Performance Nutrition: Proper Fueling for Long Workouts & Races
Andrew Dole, RDN
Everyday Chef & Performance Nutrition Expert, Fruits & Veggies—More Matters Full Bio
Anyone exercising longer than 90 minutes knows about “the bonk” or “hitting the wall,” because it’s a terrible feeling. Fatigue, clouded thinking, and loss of performance are indicators of being under fueled, dehydrated, or both. Training this way regularly is counter-productive and often leads to injury. Learn to stay on top of your game with these tips.
The average person stores enough carbohydrate energy in her/his muscles to fuel 60-90 minutes of intense activity; approximately 1200-1600 calories. Beyond 90 minutes, the body is running on reserve carbohydrates.
Having enough energy for a long workout starts with properly fueling every day.
Know your energy needs per day.
The body treats calories like money in the bank. Some get saved, some get used. Not eating enough while exercising will eventually break the bank. However, unlike a bank account the body doesn’t close down. Instead it starts stealing from the muscles and other reserve tissues.
Solution: Estimate daily calorie needs. There are several online and mobile tools available or search for a local dietitian who specializes in sport nutrition.
Eat real food and enough of it.
A calorie goal is just the start. Now it’s time to eat real food. Gels, bars, and instant shake mixes aren’t always the best nutrition solution. They often have too much sugar, preservatives and artificial ingredients.
Solution: Stick with real food throughout the day and try eating the rainbow. No, not the candy! Eating a wide variety of colors every day is a sound strategy for benefiting from the phytochemicals, minerals and vitamins available in fruits and vegetables. Grains and lean proteins are also part of the real food solution and should be enjoyed throughout the day.
Use mobile apps to track your meals and activity.
Some people just know how much to eat every day. For the rest of us a little help is required to avoid chronically under fueling.
Solution: Meal tracking isn’t just for restriction! It’s a valuable tool to make sure enough food is being eaten regularly and to keep an eye on proper macronutrient balance.
Eating before exercise and avoiding stomach problems requires planning.
Try these quick tips to get in real food before a training session.
Solution: 1) Eat solid food 3-4 hours before the activity. 2) Try a liquid meal, like a fresh fruit and protein smoothie, 2-3 hours before exercising. 3) Avoid high-fat and high-fiber foods before exercise
For 90 minutes or longer eating during exercise is a necessity to maintain performance.
Consider your carbohydrate (CHO) intake goals for exercise duration.
We burn both fat and carbohydrates for energy, but the preferred energy source is carbohydrates stored in the muscles as glycogen. Glycogen is money in the bank. The longer we exercise the more glycogen we spend. Eating during exercise is like spending someone else’s money and it slows down the spending of our reserves.
Solution: Use the following guidelines to determine how much to eat during exercise. 1) 30-60g CHO/hour for exercise lasting 1.5-2.5 hours. 2) 80-90g CHO/hour for exercise lasting 2.5 and greater.
Eating during exercise can cause stomach upset and digestive issues.
Trial and error is the name of the game when figuring out what and how much to eat during exercise, because everyone is very different.
Solution: Choose easily digestible foods; stay away from high-fat and high-fiber choices. Focus on simple carbohydrates like dried fruit, bananas, or cooked sweet potato. Find a few foods that work for you and carry a little bit of each. Keep the snacks small and eat at regular intervals during a long exercise session. Also, a well formulated hydration drink will often provide carbohydrates and pairs well with real food.
Don’t get behind on energy needs.
During exercise the body is focused on delivering oxygen and nutrients to the working muscles. This slows down the digestive system making it harder to get fuel from the stomach to the muscles.
Solution: Start fueling within the first hour using small easy to digest snacks giving the body enough time to process what is being eaten.
And remember that less is not always more. The body needs food. Feed it.