The Basics of Eating for Endurance

6942604078_f4f89b427e_oMaybe you’re new to exercise.

Maybe you enjoy team sports, but you’ve been feeling like you want to get out on your own.

Or maybe you’re just tired of the rote 45-minute treadmill/resistance machine combo at the gym, and you need to break out of your rut.

For extended bouts of exercise, you’ll need to fuel yourself not just for performance, but for recovery. You’ll need to keep your mind sharp. And most of all, you’ll need to know what to eat when your performance suffers.

Here are some simple guidelines for inputs to help you optimize your output.

Let’s Talk Pain

Exercise-induced muscle cramps have interrupted many a workout. Those sudden seizures of the calves, abs, or other hard-worked muscles are usually caused by lack of electrolytes. Electrolytes are meant to conduct electrical impulses through the body, and when they’re in short supply, muscle contraction is impaired. The usual suspects for electrolyte deficiency are calcium, potassium, sodium, and magnesium.*

For calcium, look to tablets, dairy products, or fortified OJ, ideally taken twice a day. Or, if you’re on the go, you can simply plop-and-fizz a Nuun tablet into your water bottle. Not only are these tablets portable and packed with electrolytes, but the extra hydration can help ease cramps as well.

For potassium, being sure to include foods rich in these nutrients on a daily basis—like bananas, avocados, and white beans—can help reduce your susceptibility to cramps.

If you’re exercising hard, especially in high heat, your sodium levels can become depleted. This is where sports drinks can come in handy—instead of reaching for water, choose a low-sugar beverage that contains sodium. Coconut water is a great option that also provides additional potassium. Salted snacks like pretzels can help as well.

For magnesium, look to leafy greens, whole grains, nuts, and beans. For supplements, try capsules or good old-fashioned Rolaids, which also satisfies your need for calcium.

Can’t Go On Any More?

Your muscles are exhausted, and you feel weak and unfocused. You think that you probably could finish your workout, but you just don’t wanna. For sports that need endurance, carbohydrate intake is what can make the difference between reaching your and dropping out early.

Endurance can be as much about mental fatigue as physical. The liver stores carbs, releasing them to maintain blood glucose, which feeds both your muscles and your brain. This means that once these stores are depleted, not only will your body fatigue, but your brain will also agree “yeah, that’s enough.”

While consuming carbs can’t get you into triathlete shape alone (that takes muscle training to increase ability to store glycogen), they allow for replenishment after. Much more quickly than protein or fat.

So for example, a day where carbs are part of your nutrition, you might start with steel-cut oatmeal with milk and raisins, with a sweet potato at lunch, and roasted plantains at dinner.

Mind the GI

If you’re doing a high-impact endurance workout, your pre-exercise fuel can turn into a liability. All that jostling and bouncing can cause gastrointestinal distress, and get in the way of top performance.

The rule of thumb is to give yourself 4 hours to digest your high-carb fueling meal, and then have a light snack 1-2 hours before. This means that for morning training, it’s important to get your carbs at night, while drinking extra water. For the afternoon or evening, increase your carb intake at breakfast and lunch.

It’s also important to figure out what types of foods work best for your body. Eat familiar foods, taking note of what makes you feel best, whether it’s solid food or liquid, energy bars or glucose chews, a banana or dried fruit.

There are all kinds of reasons people become interested in endurance sports—distance running, cycling, or even triathlons—but one thing’s for sure: nutrition will be more important than ever.

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How WellnessFX Can Help

Find out your calcium, potassium, and sodium levels with the WellnessFX baseline package; or step up to the performance package for these plus magnesium.

Get a blood test

General tips adapted from the fourth edition of sports dietitian Nancy Clark’s Sports Nutrition Guidebook.

The posts on this blog are for information only, and are not intended to substitute for a doctor-patient or other healthcare professional-patient relationship nor do they constitute medical or healthcare advice of any kind. Any information in these posts should not be acted upon without consideration of primary source material and professional input from one's own healthcare professionals.