By Kerri Parker, M.S.
Endurance sports are growing in popularity. Over 1 million runners of various abilities participate in marathons and half marathons around the country. No matter their level of experience or skill, they all have one thing in common: a need for the best dietary fuel to perform to the fullest potential.
Whether you run marathons or half marathons, or participate in endurance cycling, swimming or triathlons, what you eat before, during and after exercise is crucial to performing your best during training and racing.
Follow these simple strategies and see your energy and athletic capacity soar.
Eating before a workout can be tricky. You want to eat enough food to fuel your workout, but not so much that you feel heavy, bloated and sluggish.
The best pre-workout snack or meal has easily digestible, low-fiber carbohydrates, a small amount of protein and little or no fat. Carbohydrates will provide the glucose (sugar) your muscles need for a workout. Protein slows down the release of glucose so your working muscles stay fueled for the long haul.
What you eat and how much you eat will depend on how long your workout lasts.
If you exercise early in the morning, you may find it difficult to eat anything substantial before a workout. If so, eat a small 100- to 200-calorie snack just before your workout. Pay extra attention to eating and drinking adequately during exercise if your workout lasts more than 75 minutes. (See below.)
During a long workout your body needs a regular supply of glucose to continue running strong. The glucose comes from the carbohydrates you eat and from the glucose that is stored in your muscles and liver. (Stored glucose is called glycogen.)
When your body runs out of glycogen you may "hit the wall" or experience extreme fatigue. This can quickly end a workout or race. To avoid this common pitfall, reach for easily digestible simple carbohydrates.
If you are like many of us, your post-workout routine probably consists of a quick shower and a mad dash out the door or back to work. However, your post-workout nutrition is very important for making your body ready for its next workout.
After a long, hard workout, your body is out of glycogen and your muscles are broken down. To begin refilling your energy stores and rebuilding your muscles, you need to eat and drink within the first hour after your workout — even if you don't feel hungry.
Carbohydrates will refill the glycogen stored in your muscles. Protein will repair and rebuild damaged muscle cells.
As athletes, we must remember that what and when we eat directly affects our strength, stamina and ability to recover from a hard effort. Practicing these nutrition principles before, during and after your workouts will guarantee increased energy and performance.
Kerri Parker, M.S. is a dietetic intern at Brigham and Women's Hospital. She graduated with a B.S. in Kinesiology and an M.S. in Nutrition from California Polytechnic University, San Luis Obispo. She has been a long-distance runner and triathlete for the past 10 years.