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Demystifying Sports Nutrition

Straightforward tips and expert secrets to help you perform better and recover faster.

Straightforward tips and expert secrets to help you perform better and recover faster.

Good nutrition advice for endurance athletes may appear simple: Eat whole foods often. But practical application of this principle complicates matters.

We conferred with some of the most respected sports nutritionists, physiologists and elite athletes in the endurance world to provide trend-free insight into what endurance athletes need for optimal health and performance.

Debunking The Garbage Disposal Theory

You’ve probably heard this before—you might have even said it: I’m an endurance athlete who trains and races hard, therefore, I can eat whatever and however much I desire. “I call it the garbage disposal theory,” says Liz Applegate, Ph.D., director of sports nutrition, University of California, Davis. “It works for some male athletes, but it’s going to catch up to you.”

Of course, all food is fuel and the body will burn whatever you give it, but if the goal is lifelong good health and longevity in sports, consuming quality nutrition cannot be overlooked.

Strive For Lean, Not Thin

“Weight is the wrong metric—look at lean muscle mass and body fat percentages,” advises Dan Benardot, Ph.D., RD, professor of nutrition and kinesiology and health, and codirector of the Laboratory for Elite Athlete Performance at Georgia State University.

In charge of the nutritional health and hydration strategies for the 1996 Olympic gold-medal wining U.S. gymnastics team and the U.S. marathoners at the 2004 Olympics, Benardot recently analyzed the consumption habits of elite figure skaters. Dieters take notice: His research reveals that functioning in calorie-deficit mode in an effort to trim down is counterproductive. The skaters who were restrained eaters, creating an 800 to 1,000 calorie daily deficit, tended to have higher body fat levels compared to the skaters who were less restrictive.

“When you have inadequate caloric consumption, the body will take from the tissues—the lean body mass—and this will lead to higher body fat.”

“If you provide a small amount of fuel all the time to dynamically match expenditure, then you’ll feel and perform better,” says Benardot.

Why Diets Don’t Work

“I’m not a big believer in anybody sticking to a very rigorous nutrition plan,” says Boston-based Krista Austin, Ph.D., exercise physiologist and sports nutritionist, and founder of Performance and Nutrition Coaching. “It’s too obsessive; people don’t do as well with a program where they’re told exactly what to eat. They stop listening to their bodies.”

If you want to get leaner for good, a quick-fix diet won’t work—a sustainable, individualized plan will.

“I tell people there isn’t a body weight or composition that I can give you that will make you run a certain time,” says Austin. “If they go through the training I prescribe, they’ll just end up at the weight they should be. Once we have good nutrition in them, they end up finding their performance weight.”

How To Change Habits

If you want a different result, you need a new approach. “Habits take a long time to enforce—you have to reinforce them again and again until they become natural,” says Applegate. “I give people at least six to eight weeks and three to four things per week to change.”

Think big but start small. One week of minor modifications could include: eating ice cream or frozen yogurt every other night instead of every night; adding two handfuls of veggies, such as baby spinach and alfalfa sprouts, to your sandwiches; and replacing a processed granola bar snack with one serving of raw almonds (20-25 nuts) and a small apple.

Body Awareness

Listening to your body is also critical to success, but how do you do it? Emily Brown, RD, 2009 U.S. cross-country champion and member of Team USA Minnesota, balances running professionally with private nutrition consulting and graduate school. “The best thing an athlete can do is get in tune with his or her eating,” Brown says.

Brown’s advice: Record what you eat and how you fared during workouts as specifically as possible in your training log—not to be obsessive, but to understand the effect that what, when and how much you consume has on the way you felt before, during and after training. This one-minute step provides a wealth of knowledge: Brown knows that she can tolerate cold pizza on race morning, but can’t have peanut butter or bananas within eight hours of running if she wants to avoid gastric distress.

Exercising Portion Control

“I don’t think consumer education has been working; the average American consumer hasn’t been choosing to eat less,” Brown says. “We want the most food for the least amount of money.” She believes we’ve all been conditioned by out-of-control portion sizes to eat more than we might need. Brown cautions athletes to be mindful of what they’re eating out of—a bowl of cereal generally contains three to four servings and a modern dinner plate can hold six to seven servings of pasta.

Eat off a salad plate that is no larger than 10 inches in diameter, tune into your hunger cues and be realistic about how your activity level translates into how much you need to eat, Brown suggests. For example, if you went for a four-mile run in the evening, refuel with a small plate of pasta mixed with vegetables and protein and stop there. It takes 20 minutes to realize that you’re full, Brown says, and you can do a lot of damage in that time frame.

According to Austin, a healthful plate should resemble this: half fruits and vegetables, one third whole grains, one third protein.

When To Eat

“In the U.S., the message is perverted: three square meals, no snacking and nothing after dinner because it’ll make you fat,” says Benardot. “But your blood sugar doesn’t know what time it is.”

More from Fueling Optimally: When Is As Important As What

Benardot believes the French do it right. They have a light breakfast, drop into a café around 10:30 a.m. for a croissant, eat lunch, have a light meal or snack in the late afternoon, then eat a relatively small dinner at 10 p.m. before going to bed. Eating and drinking episodically stabilizes blood sugar; when glucose, the primary fuel for the brain, drops too low, the hormone cortisol is produced to break down muscle mass so that alanine, an amino acid, can be converted to glucose. “Blood sugar fluxes every three hours, so to not burn your lean muscle mass and keep cortisol at bay, it makes a lot of sense never to let yourself get hungry,” says Benardot.

You Need To Eat Carbohydrates

Carbohydrates are the primary source of fuel for our brains and muscles, so endurance athletes need to eat them. Period.

“Humans can store plenty of fat and protein but our carb storage is very low, and it’s stored locally and not shared,” says Benardot. “So, we tend to run out of glycogen carbohydrates quickly with the muscles that use it the most.”

Austin doesn’t let her endurance athletes’ carbohydrate intake drop below 50 percent of their total daily calorie intake, no matter what. Brown recommends that 60 to 65 percent of calories come from carbs. Applegate gets more specific and assigns amounts based on training: For a runner averaging 55 to 60 miles per week, she recommends seven grams of carbs per kilogram of body weight. Her suggestion increases to eight, nine or 10 grams of carbs per kilogram of body weight for triathletes.

Carbo-loading Is A Myth

“We have to give a lot more thought to how energy and mass are distributed,” says Benardot. “Unless you start thinking about how nutrients are parsed out over the course of a day, bad things happen.”

Carbo-loading, or depleting glycogen stores in the week or two before an endurance event and then eating a high amount of carbohydrates the few days before the race doesn’t work because your muscles can only store a finite amount of carbohydrates. According to Austin, if you consume your usual amount of at least 50 percent of total daily intake from carbs, glycogen stores will be saturated. In the week before the race, Austin recommends replacing high-fiber foods with low-residue foods: For example, eat white pasta instead of quinoa.

Protein Is Essential–Large Quantities Are Not

“A lot of athletes think that somehow eating more protein is a safety valve that’ll protect them,” says Benardot. “The cellular capacity for nutrients is finite and whatever you overfill will dissipate and get stored as fat or burned as a fuel source.”

Women and men need the same amount of protein—about 15 percent of total daily calories, or roughly 1.5 grams per kilogram of body weight. Parsing out protein consumption over the course of the day allows the body to maximize its metabolism and use it for building and repairing muscles.

While endurance athletes tend to avoid bulking up like body builders, they might believe that chowing down on monster protein bars or eating a massive steak in one sitting will increase their lean muscle mass. However, Benardot notes that it’s the extra calories, not excessive protein, that supports an increase in muscle mass.

Fat: The Underdog

Athletes who fear fat likely misunderstand the important role it plays in maintaining body temperature, protecting organs, maintaining nerve impulse transmission as well as memory storage and tissue structure, and absorbing carotenoids and vitamins A, D, E and K. Fat can also serve as an energy source during extended distances, particularly at an effort of 50 to 75 percent of maximum heart rate.

“Compared to carbs and protein, we have nearly unlimited stores of fat,” says Brown. “You’ll use fat stores as energy during marathons.”

Athletes’ diets, like the diet of sedentary individuals, should be low in saturated and trans fats. The majority of an athlete’s 25 percent of total daily calories should be consumed from heart-healthy unsaturated fats—found in avocados, olive oil, nuts, seeds—and, according to Applegate, 1,500-1,700mg or just over one gram a day of omega-3 fatty acids—found in fatty fish including salmon, canola and olive oils, walnuts and flaxseed. For example, one handful of walnuts provides roughly 2.5 grams of omega-3s.

Antioxidants & Supplements

If you’re eating proper proportions of complex carbohydrates, protein, dairy and healthy fats to match your activity level, strive to consume a rainbow of fruits and vegetables, and don’t eliminate entire food groups, you might not need additional supplements.

“We don’t know all of the beneficial compounds that are in every food, but we do know that there are compounds and enzymes in food that the body can digest that aren’t present in supplements and vitamins,” says Applegate.

In addition, whole foods provide the best source of nutrients because, when eaten in certain combinations, the compounds create reactions that allow for better absorption of the vitamins and minerals. For example, vitamin C increases the absorption of iron—a mineral that women need 18mg and men need 8mg of daily—so eating a salad made of high-iron spinach and vitamin C-filled strawberries is beneficial.

Mega doses of antioxidants, or more than twice the FDA-recommended daily allowance, can prove detrimental because they can break down proteins, says Austin.Supplement use should be evaluated on a case-by-case basis.

Superfoods Are Still Super

Applegate’s top picks for athletes: Almonds, eggs, sweet potatoes, whole-grain bread and pasta, oranges, black beans, mixed salad greens, salmon, colorful veggies, chicken, mixed berries, dark chocolate and low-fat dairy or vegetarian-friendly products that contain live probiotic cultures.

Olympian and 2011 women’s U.S. half-marathon champion Jen Rhines of Mammoth Lakes, Calif., and San Diego, fuels up on healthy staples such as sweet potatoes and leafy greens like arugula, spinach, Swiss chard and kale—she eats a salad almost every day. Her simple preparation includes seasoning foods with Celtic sea salt and spices before grilling it. Her idea of fast food is sushi or the Whole Foods salad bar.

Sugar Is Not The Enemy

We know that excessive amounts of refined sugar can increase the risk for Type 2 diabetes and other diseases, but does it make you fat?

“If you’re diabetic or reactive hypoglycemic, refined sugars are very bad, and anything that triggers the excess stimulation of insulin makes you more fat—refined carbs may do that, but so does delayed eating,” says Benardot.

For optimal health, Austin believes that sugary foods that aren’t fruits or vegetables should be eaten sparingly. She recommends that recreational athletes modify refined sugar intake based on goals so there’s a reason for the change. “If you cut sugar out slowly, people will say they don’t even crave it anymore,” says Austin.

Glycemic Index: The Quick & Dirty

“Glycemic index is a measure of how quickly the carbs get out into the bloodstream: Something with a high GI is out there fast and ready to use; low GI means a longer, slower release,” says Applegate.

According to Applegate, what people neglect to realize is that foods have their GI tested alone, but we don’t usually eat foods in isolation. “If I top yogurt with nuts—when you add protein, fat or fiber to another food—it slows up the mix. You lower the GI.”

Austin purports that part of optimizing energy is to drip glucose steadily into the body and doing so requires eating certain foods in combination with others. Eating a mix of carbs, fat and protein, such as a banana with nut butter or hummus on rice cakes, helps stabilize blood sugar.

“Here’s the deal: Your body is well equipped to deal with rapid rises in insulin,” says Applegate. “There’s evidence to show that out-of-shape, overweight people who eat a lot of high GI foods may suffer detrimental effects. But, it all circles back to eating more fruits, veggies and whole grains, and that ultimately pans out to a lower GI diet.”

Pre-Workout Fueling

If you tend to work out in the afternoons or evenings, or complete multiple sessions in one day, you should have fuel in the tank to sustain your efforts. If it’s been a couple of hours since you’ve eaten, it’s a good idea to top off your fuel tank before you train with a small snack of refined carbohydrates.

Working out first thing in the morning can be trickier. If you rise in the morning for a 60-minute run but never consume anything prior to heading out, drink half a cup of white grape juice, Benardot recommends. Once you’ve adjusted to that, slowly increase the amount to one cup, then add half a piece of white bread, then a whole piece, until you can tolerate two pieces of bread with one cup of juice—depending on duration of the activity. “You have to feed the beast in a way that it can tolerate fuel,” advises Benardot.

Austin recommends a low-glycemic sports drink or white toast with creamy, not crunchy, peanut butter if heading out on a higher intensity or longer run. If the session is low intensity or brief and it’s difficult to find something the runner’s stomach will tolerate, she’s fine with not eating beforehand. Through her work with various Olympic-caliber athletes, including 2004 Olympic marathon silver medalist Meb Keflezighi, Austin advises that the following foods tend to sit well prior to prolonged exercise: grits mixed with a little egg, a plain waffle with sliced bananas, bread with cream cheese, or even dried fruits.

To Fuel Or Not During Training

The answer generally depends on duration and conditions of the workout, but teaching your body to rely on fat as a fuel source during long runs can help prevent the depletion of carbohydrates—known as hitting the wall—during endurance events.

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“Very rarely do I let my athletes train on a carb source—there has to be a good reason for doing it,” Austin says. She reveals that when Keflezighi, 2009 ING New York City Marathon winner, runs 26 miles at 7,000 feet, he’ll complete the run with only a six-ounce bottle mixed with water and a drink with carbs—and he may only have three to four ounces of it. “He’s trained to do it. He’s taught his body how to use fat as an energy source, so when he gets to the marathon start line, he’s prepared.”

For us mortals, Austin recommends that part of training for the marathon should include teaching the body how to use fat. She recommends going out about twice a month for long runs on very little carbs—have a small amount of low-glycemic food such as toast with cream cheese or oatmeal swirled with peanut butter before the run—but try to get through the workout with only electrolytes and water. Once a month, complete a simulation run, where you practice your in-competition fueling.

Post-Workout Recovery

“After exercise, when glycogen synthesis is elevated, you couldn’t think of a better substrate than refined carbs because most of it will be converted to glycogen,” says Benardot. “You’ve gone to great lengths to return your body to where it can work well again the next day.”

A good rule of thumb is to eat or drink something with a three-to-one or even four-to-one carbs-to-protein ratio, says Brown, whose favorite post-workout drink is chocolate milk.

Austin prescribes a total of six to 20 grams of protein and half a gram to one gram of carbohydrate per kilogram of body weight after a two- to three-hour run. Calculate fluid loss via your sweat rate and replace fluids accordingly. Continue to refuel with mini meals or snacks, eating every two to three hours, she advises.

Fueling During Races

Because our glycogen stores—the first and prime source of fuel for muscles—are limited, completing and competing well in endurance events is like constructing a puzzle that should be almost entirely intact the day you toe the start line. Futz with the various shapes and configurations during pre-race training, but that final piece is a ceremonial one that should fall into place when, bonk-free, you rocket across the finish line.

“Simple sugar is absolutely what an exercising person needs,” says Benardot. “I can’t think of a better thing because you’re dribbling it in at a rate where it’s not going to get too high and burning it faster than you can produce it.”

Because refined carbohydrates, such as glucose, sucrose and maltodextrin, are absorbed differently, Applegate recommends trying a mix of the three carbs at a rate of 30 to 60 grams, depending on body weight, per hour.

Easy-to-tolerate sources include gels, chews, sports beans or gum drops. She recommends drinking a quarter cup of fluid every 20 minutes or so, depending on sweat rate.

Performance Booster

A secret that Krista Austin, Ph.D., of Performance and Nutrition Coaching, shares with her elites is taking sodium bicarbonate, or baking soda, in gel capsules.

“It will expand your blood volume, give you more sodium and act as a buffer for you to tolerate lactic acid better so you won’t be breathing as hard,” she reveals. “If you’re a salty sweater, sodium bicarbonate loading will help prevent cramping and dehydration.”

Here’s how to do it: Buy gelatin capsules from Whole Foods and fill with a tiny amount, about 0.3mg per kilogram of body weight, of baking soda. Don’t even contemplate not using the gel caps or else you’ll be “strapped to the toilet,” Austin says.

Take with a light carbohydrate beverage before hard, long tempo runs or long interval workouts a few times during training to ensure that your body can tolerate it. You may feel a bit heavier and thirstier; Austin recommends hydrating with Gatorade’s G2 sports drink when you’re trying this. In the five days before a goal race, Austin has her athletes take 10 capsules throughout each day with fluid. You can’t use this trick all the time, Austin warns, but when used sparingly, can be “one of the keys to dropping and doing push-ups after a marathon,” she says.

Optimal Nutrition Is Individual

Because preferences, goals and lifestyles differ, and training loads vary according to racing schedules, optimal nutrition remains entirely individual.

Benardot tells his self-aware Olympic athletes: “Ninety percent of the time, do exactly what your body yearns for and the other 10 percent, have a good time because it won’t matter—your body has made all of the adaptations it needs.”

Now that’s sustainable advice.

This piece first appeared in the June 2011 issue of Competitor magazine.