Regardless of your goal, practicing your nutrition routines in training sessions before the big event is key to a successful nutrition strategy on race day. You may be familiar with endurance sports practices that recommend gels every 15-30 minutes and sucking down a bottle of Powerade every hour. As the nutrition landscape has changed for your daily diet, the same applies for your racing nutrition. While the actual recommendations haven’t changed too much if you open the latest textbook, more and more practitioners are recommending their athletes lighten the overall race nutrition load. The benefits are twofold: reduced gastrointestinal problems in the short term, and improved overall health in the long term.
Too much sugar loaded into your system weekend after weekend due to gels, bars and sports drink will only increase the overall oxidative stress (cell breakdown) and inflammation that’s an inevitable part of training for an endurance event.
Your real food approach to your daily diet should extend to your training sessions too, which will allow for optimal recovery.
The key things to consider with training nutrition are fuel and hydration.
If you’re competing in the short distances, running or walking, chances are a lot of your training sessions will be relatively short as well. This doesn’t discount the importance of ensuring adequate training requirements are met, but for the most part your nutrition needs are actually taken care of with your daily diet.
If you plan to undertake the event with participation as your main goal and less emphasis on competing, then hunger might be the only issue that you need to contend with. The intensity of your training for the events will likely be low enough to allow you to consume a snack or two, with regular sipping on a fluid that contains some electrolytes (predominantly sodium). Getting familiar with eating while you’re on the move, having something in your stomach, and exercising (all at the same time!) is your main priority.
For more competitive runners, consuming actual food might be too challenging. Relying on a liquid source of fuel will allow for quick absorption and digestion without the worry of gastrointestinal distress that occurs when you eat solid food. An electrolyte drink that contains additional carbohydrate (CHO) along with sodium could be a good option. A chia seed-based drink is also palatable and many of my endurance clients use this as a fuel alternative (recipe coming next post). If you choose to use a commercial electrolyte drink, adding additional sodium (such as Himalayan sea salt) is prudent given that many are too low for optimal absorption.
Regardless of whether you are completing or competing, putting some thought into the types of foods you can tolerate while training and ensuring you drink enough fluid will be key to a successful event.
Items that are easy to chew, have structural integrity (so they don’t fall apart and become difficult to eat) and are palatable are key to minimising problems with nutrition. Real food options may better suit the mountain bikers but less so the runners (due the aforementioned gastrointestinal issues). Do also note the more fatigued you are, the harder your body works to keep you going at the same intensity. This diverts blood flow from the gut to the muscles and reduces your ability to absorb fuel. Many athletes start with solid food choices and move to more liquid based nearer the latter part of the event to lessen the stress on the gastrointestinal system.
Dehydration also increases fatigue and makes a lower intensity session feel like hard work. While hydration levels are often linked to cramping, it can actually occur through increased muscle fatigue or interrupted signalling pathways in the body between the neuromuscular system and the muscles. The current understanding is that it’s less about having enough fluid or electrolytes during the training session and more often due to beginning your training (or race) in a dehydrated state or with a low electrolyte status.
For women in particular, we can’t rely on our thirst mechanism to ensure we are hydrated. This is affected by our hormonal status across the course of our menstrual cycle. If you have problems remembering to drink or never feel thirsty, you need to make a plan for drinking enough fluid to replenish after a training session, and incorporate enough sodium in your food and fluid to avoid being low in electrolytes.
Mikki Williden [PhD Registered Nutritionist]