While the endurance professionals have nutrition mostly sorted out, there is an eternal debate among amateurs and age groupers about whether we also need sports nutrition and supplements for our training and racing. We do not make a living doing sports and supplements and sport foods cost money. It probably doesn't really do much anyway, right? Hm, that depends. Let's break it down.
First off, we want to frame our thinking so you know where we're coming from
- We assume you want to maximize your performance within the context of your life. That means that if you work 80 hours a week as an attorney, you are probably not aiming to win the Tour, but you might want to finish two Ironmans a year in the top 25% of your age group, or just enjoy a 3-day stage race in the Alps, and stay generally healthy throughout the year.
- You value your time, and you want to get the maximum out of your training within the time you can dedicate to it.
- If you eat processed fast food crap all day, drink alcohol around the clock, have a smoke here and there, you will probably have a higher return by attending to those first, and then coming back to this article.
- If you don't train, you won't get better. No magic formula here. Sports nutrition is supplemental in nature. You can have the best car and the best fuel, but if you never drive it, you will never get to your destination.
What is sports nutrition
Sports nutrition, or what we prefer to call "fuel," is anything and everything you eat in close vicinity to before, during and after training. We're talking protein shakes, Clif bars, gels, chews, energy drinks etc. Sports nutrition is a major contributor to overall performance, and our bodies are like machines that perform based on what fuel we put in the engine. With poor nutrition, not only does your performance suffer, but it can lead to injury, fatigue, poor recovery, hormonal imbalance, impaired immunity or increased inflammatory markers.
How to fuel - the right way
We cover what to eat before, during and after workouts in this article, so go have a look. In general, you follow a few simple rules:
- Have a carbohydrate and protein combination before every workout. (Unless you want to have a fasted or low-carb workout, but this should not be often - less than 30% of the time, and it should be even less the less elite you are).
- add 30-60g of carbs per hour during your workout, especially if your workout is 60 minutes and longer, as carbs improve exercise capacity and performance during training. The higher the intensity and the longer you go, the more carbs you take in.
- always eat a combination of protein and carbs after your workout, to maximize recovery, lower cortisol and in general keep things in check.
- make sure you hydrate properly - water or hydration solutions that replenish electrolytes.
“It is generally good to have a bar or two in your bag at all times.”
In general, you will do fine with a protein shake and a banana pre-workout and recovery shake after, or grab our favorite CLIF bar, a mighty snack with a great balance of carbs and proteins. Harder workouts require faster carbs, such as blocks, chews or gels, or even a high-carbohydrate drink like Maurten.
How NOT to fuel and what to avoid as an athlete
Avoid simple sugars if you can, avoid omega-6 heavy foods (basically fast food) and do not drink booze. All these increase inflammation, worsen your blood glucose levels and are generally detrimental. Coca-cola (in and out of training), gummy bears, chocolate and similar “fuel” taken on a day-to-day basis will not help your performance. Opt for pure and natural ingredients as much as possible.
Why do you actually need sports nutrition?
There are several reasons why:
- If you fuel properly, you will have more energy during workouts.
- Provided you keep everything else the same (training, intensity, consistency) and only change this one thing (paying attention to fueling right), you will get better.
- You increase the probability of consistency and therefore higher performance over time.
- A healthier hormonal balance and stronger immune system are direct outcomes of supplementing your body with the nutrients it needs, when it needs them.
- You'll have more energy for life in general. Proper fueling before, during and after training will help the body recover, replenish and get back to baseline faster. Yay to not dragging your ass throughout the workweek anymore! (Sleep plays a role here, though!)
- You'll reduce the risk of overtraining, thus becoming less prone to injuries.
- You're training your gut for the race day. This is often overlooked, but extremely important. Pick a nutrition that you like and that works for you, train with it and stick with it. You want as few new elements and risk factors as possible during race day.
Trends, fads and internet wisdom
Internet wisdom is infinite, and you will find articles providing evidence to back any sort of opinion: from how you should not eat anything in the first 3 hours of your interval workout to how endurance athletes do not need protein. There's even resources on how you should only eat once a day! Let's be clear: there is some merit to fasted workouts or carbohydrate restriction during workouts, and hell, there may be merit to many of the theories out there, but they're also derailing you from your main goal.
Most of those are supplemental techniques and if you overdo them, you can get into deep trouble. Stick to the basics, make sure you are eating clean and healthy, sleeping well and getting your fuel in around your trainings, and you should be fine.
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