When we think of training we often think of the workouts we do and the time we spend developing our athletic abilities, whether it be running, biking, swimming, skiing, skating etc. But there a number of important factors in athletic development that directly impact performance gains. Sport specific workouts alone will not help us realize our athletic potential. Fuelling before workouts and after workouts are just as important as the workout itself. The central point of training, particularly for endurance athletes, is to train the body to better make use of energy sources. So it seems only logical that what we use to produce energy is just as important as how we use it. In a recent post we covered the importance of recovery and the role it plays in development. Nutrition is important for both fuelling before and during a workout/race and helping the body to rebuild during recovery. This article will be the first in a three-part series on fuelling strategies before, during and after a race/workout. But first we have to understand how fuel is used in the body.
How fuel is used in the body
The primary source of energy our body uses to power itself is ATP (adenosine triphosphate). Normally when we think of energy sources, we think of fat and carbs (glycogen) but it’s better to think of fat and carbs as being the unrefined building blocks of energy. Both of these need to be converted to ATP before they can be used to power muscles. The difference between fat and glycogen is the rate at which they can be converted. Fat is a slower process while glycogen can quickly be converted and supplied to the muscles (in fact, it is predominately stored within the muscles). As a result, fat is the fuel we use at lower intensities while glycogen becomes the main source of fuel at higher intensities. While fat is slow to convert to ATP, there is much more of it, even the leanest athletes have 10,000 calories of fat at their disposal. Conversely, glycogen stores account for approximately 2000 stored calories in the body. In training we often refer to the term ‘threshold’ and use that as a benchmark for our training zones and effort levels (FTP in power, LTHR in heart rate) and threshold is the theoretical point at which the body can no longer process fat quickly enough to keep up with the effort being produced.
It is important to note, however, that the body doesn’t simply switch energy systems when one cannot perform the task alone but that it is better to say that glycogen supports fat. Even at low intensities, the body is still using glycogen in small amounts. Glycogen is the key component in several bodily processes, in fact glucose (the source of glycogen found in the blood and liver) is the only source of energy used by the brain, which is why we tend to lose mental alertness when we ‘hit the wall’ or bonk. Endurance athletes spend most of their time training their body’s to more efficiently convert fat to energy without needing as much glycogen. As we raise our respective thresholds, we are essentially increasing the metabolization rate of our fat stores while at the same time increasing the storage capacity of glycogen in our muscles.
There is a third source of energy that is converted more quickly than glycogen but found in much smaller amounts and requires a recovery time to replenish: creatine phosphate. This is the source of energy used in short 5-10 second sprint efforts. It is readily available in the body and can be converted nearly instantly but needs 3-5 minutes to replenish.
Now that you have a better understanding of how energy is sourced within the body, we’ll move on to how to fuel before an event/workout to maximize the body’s access and storage of fuel sources.
Historical Fuelling Strategies
Most of us probably remember a time when ‘Carbo-loading’ was a popular method of fuelling before competition and many athletes still engage in some version of the practice before a big event. Large organized events still offer a pasta dinner the night before the event as an added option at registration time. The problem with carb loading is the inherent misunderstanding of how it works, or better put, how it is supposed to work. Carbohydrates are the central building blocks of glycogen in the body. Carb loading was meant to fill the muscles, blood, and liver to their maximum capacity with glycogen before a big event. Pasta classically has been the staple meal because of its reputation as a high carb food.
The problem with carb-loading is that most people aren’t doing it right and are, most often, missing an important step in the process of carb-loading. While eating a big meal 24 hours before a race event will most certainly contribute to better performance and is highly recommended, the specific benefit to carb loading is only realized when coupled with a high-intensity pre-race activity. The premise behind true carb-loading is to deplete the muscles’ glycogen stores and then overload on foods that are used to create glycogen in the body. The depletion and then overload replenishment results, in theory, of the muscles storing more glycogen than what is normally capable at the athlete’s current fitness level. Most athletes partake in the overloading part but do not partake in the depletion. This is either because they are unaware of this extra step or they are hesitant to engage in a high intensity activity so close to their race event.
If you are a cyclist or triathlete a good carb loading protocol is to put your bike on the trainer and do 20/10 intervals. These are a 20 second all out, hard-as-you-can effort, followed by ten seconds of complete rest. Repeat 4-6 times and then recover for 3-4 minutes before doing another set (max of 3 sets) this workout is less then 30 minutes long, will not cause longterm fatigue but will deplete the glycogen in your muscles enough to take advantage of carb loading. The overload meal should occur within 2-3 hours of the depletion workout and depending on how far out the workout is from the event (should be no more than 48 hours for max benefit) small carb rich meals should be consumed frequently as maintenance until the event. (note: do this workout periodically throughout your training to acclimate your muscles to the workload, particularly if you are a triathlete and do not typically do high-intensity efforts).
Standard Fuelling Strategies
Most athletes often think of event specific nutrition in the day before their event. The meal the night before and the morning of is considered to be very important but often times nutrition the week before is neglected. Endurance training has long term effects on the body’s stores of minerals and nutrients that cannot be replaced sufficiently in one meal. High volume training reduces the red blood cell count in the body (but with subsequent rest and refuelling will cause an increase in blood volume and red blood cell count). During the taper period leading up to an event, foods rich in essential vitamins and minerals should be consumed in order to replace longterm deficiencies. Most importantly iron, folic acid and vitamin B needs to be replenished in order restore red blood cell count back to normal. In the week leading up to an event, it is a good idea to consume primarily lean red meats, dark meat from poultry, beans, lentils, barleys etc., green vegetables and foods high in beta-carotene (sweet potatoes). There is sufficiently available foods in terms of nutrient content to support both meat-based and plant-based diets (see more on vegetarian diets here). Nuts and seeds are a great way to get the required fat and should be consumed in small quantities (as a lunchtime snack) with larger meals being predominately vegetable and lean-meat based.
The benefits of dark poultry.
When it comes to poultry most people prefer white meat such as chicken breast because of its low fat content and high protein content. While this is a great source of meat-based nutrition, dark meat is also highly beneficial. It contains much more essential minerals (such as iron) than white meat and this alone makes up for the increase in fat content. Boneless skinless chicken thighs are an excellent addition to a well round meat-based diet.
Training vs Racing
For most people, how we eat before a training activity and a race activity are vastly different. Certainly you don’t need to carb-load before a hard training day (though it might be beneficial and it is certainly an option) but it is important to fuel properly before a long/hard training day. If you are calorie restricted for weight loss, increase your caloric intake the night before a big workout slightly. You want to have as much energy as possible and be as fresh as possible for your workout. If you are ill-nourished or sluggish as result of decreased intake, you won’t be able to function at a high enough level where you’ll see the most amount of training adaptation.
We often hear people say, “I want to cut out carbs from my diet” in an effort to lose weight. What they really mean is that they want to cut out simple/refined sugars. These include breads, pastas, and sweets. To cut out all carbs would mean essentially eating nothing but meat and nuts/seeds. The most beneficial diet for those who consume meat is one that predominately consists of lean meats (including fish), vegetables and a limited amount of starches and legumes. Eating pasta dishes and breads (and even sweets) aren’t the end of the world but they should rarely be the foundation of your meal or the largest portion of a meal.
Pre Race Meals
Now that we’ve covered some basics of nutrition, let’s move on what you should actually eat in order to maximize performance before a big event or race. In terms of portion sizes, if you are on a calorie restricted diet (i.e. losing weight) now is not the time to deprive your body of essential calories. You want to perform as best as possible during your event. 48 hours before an event begin to increase your food consumption. On the penultimate day before your race ( two nights out from your event) your calorie consumption should be at a maintenance level (i.e. if you ate that much everyday your weight would theoretically remain the same). The final day, you should over indulge somewhat but not enough to leave you feeling bloated and full the next day. Your largest meal should be early afternoon and you should eat smaller meals through to the evening. Never go to bed the night before a big event feeling uncomfortably full. Eat nutritious foods but also mix in foods that are calorie dense, such as pastas and breads. Once again, these shouldn’t necessarily be the foundation of our your meal but a serving of these will provide your body with a steady source of fuel during your event.
Lentil Sweet Potato Tacos
This is one of Coach Dempsey’s favourite pre-race meals
Hard Taco Shells (about 5-10 for two people)
50g of green lentils
8oz sweet potato
Cook lentils on medium heat in a shallow sauce pan (or frying pan) with 3 cups of water for 20 minutes.
Cut sweet potato into small cubes (about 1cm by 1cm) and fry lightly in a frying pan for 5-10 minutes with some avocado or coconut oil.
After the lentils have been cooking for 20 minutes, add the fried sweet potato to the lentils and continue to cook for another 10-15 minutes (add water as necessary to keep lentil mix wet).
After mixing lentils and sweet potato, add 2 heaping tablespoons of cumin and 2 heaping tablespoons of paprika and one tablespoon of minced garlic.
Bake taco shells at 275f for 5-10 minutes.
When both lentils and sweet potato appear soft, remove from stove top, drain off excess water if needed.
Spread a table spoon of avocado on bottom of taco shell
Fill the rest of the taco with the lentil/sweet potato mix, chopped tomato, onion and shredded cheese.
Breakfast is also a key meal in your pre-race/workout regimen. It is important to eat at least 1.5-2 hours before the start of your event and your meal should be relatively light. Avoid eating heavy meats in excess and large servings of pasta or breads. Yogurt/granola mix and a slice of toast and peanut butter is a good basic option but you can get more creative and complex if need be. Lentils are a great morning meal. Soft foods and foods that easily digestible are the best. Eat a mid-sized breakfast and continue to snack on smaller easily digestible foods until 30-45 minutes before the start of your event. Bananas are a great option for pre-race snacks. The earlier you eat your breakfast meal before a race the better. The foods you consume in the 48 hours prior will help build your muscle glycogen stores but your liver and blood glycogen deplete themselves during sleep. Therefore it is important to replenish these stores. The process is relatively fast but the more time you give your body to complete the task, the more likely you’ll have topped out your body’s maximum storage capacity.
While the benefits of gels during activity are well known, there is conflicting evidence as to efficacy of consuming high-fructose/glucose foods immediately before an activity. Some studies have shown decrease in performance when gels are consumed within 30-45minutes of starting activity. Ultimately it is up to you to experiment with your pre-race nutrition strategy but your muscle, liver, and blood glycogen levels should be sufficiently topped up at the start of your race from your night before and breakfast meals that a gel at the start of a race is redundant.