Monday, October 20, 2008

Nutrition (Part I) by Chris Puppione...

- Explain how carbo-loading works.
Carbo-loading is the systematic process of trying to stuff an athlete to the gills with carbohydrates in an effort to boost glycogen stores, allowing the athlete to have a greater amount of energy to draw from over a given period of extended exercise. There are many ways that people go about carbo-loading.

One way that I feel is beneficial is to go through an unloading of carbohydrates over a period of 2-4 days, where the athlete all but eliminates carbohydrates from their diet, thereby depleting the system of glycogen stores and sending the body into crisis. Following this unloading period, the athlete would hit the carbs hard over a series of days, leading up to the 48 hours prior to the peak race. Because the body was placed into crisis mode due to the withholding of carbs, when they are re-introduced to the system, the body will overcompensate and store more glycogen than normally possible in a response to the previous deficiency. By going through this process, an athlete could conceivably store enough glycogen to last for two hours of continuous exercise.

Of course, the most common practice of carbo-loading is the “stuff and store” technique of just piling as many potatoes, pasta, and breads onto a plate and throwing them back until you can’t move. (You may tell from my tone here that I am not a fan of such careless and sloppy preparation).

Carbo-loading is extremely beneficial for your marathoners, ultra-marathoners, and triathletes, and other people who participate in extended bouts of exercise.

- How beneficial is carbo-loading for an athlete running a 5k race?

Okay, so here is a nicer way to explain this….

I appreciate the importance of having team dinners the night before meets—they build team comradery and provide a great social outlet for the kids (and parents as well). However, the menu at these events is often all wrong, centering on buckets of pasta, piles of French bread, the stray dozen or 100 cookies, bottles of soda, and causing more harm than good in some situations.

Look, when we ingest carbohydrates, we are essentially swallowing sponges that suck in and retain water. This can make the athlete bloated and heavy if too much is eaten, and for no good reason at all when they are competing in any race shorter than the half-marathon.

Basically, THERE IS NO WAY AN ATHLETE WILL EVER BECOME DEPLETED OF GLYCOGEN WHEN COMPETING IN EVENTS LASTING LESS THAN 60 MINUTES. And that is even considering that they do not eat a very balanced diet!

A better menu for the pre-meet dinner would be grilled chicken, fruits, vegetables or salad, and plenty of water to drink—now that is a quality meal that is easy to put together! You can still have your pasta, but I would encourage athletes to eat a smaller portion of the noodles in favor of some more vegetables or chicken. Also, ditch the white bread at these dinners in favor of multi-grain goods. The heavier the bread and the more grains you see the better it is for the athlete the night before the race.

I am not saying that carbohydrates are bad—far from it, really. The endurance athlete needs carbohydrates for energy and recovery purposes. I am simply pointing out that there is a huge misconception surrounding these pre-meet pasta dinners that are so popular, and I just want to let people know that there is a better way to fuel for race day.

- What foods should you stay away from on race day?
Well, you can go a couple of ways with this one, honestly. I could give you the traditional list, like no soda, sweets, dairy products, and greasy dishes.

Then again, I could tell you that when I competed in high school (and ran reasonably well), my race day lunch consisted of two packages of Hostess Ho-Hos and a can of Dr. Pepper! People may think it is irresponsible of me to put this out there as an example of a pre-meet meal, but it helps me illustrate a point here—BE CONSISTENT AND GO WITH WHAT YOU KNOW.

I always ate my Ho-Hos and my Dr. Pepper—without fail—and I never cramped or crashed. However, there is a special circumstance involved here…

I had a great breakfast every morning, snacked well during the day, and my mother cooked amazingly healthy and tasty dinners every night. I had such a great nutritional base that I could not possibly ruin myself on race day, unless I ate something that would make me sick or was different than my routine. Therefore, on race day, I had to have my Hostess and DP because I BELIEVED IN IT AND WAS USED TO IT. I was being consistent and sticking with that which was familiar—albeit completely twisted and unnatural.

Now, unless your athlete is getting all the proper nutrition at every other meal and can survive the mid-day sugar rush as I did back then, do not follow this plan. Chances are good that most of the young athletes today are not eating very well, so the traditional route is advised.

So again, it is advised to dodge spicy food, greasy food, sodas, sweets, foods that are acidic, foods that are high in fiber, as well as dairy products. These foods will have either a poor energy return, or may cause stomach upset or be hard to digest.

The bottom line is this: stick with food that is familiar and you know you can digest well and drink plenty of fluids (water and sports drinks). In addition, some athletes may find that they perform better on race day when they eat smaller amounts of food because they do not have a bloated, heavy feeling as they step to the line.

- What foods should you eat on race day?

As with any endurance athlete’s daily diet, the race day diet should be predominantly carbohydrate-based sprinkled with a generous amount of protein. Stick with the 4:1 ratio of carbs to protein—this is a safe bet. This does not have to be measured out specifically—just be sure to have some protein along with your carbs.

For an afternoon race, a sample day of eating leading up to the race could look like this:

Meal #1 (9-10 hours prior)
- Small bagel w/ peanut butter & jelly
- 1 banana
- 1 cup of yogurt
- Small glass of fruit juice
- Water

Meal #2 (6-7 hours prior)
- Apple sauce snack cup
- Crackers
- Water

Meal #3 (3-4 hours prior)
- Turkey sandwich
- Power Bar
- Piece of fruit
- Water

In the last hour before the race, athletes should focus on just drinking water—do not eat anything, as this can cause a sugar-insulin reaction, thereby lowering the athlete’s blood sugar and potentially causing dizziness or a light-headed feeling within the early portions of the race.

If the athlete were hungry in the period between Meal #3 and the final hour before race time, some good quick fixes would be cereal or energy bars, grapes, or another easily digestible small snack.

This is not complicated—it just calls for some proper planning and good decision making on the part of the athlete.

If you have any comments on the above, please feel free to do so in the comment section below. Part II will be posted in the next few days.

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