by Matt Dixon, Elite Coach and Owner of Purplepatch Fitness
‘I have yet to meet a training endurance athlete who fuels enough to support their training and health needs’. This was a quote I found myself saying the other day and is an appropriate start for a discussion on fueling around workouts. Nutrition and fueling for training is one of the most confusing components of endurance performance, with not only plenty of conflicting and poor information on the subject, but also plenty of data found in the labs of scientists that don’t necessarily translate to the real world. To frame the subject we have to first realize that nutrition is not an isolated topic, and any successful coach or athlete will understand that it always has to be considered as a part of the overall training plan, in conjunction with the endurance training and integrated recovery. Nutrition is a supporter of your training and metabolic health, both in what you eat during and immediately following your training (your fueling), and what you eat during the rest of your day (your nutrition). It would therefore be naive to look through a myopic lens of what an athlete can do, or get away without eating, during training, and begin to look at what they should do.
Performance will be derived from a smart training plan, supported with enough recovery to allow adaptations, as well as proper fueling and nutrition. I believe that success for endurance athletes always begins with proper fueling, those calories taken in during and immediately following training. There are four reasons I believe in proper fueling:
1. Performance During a Workout
Obvious, and the only one most people think about, leading many to make taking the mistaken belief that if they can last through a 3 hour bike ride with minimal calories, they must be fine!
Remember, we don’t do single training sessions, but rather string together multiple sessions in a row, which should all have a specific role and purpose. Proper fueling maximizes recovery from any single workout, allowing readiness for the next.
3. Later Food Choices
Proper fueling, in terms of amount and type of fuel, allow it much easier to make positive food choices later in the day. These choices would focus on our building blocks (proteins), nutrients (vegetables and fruit) and good oils. Fueling well will prevent strong urges for starchy carbohydrates and sweet foods at the inappropriate time.
4. Minimizing Metabolic Stress
Our metabolic system has to deal with multiple stressors in life, as well as the massive physiological stress of our training, and inadequate fueling becomes another additional strain on the system. Proper fueling actually off-sets some of the stress of training and facilitates healthy homeostasis of our metabolic health. This is a central reason for caution in carb-depletion activities pushed by some coaches.
To gain the benefits of the four points above, I urge athletes to philosophically attempt to offset any caloric deficit they have created in training within 90 minutes following activity. In truth, this will never happen, but it fosters consistent and smart fueling during training, which limits the deficit and fuels the training, then heightens the importance of either post workout recovery drinks (for tough or long workouts over an hour) or meals. During workouts we aim, as much as possible, to rely on real foods or foods closer to real, but much of it has to come down to what works for the individual. As Stanford dietician, Stacy Sims, says ‘hydration in the bottles, nutrition in the pockets’, and this is sage advice. Avoid most high caloric electrolyte drinks and aim to gain calories from real food, bloks, dried fruit, potatoes, while hydration should be a combination of non-caloric electrolyte drink and plain water (the great transporter). Post workout, you goal is to replenish depleted stores through carbohydrate ingestion, as well as stimulate protein synthesis. This post-workout meal is the most important meal of the day for any endurance athlete. Period. Plenty of carbohydrates are valuable, but ensure you support with plenty of easily digestible protein and a little fat.
If, and only if, you follow this general path, you can then minimize starchy carbohydrates in the rest of the day; after all, your muscle glycogen stores will only get depleted in starvation and exercise. Focus instead on meats, veggies, oils and hydration. You will repair the muscles, recover well and be on the route to optimal performance and a leaner frame. Best of luck.
Matt Dixon is an exercise physiologist, former professional triathlete, elite coach and the owner of the San Francisco-based professional coaching company Purplepatch Fitness. He is coach to numerous professional triathletes and Ironman Champions including CycleOps Powered athletes Chris Lieto, Linsey Corbin, Meredith Kessler, Luke Bell, and Matt Lieto.
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