I remember the exact moment truly Understand the term “hitting the wall.” I was on mile 20 of the New York City Marathon and it felt like taking another step was impossible. I trained for over four months, so I was prepared both physically and mentally. But something let me down: my nutrition. It’s ironic because I’m a registered dietitian, and I studied sports nutrition in graduate school. But learning about sport and putting it into practice are two different things.
The thing that was emphasized in my studies is that sports nutrition is different from regular nutrition. Sports nutrition principles don’t always align with healthy eating guidelines. For example, sports drinks are touted as sugar-sweetened drinks that cause weight gain, but did you know that they actually consist of a certain percentage of carbohydrates and electrolytes to keep athletes energy and hydrated? Sports drinks are not necessary for everyone and knowing when and how to include them in a fitness regime is just one of the nuances of sports nutrition.
I learned these principles during my marathon training in 2016, but I also fell victim to some common fueling mistakes. Since then, I have corrected my mistakes and run many successful races. I’ve also worked with hundreds of people (and He wrote a book on sports nutrition) to help as many athletes as possible avoid these common mistakes.
I didn’t plan on pre-workout fuel
The analogy often made in the world of sports nutrition is that the body is like a car and food is the fuel that makes it move. In other words, energy levels are directly related to the amount of food you put in your system. Carbohydrates are the body’s main energy source for exercise. The body uses two forms of carbohydrates for energy: dietary carbohydrates and carbohydrates stored in the muscles and liver (called glycogen).
Dietary carbohydrates are broken down within a few hours of eating, while protein and fats take longer to be digested. When eaten within 60 minutes of a workout, a carbohydrate-rich snack is the best fuel choice. But if you have 2-3 hours before your workout, a balanced meal with carbs, protein and a little bit of fat works just fine. That’s why I always say “what you eat depends on when you eat”.
During my marathon training, I had to be at work very early in the morning, so I ran in the afternoon or evening. I relied on what I ate at lunch or a mid-afternoon snack to help me run. Sometimes I haven’t eaten in hours and started running with very little “gas in the tank”. Other times, I’d eat foods that were technically healthy, but not good for fuel, like avocados or a salad that had a lot of fiber (more on that later), and my stomach felt unsteady during the entire sprint.
I could have avoided all of these problems by properly planning my pre-workout snack 1-2 hours before my run. Foods like bananas, dates, granola, or a handful of raisins are simple, carb-rich snacks that digest quickly and provide energy for exercise.
I ignored the recovery nutrition
Looking back, this was the biggest refueling flaw. I’ve never run the required long distances with marathon training, so I didn’t know what to expect. After running my long training, I actually Wasn’t hungry. In fact, I felt a little nauseous in my stomach.
Believe it or not, this happens to many athletes. After intense exercise, the body stops producing a hormone called ghrelin, known as the “hunger hormone.” The result is less hunger after vigorous activity. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t eat anything.
Recovery nutrition is critical for several reasons: it restores glycogen (the body’s form of stored carbohydrates), aids in muscle repair and helps control hunger. In the first 1-2 hours after exercise, the body begins to eat food to facilitate muscle protein synthesis, and this recovery continues for 24 hours.
Neglect of healing nutrition usually leads to excessive fatigue and hunger. This is what happened to me. Instead of eating within 1-2 hours after my run, I waited until my stomach felt normal and I was hungry enough to eat. But instead of feeling hungry, I was ravenous. My stomach was a deep hole and I ended up overeating. I was also tired in most of my training sessions, but I thought this was normal during marathon training. I now realize that fatigue may have been a sign of poor nutrition to recover.
Preventing this is simple: Eat some carbs and protein in the hour after your workout. If your stomach feels weird, choose a healing drink like chocolate milk or a plant-based protein drink. Having a little thing will make a big difference later on.
I lowered my sports drink
Sports drinks are a useful part of some training plans. After 45-60 minutes of endurance activity, the body needs to eat fast carbohydrates to maintain energy levels. Sports drinks provide those digestible carbohydrates, and replace fluids and electrolytes lost in sweat. Additionally, most sports drinks are isotonic, which means they have similar levels of glucose and sodium in the body, so they can be quickly taken up into the bloodstream.
I’m not a big fan of tasting sports drinks. When I was training, I thought cutting out a sports drink with water would be just as effective at keeping me hydrated. But Sciences He states that a 6-8% carbohydrate concentration is ideal because it helps the body absorb fluids more quickly. By diluting my sports drink, I was lowering my energy levels and possibly dehydrating myself more.
I ate fiber at the wrong time
Don’t get me wrong, fiber is a useful part of the diet and most Americans don’t eat enough of it daily. But eating high-fiber foods at the wrong time can wreak havoc on your stomach during training. For example, eating beans for lunch before your evening workout or cruciferous veggies the night before your intense morning workout may cause your digestive system to move faster than you would like it to during your workout.
The constant movement of endurance activity gets your stomach moving and sending foods through your digestive system faster than usual. Other factors, such as hormones or dehydration, also move food through the digestive system during exercise. Pair these natural physiological factors with high-fiber foods, and you’ve got a recipe for cramps, bloating, and stomachaches during exercise.
This doesn’t mean you can’t eat fibrous foods while training, but it’s probably safer to include them in your post-workout meals. Everyone reacts differently to different foods, so it’s all about trial and error in your energy-replenishing routine. Try certain foods to see how your stomach reacts to them.
As a dietitian, it’s embarrassing to admit some of these mistakes, especially me knows better. After all, I’ve been educated in the field and constantly read science to stay up to date with the latest guidelines. But it does show that every athlete (even the most enlightened!) makes mistakes with their training and fuel plans, and that’s okay. It’s about listening to your body, recognizing when something isn’t working, and adjusting your routine accordingly. I’m really glad I made these mistakes so that I can learn and grow as a practitioner – and I hope to help others avoid these common pitfalls.
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