Running on empty?

Whew, this last week has been an amazing run of nutrition seminars for me. I consistently feel humbled to be in the presence of some amazing athletes, as well as honored to be able to present my knowledge on Sports Nutrition to groups like USA Track and Field, the Atlanta Track Club, Triple Seven Dance Studio, Sports Factory and many more. I thus wanted my blog for this month to review some of the highlights coming from these athlete interactions. Thanks for the great feedback and compliments. Here is thus a back-up of busting the myths behind the non-fueled training days with some structure for you to be implementing this on the run.

Any time I mention that I am a sports nutritionist, I immediately get bombarded with questions on the night before a marathon, or some similar endurance experience’s carbo-loading meal. It has amazed me over the years, that this meal is the one most have been lead to believe is the one to determine performance success. I attribute that probably to the traditional pasta dinner that has developed over the growth of endurance sports, and race directors themselves now even include such a function as part of the race agenda. Ironically however, the meal two nights before, and more importantly right before, as well as intake during, is least on the list of questions asked, yet these are the meals that should be a focus for sparing of glycogen. Before I get too technical, glycogen refers to the muscle fuel used during exercise. The body generally has enough glycogen stored to sustain 65-85 minutes of exercise.  In fact, glycogen needs to be present for fat to burn, and seeing it is so limited, why are athletes not as concerned with spreading that limited supply over the time it takes to complete the event, not only before, but during the event itself.

Patterns I have seen emerge over this, refer to both types of athletes… one, those that “won the parent lottery” as I like to put it, in other words, genetics have always been on their side, and body composition just comes naturally or two, those that are more concerned with their leanness and/or weight as a first focus, the sport was often taken up as a means to that ultimate goal.

The athletes that lean towards weight obsession are the ones that tend to avoid a pre work out meal, or supplement glycogen sparing during training and/or racing. I discovered this in my own market research attempts: I often get approached by companies attempting to market their individual miraculous sports nutrition product once they find out what I do for a living. I am always open to trial, so I am happy to experiment, and read up on their research and product development, and yes, I will help them market (never sell though) their product if I believe in it. One day, I was given a product and I decided to take it over to my running group to see how they all felt while using it as a sport drink during that morning’s long run. I observed carefully, as most of the girls blew it off, and the guys had all consumed more than one serving anxious and ready to go with this new induced energy shot. Not that I was surprised or anything, but most of the women had commented on how many calories the product was loaded with. I guess with my extended knowledge on sports nutrition, it never crossed my mind that calories used for glycogen-sparing would even hinder any weight loss efforts.I thus began to dig deeper into the research: For those of you actually holding off calories because you think they are merely supplementing and therefore adding excessive calories for a day’s intake, research actually shows that making an effort to spare glycogen during training/races results in less calories taken in on those days in the long run.  Completing a well fueled endurance day, prevents you from wanting to eat everything not tied down to a table, so to speak. So by supplementing your workouts, with calories, not only will you increase performance due to extended glycogen sparing, but you will also come out better at the end of the day on overall caloric balance.

Other reasons that athletes hold off on calories include GI distress, cramps, no appetite, etc. The solution here is to start off slowly by attempting to take in a small pre work out meal within a half an hour to an hour before and some fast burning carbs during, such as a sports gel, a few sports beans, or even a shot of sports drink (based on texture of choice). As you get used to that, increase. The philosophy behind this is, that similarly like training your cardiac system to handle intensity, you have to train your metabolism to be able to oxidize carbohydrates at high heart rates.

Many athletes, and particularly the weight conscious ones, will keep their intensity of their workouts moderate, and hold off fueling such work outs before or during. The theory backing this up is moderate work outs burn more fat, but higher intensity work outs burn more carbs. Furthermore, they believe carbs taken in before or during a work out would restrict fat burning.  This happens to be one of the most misinterpreted phenomenons within the science of sports nutrition. For starters, burning carbs during a work out does not rule out that fat gets burned as well. In fact more calories will be burned in a fueled workout due to increased performance.  Better yet, the more carbs that are burned in a workout results in more fat burn in the period following the work out. If more fat is burned, as a main fuel during a work out (a less intense, more moderate workout would offer), then you continue to burn carbs following the work out, but do not forget that carb storage is limited. As you can, believing the myth that moderate work outs is the only way to burn fat, places a plateau on potential calories able to be burned overall during moderate work outs.

Research backs this up by proving interval training is one of the most effective fat burning workouts out there. Interval workouts are highly intense, and thus burn carbs as the main fuel source, so why then is it so effective as a fat burning tool?  As just explained, it is the recovery period following a very intense workout that will continue to burn fat for many hours. The term is referred to as EPOC – Excessive Post workout Oxygen Consumption.

Finally for those athletes that really cannot stomach anything, there are some benefits to fasting prior and during a work out, but unfortunately these benefits only take effect if this fasting is practiced every so often, and not consistently. The explanation here refers to breaking what we call a physiological plateau. In other words, we become physiologically acclimatized to whatever we do consistently, and over time, nothing changes if nothing changes. This would be a good time to implement a non-fueled work out. The “change” would stimulate a positive influence again to reawaken the fat burning potential. This works particularly well for endurance sports.

In summary, to spare glycogen and increase performance, as well as optimizing intake of calories for leanness, practice fueling endurance workouts by taking in carbohydrates before and during the work outs. Recover with a 3:1 carb to protein meal, so that glycogen is restored for the next work out. Plateaus can be overcome by not eating before or during an endurance work out but only on the odd occasion (a rule of thumb may be once in two or so months).

Whether you are an elite and competitive athlete or one that uses sport as a means to optimal body composition, do not hold off on optimally fueling any endurance training or races. Not all of will stand on a podium in out lives, but the competition is always alive and strong – don’t forget ultra satisfying PR (personal Record, or best yet in performance).

4 Responses to “Running on empty?”

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  1. Dan Arnett says:

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