recovery processes.
It is important during the months leading up to the race to experiment with what works for you. Once you’ve found the right nutrition plan, stick with it. On race day, follow your own perfected plan to your next PR.