By Ben Dampf
Proper nutrition is crucial for endurance athletes. Fueling up the right way enhances race day performance and those training sessions leading up to it. World-class athletes pay considerable attention to what they eat and when they eat it—in many cases tracking that information down to the calorie and minute. In a perfect world, we could all be so focused.
Weekend warriors, while recognizing the correlation between conditioning and good nutrition, do not always have the time to be so precise. There are a few guidelines, though, to help the rest of us better use nutrition to boost our conditioning and performance. Bob Seebohar, a board-certified specialist in sport dietetics, suggests athletes “should have some nutrition approximately one to three hours before a training session.” The duration and intensity of the activity are key considerations.
Consuming large amounts of carbohydrates before exercising, commonly referred to as “carbo-loading,” should be reserved for longer events—those sessions lasting approx. 90 minutes or more. Rice, pasta, oatmeal, bagels and juice are good choices that are easy for most people to digest. Butter, oils, cheese and other foods with high fat contents should be avoided.
For shorter sessions, carbo-loading is not necessary because your muscles typically have enough glycogen already. However, the consensus is that a lighter snack before a shorter workout—a piece of fruit or a handful of granola—will still aid in your performance.
Lastly, hydrating before exercise is essential to preventing muscle fatigue and decreased energy levels. How much should you drink? Unfortunately, individual sweat rates and hydration levels can vary drastically which means bright-line rules are hard to come by. If you need to keep a general rule in mind, drink 15-20 ounces of water two to three hours before and another 8-12 ounces 15 minutes before you start.
The best time to eat or drink before a long workout often comes down to individual preference and trial and error. Experiment during training sessions to find out what works for you and stick with it.