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The 7 truth bombs of endurance nutrition

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Did you know that there are people in this world who pay money to run 50-100km through the mountains?

These people, whether they’re professional athletes or recreational ones, are known as ultra-marathon runners and they’re a special breed of human.

I’ve actually had the privilege of providing tailored sports nutrition advice to a hand full of people signed up to run the Ultra Trail Australia 50km and 100km races in May.

I love sports nutrition. It’s where we take a step beyond nutrition for a healthy life and start to think about how we can manipulate food intake to change body composition and increase performance.

The human body is a pretty remarkable thing, however, if you’re keen to get into long ultra-long distance running there are a few things you need to know. The body has its limits and so does your nutrition.

You can’t optimise your diet for fat loss AND performance at the same time

These two dietary approaches can’t go together. Here’s why:

Fat loss requires an energy deficit: less energy in through food than out through exercise. Training for a 50-100km mountain race is not the time to be cutting back on your energy intake. This will result in poor training sessions and subsequently you’ll be inadequately prepped for your epic run.

If you’re looking to lose fat to improve running performance, you need to segment your lead up to race day. Generally speaking, when I’m working with clients, I allow three to five months for fat loss, where we focus primarily on eating to spare lean muscle and lose body fat. Once the client hits their goal weight we then spend three months focussing on performance at their new weight in the lead up to the event.

Eating for performance means consistently hitting an energy balance and ensuring high diet quality with good meal timing. The aim is to get 100% out of each training session and maximise fitness.

If you’re serious about running distances like this, a long-term plan (8-12 months) is vital for adequate preparation, especially if you haven’t covered distances like this before.

Carb loading does help improve your time to fatigue

Carb loading is where the athlete eats large amounts of carbohydrate in the 2-3 days prior to competition to maximise their glycogen stores in their muscles and liver. The more glycogen an athlete can store, the longer it takes them to fatigue during endurance events.

Being an endurance runner and being afraid of carbohydrates is not a good combination. Carbohydrates are a vital part of your preparation and recovery nutrition. Get good individualised advice from a nutrition professional and then enjoy it. Carbs are the best!

Training low MAY help your performance long term

Training low involves a handful of different strategies whereby the athlete trains on low glycogen stores. The theory behind this is that it may cause the muscles to ‘fat adapt’ and increase the amount of fat that the muscle burns for energy. The idea is, if the athlete’s muscles can burn more fat for energy, it spares glycogen and means that it takes longer for the athlete to fatigue. Simple put it may mean that they can run faster for longer. These improvements are always very small. However, for a serious athlete an improvement of 1-3% can be all it takes to win a race or set a new PB.

There is mixed research on whether training low actually increases performance. You also want to be smart about it and ensure your training program and overall diet is well planned. Don’t wing it. Enlisting a professional at this point can really help.

Protein needs increase as training volume increases

You do need to increase your protein intake as your training volume increases. This helps spare muscle mass and ensure there are plenty of building blocks around for your body to adequately recover. Running 50+ km and training to do so takes its toll on the body and keeping it well fed and well rested is really important.

Endurance training doesn’t have to result in muscle losses

A popular belief is that endurance exercise results in muscle loss. This is not necessarily true. It’s important to look at the context of each individual athlete before making assumptions about lean muscle mass.

If endurance training replaces/reduces weight training, an individual may lose muscle over time because the stimulus for muscle growth is reduced. However, if an individual has a limited weight training history, starting endurance training is not likely to cause muscle losses. It’s also important to remember that the volume of weight training required to maintain muscle mass is much lower than the volume required to build muscle.

Many individuals who take up endurance running, tend to naturally be a smaller build as a good power-to-weight ratio makes for a good runner. You’re certainly not going to ‘get big’ as a long-distance runner, but provided you’ve got a good training program that includes some resistance exercise and your diet meets your protein and energy needs, there’s no reason why you can’t maintain a healthy muscle mass long term.

I regularly monitor the body composition of my clients using the InBody 570 scanner. It helps me keep an eye on their muscle mass as their training progresses towards race day as well as tailor my nutrition advice to their specific energy needs.

Carbohydrate intake during your race is vital

A 50km mountain race will take you 6-9 hours to complete, depending on your fitness level and training history. That’s a pretty long time to go without food generally let alone run up and down mountains. Planning regular carbohydrate-based snacks throughout your race will be an important part of you making it to the end in one piece and potentially achieving that PB or coveted race positon.

Sports nutrition is highly individualised

In the end, like all aspects of nutrition, there are key principles that scientific evidence helps us understand but we’ve got to find what’s right for the individual. Your lifestyle, food preferences, gut and other factors will determine exactly what your diet will look like moving forward with your race preparation. Finding a nutrition professional to come with you on the journey is a great way to get your nutrition on-point and focus on what you love – running up mountains!

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