FOR YOUR HEALTH: Nutrition for Competition
RUNNING ON EMPTY
Longtime running aficionado and fulltime Director of Nutrition Education and Community Outreach for Sprouts has been running for most of her life but began competing only in her early 20s. Since then she has logged thousands of miles, run many half-marathons, marathons and triathlons, and even completed an Ironman Triathlon (2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bike ride, 26.2-mile run).
Little's colleague and sometimes running partner, Sprouts Marketing Manager Amber Chapman, was a basketball and softball player growing up near Prescott, AZ. She took up recreational running while in college at Arizona State; ran the P.F. Chang Marathon ("Just once; cross that off the bucket list, move on"); and today runs about 15 "maintenance miles" a week while also cross-training with Pilates, elliptical, spin and Bikram yoga.
Both women know a great deal about natural foods and use this knowledge to help them develop regimens for pre-race, mid-race and post-race. And as a Certified Nutritionist, Little also has some great scientific advice about how to prepare for and compete in those events.
Janet Little's prep depends on the type of race.
"How I prepare really depends on the length of the race," said Little. "Any race 10K or below, I wouldn't change anything. I wouldn't pay any attention to what I had the night before. But when I start hitting half-marathons or marathons or even triathlons, my rule of thumb is 'nothing new on race day.' So what that means is, even the night before, don't change your diet just because you're going to have a race the next day. Make sure you eat healthy, of course. But in my dinner the night before, I don't eat a lot of pasta. I'm not one of those 'spaghetti-eaters,' at all. In fact, I usually keep the dinner a little bit on the light side. You know, like salmon. And the other thing I have, that most people wouldn't, is salad."
That's because eating roughage so close to a period of strong exertion can lead to what's known as "runner's revenge." 'Nuff said. But Little indicates that salad works well for her — and this is a key theme that comes up time and time again when talking to endurance athletes: learn what works best for you.
Little says that when she is preparing for a long cycling event, she may even eat some Sprouts chocolate-covered espresso beans that morning. "Because I am a coffee drinker, I like caffeine, that little extra whatever. Of course, if you are sensitive to caffeine, you wouldn't want to do that."
Amber Chapman likes to keep things consistent.
"I don't really switch out my diet a whole lot. I will have a traditional regular dinner that will be part carb, part vegetable, part meat. Now right before I ran my best race, I completely broke tradition and ate half of a Pizza Hut pizza. Which was bad for multiple reasons, not the least of which was that the tomato sauce is not exactly the best for your system. But the next day I just happened to run the best race I have ever run. Ironically, my main running partner had eaten the exact same meal the night before and she also set, not her PR [Personal Record], but her second best. It was just a great day. You can't ever tell what is going to happen."
The idea of "carbo-loading" — most major races still hold a big spaghetti dinner the night before — has been losing currency. Little says this is because scientific research shows that a better routine is to lighten up on carbs about seven to 10 days before a race, then increase them two or three days before, and then lighten up again. "If you wait until the day before, you're not really getting the insulin in the cells and the glucose available for your muscles." Chapman adds that pre-race carbo-loading is more of a novice runner's strategy. "As you continue to race and develop your patterns, you know what works for you and what you need to keep your energy going."
WHAT ABOUT PREPARING FOR EXTREME EXERTION?
Ultra-marathoner (and asthmatic) Steve Burton, who has completed six 100-mile races, 15 50-mile races, and is currently training for the Grand Canyon Rim to Rim Run in April and the McNaughton, VT 500-mile run in May, has developed a routine that more or less matches Little's.
"What you put into your body while you train and prepare will impact your energy levels, workouts, and recovery," he said. "In the week before, I begin to taper my mileage to prepare for a race, and I will decrease the amount of calories I take in to avoid gaining weight. I do increase my carb intake the day before an event."
A similar if less scientific strategy is used by Matt Von Ertfelda, a Marriott executive who likes to compete in severe conditions (he was the runner-up in 2003's Survivor: Amazon). Last November, he took part in the Antarctic Ice Marathon — a race that takes place so far south, just a few hundred miles from the South Pole, that it is too cold for penguins. The race is run over ice and snow in wind chills that average -4°F. The very next day, Von Ertfelda got up and ran the Antarctic 100K Ultra Race.
He prepared for those indomitable adventures in his own way.
"I'm a bit of a hack. Pasta with cream sauce the night before, and several low fat turkey sandwiches right before the race."
MY WAY OR THE HYDRATION WAY
Right before a long run or race, and especially during it, hydration is critical. Studies show that poor hydration can decrease your performance by at least 2%, especially in hot weather and with heavy exertion. You need it to flush out the lactic acid, nitrates and free radicals that build up. But different athletes have very different ways of getting their fluids.
Sprouts Recommendations for Competition Nutrition
"When it's a training run," said Chapman, "I know where my water fountains are along the route. I don't like to carry things with me. I barely can handle having an iPod on my shorts to get through the run. So I know where the water fountains are at all of my training points.... I will probably drink about 8 to 12 ounces before I get going, find the water fountains as needed along the way, and always have at least 24 [ounces] waiting in the car when I get back."
In the heat of an Arizona summer, she adds, she tries to get out early, by 5 a.m., and/or utilize wet bandanas and ice cubes to combat overheating.
Janet Little is more inclined to bring her own water, and to mix water and sports drinks.
"My routine is: I carry my water with me.... I actually have one of the fuel belts. Because I don't like to have to depend on the type of sports drink a race may have, and I always want to have that water available. Granted, the weather, if it's hot or cold, really kind of determines less water or more. But I would say typically on a run, the bottles on my fuel belt hold about 6 to 8 ounces per. I have a few different fuel belts. I have one that has two of the small ones, I have another fuel belt that has four of the small ones, and then I have one that has the one big bottle in the back. How long my run is will determine which one I'll grab."
And Little is an avowed fan of Cytomax, a ready-to-drink blend of complex carbohydrates and minimal sugars that is sold in the Sprouts Vitamin Department. Cytomax helps to restore the electrolytes (electrically charged salts) that are lost through sweat. She will usually dilute that with water, and carry two bottles of that blend and two of straight water on her fuel belt. "My rule of thumb is that anything over an hour, I need to replenish the electrolytes through sports drinks."
Von Ertfelda says he will hydrate "as much as I can tolerate" before and during a race. That wasn't as difficult as you might think in the Antarctic. "There were three aid stations/tents where they had hot chocolate, hot water, Coke, etc. More than you could possibly need. The challenge was that they were 8K apart. I wish I had run with water, in hindsight."
It is also interesting to note that in heavy exertion races like the Ironman, race organizers often provide flat soda and warm chicken broth during the run. These beverages tend to be high in sodium and also provide a quick boost of glucose.
Burton, who works for a fascinating company called ElliptiGO that makes cross-training bikes, similarly stresses that it is important to watch both the volume and the type of fluids you consume.
"I tend to drink a consistent volume of fluids [all the time], so hydrating enough is rarely an issue [during a race]. However, the American College of Sports Medicine recommends that people who are active for more than one hour get 500-700mg of sodium for every liter of water they consume, while some experts think it should be close to 700-1000mg. This is up to three times the sodium found in traditional sports drinks."
What about eating during competition? Little explains the dilemma.
"Any strenuous exercise, anything that lasts over an hour, you really need to get some kind of calories and nutrition in you. Because you have only so much glucose, so much energy available in your liver. And that equates to about half a mile as a runner. And then you have the glucose in your muscles and your bloodstream. And that averages out, with calories, to about a couple of miles. Most of your energy is really in your stored fat cells. And for your body to be able to tap into the fat cells over a long period, you need to keep your blood sugar at a rate where your body can utilize the fat for energy. You've probably heard the old saying that carbohydrates are the flame, and fat is the slow-burning log. So the more you can burn that fat, the longer you can go."
Little recommends a homemade mixture of Medjool dates and almonds from the Sprouts Bulk Department. She also likes to eat Fig Newmans ("They're just my go-to — love 'em") and will consume half a gel pack every 45 minutes — the burst of glucose helps raise blood sugar levels. Chapman says she will use Clif Shot Bloks during runs of at least 8-10 miles. Von Ertfelda gravitates toward energy bars.
Steve Burton works to make sure that "I bring in enough calories that can be easily turned into fuel for me through the duration of the event." By his calculation, for his 150-lb. frame, that means at least 300 calories per hour of sustained activity.
Finish Line Foods
Lots of endurance athletes find that they are not hungry right after a race. That's because as exertion goes up, the ability to digest goes down. Simply put, the up-and-down pounding of a long run creates intestinal distress. "There comes a point at which your body just stops and says, 'I don't want to digest anything anymore," said Janet Little.
She recommends nuts or Sprouts Trail Mix, because the fat and protein is going to help stabilize the blood sugar. She also likes Greek yogurt and MRM Recovery Drink.
"If you don't get something substantial in you after the race," said Little, "and you go and you take your shower, and you drive home and it's two hours later? That is when you are just starving, because your blood sugar has plummeted. And this is what happens when a lot of people are trying to lose weight. When they are done running, they are like, 'Oh, this is great, I don't feel like eating, I feel wonderful.' And then, boom! Blood sugar is down, and they just eat everything in sight. And you can easily consume 2-3,000 calories in one meal. And then you have that mindset, too, of 'I deserve that because I just ran for two hours. So let's eat the whole pizza.'"
Sure enough, Chapman finds that she sometimes has to force herself to eat something at the finish line.
"If nothing else, it's always good to grab a piece of fruit, like a banana, but avoid oranges — the citrus does damage to my stomach; or they often have chips or cookies. It's not the healthiest selection, but something to throw in your body to keep it moving. But it takes me a good two or three hours to crave food, at which point I want something salty and something substantial."
In the final analysis, it's great to get suggestions from fellow athletes and nutritionists, but each of us must figure out a nutritional regimen that is right for us. Amber Chapman's advice sounds about right:
"There's two things. Number one, have fun. When you are doing something as ridiculous as running 26.2 miles or an Ironman, enjoy it as much as you can. You've made the decision to be there; find your pleasure and find your zen. But I think the key is just to listen to your body and know what you need and what your requirements are. If you can eat a pizza and still run your race, great. If you can't, don't. Listen to whatever you need to get through your race and be smart."
From a previous issue of Sprouts Farmers Market’s monthly e-newsletter. Hungry for more? Click here to sign up.