With July winding down, runners preparing for the fall marathon and half-marathon season are approaching some of their hardest training weeks. The same goes for triathletes and cyclists who are busy preparing for the fall competitive season.
But there's more to training for an endurance event than settling into a comfortable pace and putting in the miles. Also crucial to success, both during training and on race day, is finding the right fuelling strategy.
Being lackadaisical about eating and drinking during an extended workout can have consequences that range from poor performance to gastrointestinal woes so severe athletes drop from the race. Despite its importance, too many runners, cyclists and triathletes don't spend enough time fine-tuning their strategy to keep their hard-working muscles primed with energy.
A new study, to be published in the International Journal of Sports Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism, offers insight into how important it is to be nutritionally prepared on race day. It compared the performance of marathoners who followed a scientifically prescribed nutritional strategy to those who ate and drank at will.
Twenty-eight runners competing in the 2013 Copenhagen marathon were matched according to similar ages, gender, body composition and predicted race times and then split into two groups. When it came to the amount of water they drank and the number of gastrointestinal complaints reported, there was little difference between the two sets of runners. But when race times and the amount of carbohydrates consumed were compared, the scientifically fuelled runners were 11 minutes faster and had taken in more carbs than the runners who fuelled with whatever and whenever they wanted.
Though the sample size of the study was small, it offers a unique look at the real-world results of marathoners who fuelled according to expert recommendations and those who didn't.
Part of the difficulty about knowing what to eat and drink during an extended workout lies in the multitude of theories presented in magazines, on the web and by athletes themselves who swear their personal nutrition strategy is best. So while most athletes know the importance of eating carbohydrates to fuel their working muscles and drinking enough water to stay hydrated, the details as to how much and when to fuel remains mired in misinformation.
Asker Jeukendrup, a sports nutrition scientist and veteran of 20 Ironman triathlons, reviewed multiple studies related to sports nutrition for athletic events lasting 30 minutes or more. And while most were conducted in a lab vs. during real-world events, there is enough data to offer a generalized set of best practices concerning what to eat and drink during an endurance workout, whether you're a runner, cyclist or triathlete.
Before the race: Endurance athletes should start by increasing carbohydrate consumption in the days leading up to any workout lasting more than 90 minutes. In addition, consuming a high carb meal three to four hours before the workout with another small, carb-rich snack ingested five to 15 minutes before starting will ensure the muscles are loaded with energy.
The same goes for drinking water, with the goal being to start extended workouts sufficiently hydrated by gradually drinking five to seven millilitres per kilogram of body weight at least four hours before a long workout.
A small hit of caffeine one hour prior to a lengthy workout can also boost performance. A dose in the range of three milligrams per kilogram of body weight taken one hour before exercise is recommended.
During the race: Maintaining pre-race levels of carbohydrates and fluids demands refuelling at regular intervals along the course. For exercise bouts of 30 to 75 minutes, sipping small amounts of water and gargling with a carbohydrate-containing mouth rinse is enough to boost performance.
For longer workouts, carbohydrates should be consumed at a rate between 30 to 90 grams per hour, with one- to two-hour bouts of exercise requiring up to 30 grams per hour, two- to three-hour workouts requiring up to 60 grams per hour and 90 grams per hour for exercise lasting more than three hours.
As for water, it should be consumed in response to thirst, keeping in mind that exercise intensity, the outside temperature and individual sweat rates can increase the need for water. The goal is to limit weight loss by two to three per cent of body weight, which can be best judged by stepping on a scale before and after a long workout to assess fluid losses while training.
Additional small doses of caffeine, one milligram per kilogram of body weight, can be consumed every two hours to continue to reap its benefits.
Each of these practices should be tested in training before instituting them on race day to make sure they sit well in your stomach. Then, with a nutritional plan in place, you'll be set to achieve your best race results.