I will start this article with two statements I found myself saying at the last purplepatch training camp:
“Whenever I have started working with a new athlete, I have yet to meet one who is fuelling their body enough to support the amount of training they are doing.”
“For those endurance athletes who need or want to improve body composition, I normally have to get them to train a little less, while increasing caloric intake, to allow them to lose fat/weight.”
In working with a wide range of athletes, some with massive experience, it seems that proper nutrition and fuelling is a part of the equation that is incredibly challenging to perfect. Before we delve into the details of what proper fuelling and nutrition is, it is important to take a step back and consider the larger picture. Nutrition fits into your four pillars of performance (as described in the May issue Triathlete Europe), along with your endurance training, functional strength and recovery. Last month we discussed the value and necessity of integrated recovery, to allow optimal adaptations to occur from the hard training you love to do. Nutrition sits alongside recovery as the great supporter of training and catalyst to performance gains. You might have the best training programme in the world but without recovery and proper fuelling and nutrition to support it, your results will be impaired.
As you read this article I think it is critical to remember that you cannot view nutrition as a mutually exclusive element of your life and training, but instead an integrated element of the overall plan that must be meshed with proper training and recovery. Shifting your lens to this global approach will help weave the threads of performance together and enable you to understand the connection between hard work, eating well and recovery to produce performance.
Nutrition Versus Fuelling
As an endurance athlete it can be incredibly challenging to filter through the masses of conflicting information out there relating to diet. We are bombarded with fad diets, and told that sugar is the cause of obesity, while being pushed to consume those same sugars by coaches and sports-nutrition companies. The issue is that you are not a regular person. If you are seriously training for endurance sport you are an endurance athlete, and for endurance athletes there are two parts of eating.
First, there is your nutrition, which are the calories you consume in daily life to provide the calories, building blocks and nutrients to support life. The second part of caloric intake is your fuelling, which are the calories consumed just before, during, and immediately following exercise. Why separate them? The roles, requirements and rules of nutrition versus fuelling are vastly different, so creating a clear distinction between them will help you segment your eating and simplify your daily habits. Getting this right will have massive positive results.
The Body As An Oven
Metabolically your body responds very similar to an oven. At night your metabolic rate is low and thus you burn a very low amount of calories simply to support your bodily functions and organs. In the morning your metabolic rate will climb to your daily baseline and, while there are a few ups and downs, stays relatively stable throughout the day. For sedentary folk this is how the body operates, but endurance athletes are exercising once, twice or even three times daily.
When you train you metabolic rate climbs rapidly over ten or fifteen minutes, effectively heating up much like an oven would, then remains high for the duration of training. At the end of training your heart rate plummets quickly but your metabolic rate remains high for a few minutes before slowly dropping back down to baseline over the next 60 to 120 minutes. This total time of elevated metabolic rate is what we call the fuelling window.
As an endurance athlete I believe that effective fuelling is the foundation of your success in overall daily eating. Get the intake correct in your fuelling window and it’s much easier to manage and be successful in your daily nutrition window. Many athletes fall into the trap of viewing the calories they take in during activity simply necessary to get them through the workout. I hear athletes consistently speak of how they can get through a three hour bike or two hour run with little or no calories. This might well be true but it does not mean it is the proper strategy. There are four reasons that fuelling properly is critical to your overall performance:
1. Performance during the session. As mentioned above, many sessions require calories to allow continued performance and avoid the dreaded bonk.
2. Recovery from the session. The calories you take in during the session can have an impact on the effectiveness of your recovery from that session and performance of subsequent sessions.
3. Nutrition choices during the rest of the day. Proper fuelling facilitates control of choices in your nutrition window by avoiding massive caloric deficits, as well as cravings for carbohydrates that join those deficits.
4.Limiting metabolic stress. Training is a metabolic stress, but proper fuelling can help offset some of that stress. In contrast, inadequate fuelling will place additional massive stress of your metabolic health, which can have disastrous consequences.
Philosophically we aim to have athletes exit the fuelling window close to a zero caloric deficit as to when the workout started. This would mean that a three hour bike ride with a caloric expenditure of 700 calories an hour requires a total of around 2000 calories during the ride, and in the 90-120 minutes following. That’s a lot of food. We like to view calories ingested during the ride as supporting performance during the ride, preparing the athlete for ingestion in competition, but also offsetting some of the caloric deficit created by training. Following the session the primary focus would be to replenish the remaining calories with a focus on glycogen replenishment because the still-elevated metabolic rate is the most effective period to take ingested carbohydrate and store as muscle glycogen. This philosophy is a mind shift for most athletes because it requires consistent consumption throughout and following workouts. The post workout meal is everything to our athletes. It is the the foundation of success in terms of maximising recovery and performance, and we generalise by reminding athletes to wrap the workouts in carbohydrates. As simplified as this is, it is an effective baseline to go from.
Enter The Nutrition Window
An effective fuelling strategy will facilitate that chance to then be successful with your nutrition. Before we discuss your nutrition it is critical to understand something about your muscles and the glycogen they store. Glycogen is simply stored carbohydrate and we store this in the liver and muscle. This glycogen acts as a primary source of fuel in endurance activity. We deplete glycogen only by exercise or starvation. If you have completed your training and followed the fuelling strategy outlined above you will not be starved and are now not exercising again until your next session. This means you’re more than likely to have muscles that are saturated with our energy-packets of glycogen.
Interestingly, when we consume carbohydrates they do not automatically get stored as glycogen. If our muscles are fully replenished, you are in a state of starvation or your metabolic rate is low, the ingested carbohydrate is much more likely to be stored as fat. That is not a great thing for endurance athletes to be carrying too much of. This means that, if you have fuelled properly, and only if you have fuelled properly, you can have a diminished focus on consuming starchy carbohydrates in your nutrition window. Instead, you are free to focus on consuming your building blocks such as good oils and nutrient-rich foods. This means plenty of proteins, oils and fat, nuts and seeds, and a large dose of fruits and vegetables.
If you are lucky enough to get much of your training completed before your evening meal, and have fuelled properly, then you should aim to limit starchy carbohydrates (breads, pasta, potatoes) at the evening meal, but replace them with additional proteins and vegetables. If evening workouts are needed, then you must obey the rules of fuelling throughout the workout, and add some carbohydrate to your evening meal.
Keeping The Engine Burning
I find that so many athletes fail to fuel properly but also fail to support overall caloric expenditure with enough replenishment. For most endurance athletes it is normally a game of catch up. You should really think about consistently consuming food every two hours or so, not massive amounts, but enough to continue the game of catch up. Some fruit with nut-butter is a great snack to bridge meals and help replenishment. Skipped feedings always have negative effects, so stay on it. If you maintain these small feedings, bridging your nutrient and protein rich meals, and then fuel properly you will be some way to providing enough energy to become metabolically healthy. Plus your body composition and performance will improve.
Addressing The Fat-Efficiency Theory
There is a large amount of press given to the theory of limited caloric intake during exercise to increase the ability to utilise fat to become a better-butter-burner, hence saving the precious carbohydrate stores. There are a few studies that show some promising results for this theory but taken into the real world situation of consistent training, day after day, this can become a dangerous tactic to employ. Long duration exercise with no calories simply places too much stress on the system and leaves all sorts of negative after effects, even if you might become more efficient at utilising fat. I have never seen massively positive long term results from this tactic. The closest thing I would come to employ this strategy is for early morning workouts that last less than ninety minutes, but even these would be under controlled settings, and not be key training sessions. In general I am not a fan of caloric restriction and think the best route to performance and body composition improvements is to make fuelling a priority while ensuring your nutrition focuses on your building blocks and nutrient-rich foods.
There is nothing magic about this, simplicity rules, but the key to your success is consistency. With our original premise of nutrition as a part of your overall plan this approach will improve recovery, facilitate consistent training, and maximise your sessions. You can expect improved sleep quality, less cravings, and an improved element of control in your eating choices. Make nutrition one of your pillars of performance, you will not regret it.