Every week there are a lot of training and nutrition articles to sort through, and you never know what’s going to catch your eye. This week I saw this article from Alex Hutchinson of Sweat Science on Runnersworld.com. The article talks about athletes who consume more food than they need for the workouts they’re doing. It reminded me of a column I wrote for Bicycling Magazine more than a year ago, which talked about caloric overcompensation and the mismatch between an athlete’s actual energy expenditure and his or her perceived expenditure.
As with all studies and articles, context is crucial. The Runners World article and articles it references suggest – and rightly so – that many beginner athletes overestimate the number of calories they need to consume to support their exercise workload. As a coach I need to consider information in the context of the athletes I work with. Bike racers, competitive triathletes, and highly-motivated athletes on structured training programs are very often training at higher workloads than the general fitness crowd (and that includes sport-specific athletes who are just riding or running to stay reasonably fit). So, while I agree that a lot of athletes – even experienced athletes – overeat during and after workouts, for the audience that receives my emails I think we need to get more specific.
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While I encourage you to read both articles, here’s the executive summary: for workouts up to two hours in length, hydration trumps nutrition in terms of priority. For workouts that last an hour or less, you don’t need to consume any calories during the training session because you start with enough stored glycogen to have a high-quality training session without additional carbohydrate. You do need fluid replenishment during even these short workouts, especially since they are often high-intensity interval workouts. In my mind, these short sessions are a perfect time to use GU Electrolyte Tablets, not because there’s any risk of becoming hyponatremic during a one-hour workout, but because studies have consistently shown that athletes consume more fluids when the liquid contains electrolytes and has a light, slightly tart flavor. They make you drink more, and that’s good because for most amateur athletes leading busy lives, increasing overall fluid intake is one of the best ways to improve training performance on a day to day basis.
The Runner’s World article extends this period of “no feeding necessary during training” to two hours. I’m not as convinced that an athlete will be able to maintain a high quality workout for a full two hours without some during-workout nutrition; but I think it depends on the athlete, how well fed they were going into the workout, and the goal of the workout. For a two-hour ride with three or four 15-minute lactate threshold intervals, or a hard 2-hour group ride, I think on-the-bike carbohydrate will improve your performance – especially in that final interval or the final 15-20 minutes of the group ride.
I think it’s a good idea for people to experiment with sport nutrition, especially at this time of year. You’re starting to do longer and more difficult rides, but there’s still plenty of time before your big events. For shorter, harder rides I recommend GU Electrolyte Tablets in your water bottles and a GU gel in your pocket (just in case). Remember, you can recover from a calorie crisis within minutes, but it can take many times longer to recover from a hydration crisis. For longer rides, I recommend 1-2 bottles of fluid per hour and replenishing 20-30% of the calories you’re expending per hour. For many athletes on a longer ride, you’ll burn about 600 calories per hour, which puts your target caloric intake at 120-180 calories/hr.
Post-workout nutrition was another subject covered in the Runners World article, and their take was that recovery-specific nutrition probably wasn’t necessary unless you were training twice a day. Strictly speaking, it is very likely that you will achieve complete muscle glycogen replenishment within 24 hours of finishing your workout, with or without specific post-workout nutrition. Does that mean you shouldn’t reach for a recovery drink or sit down for a meal within an hour after your workout? I think these habits are still the right things to do. For example, GU Recovery Brew provides fluid and electrolytes and about 200-250 calories. Following a short, hard interval workout or a workout lasting more than 2-3 hours, those are all things your body needs. Perhaps more to the point they were trying to make in the article, I believe a recovery drink and a normal-sized meal within an hour of training help reduce the likelihood that an athlete will gorge on massive amounts of food later in the day (caloric overcompensation).
So get out there and remember to adjust your sports nutrition to the demands and durations of your workouts!
Carmichael Training Systems