Workout fueling is more important than you might think
Posted on January 31, 2012 by Amanda Cassell(Lava Magazine) As a registered dietitian, I have always known that nutrition was important for health, disease prevention, and weight loss. Throughout my college years and during my dietetic internship, this was stressed time and again.
Though my education never focused specifically on sports-related nutrition, my curiosity only grew when I got hooked on triathlon. The more that I learned, the more that I came to realize that proper nutrition truly is the fourth discipline.
Progressing from the Olympic distance to a full Ironman, I began to realize the growing importance of nutrition and fueling, as the length of my races also grew longer. I also began to observe a few trends among friends and fellow triathletes: walking marathons, ugly race finishes, dehydration issues, and a “cramping stagger” at the finish line. Athletes who had made tremendous sacrifices logging ridiculous training hours were extremely disappointed results that fell far below their expectations.
How could an athlete dedicate so much time to this sport, yet crash and burn at every race distance? I had trained with them, and watched them produce far better results on a simple training day than at their races. Could it be that nutrition was becoming more of a limiting factor?
I had never really researched the extent of nutrition’s effect until I began dedicating a larger portion of my practice to sports nutrition. There’s so much to consider: pre-fueling, workout fueling, and recovery. Add to this the importance of daily nutrition and the athlete, as a whole, is fully prepared to absorb the rigors of training.
Rather than telling you everything you should be doing, below are two accounts of real people, producing real results, simply by making changes to their nutritional approach.
Case study #1: Marie
Marie has always known how to make healthy food choices. Having completed four previous iron-distance races, Marie contacted me with an interest in losing weight and a desire to break a few PR’s along the way. After reviewing of her previous nutrition and dietary intake, there were many things Marie was doing perfectly. However, the timing of her recovery fuel and midday snacks were greatly limiting her ability to both replenish muscle glycogen and lose unwanted body weight. With just a few changes to her already “clean” diet, Marie noticed a 15-pound weight loss, and felt dramatically better in her workout—all by focusing more attention on appropriate fueling before, during, and after.
Marie rewrote her personal record book, and crushed projected goal times.
Both Marie and her husband were training for an upcoming Ironman. After a particularly long ride, Marie returned home to immediately consume the recovery fuel and meal that I’d planned for her. Her husband, on the other hand, chose to snack on whatever was convenient at that moment. The next morning, when heading out for their long run, Marie felt recovered, energized, and ready to go. Her husband grew concerned that he was getting sick, because Marie felt so much better than he did despite her having completed the same workout the day before.
Recovery fueling and timing is a significant opportunity to top up your muscle glycogen. In my work I try to emphasize a 4:1 carbohydrate to protein ratio in a recovery fuel (such as Pacific Health Laboratories’ Endurox R4). Ideally, this is consumed immediately upon finishing a workout or race, or, at the very least, within 30 minutes after completion. But why wait. The sooner the better.
With consistent integration into her training, Marie not only felt amazing after her workouts and looked better than ever before, she also began to reap huge rewards on race day. She rewrote her personal record book, and crushed projected goal times. Marie went on to qualify for the 2012 Boston Marathon, and smoked her husband in practically every race along the way. Could all of this have been the result of a renewed focus on her workout fueling? Absolutely. Proper fueling before (with a carbohydrate-based snack), during (with appropriate gels and fluids), and after workouts (with Endurox, in this case) led to increased quality in Marie’s training—all of which translated directly into race-day speed.
Case Study #2: Max
Max always had trouble losing weight, regardless of how hard he tried. Fad diet after fad diet only led to an endless cycle of loss and gain. Max decided that restricting his training fuel during workouts would help him see the results he wanted, but a light-headedness, fainting episodes, and midday fatigue eventually prompted him to seek my help.
I encouraged Max to consume the proper training and recovery fuels before, during, and after training, and explained that not doing so was the likely cause of his symptoms. Though reluctant at first, Max eventually took my recommendations and dropped a great deal of weight and body fat. Because Max was prolonging his body’s want of fuel, his metabolism had actually slowed. Though his body was screaming for fuel, its cries went unanswered, and in desperation Max’s body held onto fat with a tight grip. Once he started approaching workout fuels not as an enemy but as a dear friend, Max was thrilled to see his weight plunge. He was simply choosing foods based upon their nutrient density (one of our Core Diet principles) and consuming them during the proper times and in the proper ways.
Restricting workout fuels is something I see commonly among female athletes. Unfortunately, more often than not, this often backfires in a variety of ways:
- As the athlete trains, performance is limited that day (possibly even having to cut the workout short due to a fade toward the end of the training day).
- The athlete hurts performance for future training; feeling “flat” and exhausted, the next day, due to not replenishing muscle glycogen stores after training. This results in starting a new training day with a half-empty tank.
- The athlete’s metabolism slows, due to going long periods of time without taking in any nutrition. (You actually need to eat, in order to lose weight!)
- The athlete’s systematic atmosphere becomes catabolic in nature, many times losing muscle—especially counterproductive for those athletes that are strength limited.
- The athlete overindulges during the remainder of the day, thinking that the lack of calories during the workout has created room to splurge. This is a major culprit in taking in excessive calories and hindering weight loss.
The message from these two accounts is clear: You can do all of the training in the world, and be the most disciplined swimmer, biker, and runner imaginable, but turning a blind eye toward nutrition will limit your ability to benefit from all of your hard work. Why make such tremendous sacrifices of time, in an effort to be the best that you can be, only to miss out on these opportunities to improve? If you can find the time to train for three individual sports, then you can find time to fuel and recovery from them properly. You may just find that it is that final piece to the triathlon puzzle you’ve been searching for all along.
Amanda Cassell is a registered and licensed dietitian at The Core Diet under the direction of elite triathlon coach Jesse Kropelnicki. She holds a Bachelors degree in Food, Nutrition, and Dietetics, and is a marathoner and Ironman triathlete. The Core Diet is a sports nutrition specialty group working with athletes from age groupers to world class professionals. Visit TheCoreDiet.com to explore how they can help you meet your body composition, health, and performance goals.