Monday, September 29, 2014

Fueling Strategies for Endurance Athletes, Take 2 !


Last year I training for the Mtn Masochist 50 miler and learned a lot about fueling extreme long-runs in the process. This year has been a different type of training, but similar from a fueling standpoint. While building upon my fueling lessons from last year, I've learned a few new key strategies along the way. This year, I put a fueling plan in writing early in the season and have been tweaking it with each long training session. I have heard that the ironman can be a beast to fuel for and want to be as well-versed on my strategy as possible come race day.

About a month ago, I logged my longest ride for the year and kicked off some peak ironman training by participating in the Burke's Garden Century road ride. It was a LONG day on the saddle, 101 miles and just shy of 6 hrs, and the perfect opportunity to truly put my fueling plan to the test for such an extended time. Since then, I've successfully fueled a half-ironman distance triathlon and another long ride of 95 miles. I've learned a lot this season in terms of my personal fueling strategy and have been keeping careful notes. I've also learned a lot about the "little things" that can contribute to successful execution of fueling on race day. In doing so, I am more able to make concrete and productive changes with each challenging training season, and better understand how my body reacts to different fuel sources, at different levels of effort and in different weather conditions. Below are a few of the lessons I've learned this year.



  1. Fuel up prior! Start off on the right foot by topping off glycogen stores with a quality dinner/breakfast the night prior/morning of your long training session or race. Know what and how much works best for YOU. Not your best friend or training buddy, YOU. 

  2. "Train your gut" just as you train your muscles. The gut is highly adaptable, so one can train it to successfully tolerate more calories during intense exercise with plentiful practice.

  3. Concentrated fluid calories have their benefits. Fluid calories are easier for the GI tract to digest, which is particularly important when you're working hard and your body is sending its blood supplies to your legs, not your stomach. Fluid calories also means quality fuel + hydration in one swig. Win! 

  4. Fuel early and consistently. Set reminders if necessary. I have my GPS to ring out splits at a specific mileage interval as a reminder to fuel up every 15-20 minutes, rather than a big chunk of calories at the end of each hour.

  5. Varying flavors and textures are important to prevent flavor fatigue. Try to mix in at least one solid fuel source (granola bar, etc), something salty, a piece of fruit (I like bananas) to compliment fluid calories or gels. 

  6. Salt tabs are convenient for electrolyte replacement, but there are other resources available too! I've moved away from salt tabs (I used endurolytes) mainly because they were too difficult to keep track of and execute, and more often I forgot to take them leading to cramping. I now find ways to incorporate salt more naturally into the fuel I am already consuming: Pickle juice, mustard, miso or chicken broth are all great and aid in achieving #5. For ultramarathons, aid stations often have pretzels, chips and salted potatoes for sodium replacement.

  7. Don't forget protein! While carbohydrates are still your main fuel source, for prolonged exercise >2 hours duration the body begins to utilize protein to fulfill some of its energy needs. Without incorporating some protein into fueling these longer efforts, the body begins to breakdown lean muscle mass (nooo!!) resulting in increased fatigue and impaired protein.

  8. Medicate appropriately. NSAID's may be beneficial in pain relief for multi-hour races, but they also increase your risk of GI distress, particularly upper GI issues. And mixing NSAIDs with energy drinks (or or excessive caffeinated products) is a big no no!

  9. Convenience and simplicity are key in execution. This applies to both your fuel sources and how you choose to carry them. Too many different pieces to fit together and something will be forgotten or dropped. It's hard to remember all those little details when your brain is in racing mode, so aim to simplify!!! 

  10. Above all things, listen to your body! Following your "plan" to a T while ignoring signs from your body that something is off is not a great plan after all. The more you listen to subtle cues, the more easily you will be able to successfully adjust your overall fueling plan or make changes on the fly to find success. Have a back up plan for how you plan to react to challenges.

These guidelines are based on both my nutritional expertise and experience as an endurance athlete. Ultimately it's up to you to decide what nutritional strategy works best for your body during training and racing because everyone is different. Also, while these are geared towards longer multi-sport races they could also be applied to other endurance sports.

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