In part 3 of this series, as we get closer to QCM race weekend, Coach Patrick will continue to answer some of the most frequently asked questions from athletes.
"What should I be eating during my training and racing to help my performance?"
This question can and has been answered in a variety of complex ways. Just go to the latest scientific journal or running magazine you will come across numerous, and often different, recommendations.
Here is a simple answer to a loaded question: It depends.
Now I know what you are thinking, “Ok, Coach. Brilliant - thanks for that life and performance changing statement?!”
Not to worry. I won’t leave you with that cliffhanger of advice.
Let me explain. After more than 15 years of coaching and education in the area of sports performance and nutrition the single most important thing I have learned when it comes to eating and hydrating for performance can be summed up in this simple formula:
N = 1
This means that you are a unique individual, different from anyone else, therefore your body will respond differently to the stresses of training and racing. Based on my experience, here are some recommendations that I have found to have the greatest positive impact on performance. When you account for these recommendations you will be able to gather information from your own experience to develop a race nutrition and hydration plan to meet your unique needs.
1. Good daily nutrition IS performance nutrition – the quality of ALL the food and fluids you consume directly effects your performance. If your idea of quality nutrition is a box of macaroni and cheese before your training, and a Gu gel and Gatorade during, this will not support your performance or long-term health. These foods and beverages are filled with artificial additives and flavourings and have no nutrient quality to support your health. Take a moment to read the ingredient labels on the back of these processed and refined items. I'd bet you have no idea what most of those ingredients are.
Just because you are training should not mean that you can just eat and drink whatever and as much you like. A common line you may have caught yourself spouting is "I earned this food/drink". Sorry to burst your bubble but that crappy food you're choosing to put into your body after a hard training session or race will have the same negative effects on your health and recovery as if you did not train at all. Your health and performance are a direct reflection of what you eat. As discussed in detail in the paper Athletes: Fit but Unhealthy, Phil Maffetone and Paul Laursen discuss the various negative implications of eating a diet high in refined carbohydrate including sugar, mistakingly believing this necessary for performance. As we coach our athletes, you are in complete control of the nutrition choices you make, and since these choices directly effect your performance and health, it's in your best interest to eat to perform rather than perform to eat. You will be thanked by your results!
Now even the concept of good nutrition is fraught with conflicting recommendations and open to interpretation. Precision Nutrition is the world's largest online nutrition coaching company that has some great practical resources to help athletes make sense of of all the conflicting information. This is one of the reasons I became one of their certified coaches and provide a nutrition coaching program using their ProCoach platform.
Let me show you some simple graphics to help you understand what good nutrition should look like and how to plan your meals to support your performance and health for a non-plant based or plant base eater.
2. Past performance dictates future strategy – as Coach Jen mention in her previous article on long run training, keeping a log to document a history of what you have done as far as you nutrition and hydration in training will give you great information as to what you need to do on race day. Also, consider what has worked for you in previous long training sessions and races. When you consider all of the information that you gathered from your previous training and racing experiences you will have a good idea of what you need to do for .your upcoming race.
3. Minimal effective dose - endurance athletes are infamous for embracing the concept of "more is better". Run more mileage, have more shoes (yes, I like shoes too), I train more so I can eat whatever and as much as I want, more water and more gels when racing, etc. What I recommend to you is look at your previous training and racing, look at what you consumed for fluid and energy, then develop a plan for your race based on the least amount you think you need to consume to complete the event. By no means am I recommending restricting or avoiding fluids or nutrition when training and racing. Rather, I'm suggesting you determine what is your minimal effective dose of fuel and hydration to complete the required training session or race.
Here is why. As I mentioned in the previous article on racing in heat vs. cold, it's important to consider the temperature you will be racing in and the fact that you will be working at a higher intensity than you did in your training sessions to prepare. Since the intensity is higher (a.k.a higher effort) there will be more blood being directed to your working muscles meaning less blood available to assist with digestive functions. So the more fuel and fluid you put in your stomach on race day the less chance it has to actually be used and can end up just sitting in your gastrointestinal tract causing problems.
A great strategy is to use the "slow drip" method. This means instead of taking in large amount of fluid and fuel all at once, taking in small amounts more frequently. For example, say your plan is to take in one gel per hour as your replacement energy source. What you can do instead is take in small amounts of that one gel, say every 20 minutes, over the hour. To make this work I have put my gels/or energy fluid in a small flask I carry around my race belt and take a small sip of the flask every 20 minutes. It helps to avoid having to carry a sticky gel pack with you. As far as hydration is concerned, as I suggested look at what you have done in training and racing in the past under similar temperature and conditions and decide on your strategy from there. Firstly, I recommend drinking to thirst. In other words, if you feel thirsty, drink. Take a small bit of water with your gels or energy fluid if that is your method of taking in calories for energy. This is best done as you go through the race aid stations.
Be a problem solver not a victim - If you start to focus on negative thoughts, feel excessively tired, get goose bumps, dizzy, light headed, chances are you need some calories. Try slowing down, take in some calories (for example, from fluid or gel), and you will likely start feeling better in time. If you do experience some stomach upset or stomach cramping, this is usually an indication that you have over hydrated or taken in more calories than your body can absorb. You will need to slow down and take in small sips of water until you start to feel better. If any of these scenario's above occur, avoid becoming a victim and thinking your race is over. Take it on as a challenge and be a problem solver.
4. Race week and race day is not the time to change your routine - I cannot stress this enough, AVOID trying anything new during race week or during race day. Changing the types and amounts of food you eat, trying new nutrition/hydration products in race week or race day is a recipe for disaster. Just because a friend or someone at the race expo said they had great success eating certain foods or using product "X" does not mean you will have the same experience. Do what works for you. Remember N = 1.
Use your past performances in training and racing to develop your future race nutrition and hydration strategy. You past will tell you what you need to do. Trust it.
Coming Up Part 4: Race Week - Your planning guide for race week to set up a great race day!
Patrick Ash is a coach with Regina-based coaching company Endurance Journey Coaching. He is available to help you improve your performance here.