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The ins and outs of sports nutrition

August 12, 2013

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Good nutrition advice for endurance athletes may appear simple: Eat whole foods often. But practical application of this principle complicates matters.

We conferred with some of the most respected sports nutritionists, physiologists and elite athletes in the endurance world to provide trend-free insight into what endurance athletes need for optimal health and performance.

Strive For Lean, Not Thin
“Weight is the wrong metric—look at lean muscle mass and body fat percentages,” advises Dan Benardot, Ph.D., RD, professor of nutrition and kinesiology and health, and codirector of the Laboratory for Elite Athlete Performance at Georgia State University.

In charge of the nutritional health and hydration strategies for the 1996 Olympic gold-medal wining U.S. gymnastics team and the U.S. marathoners at the 2004 Olympics, Benardot recently analyzed the consumption habits of elite figure skaters. Dieters take notice: His research reveals that functioning in calorie-deficit mode in an effort to trim down is counterproductive. The skaters who were restrained eaters, creating an 800 to 1,000 calorie daily deficit, tended to have higher body fat levels compared to the skaters who were less restrictive.

“When you have inadequate caloric consumption, the body will take from the tissues—the lean body mass—and this will lead to higher body fat.”

“If you provide a small amount of fuel all the time to dynamically match expenditure, then you’ll feel and perform better,” says Benardot.

Why Diets Don’t Work
“I’m not a big believer in anybody sticking to a very rigorous nutrition plan,” says Boston-based Krista Austin, Ph.D., exercise physiologist and sports nutritionist, and founder of Performance and Nutrition Coaching. “It’s too obsessive; people don’t do as well with a program where they’re told exactly what to eat. They stop listening to their bodies.”

If you want to get leaner for good, a quick-fix diet won’t work—a sustainable, individualized plan will.

“I tell people there isn’t a body weight or composition that I can give you that will make you run a certain time,” says Austin. “If they go through the training I prescribe, they’ll just end up at the weight they should be. Once we have good nutrition in them, they end up finding their performance weight.”

To Fuel Or Not During Training
The answer generally depends on duration and conditions of the workout, but teaching your body to rely on fat as a fuel source during long runs can help prevent the depletion of carbohydrates—known as hitting the wall—during endurance events.

“Very rarely do I let my athletes train on a carb source—there has to be a good reason for doing it,” Austin says. She reveals that when Keflezighi, 2009 ING New York City Marathon winner, runs 26 miles at 7,000 feet, he’ll complete the run with only a six-ounce bottle mixed with water and a drink with carbs—and he may only have three to four ounces of it. “He’s trained to do it. He’s taught his body how to use fat as an energy source, so when he gets to the marathon start line, he’s prepared.”

For us mortals, Austin recommends that part of training for the marathon should include teaching the body how to use fat. She recommends going out about twice a month for long runs on very little carbs—have a small amount of low-glycemic food such as toast with cream cheese or oatmeal swirled with peanut butter before the run—but try to get through the workout with only electrolytes and water. Once a month, complete a simulation run, where you practice your in-competition fuelling.

Protein Is Essential–Large Quantities Are Not
“A lot of athletes think that somehow eating more protein is a safety valve that’ll protect them,” says Benardot. “The cellular capacity for nutrients is finite and whatever you overfill will dissipate and get stored as fat or burned as a fuel source.”

Women and men need the same amount of protein—about 15 percent of total daily calories, or roughly 1.5 grams per kilogram of body weight. Parsing out protein consumption over the course of the day allows the body to maximize its metabolism and use it for building and repairing muscles.

While endurance athletes tend to avoid bulking up like body builders, they might believe that chowing down on monster protein bars or eating a massive steak in one sitting will increase their lean muscle mass. However, Benardot notes that it’s the extra calories, not excessive protein, that supports an increase in muscle mass.

When To Eat
“In the U.S., the message is perverted: three square meals, no snacking and nothing after dinner because it’ll make you fat,” says Benardot. “But your blood sugar doesn’t know what time it is.”

Benardot believes the French do it right. They have a light breakfast, drop into a café around 10:30 a.m. for a croissant, eat lunch, have a light meal or snack in the late afternoon, then eat a relatively small dinner at 10 p.m. before going to bed. Eating and drinking episodically stabilizes blood sugar; when glucose, the primary fuel for the brain, drops too low, the hormone cortisol is produced to break down muscle mass so that alanine, an amino acid, can be converted to glucose. “Blood sugar fluxes every three hours, so to not burn your lean muscle mass and keep cortisol at bay, it makes a lot of sense never to let yourself get hungry,” says Benardot.

Carb-loading Is A Myth
“We have to give a lot more thought to how energy and mass are distributed,” says Benardot. “Unless you start thinking about how nutrients are parsed out over the course of a day, bad things happen.”

Carb-loading, or depleting glycogen stores in the week or two before an endurance event and then eating a high amount of carbohydrates the few days before the race doesn’t work because your muscles can only store a finite amount of carbohydrates. According to Austin, if you consume your usual amount of at least 50 percent of total daily intake from carbs, glycogen stores will be saturated. In the week before the race, Austin recommends replacing high-fiber foods with low-residue foods: For example, eat white pasta instead of quinoa.

Sabrine Grotewold

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