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Endurance Nutrition “The Basics” Q&A

1. What are some good breakfasts for before a long ride or run?

There’s a lot of individual variation with what people can tolerate before exercise, generally people can tolerate more prior to cycling than running but the principles are similar.  It’s probably best to avoid foods with a high bulk fibre content like wheat bran but it’s not a good time to be experimenting with foods that you have never eaten before.  Keep it relatively simple, provide sufficient carbohydrate to fuel needs and 20g or so of protein.  You sometimes hear of people getting up super early to eat pasta or boiled rice, with chicken and tomato sauce, this hits the numbers but can be to far from people comfort zone early in the morning.  Rice cakes, with honey, jam and a few boiled eggs and small portion of cereal or porridge can be a good option.

It can be quite useful to consume Coffee or tea after breakfast to, stimulate a bowel movement so lightening the load for your training session or race…

 2. How long should I leave for digestion?

Classically the suggestion is 2-3 hours but this will depend on the individual and the exact meal.  If you know you are going to be pushed for time, try eating a little more carbohydrate with the previous evening meal and have a lighter breakfast.

3. What should I do if I oversleep or it’s ridiculously early start?

If you over sleep then it’s a case of manging the situation, accept that you probably needed the extra sleep don’t panic, just prioritise the carbohydrate and don’t over eat.  The less time you have the more you need to think of in the same way as you do in race feeding.  If you know that it is going to be a crazy early start then eat a little more the previous evening.  Perhaps make the main evening meal a little earlier and then eat a bigger supper with more carbohydrate e.g. rather than just a Greek yoghurt or evening protein shake try rice and scrambled eggs.

If you are really pushed for time then juice bars and training mix use a isomaltulose, a special slow release sugar found in small concentrations in natural honey.  These are light and easy to eat and can provide carbohydrate energy without risking spiking blood glucose levels and causing and insulin spike just prior to exercise.

4. At what duration run or ride do I need to think about taking on fuel?

Typically performance will benefit from supplementing fuel when the event is longer than one hour but this depends heavily on the session and the state you start exercising.  If it is a very intense interval session or energy supplies are low prior to exercise then there may be some benefit from taking on energy for short sessions.  Taking a caffeine energy gel just prior to a 10 mile cycling time trial may help improve performance by driving carbohydrate metabolism and reducing perceived exertion. It is important to remember thought that some beneficial endurance adaptations are dependent on being empty or at least low on carbohydrate.  For those sessions a weak carbohydrate electrolyte solution may be useful to prevent dehydration,  but it is important to modulate fuel supply according to the training objectives.  Some times poor sensations and acute performance can help with long term success.

5. What’s a good rule of thumb for carbohydrate intake during a long workout (g/kg and actual examples)?

For performance 60-90g per hour.  Take account of all carbohydrate sources, be it gels, bars, drinks or a banana.  E.g. Three gels per hour or 60g of carbohydrate powder (mixed in a bottle), or combination to hit the 60-90g.  Your plan will depend on, your preference, how much you intend to drink to keep hydrated (or the logistics of how many bottles you can take) and what is available on course.

6. When should I start eating and how often?

Little but often, typically, starting 15-20 minutes into exercise.  The problem is that the body has a limited capacity to process carbohydrate during effort.  Taking more than 90g per hour is more likely to result in GI distress than improve performance and if you forget to eat during the first few hours then the body doesn’t suddenly increase its ability to digest carbohydrate.  Part of being a skilled endurance athlete is knowing how to keep track of and pace eating in addition to effort.

7. Real food or “sports food”?

Sports food is food and it is geared to making it simple to get the nutrition you need when you need it, for sure some formulations are better than others or more suited to the individual but generally there is a reason why they are formulated as they are.  Of course it is possible to construct a nutrition strategy with regular food but it is important to know the numbers.  There can be pitfalls with regular food e.g. how much carbohydrate is there in a banana, how ripe is it, if its green then there tends to be more fibre than digestible carbohydrate.  Think about wine from grapes form the same vine in different years – some years you get great vintages, others less so.

  1. There is a good case for including some comfort food in your nutrition strategy, be it chocolate or a pork pie. Rather than pushing on and on building up cravings for these foods, cracking and then eating too much. Find the tastiest version of your ‘treat’ or comfort food, shrink it and then build it in early –e.g. every 2-3 hours or whey you finish a big climb.  Think the ‘regular’ food they hand up in the tour de France is more Hors d'oeuvres than an extra large pizza!

8. How much, how often and what should I be drinking on a long ride or run?

See 6

9. Do I always need a recovery drink after a long ride or run?

It is really important to plan your post exercise nutritional strategy be it with regular food or a specific recovery formulation.  There are advantages of a well formulated recovery drink.  If you have invested the time in doing the workout you will adapt better if you provide the building blocks of adaptation.  Mitochondria are protein structures so if you provide a fast absorbed protein with a good supply of the amino acid leucine then this should enhance adaptation.  Electrolytes especially Sodium will ensure that you rehydrate and inclusion of anthocyanin antioxidants (usually from berries or cherries) can reduce inflammation and speed recovery.  The biggest danger however is retuning home hungry without a plan opening the fridge and consuming 3,500 inappropriate calories more than you need because you are hungry and will power is weak!

10. Should I be taking a multi-vitamin/mineral or any other supplements?

Conventional advice is that it diet is good then there is no advantage from taking extra vitamins however athletes often have to compromise on food choices according when fitting training around busy lifestyles.  A good general multi vitamin may be a good insurance policy but there are pitfalls in over supplementing specific vitamins e.g. large doses of vitamin C and E close to training may actually blunt the adaptation response.  Optimising vitamin D levels in northern latitudes is however difficult without supplementation and a good quality fish oil providing 1g of the EPA fraction may improve performance in as little as 3 weeks.

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