Endurance athletes can include anyone from a middle distance runner to an ultra marathoner (greater than 42km), a triathlete to a grand tour cyclist, each of these requires some very specific strategies, however, there are always some things which are consistent throughout most, if not all endurance athletes.

Rather than focusing on the standard advice of things to do nutritionally e.g. a good carbohydrate intake, this article aims to address the top 5 weaknesses of endurance athletes and those factors nutritionally which can prevent optimum performance.

Anaemia or Sports Anaemia

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Iron deficiency anaemia is a condition where a lack of iron in the body leads to a reduction in the number of red blood cells and is common among athletes who perform endurance sport (1).

There is a high demand on the body for oxygen during any endurance training and so it is vital that this area is optimised. Iron or ferritin is the main component in haemoglobin which is responsible for binding to oxygen in your lungs and transporting it throughout your body including to your muscles.

A low iron intake isn’t always the sole cause of anaemia, as during training you will loose iron through sweat and urine loss along with the impact of different activities e.g. foot strikes during running training. This loss of iron can mean that both male and female endurance athletes can become anaemic.

Female athletes will also lose iron through their menstrual cycle and should ensure they monitor their iron intake more closely than their male counterparts.

If this cycle stops for an extended period advice from a medical professional should be sought to resolve this as it could develop into a more serious health issue such as REDS (formerly known as the female athlete triad).

Its important to ensure a good dietary intake of iron to minimise the chances of anaemia. If iron is consumed in too greater quantities it can become toxic as the body will continue to store it in the bodies fat stores, it is therefore important not to medicate yourself on high doses of iron and if unsure seek advice from a doctor or nutritionist.

ways to optomize nutrition

Gastrointestinal Distress Gastrointestinal distress or GI distress is the name given to a large array of issues associated with endurance training and especially running.

Essentially it looks at symptoms from stomach ache and flatulence to vomiting and diarrhoea among a few.

This area is particularly difficult for recreational endurance athletes as it is common in a race, and is common for many runners to experience these symptoms. As a result their race strategy is compromised and the race itself becomes very un-enjoyable.

GI distress is thought to be increased when dehydration occurs, along with large volumes of food being eaten / isotonic drinks being consumed during a race.

Things which have been show to reduce both the symptoms (severity) and also the incidence of these symptoms have been both Sources of iron Haem sources Non-haem sources Lean steak Eggs Beef Dark Leafy vegetables (Kale, spinach) Lamb Fish Nuts Poultry Raisins Offal (Liver, Kidney, etc.)

Nuts Raisins practice and training status (better prepared people have fewer symptoms). It is therefore important that during your training (ideally 3 months before a race minimum) you are starting to practice and plan when you will eat and drink during your race.

If you do this, you will identify when works best for you as an athlete, how much water / isotonic drinks / food will work best for you without causing any GI distress and will therefore mean a more successful race day.

Omega 3 deficiency

As mentioned above a large portion of endurance athletes and articles surrounding endurance and ultra endurance performance focus on carbohydrate intake.

optimise sports nutritionAs a result of this attention, both athletes and recreational athletes often fall into the trap of increasing carbohydrate intake at the expense of other nutrients. In my experience, one such nutrient, is omega 3.

Omega 3 is best consumed through oily fish, and rather than incorporating it into the diet through meals it is lost in favour of large bowls of white pasta. While carbohydrate in undoubtedly important for endurance performance, oily fish and especially omega 3 has a huge importance on performance, recovery and immunity.

Omega 3 has been shown to have a significant effect on reducing the inflammation caused by training. This is vital for endurance athletes who, by the very nature of their activities have a repetitive nature and often as a result get areas of swelling, soreness and the ability to continue training depends on reducing this swell, repairing the damage and recovery between sessions.

Adequate omega 3 assists in this recovery. Omega 3 can be found in a number of sources as shown in the table above, if you aren’t the biggest fan of canned tuna you shouldn’t instantly rule it out as a food. Why not try cooking with flaxseed or walnut oil rather than always using olive oil, or sprinkle flaxseeds on yoghurts / porridge etc.

Hydrations status

5 ways to optimise sports nutrition for endurance athletes

Rather than simply focusing on the prevalence of dehydration among athletes (which is a very large proportion), I wanted to also look at the general term of hydration status. Being hydrated plays a huge role in every performance, and exercise performance is impaired when an individual is dehydrated by as little as 2% of body weight. Losses in excess of 5% of body weight can decrease the capacity for work by about 30% (2).

With a significant enough level of dehydration severe health issues can result particularly around kidney function etc (3).

The intent of drinking during exercise is to avert a water deficit in excess of 2% of body weight. The amount and rate of fluid replacement is dependent on the individual athlete’s sweat rate, exercise duration, and opportunities to drink (4).

Finding out your individual sweat rate can help to optimise your rehydration strategy both after training / racing and also during training / racing.

There are various options available including two such examples of these tools, the first is Gatorade Sports Science Institute fluid loss calculator (http://data.gssiweb.com/fluidLoss), or runners world know thy sweat article (http://www.runnersworld.com/drinks-hydration/know-thy-sweat-rate)

Sadly during competitions / events every year there are a small number of fatalities due to hyponatremia (5), where athletes consume too much fluid and as a result hyponatremia occurs.

Hyponatremia is a result of consuming too much water in a short space of time resulting in a low sodium level in the blood. Due to its severity in hotter race conditions organisers have began to provide warnings of this condition (6).

While hydration and in particular dehydration is something to be conscious of, and avoided where ever possible it is in reality the balance of hydration that is important.

The best way to find this balance is to monitor yourself and specifically your urine in particular, both in training and during practise race performances.

To do this upon waking your first urine stream should be a light yellow / straw colour, this as a guide indicates good hydration status. Anything darker than this light yellow / straw colour is linked to dehydration and clear is a sign of over hydration.

Using this colour as a guide to adjust your fluid intakes around those days the following week can help to ensure good, consistent hydration statues throughout the training year. More elaborate methods of hydration testing are available but are not always appropriate or accessible to recreational athletes.

While hydration and in particular dehydration is something to be conscious of, and avoided where ever possible it is in reality the balance of hydration that is important.

The best way to find this balance is to monitor yourself and specifically your urine in particular, both in training and during practise race performances.

To do this upon waking your first urine stream should be a light yellow / straw colour, this as a guide indicates good hydration status. Anything darker than this light yellow / straw colour is linked to dehydration and clear is a sign of over hydration.

Using this colour as a guide to adjust your fluid intakes around those days the following week can help to ensure good, consistent hydration statues throughout the training year. More elaborate methods of hydration testing are available but are not always appropriate or accessible to recreational athletes.

Vitamin D

optimise sports nutritionEndurance athletes vitamin D levels vary significantly, if you train outdoors and get a large amount of sun exposure throughout the year then it is likely your vitamin D levels will be close to, if not adequate. If you train indoors e.g. an open water swimmer training indoors in the UK, then it is likely your vitamin D levels will struggle to reach an adequate level.

There is mounting evidence that the “normal” recommended levels of vitamin D for the general public are too low for athletes with the recommendation being <50 nmol/litre o f v i t a m i n D f o r t h e g e n e r a l p u b l i c a n d recommendations by Heaney (2011) suggest anywhere from 120 – 220 nmol/litre being adequate for athletes (7, 8).

While sun exposure is by far the best way for the body to effectively create vitamin D, it is also possible to consume foods high in vitamin D and a recommendation of 400 International Units (IU) or 10mg per day will help to prevent deficiency.

optimise sports nutrition

Conclusion

As a standard a large proportion of endurance athletes / recreational athletes often look to the next big thing in terms of nutrition e.g. consuming additional nitrates through concentrated beetroot juice.

These ergonomic aids or supplements often offer very small percentage gains. The 5 areas identified above will if addressed and rectified will have far greater effect than any small percentage gain from a supplement or ergogenic aid. In the same light a poor race can be caused by dehydration,

GI distress and with these in particular, having a plan for your race day and having practised this plan will significantly help optimise your race.

References:

A lack of vitamin D has primarily been linked to Sufficient vitamin D levels Poor adsorption of calcium. Effective immune system. Osteoarthritis. Improved skin health. Osteoporosis. Improved muscle strength and endurance. Rickets. Improved protein synthesis. Increased muscle swelling, pain and myopathy. Decrease muscle protein degeneration Sources of vitamin D Food Source Serving Content (IU) Cod Liver oil 15g 1360 Egg Yolk 1 20 – 40 Soy milk 1 cup 100 Cereals (fortified) 30g 40 – 100 Cow’s milk 1 cup 98 Salmon, wild 100g 980 Tuna, steak 100g 82 1. Iron deficiency anaemia. (2014). NHS Choices. http://www.nhs.uk/conditions/Anaemia-irondeficiency-/Pages/Introduction.aspx 2. Jeukendrup, A., & Gleeson, M. (2010). Sport nutrition: an introduction to energy production and performance (No. Ed. 2). Human Kinetics. 3. Dehydration – Symptoms. (2015). NHS Choices. http://www.nhs.uk/Conditions/Dehydration/ Pages/Symptoms.aspx 4. Sawka MN, Burke LM, Eichner ER, Maughan RJ, Montain SJ, Stachenfeld NS. American College of Sports Medicine position stand. Exercise and fluid replacement. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2007;39:377–90. 5. Speedy, D. B., Noakes, T. D., & Schneider, C. (2001). Exercise‐associated hyponatremia: a review. Emergency Medicine, 13(1), 17-27. 6. Kolata G: Marathoners warned about too much water. New York Times October 20, 2005, p B5 7. Heaney, R. P. (2011). Assessing vitamin D status. Current Opinion in Clinical Nutrition & Metabolic Care, 14(5), 440-444. 8. G.L. Close and W.D. Fraser. (2012) Vitamin D supplementation for athletes: Too much of a good thing?. BASES. http://www.bases.org.uk/write/Documents/BASES_AUTUMN_24_25.pdf

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