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Running On Optimal Fuel: Effective Fueling Strategies For Runners

The missing piece from most training plans? An effective fueling strategy.

The missing piece from most training plans? An effective fueling strategy.

Performance Inhibitor #1: Less Than Ideal Body Composition

While many new fitness enthusiasts are drawn to running for its calorie-torching side effects, if they become consistent runners who focus on performance gains, their bodies will become more efficient—and they won’t burn as many calories when running the same distance at the same pace. “A lot of people try to get leaner because they hope that’ll make them faster,” says Katie Davis, RD, specialist in sports dietetics, and owner of RDKate Sports Nutrition Consulting in the Chicago area. “But people either don’t know how to do that nutritionally or they’re going about it the wrong way, not seeing results, or fatiguing early and can’t finish their workouts.” Regardless of your fitness level or goals, improving the quality and timing of your nutrition, and exposing the body consistently to new training stressors—from adding ad- ditional aerobic cross-training to resistance strength work to running-specific speed and strength workouts—will decrease body fat and increase lean muscle mass.

Coping Mechanisms:

Change how you view food. “If people focus only on weight, it doesn’t create a positive association with food,” says Hana Abdulaziz Feeney, RD, specialist in sports dietetics, and owner of Nourishing Results in Tucson, Ariz. “If everything is driven by weight loss and reductionist thinking, you tend to compromise your exercise perfor- mance. I try to teach people if they’re eating to fuel and recover and support the exercise they do, they’ll lose weight as a side effect.”

Maintain a food journal. Nearly every registered dietician who works with athletes asks new clients to write down everything they consume for at least three to seven days. It’s a process that allows both the nutritionist and athlete to have an honest picture of what and when the individual eats and drinks. The ultimate goal of food journals is to reveal patterns, assess how the athlete responds to types and amounts of foods, and expose nutritional and timing deficiencies.

Set achievable goals. “Safe weight loss is one to two pounds a week,” says Kevin Anello, RD, of Eat Right Get Fit in Cincinnati. “If you lose weight any faster than that, you’re probably going to lose muscle and that can slow down your metabolism. I have my clients make gradual changes.” For athletes who train consistently, as opposed to weekend warriors, Anello recommends that they drop weight in the off-season to ensure they have enough energy to train and recover during the competitive seasons.

Create energy balance. “When you’re trying to meet body composition goals, a huge thing is eating consistently—providing your body with consistent energy,” Davis says. “That’s generally eating smaller amounts every two to three hours; it’s not a large volume of food because the body can only handle so much at a time to use the energy you’re taking on board efficiently.” Instead of counting calories or obsessing over portions, both Anello and Davis refer their athletes to to understand what a balanced plate of food should look like—half of the plate is composed of fruits and vegetables and the other half is divided with lean protein and whole grains, with a serving of dairy on the side.

“Nutritional guidelines for endurance athletes range a lot, and they’re based on weight. Carbs can be between 5 and 19g per kilogram of body weight on a daily basis, and that depends on how much you train,” Davis says. “Getting a balance of nutrients, vita- mins and minerals, and teaching the athlete how to respond to signals of hunger and fullness are the most effective approaches.” In other words, nutrition requirements, portions and what works best for each athlete are entirely individual.

Performance Inhibitor #2: Gastric Distress

It will happen to every runner eventually: The gut-wrenching, horrifically urgent need to stop running and find a place—any place, but preferably one shielded from public view—to empty the bowels. Embarrassment aside, experiencing gastric distress on the run is a common occurrence because, well, there’s a lot of jostling. Trying to hold it until you can find the closest Starbucks or until you get home can sacrifice the quality of the run, not to mention making the remainder of the effort terribly uncomfortable.

Coping Mechanisms:

Get moving in the morning. If you hit snooze or set your alarm so you have just enough time to change and get out the door, consider this: Waking up 10 to 15 minutes earlier and move around the house—whether it’s a dynamic warm-up, walking up and down the stairs three or four times, or doing chores—can give your body enough time to push out waste.

Train your gut. While everyone’s ability to tolerate certain types of fuel differs, the body can adapt to most anything with practice. “Start small,” suggests Amy Regina, RN, of Paramus, N.J., who works with endurance athletes and fitness enthusiasts at the Hartzband Center for Wellness. “If it’s less than 30 minutes before your run, try a banana, other fruit or juice, toast and jelly or some graham crackers. These high-glycemic foods are easier to tolerate right before a workout and the body can break them down rapidly.” Regina encourages her athletes to keep food journals so they can experiment with different types and amounts of foods and fluids, and recognize patterns in how they reacted to the variables.

Choose your pre-workout fuel wisely. If you’re running aerobically for more than 60 minutes, Regina recommends eating a small, low-fat snack of easy-to-digest, refined carbohydrates and fluids to top off muscle glycogen stores before heading out, such as a plain bagel with jelly and Gatorade or fruit juice. If individuals absolutely can’t tolerate any solid food, a sports drink is better than nothing, but Regina advises these runners to ensure the meal they have the night before is carbohydrate-rich, and to consume an easy-on-the-stomach sports drink or gels during the run about once every 20 to 30 minutes. “What’s recommended is something that’s six to eight percent carbohydrates, and that’s the percentage of carbs in commonly available sports drinks like Gatorade or Accelerade,” Regina says. “It should ideally be a combination of glucose, fructose and sucrose, because if the fluids or foods you choose have too much fructose, that can be harder for some people to digest.” Regina cautions runners against watering down sports drinks because doing so can make it harder for the body to absorb the carbs.

Ease the post-race pukey feeling. If you feel nauseous as you walk through the finisher chute, congratulations—you likely threw down an honest race effort. To aid your body’s recovery mechanisms, experts agree that it’s important to consume fluids, ideally fortified with electrolytes, and eat mostly carbs and some protein within 30 minutes of finishing. However, protein is harder to digest than simple carbs, Regina says. So if a runner can’t tolerate something with protein just yet, focus on taking in fluids and refined carbs first so your body can start restocking the lost muscle glycogen. Warm chicken broth, a fruit smoothie, salted pretzels and sports drinks are good picks. As your stomach settles, try to eat half a protein bar or drink some chocolate milk, Regina’s top pick for post-race recovery.

Still suffering? Tried all the above but still experiencing constipation or diarrhea? Then you may not be getting enough soluble fiber, or you may lack the right amount of healthy intes- tinal bacteria, which aids in proper digestion. Increase your intake of fruits, vegetables, legumes and beans, and also make sure you’re drinking plenty of water. Include yogurt or other foods boosted with probiotics, or see your doctor for advice on taking a probiotic supplement. If you’re still experiencing irritable bowel syndrome symptoms, ask your doctor to order a test for Celiac disease, a disorder that inhibits the normal digestion of gluten, and something that’s under-diagnosed, according to Regina. If the test comes back negative, you may have a gluten intolerance (and not necessarily an allergy), so experiment: Cut out gluten and see if the symptoms go away, then reintroduce gluten after a time and see if the symptoms return. However, don’t be too quick to point a finger at gluten. “I do think gluten has gotten a bad rep over the past year,” Regina cautions. “For athletes, carbs are very healthy, especially for those doing distance training—carbs should be the basis of the diet.”

Performance Inhibitor #3: Fatigue

Leaden legs, diminished energy, crushed spirit—we’ve all experienced the bonk, when the body rebels against what the brain insists upon, and running slows or stops altogether. This is short-term fatigue, according to Davis, versus long-term fatigue, which is the consistent feeling of exhaustion despite cutting back on training. “The two main things in terms of nutrition we look at first: Is there an adequate intake of food and fluid, and is the timing and balance right? You have to remain hydrated throughout the day and it’s not just about eating carbs—you do need fat and protein,” Davis says.

Coping Mechanisms:

Enhance recovery with nutrient timing. “There’s two hugely important times for recovery and prevention of fatigue when it comes to running: The first 30 minutes after a run is finished, and an hour before you go to bed.” After a workout, Davis recommends that runners drink 24 ounces of fluid per pound of body weight lost, and eat a sufficient amount of carbs—1 to 1.2 grams of carbs and six to 20 grams of protein. For example, post-run, a 70kg (154 pound) runner could eat one regular-sized whole-wheat bagel with two tablespoons of nut butter to fulfill these requirements. Not eating for two hours or more after a workout can contribute to long-term fatigue.

Runners who train first thing in the morning should eat a snack an hour before bed that’s heavy in carbs with some protein and a small amount of fat to fuel the morning run. “Some people eat dinner at 6 p.m., but don’t go to bed until midnight,” she says. “That’s six hours that they’re leaving between bed and dinner, so they [should] eat something small before they go to bed.”

Establish healthy sleep patterns. “People underestimate how important sleep is in recovery and preparing for the workout the next day,” says Davis. “The guideline is seven to nine hours of [uninterrupted] sleep per night.” Write down the quality and number of hours you sleep each night for a week to track any patterns. “Try to follow the same sleep times each night,” Davis advises. “It’s hard for your body to adjust to going to bed at 10 one night and midnight the next.”

Eat before long runs. Starting a long run without anything in the stomach is like attempting to drive with an empty gas tank. Davis recommends drinking two cups of a sports drink or water as soon as you wake up, so by the time you’re ready to run, the fluid has made it to your muscles. Also, eat easy-to-digest carbs either before or every 20 minutes during the run.

Don’t neglect sodium. “The most important electrolyte during running is sodium because that’s what you’re losing most quickly,” Davis says. Sports drinks provide a balance of electrolytes, or you can make your own emulsion by mixing equal parts juice and water with a pinch of salt.

Prevent, or cope with, iron deficiency. “Runners are more susceptible to iron deficiency because the impact of heel striking breaks down red blood cells, which carry oxygen throughout the body.” Davis says. More so, iron deficiency occurs more frequently in female runners as well as vegans or vegetarians because many sources of iron come from animal foods. Before testing a runner for iron deficiency, Davis evaluates the areas mentioned above. The severity of the anemia will determine the course of treatment—someone with a serious deficiency will require the doctor-monitored use of an iron supplement. If iron levels are a little low, Davis recommends eating foods high in iron such as lean beef and dark, leafy green vegetables with foods high in vitamin C, as they promote the absorption of iron.

Performance Inhibitor #4: Inflammation Imbalance

Sore muscles and aching joints are dreaded side effects of the endurance training and racing package. These are symptoms of inflammation, a normal process initiated by the immune system to promote healing. But, when inflammation levels are abnormally high, we don’t feel, perform or recover well, and, over time, increased inflammation can cause weight gain, high blood pressure and disease.

“In sports nutrition, inflammation imbalance can be associated with over training, and can affect things like your neurological health,” Feeney says. “It takes a toll on your mental concentration, focus and motivation.”

According to Feeney, genetic makeup and physiology can make one more prone to excessive muscle soreness and tendonitis, which retard progression and can lead to injuries. Poor dietary choices are another contributor. “There are foods we know to be anti-inflammatory,” Feeney says. “ So we see what they’re not eating and pick the beneficial foods that will compliment their physiological needs.”

Coping Mechanisms:

Consume more anti-inflammatory foods.Basing the majority of your diet on foods high in fiber, antioxidants, omega-3 fatty acids and probiotics can help balance inflammation. Feeney recommends eating a variety of colors, particularly fruits and vegetables such as berries, citrus, apples, pears, tomatoes, mushrooms, leafy greens, onions, garlic, radishes, cauliflower and broccoli. Spices and herbs such as ginger, turmeric and rosemary, promote an anti-inflammatory response. Opt for fiber from unprocessed grains, legumes, and fruits and vegetables. Omega- 3-rich sources include wild salmon, ground flaxseeds, enriched eggs and non-genetically modified canola oil. “A fermented food has a natural amount of probiotic in it, as well as the dairy category, and supplements,” Feeney says.

Balance sports foods with whole foods. “Keeping the gut healthy requires fiber and a balance of healthy bacteria; the things that disrupt that balance are refined carbs and sugars, and antibiotic use,” Feeney says. However, high-fiber sources of carbohydrates require more digestion time and can cause gastric distress if eaten too close to a workout, so the key here is balance. Before, during or after exercise, Feeney suggests using a combination of sports foods and inflammation-lowering foods such as tart cherry juice, or homemade protein bars with ginger.

Select protein sources wisely. “The more fat there is in a protein source, the more inflammatory the food will be,” Feeney says. “When the animal is raised on corn and soy, this creates inflammatory fat in the meat.” When choosing beef as a protein source look to grass fed as a leaner option with a more healthful ratio of omega-6s to omega-3s. Skinless chicken and turkey remain mostly inflammation neutral. Feeney advocates plant-based proteins as anti-inflammatory options because sources, such as beans and tofu, can have omega-3s, fiber and some of the phytonutrients needed to create healing biochemical reactions.

Hydrate with more water, less alcohol. “Water is the oil through your engine; it makes everything smooth and prevents things from grinding against each other,” Feeney says. “While wine does contain antioxidants, alcohol creates tons of destruction in the body, so I don’t view it as an anti-inflammatory.”

Increase sleep and lower stress. “Endurance athletes can push themselves too hard to the point where they’re overtraining or overreaching,” Feeney remarks. “There’s a need for recovery, particularly when you’re trying to keep inflammation down.” Sleep is the time when the body recovers the most, so if you rise feeling less than rested too frequently, you’re not optimizing recovery time. Keeping stress at bay is yet another step toward lowering inflammation.