You may have heard that long-distance running is “all mental” and it is true that mental toughness is key. However, just as you can’t will your car to move without gas in the tank, you can’t will your body to perform without the proper nutrition.
“Carb loading”, or carbohydrate loading has long been preached as the key to endurance training, and it is still widely practised and accepted. Carb loading is exactly what it sounds like; bingeing on carbohydrate-rich foods the day before a sporting event in attempt to give your body full stores of energy.
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Foods high in carbohydrate include: pasta, rice, bread, cereal, fruits, starchy vegetables, beans, and any kind of sugary sweets. So does this mean you should be eating an entire cake the day before your race in the name of carb loading? After all, a Betty Crocker Funfetti cake contains about 400 grams of carbohydrate. If this sounds too good to be true, it is!
That being said, there is some truth in the theory of carb loading. Our bodies store carbohydrates in the form of glycogen. Your body running out of glycogen is essentially the same as your car running out of gas. Scientists call this “glycogen depletion”, and runners call this “hitting the wall”.
If you have personally experienced this phenomenon, you can attest to the fact that it is not pleasant, and certainly not going to result in a successful race. So how do you avoid getting to mile 20 of the San Francisco Marathon only to find that your right leg will no longer bend and your 8:00 minute/mile pace is turning into a 25:00 minute/mile crawl (Am I speaking from personal experience? Maybe.) That is where carb loading comes into play for long-distance running.
So what exactly qualifies as “long-distance”?
Well, your body doesn’t tap into its glycogen stores until about 90 minutes of running. Let the car analogies continue: Let’s say you’re going on a road trip from Washington D.C. to Miami, Florida. Well, you probably want to start that trip with a full tank of gas. But what if you’re just running to the grocery store down the street? Well then it doesn’t really make a difference if you have a full tank of gas or if you’re down to a quarter tank.
In that sense, carbohydrate loading before a 5K race (or any event that will take you less than 90 minutes) is kind of like filling up your gas tank for a 2-mile trip to the grocery store – it’s not going to do you much good.
Just as your gas tank can only store a finite amount of gas, your liver can only store a finite amount of glycogen. You’re not going to make it all the way from D.C. to Miami without stopping for gas, even if you did fill up beforehand. This is why it is important to take advantage of the fuel stations during races.
Depending on your pace, these may or may not be necessary for the half-marathon distance, but almost everyone can benefit from a little extra sugar boost in the full marathon distance. Some of the popular products for this purpose are Gu, Clif Energy gels, and Sport Beans; just be sure to try them out and make sure they agree with your stomach before race day.
What does this mean to someone who is a long-distance runner but not necessarily a marathoner? Although carb-loading may not be necessary, nutrient rich food for long distance running is crucial.
Here are three important considerations for all endurance athletes…
1. Make sure you are eating enough calories.
One of the great things about being a runner is that we get to eat a whole lot more than an average person! Although “carb loading” in its traditional nature may not be necessary, endurance athletes do need more calories overall.
The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics recommends 3 to 4.5 grams of carbohydrate per pound of body weight per day for moderate- to heavy- training load and high intensity exercise, and 2.3 to 3.2 grams per pound for lower intensity training. As your training intensity and distance varies, you can adjust your calories and carbohydrate intake accordingly.
2. Protein isn’t just for bodybuilders!
Most people associate high protein intake with weight training, but protein is crucial for endurance athletes as well. Running puts your muscles under a great deal of stress, and without adequate protein, your muscles cannot repair. The ADA recommends 0.55 to 0.8 grams of protein per pound, per day for endurance athletes.
3. Be wary of iron deficiency.
Iron is used to carry oxygen throughout the body, so it is crucial for athletes. The primary symptom of iron deficiency is fatigue, which may be confused as a normal consequence of training. Female runners are especially at risk for iron deficiency, due to loss of iron through blood during menstruation.
One of the most potent sources of iron is red meat; but don’t fret if you are a vegetarian! Iron can also be found in: seafood, beans, nuts, leafy greens and dried fruits. One cup of lentil beans provides 6.6 mg of iron; the recommended daily intake for iron is 8 mg per day for adult males, and 18 mg per day for adult females. So even on a vegetarian diet, it is easy to get enough iron.
Connect here with Watchfit Expert Charmaine Jones