Nutrition maximizes endurance athletes’ performance

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This Sunday is the last time Coeur d’Alene will host Ironman®, a race that brought together local endurance athletes as well as athletes from all over the world to swim, bike, and run. Attempting a race like this takes serious commitment. Athletes spend hours fine tuning their endurance by training in all three sports. Just as important as training, is proper nutrition to fuel athletes for maximum performance.

First, let’s define what is considered an endurance athlete. Endurance, according to the online Merriam-Webster dictionary, is “the ability to sustain a prolonged stressful effort or activity.” American Heart Association describes endurance exercise as aerobic exercise that increases your breathing and heart rate such as walking, swimming, biking, and running. For this article, physical activity lasting more than an hour is considered an endurance activity in which nutrition especially needs attention. Activity lasting less than an hour does not require the extra attention to nutrition during exercise and water is the best choice for staying hydrated. Sports drinks and other sources of carbohydrates used for shorter workouts are just extra calories that are not necessarily needed in a healthy adult.

Although basic nutrition applies to everyone, it is a key component in an athlete’s life for eating habits to be optimal so the body is constantly fueled with proper nutrition and ready to go! Nutrition before, during, and after engaging in long periods of training or competition is important for maximum performance. Proper nutrition enhances performance by building up carbohydrate stores in the body in days leading up to activity; maintaining energy during workouts; replenishing energy stores after activity; repairing muscle tissues after activity; and keeping immune systems strong.

Carbohydrates (carbs) are the main source for energy such as breads, grains, pastas, and fruit. The body stores carbs for use during activity. These stores can be depleted as quickly as two hours during activity so it’s important to keep them replenished with proper nutrition to avoid fatigue. Other side effects from lost energy are lack of coordination and concentration, and light-headedness. Don’t forget about hydration as part of optimal nutrition. Too much sweat loss without replacing body water and electrolytes can have detrimental effects such as decreased mental acuity, decreased ability to recover from activity, and fatigue.

Nutrition regimens vary greatly based on athletes’ activities and needs, and what is tolerated without gastrointestinal distress (cramping, nausea, etc.) so it is recommended that athletes practice their nutrition regimen during training prior to competition. The following is a general guideline on how to fuel your workouts, training, and/or competition that last longer than an hour.

About 2 to 4 hours before activity consume a meal if possible, consisting of good quality carbs (whole grains, sweet potato, low-fat dairy, fruit) and lean protein. This timing will allow for digestion. Examples include peanut butter and honey on whole wheat toast with an instant breakfast drink or a turkey sandwich on whole wheat bread with pretzels or a piece of fruit and a sports drink, fruit and yogurt smoothie with granola, or oatmeal with brown sugar, almonds, banana and skim milk. Continue to top off energy stores by consuming carbs about 1/2 hour to an hour before activity such as a sports drink, piece of fruit, or sports gel or gummies. Make sure to include at least 8-16 ounces of fluid for hydration.

During activity, it is crucial to replenish energy stores, electrolytes, and body water. Consume easily digested carbs that will quickly convert to energy every 30 to 60 minutes (fresh fruit, pretzels, bread with jam or honey, or sports gels, bars and drinks) and about 8-16 ounces of fluids approximately every 15 minutes.

The best time to replenish energy stores, fluids and electrolytes, and to aid in the repair of muscle tissue, is to consume a carbohydrate-rich snack with small amounts of protein within 15 to 45 minutes following the completion of activity such as crackers with cheese or peanut butter, chocolate milk, sports drinks and bars, smoothies, etc. Within 1 to 2 hours consume a meal containing carbohydrates and protein. Good choices may be a turkey/veggie sandwich on whole wheat bread with a glass of milk, chicken stir fry with vegetables and brown rice, or a burrito made with a whole wheat tortilla, brown rice, black beans, vegetables and cheese.

Remember, these guidelines are broad and each athlete should experiment with their nutrition regimen prior to competition to see what is most tolerated. For more individualized nutrition information, find a Sports, Cardiovascular, and Wellness Nutrition (SCAN) Registered Dietitian Nutritionist in your area by going to www.scandpg.org. SCAN is a dietetic practice group of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.

To all Ironman® competitors, best of luck this weekend. Stay fueled to maximize performance!

• • •

Kimberly Young, MS, RDN, LD, is the WIC Coordinator at Panhandle Health District and a graduate of the University of Idaho Dietetic program.

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