Today, as everyone in the greater Boston area knows, is Marathon Monday. It’s the 117th running of the Boston Marathon – the world’s oldest, and probably the most famous marathon on the planet. I’ve always admired anyone who can run 26.2 miles. It takes months of training, extreme dedication, and for those who are elite athletes, a very strict diet. Sports nutrition for elite athletes is a very specific science, but for the other 99% of us who run, walk, bike, swim or do any other form of exercise just for fun (or because we know we should exercise), sports nutrition is fairly straight forward, but it can make a world of difference in your performance, and your recovery.
So in honor of the 99% of us who wish we could run a marathon, but probably never will, here’s what you should know about basic sports nutrition:
It’s Always A Balancing Act
A well-fueled body needs a balanced diet. Ideally, that means about 20% of your calories should come from lean protein foods, about 20% of calories from healthy fats like nuts, seeds, and unsaturated oils, and about 60% of your calories should come from whole grain carbohydrates and fruit. Following a very high protein diet will not put extra muscle on your body (only working your muscles will do that), and eating too few carbs will hurt your endurance, so stay away from fad diets, and work on eating balanced meals. Each time you make a meal or snack plate, check to against the MyPlate recommendations, and make sure it contains at least 3-4 different food groups.
Eat Less Food More Frequently
Eating 6 small meals and snacks each day helps to fuel your body much better than two or three large meals. Dividing your meals and snacks evenly throughout the day, provides your muscles and brain with a steady supply of glucose, which makes it much easier to “get up and go”. Glucose is stored in the liver and muscles, as glycogen, but it can be used up in a few hours, because it’s needed to fuel the body’s basic functions, even if you’re sleeping, or sitting at your computer. If your workouts are not several hours long, you don’t have to worry about carbo-loading, but you do need a healthy breakfast of whole grain cereal or bread, some fruit, and milk or yogurt for protein, and then balanced snacks and meals every few hours after that. Exercising on an empty stomach, whether it’s first thing in the morning, or 6 hours after lunch is never productive, because your muscles won’t have the necessary glycogen to move, and your brain will do everything possible to talk you out of exercising!
Know the Rules About Eating Before and After Exercise
A lot of people don’t like to eat right before they exercise, because they don’t want their stomach to be unsettled, and even more people don’t like to eat afterward, because they don’t want to replace the calories they just burned. Wrong, and wrong again! Remember, just like your car needs gas to run, your muscles need glucose to move your body, so never exercise on an empty stomach, or you’ll be running on fumes. Individual nutrition needs vary, and depend on your body size, how long ago your last meal was, how long you will be exercising for, etc. At minimum, most people get good results from about .5 gram of carbohydrate per pound of body weight one hour before moderate exercise. If you weigh between 120-150 pounds, that works out to 60-75 grams of carbohydrate which you can get from 1 cup of cereal, 1 cup of lowfat milk, and strawberries, OR ½ of a raisin bagel, with lowfat cream cheese and a sliced banana.
What you do not want to eat before exercise is anything too high in fat or protein- ie bacon and eggs, a burger, or a high protein shake. Both of these nutrients are harder for your body to digest, and will unsettle your stomach and weight you down. Save this for several hours afterward.
Paying attention to what you eat after exercise can have a huge impact on how quickly you recover from your workouts. Ideally, try to eat within 45 minutes of a workout. Again, carbohydrate is important because it will replenish depleted glycogen stores, and it stimulates the release of insulin, a hormone which helps build muscles. This time, combine it with some protein, for an even better muscle building response, and reduced muscle soreness. Perfect recovery foods include a milk or fruit based protein shake, fruit and a Greek yogurt (higher in protein), or chocolate milk and a banana.
Don’t Forget Your Fluids
While elite athletes, and anyone who exercises at a high intensity for more than an hour need an electrolyte replacement beverage, most of us may not fall into that category. Instead, save the calories – what we need is water. Before, during, and especially after exercise. How much you really need depends on the size of your body, how much you sweat, and the temperature at which you are exercising. In general, most people need .5-1 oz of fluid per pound of body weight each day, but don’t forget that fruits and vegetable also contain lots of water. The best way to tell if you are well hydrated is to check the color and quantity of your urine. If your urine is dark in color, and scanty, you should increase your fluid intake. Pale, light colored urine indicates that you are well hydrated. Anyone who exercises intensely for over an hour, or who is a “salty sweater” (caked with salt after exercise), should use an electrolyte balanced sports drink to replaced lost sodium and potassium. For the rest of us, lots of water along with a banana and a few pretzels will do the trick to replace fluid, electrolytes and carbohydrates.
Supplements and Performance
The use of muscle building or energy boosting supplements is controversial. No supplement will make up for a poor diet, but a healthy, balanced diet, a good workout program, and adequate rest, will trump the use of energy supplements for most of us. If you would like information and research on specific dietary supplements check out this site from the National Library of Medicine (click on herbs and supplements).
For lots more helpful information on sports nutrition, I highly recommend Nancy Clark’s Sports Nutrition Guidebook, written by Nancy Clark, a Registered Dietitian, and one of the leading Sports Nutritionists in the country.