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Fueling Race Training
We talked about the importance of managing glycogen during a muscle building routine, and it’s even more critical when training for an event. Long-distance running really tests your body’s energy systems, and properly adding fuel into the equation can not only make your runs feel easier, but improve your times.
Maintaining healthy stores of muscle glycogen will be the key to keeping your energy up throughout your long training schedule, but you also need to condition your body to use fat for fuel during your races. A typical runner can store enough glycogen to get through a half marathon, but running more than that will require mobilized body fat for fuel.
Train to use all your stored fuel
While you will need to consume carbohydrates before some workouts to allow your body to conserve glycogen stores, you don’t always want to train this way or your body will not develop the enzymes it will need to help metabolize stored fat for fuel. You’ll need to chose some days to train fasted in order to condition your body to break down stored body fat. Both sources of fuel will help bring you through your workout and trying to rely solely on one or the other will cause your overall performance to suffer.
If you’re using the Galloway method, then a simple formula would be to try and train fasted on the short run days and then fuel with plenty of carbohydrates before and during your long runs. For everyone else, you don’t always need carbohydrates before or during a run lasting less than an hour. Pushing yourself with fasted training on these days will help condition your body to make better use of stored body fat for fuel. That said, everyone should consume plenty of carbohydrates afterwards to replenish spent glycogen, so you’ll be ready for your next workout.
The majority (65%) of your daily calories should come from carbohydrates, about 10-15% should consist of protein and 20-25% should come from fat (preferably unsaturated fat; more on that below). If your body has enough carbohydrates to replenish glycogen reserves, the dietary fat and protein can go towards repairing the damage caused by distance running as opposed to being burned up solely as fuel. Race training is taxing to the body and improper nutrition will increase your chance of injury and make you more vulnerable to the impacts of overtraining.
Be aware of compensation
As I mentioned in a previous article, long, steady-state workouts have a tendency to increase a person’s appetite, causing him or her to compensate and eat so much they replace all the calories lost during training (and often more). The goal in race training is to develop a consistent pace that will carry you all the way through, which by definition is steady-state training. This is necessary to create an efficient environment that will conserve fuel, but it also sets you up for subconscious compensation.
In addition, another study found that “engaging in a physical activity seems to trigger the search for reward when individuals perceive it as exercise but not when they perceive it as fun.” This means if you think your daily training is unpleasant exercise verses a fun activity, you are more likely to seek out an unhealthy reward later.
Race training requires more fuel to keep you on pace to your goal, but excess body fat will make your race all the more difficult. I’ve known many people that have been surprised after completing their event that they didn’t actually lose any weight (some even gained weight). The reason is because they did not keep the body’s natural defense mechanism of compensation in check. Yes, you will need more fuel, but pizza and ice cream are not proper choices. All your hard work during training does not give you free rein to eat anything you want. Your body does not want to lose weight and will use all kinds of subconscious tricks to keep your weight steady. Remember, the rules of insulin still apply (especially later in the day). When you eat a lot of carbohydrates and fat together, your body is going to store any fat you eat and not release stored body fat for hours. Since you’re going to be consuming a lot of carbs, you should make sure the rest of your choices are “clean.” Most people know what eating clean (eating healthy) is, but I’ll get into the specifics of the types of foods you should seek out (and when) below.
An important part of your training plan should involve figuring out the types of foods that cause gastrointestinal distress during your workout. Consuming a high glycemic index snack 30 minutes before your run, or a larger meal 2 - 3 hours before your workout will help conserve your glycogen stores and allow you to move at a good pace during your run, plus it should be easier on your digestion. Exercise draws blood away from your digestive system, so complex foods will be more difficult to process and can increase the chance of an upset stomach. Try to avoid foods that are higher in fiber before a workout and pay attention to how your digestion responds during the actual workout. People respond differently to different foods, and you need to take the time to figure out the best pre-workout meal to use before your race. Make sure you stick with the foods that worked during training. Do not experiment with something new on race day (no matter what some random “expert” tells you). Just because a food made someone else feel great during their event doesn’t mean it will do the same for you. Feel free to experiment all you want in training, but save what works for race day.
Just as you need to figure out what to eat before your event, you need to figure out how to fuel yourself during your event. A recent study had a test group of marathon runners consume two sports gel packs (each containing 20 grams of carbohydrates) along with a glass or two of water 15 - 20 minutes before the start of the race, another pack 40 minutes into the race, and then an additional pack every 20 minutes from that point on. Compared to the control group that didn’t consume nearly as many carbohydrates, the test runners improved their times by an average of 10 minutes. Once again, if you wish to try this yourself, test it during your training. Don’t experiment on race day.
Whether you fuel before or during your run (or not at all if you’re trying to condition your fat burning systems), you still need to load up on carbohydrates after your training sessions to restore spent glycogen. As I mentioned with the muscle building recommendations, your muscles are starved for sugar after a workout and will work to replace lost glycogen without relying as much on insulin. A good amount of your daily carbohydrate requirements should come within 2 hours after your workout. This is when your body will gobble up foods like white rice and sports drinks (which I typically don’t recommend) without causing a major insulin spike.
You don’t need to go crazy, just eat what’s comfortable and make up the remainder of the balance over the course of the next 24 hours. Your body will be working hard to replace glycogen during this time, but insulin will come into play later on, so you don’t want to consume too many high-glycemic carbs and fats at the same time. Higher-fiber carbohydrates should be consumed later in the day along with your healthy fats to keep your appetite and your body’s natural compensation reflex in check.
This is probably where most runners get it wrong. They either eat too little fat or they focus on the wrong kinds of fat (“I’m running so I can eat anything I want”). Your body will use stored fat as a fuel source if you train it properly, plus your body needs a steady supply of dietary fats to repair cell membranes and manufacture hormones. In a previous article, I mentioned that saturated fat has been unfairly demonized as the cause of heart disease, obesity, and a host of other illnesses. While saturated fat won’t negatively impact your health, I advise runners to focus mainly on unsaturated fats during their training. Studies have found that your body can mobilize 50% more stored fat during exercise when your diet is composed primarily of unsaturated fats. This is a big deal for runners. Focusing on saturated fats means a great deal of your stored fat will actually be locked away from you during your workouts instead of being released into your bloodstream as fuel. Saturated fat not only effects your waistline, but your race time.
Focus on healthy fats from plant sources like nuts, seeds, olive oil, safflower oil, flaxseed oil, soybean oil, canola oil, and avocados, and also include healthy animal sources like fish (high in omega-3), grass-fed beef and dairy (high in CLA), and omega-3 enriched eggs. Omega-3 fatty acids have been shown to help lessen post-exercise inflammation and soreness. Training for longer events can be a grueling process, and keeping your body pain-free and ready to train will help you maintain a consistent schedule.
Since protein will make up the smallest portion of your diet, make sure you focus on high-quality proteins to ensure your body has the building blocks it needs to repair the damage caused by prolonged training. A good post-workout protein shake containing whey or casein protein (or both) and plenty of carbohydrates will deliver amino acids to the muscles that need them most. Some studies have actually found that a cheap yet effective recovery drink is low-fat chocolate milk. It seems to contain the perfect balance of proteins and carbohydrates that most endurance athletes need after a tough workout.
The animal sources of healthy fats will also be your source for recovery proteins later in the day. Like dietary fats, protein is filling and will once again help counter your body’s compensation instinct. Nuts are a terrific source of fiber, healthy fats, and protein as well, and they can also really satisfy your hunger.
- Your diet should be roughly 65% carbohydrates, 10-15% protein, and 20-25% dietary fat.
- Consume high-glycemic carbohydrates 30 minutes to about 2 hours before your workout.
- Consume your post workout shake/meal within 2 hours of your workout; it should contain a mixture of carbohydrates to restore glycogen and protein to repair muscle.
- Avoid fat in your pre-/post-workout shakes/meals, but include it in other meals throughout the day.
- Eat protein, high-fiber carbohydrates, and healthy fats later in the day to stave off your body’s compensation reflex.
- Focus on unsaturated fats instead of saturated fats; your body can mobilize 50% more body fat for energy during workouts if you do.
- Make sure you eat omega-3 fatty acids to help minimize post-exercise inflammation and soreness.