Has the plethora of nutritional goodies left you bewildered and overwhelmed? Having a difficult time deciding what type of gel, chew, drink or bar is right for you? Worry not, for I am here to guide you to epiphany!
Many runners have encountered the smorgasbord of nutritional supplements available to them, but I find that a majority typically struggle to identify the appropriate energy source for their individual workout. In an effort to help you make your next nutritional purchase an educated one, I offer a simple break down of product purpose versus workout demand.
Refueling: The General Breakdown
Disclaimer: The are many factors to be addressed when considering nutritional supplements. This breakdown is a general recommendation and by no means a hard and fast rule. The key is to listen to your body, consider any potential medical needs you may have, be mindful of weather temperatures and humidity, and evaluate the intensity of your workout. All those factors notwithstanding, here is a basic guideline for nutrition and product recommendation.
For all intents and purposes, your body runs on glucose. Glucose is essentially the currency used in your cells in exchange for energy (ATP in cell-speak). You eat so that your food can be broken down into simple sugars – such as glucose – which are then used by your cells to conduct day-to-day cell business. Carbohydrates, proteins, and lipids (fats) are all potential sources of simple sugars but are not all equally accessible for the body. Proteins facilitate all things cellular and are rarely used for the purpose of energy. Lipids, pound for pound, have the potential to provide you with the most energy but take a considerable amount of time and effort to break down into a form that is usable (basically a situation where access to your money is bogged down by extensive paperwork that will take you the better half of your life to work through). Carbohydrates – whose sole purpose is to provide energy – are the easiest for the body to disassemble and therefore the preferred means of currency. Whichever source the body chooses, the goal is to break it down into simple sugars. This brings us back to glucose, your body’s favorite simple sugar. Much of the glucose you take in is used to fund the many transactions occurring at the cellular level, but some of it is deposited into a savings account in the form of glycogen. Glycogen is kept on reserve and acts as a ready form of energy whenever the body needs it (like that savings account we say is only for emergencies until it falls victim to that “must-have” impulse buy). It is this glycogen account that we tend to draw from when we exercise. If this account starts to run low, the body will resort to breaking down a greater percentage of fat stores for energy and take its sweet time in doing so. Bonking, or hitting the wall, is the complete halt of all perceivable body function and occurs when cells register “insufficient funds” in the glucose department. The take home message? Nutrition is important.
Workout duration: 1 – 2 hours or less
You have enough glycogen stored to meet the needs of your day to day mileage, so there is really no need to consume carbohydrates during shorter periods of exercise. However, your body will lose another essential performance component, electrolytes. Electrolytes are salts – specifically sodium, chloride, potassium, calcium, magnesium, and hydrogen phosphate – that facilitate the flexing of muscles. When you sweat, you stand to lose large amounts of these salts. You might be saying, “What does all this fancy jargon have to do with me and my marathon training?” The answer, everything! Your muscles operate via sodium and potassium gradients (look out, I’m about to go all high school biology on you) and require these levels to be maintained or else your muscles cannot operate properly. If you only replenish your system with water after losing large amounts of those vital salts, this sodium-potassium concentration gets diluted further and inevitably results in those not-so-popular muscle cramps. Ah but there’s a simple solution! Using an electrolyte replacement drink will replenish what is lost and does not provide unnecessary carbohydrates (there’s that fancy word for sugar again). Electrolyte drinks are all you really need for workouts in the range of two hours or less.
Product Recommendation: Nuun (pronounced “noon”)
Available in a slew of different flavors, Nuun tablets offer a light and refreshing electrolyte boost to your water. Just drop a tablet in 16 ounces of water and presto: electrolyte-packed hydration at the ready!
Workout duration: 2 hours or more
If your workout is projected to extend beyond 2 hours, it is probably in your best interest to consider taking your nutrition to the next level. After about two hours of running you will start to run low on glycogen reserves, and this means that your body will turn to the fat stores for its primary energy source. As awesome as burning more fat sounds, the process of breaking down fat cells to extract usable energy moves at a snail’s pace. The demand for energy will begin to exceed the available supply, leaving you just enough funds for a one-way ticket to “bonk” city. To prevent becoming another victim of “the wall,” we need to take in a carbohydrate supplement because it provides our bodies with an easily digestible liquid, gel or chew that absorbs quickly to replenish sugar levels in the blood stream. Refueling your glucose levels will allow you to maintain your performance level without depleting your glycogen savings account.
Dissolves in water – Fluid Performance, Cytomax Performance
Gels and Chews – Gu, PowerBar, Honey Stinger, Cytomax, ShotBloks, CliffShots, Chomps, Sport Beans
There are a variety of consistencies and flavors, but all of these products are designed to do the same job. Some will have caffeine, some not, and if you have caffeine regularly it probably won’t have a noticeable effect. As for timing, it is recommended that you take in carbohydrates about 30-45 minutes into your run if you expect to be running longer than 2 hours. From then on, standard procedure would be to ingest additional carbs every 30 minutes or so. It’s better to have a little too much, because the alternative is considerably less forgiving.
It’s a week before your big event and you’re psyched! You were diligent with your diet, proactive with injuries, and completed every long run. Everything is going exactly as planned, nothing will stand between you and that finish line! But wait, is that a scratchy feeling in the back of your throat? You don’t remember swallowing a cotton ball. And you slept a solid 8 hours last night too, but suddenly you are overcome with exhaustion and flushed with fever. What cruel injustice is this? After all your hard work and dedication, you have somehow found yourself an innocent victim of bad circumstance.
What if I told you there is a way to prevent the onset of viral plague, or at least give yourself the best chance at defense against it?
Probably the most important, yet overlooked, component of your nutrition plan is your post-run recovery. When you put your muscles through stress, like hard workouts or long runs, they need protein to repair themselves. Well in the time immediately following demanding exercise, your body will loot and pillage other protein-rich areas in an effort to meet the needs of your agonizing muscles. Your immune system can become a victim of protein theft, which can leave you defenseless against whatever opportunistic pathogen crosses your path. Taking in some protein after your tougher days helps to rebuild your muscles and prevents your cells from turning to a life of crime. Furthermore, investing in a protein supplement aids in recovery so you’re ready to go for the your next workout. Recovery drinks help decrease soreness and exhaustion, which will allow you to keep the quality of your workouts high day after day. Shorter recovery time, increased efficiency, and staying healthy are all benefits of a consistent post-run nutrition plan. Keep in mind, sometimes no amount of preparedness can overcome sheer bad luck. You can do everything right and still fall ill or sustain an injury, in which case you just have to pull yourself up by your bootstraps and give it your best effort anyway.
Liquids – Fluid Recovery, Gu Brew and…%1 chocolate milk!
Solids – Luna Bars, Bonk Breakers, Cliff Bars
When it comes to recovery products, it is essential to consume them immediately after your workout. There is a very limited window of time – about 30 minutes – in which your body is most apt to absorb protein. No amount of protein-loading will save you from cell savagery after this window has passed. And no I’m not kidding about chocolate milk either, this delicious dairy treat will work just as well as a supplement.
Now that you are armed with knowledge, go forth in your nutrition planning and may your future running endeavors be met with success.
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