Probably the biggest lesson I've learned in regards to fueling this past year is the importance of keeping an open mind, listening to my body, and not being afraid to make changes when something just isn't working. Every race and training session presents a unique set of challenges, and it's important to gain a deeper perspective of how your body reacts to different conditions and the type of fuel that works optimally for YOU. Trial and error is one thing, but if you really want to nail your race day fueling plan, it takes much more careful consideration, work in application, reflection, and trouble-shooting along the way. Similar to training, things don't always go according to plan, but that doesn't mean you're not heading in the right direction fueling-wise!
1. Know your numbers: How many calories and grams carbohydrate do you typically consume per hour? How much can your stomach handle? What is your sweat rate? How much sodium do you need per hour? The more specific you can identify these values to you, the more specific you can formulate your nutrition plan to ensure race day success. HINT: Not sure where to start? A sports dietitian can help!
2. Use the off-season to experiment with new products: Curious to try some new things for the upcoming season? Don’t wait until peak training rolls around to start experimenting. Order any new products and gear now and start utilizing them during easier, early season workouts. The goal is to identify your fueling preferences and main fuel sources early so you can be tweaking your fueling plan to perfection later on...
3. Get to know your gear: Purchase and try out any gear that will be utilized on race day earlier rather than later! Whether that be a bento box or aero bottle on the bike, or a camelback, fuel belt or hand bottle for the run. Knowing the intricacies of your equipment is key in the effective implementation of your fueling plan.
I recently purchased a new hydration pack (shown above) in preparation for our Grand Canyon run in May. Turns out, the valve on the hydration bladder is difficult to open, so I leave it open so I can easily drink from it. What I learned this weekend is that doing so causes it to leak all down the front of my top = not good! I am now in search of a different bladder with an easier functioning mouthpiece. Picture: Dragon's Tooth overlook, Feb 2016
4. Have options: Pack a few options on race day of products you know will work, so you can listen to your body’s cravings and make adjustments on the fly. Case in point: I carried gels on the run at Beach 2 Battleship (2015) but gaged after trying to consume my 2nd one. Thankfully I had other options to choose from! It never hurts to be prepared!
5. Calm your nerves: There’s a huge connection between our mental health and digestive tract, and athletes need to be mindful of this when it comes to their race day fueling. High nerves and anxiety can throw our gut out of sorts making implementation of even the best nutrition plan difficult.
6. Roll with the challenges: Related to #4 and #5, don’t let a hiccup in your race day fueling plan turn into a downward spiral. Let go of any mistakes and move on, working to make changes on the fly as needed! If this is an area of difficulty for you, try visualizing yourself handling such situations effectively prior to race day (yes I visualize my nutrition plan, because I’m a nerd like that :)
7. Keep your cool… literally: While keeping your cool mentally is key to race day success, keeping your body a cool as possible plays a role in fueling success. When our body temperature starts to rise, more blood is shunted away from the GI tract and to our skin to cool us off. This means less blood is available to digest that precious fuel you’ve been consuming. To minimize the effect of heat on digestion, take advantage of wet rags, ice and shade on the course to keep your core body temperature from significantly rising.
8. Sip on sports drink: By now we know that it’s important to consume a well-versed breakfast with plentiful carbohydrates pre-race, however, sometimes that breakfast is consumed up to 4 hours pre-race! What are you doing between that time and the race start to ensure your body’s glycogen stores are topped off? Aim to keep a sports drink on hand to sip on throughout he morning to ensure you’re well hydrated and that your carbohydrate and electrolyte stores are topped off to their full potential.
9. Frequent bites & sips: Fueling at regular intervals is important in providing your body with a steady stream of energy and prevent bonking and/or GI issues. Instead of basing your fueling plan on distance, aim for consistency of fueling intervals by basing your plan on time. Likewise, keep in mind that the stomach actually absorbs carbohydrate and fluid BETTER with greater volume, so don’t let it get empty.
10. Pace yourself: The quickest way to throw your nutrition plan to shambles is to race too aggressively, too early. Ramping up your heart rate too early not only depletes your glycogen stores faster, it shunts more blood to your working muscles (and away from the GI tract) putting you at higher risk for GI issues.
Be sure to check out the related posts below for additional insight on fueling strategies for endurance athletes!
Kristen Chang is Registered Dietitian Nutritionist (RDN), Certified Specialist in Sports Dietetics (CSSD) and endurance athlete residing in southwest Virginia alongside her husband and dog. Through this blog she aims to share favorite fueling recipes, general wellness and sport nutrition tips and stories from her athletic endeavors.
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