WELCOME TO Chapter 16 of BEYOND TRAINING: MASTERING ENDURANCE, HEALTH & LIFE, IN WHICH you're going to get The Real Truth About What To Eat Before, During And After Your Workouts & Races.
From gluttonous pasta parties to entire pizzas and bottles of red wine before…
…to just about every variety of gel, bar, drink and supplement on the face of the planet during…
…to ice cream, hydrolyzed goat protein powders, steaks, waxy maize starch, potatoes and margaritas after…
…I have experimented with nearly everything when it comes eating before, during and after workouts and races.
And the real truth is (as I recently expounded upon on an EndurancePlanet.com sports nutrition episode), in the same way that there's more than one way to get fit fast and to build endurance as quickly as possible, there really is more than one way to skin the cat when it comes to supporting your body with workout fuel.
But by now, you hopefully realize that your decisions about how you exercise and what you eat should be based not only upon what works and what doesn't, but also based upon what allows you to achieve the ideal balance of both performance and health. Unfortunately, most nutrition recommendations only take into account the former (performance at all costs) without considering the latter (long term effects on your gut, heart, brain and connective tissue).
After all, some of the best athletes on the face of the planet guzzle down chemical-laden Ensure energy drinks before a race, eat stacks of Powerbars during, and finish up with pizza and ice cream for recovery. But just because this works doesn't mean it's healthy.
When choosing what to eat, do you think about what is local, fresh and sustainable?
Do you think about what your body will soak up as dense, precious, restorative, healing and energetic nutrients vs. simply “fuel”?
Do you think about how you will feel immediately after your workout or race, or perhaps later at night as you try to fall asleep, or even the next few days as your gut and muscles are either disrupted and sore or clean and fresh?
These are all important questions that go above and beyond simply whether something you eat makes you strong or fast in the short-term. As triathlete Corey Steimel points out in this Boulder newspaper interview on the fact that more and more health-conscious athletes are throwing out the sports drinks and turning to real fuel:
“You don't put crap fuel into a high performance vehicle…Just because a race car is burning through all that fuel doesn't mean you don't put high quality fuel in it. Some people have the philosophy that they're training so hard and with so much intensity that it doesn't matter. “
So in this chapter, you're going to discover 5 things to eat and 5 things to avoid before, during and after your workouts and races, 2 good ways to fuel your long distance events, how to use real food vs. frankenfoods, when to eat solids and when to eat liquids, how to use water and electrolytes, hy eating after your workout is much less important than you may actually think, and the exact nutrition protocol that I use and recommend for Ironman triathlon.
There are some things that you simply shouldn't eat before you're about to go ask your body to perform at the highest level. Some of these will directly decrease performance by creating bloating and gas, or by drawing precious blood away from your muscles and into your gut.
And some will allow you to perform just fine, but make you feel like crap after you're done – or that night, or the next day, or a decade later after your gut is destroyed by years of accumulative unhealthy fueling.
Ultimately, there are 5 common dietary errors I see athletes make prior to hitting it hard – so here's what to avoid:
1) FODMAP's like fructose and maltodextrin.
You learned all about FODMAP's in the last chapter, and they can be one of the leading causes of gut rot, GI distress, gas, bloating, diarrhea and constipation if you eat a bunch of them before you exercise or race. Flip back to the previous chapter and read up on the FODMAP's, then – especially if you've been experiencing stomach issues – avoid them. Three big FODMAP's I see lots of athletes including in things like pre-race meals are wheat, dairy and fermentable fruits like apples and pears. Many popular sports nutrition compounds also include high amounts of fructose and/or maltodextrin. Not a good idea, especially if you have a sensitive stomach.
2) High amounts of caffeine.
As you'll learn later in this chapter, caffeine can enhance sports performance (2). But that doesn't mean more is better – especially if you're concerned about your long term adrenal health or the chances of overworking your central nervous system.
Most recommendations you'll find in sports nutrition literature tell you to eat are about 0.5–1.5 mg caffeine per pound of body weight (that’s about 1–3 mg per kg). For a 150-lb (68-kg) athlete, that’s a dose of 70–210 mg of caffeine. But I recommend you choose the minimum amount possible, because when caffeine intake gets too high or goes on for too long, there is an increase in side effects like jitteriness, nervousness, insomnia, headache, dizziness, and gastrointestinal distress, all of which can impair your athletic performance or cause long term adrenal issues.
3) Artificial sweeteners and chemical cocktails
One common artificial sweetener found in sports nutrition supplements is sugar alcohol – which is a FODMAP. Another common one is sucralose, which can damage the good bacteria in your GI tract. Many others, such as aspartame and acesulfame potassium are neurotoxic, and can cause brain fog while you're exercising. So I highly recommend you avoid all of the above prior to exercise. You'll be surprised once you begin inspecting labels at how many sports nutrition fuels actually include the stuff. Of course, there are chemicals that go above and beyond just artificial sweeteners. Take Ensure for example. It is a common pre-race meal for Ironman triathletes and marathoners, and the ingredients consist of:
Milk Protein Concentrate, Canola Oil, Soy Protein Concentrate, Corn Oil, Short-Chain Fructooligosaccharides, Whey Protein Concentrate, Magnesium Phosphate, Natural and Artificial Flavors, Potassium Citrate, Sodium Citrate, Soy Lecithin, Calcium Phosphate, Potassium Chloride, Salt (Sodium Chloride), Choline Chloride, Ascorbic Acid, Carrageenan, Ferrous Sulfate, dl-Alpha-Tocopheryl Acetate, Zinc Sulfate, Niacinamide, Manganese Sulfate, Calcium Pantothenate, Cupric Sulfate, Vitamin A Palmitate, Thiamine Chloride Hydrochloride, Pyridoxine Hydrochloride, Riboflavin, Folic Acid, Chromium Chloride, Biotin, Sodium Molybdate, Sodium Selenate, Potassium Iodide, Phylloquinone, Vitamin D3, and Cyanocobalamin.
If there are over a dozen ingredients you can barely even pronounce, it's usually a pretty good sign your body is going to have difficulty digesting it during a workout, or that it might not be that great for your long-term health. You can read more about my beef with Ensure and other so called “health foods” for athletes in this blog article, in why I talk about why these things are also a fast track for the average person to simply get fat.
4) High amounts of fiber.
Fiber is not only primarily digested in your colon, but it also significantly slows gastric emptying, so consuming too much fiber before a workout simply results in a lot of undigested foodstuff in your stomach and intestine (16). Big bowls of pre-workout or pre-race fiber enriched cereals, oatmeals, fruit smoothies and kale shakes can cause some serious issues, especially for long workouts – so be careful. Incidentally, I've found from personal experience that I can go pound the pavement hard with as little as an hour after downing a well-blended kale smoothie, while the same amount of kale in a salad leaves me feeling less than stellar. So blending (or juicing) can help you get some of the phytonutrients without requesting as much work from your digestive system. More on that later.
5) Heavy, non-portable foods.
If your goal is speed or aerodynamics, then giant sweet potatoes, bananas, water-filled fruits, and melted dark chocolate bars are not a great solution. There are right ways to consume real food during your workout (which you're about to learn ). But there are also wrong ways to consume real food during your workout – and if something is big, bulky and heavy it's going to inhibit your performance.
So what kind of strategies do I recommend for eating before your workout or race? Assuming that we're talking about a glycogen-depleting effort of 1.5+ hours in duration (which is really the only time you'll get a significant performance enhancing benefit of eating before) here are the top 5 things to include before a workout or race:
1) Blended & juiced foods.
When you blend or juice foods, you make things much easier on your digestive system, allow foods to empty more quickly from the stomach. Blending or juicing also helps to pre-digest the food so your body doesn't have to work as hard during digestion. This frees up precious energy for you to be able to devote to breathing, moving and contracting muscles. Cell walls are broken down and nutrients are quickly released (especially from greens like kale, or dark root vegetables like beets and carrots.) When you use these strategies, you're essential “chewing” your food much more thoroughly than you may have been able to with your teeth, and many foods that would normally have given you digestive trouble – such as a bunch of carrots or a big spinach salad – will digest just fine when blended or juiced. I recommend a high-speed quality blender such as a Vitamix, an Omega masticating juicer, and a Magic Bullet for travel. Two of my “go-to” recipes for pre-workouts are a kale smoothie blended with coconut water or coconut milk, or a carrot-ginger-lemon juice with a touch of olive oil added in.
2) Small amounts of caffeine.
As you learned earlier, caffeine can definitely help with sports performance. 1,3,7-trimethylxanthine, more popularly known as caffeine, is the world’s most consumed natural pharmacological agent (2). Caffeine has been shown to improve endurance and time trial performance in cyclists, increase endurance in runners, and improve performance times and boost power in rowers. Caffeine has also been shown to improve performance in cycling and running events lasting 5 minutes or more, and to increase power output, speed, and strength in sprint and power events lasting less than 10 seconds (incidentally, caffeine has been shown to have no effect, and may even be a negative factor, in sprint and power events lasting anywhere from 15 seconds to 3 minutes)
In tennis players, caffeine increases hitting accuracy, speed and agility, and overall success on the court. And players reported feeling more energy late in their matches. Caffeine also reduces your “rating of perceived exertion”, or how hard you feel like you’re actually working – which essentially causes you to push harder and faster.
Unfortunately, most people are averaging 238 mg of caffeine every day — which is the equivalent of 2–3 cups of coffee – and 20–30% of people consume an enormous 600 mg of caffeine daily (with about 71% of it coffee, 16% from tea, and 12% from soft drinks and energy drinks). And when we shove high amounts of caffeine into our system prior to a workout or race, it's just extra stress on the adrenal glands. So as mentioned earlier, I recommend a minimum effective dose of caffeine – about 0.5mg per pound of body weight or 1mg per kg of body weight. For a 150lb athlete that's the equivalent of a small cup of coffee.
3) Easy-to-digest carbohydrates.
White potato, sweet potato, yam, taro and white rice are the top five carbohydrate sources that seem to be best tolerated by athletes prior to hard workouts. But if you're adhering to the carbohydrate/fat/protein ratios recommended earlier, then you know you don't even need ample amounts of these. How much do you actually need?
Let's say you wake up on race morning. You've primarily burnt through your liver's glycogen stores while sleeping. The average human needs (at most) about 400 calories of carbohydrate to completely top off those stores (assuming you haven't been starving yourself, your muscles are already full of glycogen and ready to rumble) (4). So if you eat 100 grams from any of the starch sources mentioned above, that's all you need. To put that number into context, that's about 2 cups of cooked white rice, or a couple large, boiled sweet potatoes or yams. Liberally add sea salt to either of the foods above, throw in a few tablespoons of the healthy fats and proteins you'll learn about momentarily, and you have a perfect pre-Ironman or pre-marathon meal!
And as you may already know, 400 calories of carbohydrate is much less than the recommended values of anywhere from 600-1500 calories!
If you're adhering to a ketogenic diet, you'll need even fewer carbohydrates than that, and for your pre-workout or pre-race meal, you can simply get away with the minimum amount of carbohydrate necessary to keep your brain's neurons firing so that you don't lose mental function. This comes out to about 30 grams, or 120 calories of carbohydrate. Because ketosis produces this state of fat-utilizing metabolic efficiency, most of the athletes I've worked with (including myself) who are implementing ketosis go into their big workout or race with a pre-event meal of Bulletproof Coffee, or a Ketogenic Kale Shake, or 1-2 servings of UCAN Superstarch in coconut milk (more on Superstarch later).
By the way, if you're exercising in a state of ketosis, you don't need to worry about neural fatigue from your brain running out of fuel. Once you begin exercising, your brain will draw upon lactic acid as a source of energy (14) (your brain actually prefers to burn lactic acid and ketones more than glucose!), along with fats, glucose derived from amino acids (gluconeogenesis), glucose derived from slow-release starches, and glucose derived from trace amounts of sports supplements – all of which you'll learn about later in this chapter. If you want to learn more about the minimum amount of carbohydrates your brain needs for fuel, I recommend you read the article “How Much Glucose Does Your Brain Really Need?” (15).
In contrast to fats that take a long time to digest, such as eggs, bacon, cheese or yogurt, medium chain triglycerides from sources such as MCT oil, coconut oil or the solid form of coconut manna actually bypass the normal process of digestion and instead get absorbed directly into your liver – where they can then be metabolized to provide a quick source of energy. This makes MCT‘s a valuable addition to your “before” meal. For joint and heart health, you can also include small amounts of a concentrated source of anti-inflammatory omega-3 essential fatty acids from a cold-press plant-based oil such as Udo's Oil or Panaseeda Five Oil Blend (you can simply include these in your smoothie or poured over the top of your carbohydrate source). In particular, the Panaseeda blend actually was able to address a serious gut malabsorption issue in former Olympian & gold medal winner Andreas Wecker and transform him from a lifeless 78 pound man given only 2 hours to live to completely healing his abdominal issues. You can read about that story here.
5) Easy-to-digest proteins.
Like many fats, proteins also take a long time to digest and require lots of energy to break down – which is why a pre-race meal of steak and eggs is a recipe for gut disaster or sub-par performance. But for efforts of greater than 3 hours in duration, your body can use up to 15% of it's energy requirements from protein. In addition, high blood levels of amino acid during exercise can lower your rating of perceived exertion and significantly decrease post-exercise soreness.
For this reason, I recommend that prior to your big workout or race you include any or all of the following: A) 20-30 grams of a hydrolyzed whey protein, which is a type of “pre-digested” protein that is more expensive, but much easier to absorb and assimilate compared to regular whey protein (I recommend Mt. Capra's DEEP30 protein); B) 5-10 grams of essential amino acids, which have an extremely high absorption rate (I recommend Master Amino Acid Pattern); C) 10-20 grams of a hydrolyzed collagen protein source. For this, I recommend you either use an organic, clean powder such as Great Lakes or Bernard Jensen, or simply drink a cup of bone broth with your pre-race meal.
Compared to eating a steak, these type of protein sources are far less stressful for your digestive system to break down and absorb. Remember – you don't want to be making your gut work any harder than it needs to.
At the end of this chapter, you'll learn what to eat after your workout, and why it's probably less important than you think. But first, let's move into what may be the most common question I ever get: what should I eat during my race?
3 Reasons Not To Eat Concentrated Sugars When You're Racing
Let's begin with what I do not recommend that you eat if you are serious about long term health: high amounts of concentrated sugars.
At this point in the book, this should come as no surprise to you. Once again – it all returns to the lens that you see your performance through: are you chasing performance at all costs, or are you willing to entertain the idea of thinking outside the box if it means you can achieve similar levels of performance with higher levels of health?
There are 3 primary reasons that I do not recommend you consume high amounts of concentrated sugars during your sporting event, and they've all got great acronyms: 1) FODMAP's; 2) AGE's; 3) ROS's.
Are you sick of me talking about fermentable carbohydrates yet? Don't worry, there's probably no need to kick this horse to death much more. Fructose and maltodextrin in their concentrated forms can be potent FODMAP's. They ferment in your gut, and while you may be able to get away with using them for a 1.5-3 hour event, once you pile them on much longer than that, you're asking for gut distress, especially if you have any of the fructose malabsorption or intolerance issues discussed in the previous chapter.
In addition, maltodextrin is a long chain of glucose molecules that breaks apart into individual glucose units by the time it hits your small intestine. This called “high osmolality”, and while it's theoretically supposed to be a great way to increase concentrated energy source delivery, it's actually a fast track to diarrhea and gut distress. In his book “Feed Zone Portables“, author Allen Lim describes this scenario fittingly when he discusses why he doesn't like the professional cyclists and triathletes he works with to use maltodextrin:
“To understand what that would feel like in your gut, imagine a completely full flight with 300 pregnant women and mid-flight each of them giving birth to 20 screaming babes. That's a lot of little soliders storming the intestinal wall.”
ROS stands for “Reactive Oxygen Species”, and studies have shown the formation of these nasty little unstable forms of oxygen molecules to be a central mechanism for glucose toxicity from chronic oxidative stress (9). Your pancreas is one valuable organ especially sensitive to reactive oxygen species because of it's low natural concentration of antioxidant enzymes. Because of this, high-sugar diets can increase pancreatic cancer risk due to what is called “hyperglycemia-induced oxidative stress” and free radical damage to pancreatic cells. ROS's also cause irreversible damage to the cell wall, cross-link collagen and elastin (a primary cause of wrinkles and pre-mature aging) and lessens the skin’s natural ability to repair itself. When combined with AGE's, this is a potent one-two combo for aging much, much faster.
Advanced glycation end products (AGE's) are a complex group of compounds formed when sugar reacts with amino acids. They have a fitting acronym because – along with ROS's – they are one of the major molecular mechanisms by which cellular damage accrues in your body.
When sugar bonds with protein via glycation, this process creates inflammation, activates your immune system. As a result, your immune system's scavenger cells bind to the AGE's, and unfortunately, this defense process also causes a fair share of damage (10). Inside your arteries, for example, the scar tissue created from this process is called plaque. AGE's also contribute to cross-linking of collagen protein fibers (more wrinkles), inﬂammation, inhibited skin cell growth and accelerated aging.
There is mounting evidence that AGE's are implicated in the development of chronic degenerative diseases such as heart disease, Alzheimer's and diabetes, and several studies have shown that restricting the consumption of AGEs can lead to an increased lifespan in animals (6). Of all the molecules you could eat that are most capable of inflicting AGE-related damage in your body, sugar is the highest.
If those three reasons to avoid high amounts of concentrated sugars are not enough for you, then you can review these 141 additional ways that sugar destroys your health (1). Ultimately, you can go fast on concentrated sugars – and a combination of gels, energy chews and sports drink was all I personally used for 5 years until I discovered the information I just shared with you. And when I realized what I was doing to my gut, my heart, my skin and my longevity, I changed things up drastically.
So if you aren't going to go the traditional route of concentrated sports drinks, gels, sugary bars, chomps, chews, bloks, and jelly beans, what are your alternatives?
2 Healthy Race Day Fueling Strategies
So now you know that typical sports nutrition frankenfoods, gels and sugars are out if you're serious about your health.
The good news is that there are 2 healthy race day fueling strategies that work very well and also achieve an ideal balance of performance and health. Neither of these scenarios are 100% “ancestral” or what I consider to be completely ideal from a healthy human macronutrient intake standpoint, but let's face it – hammering on your bicycle for 100 miles is not exactly ancestral either. So the trick is to gently nudge your body towards primarily tapping into it's own fatty acids as a fuel, or to present your body with as natural a fuel source as possible (e.g. white rice, bacon, eggs, etc.). You're about to learn both techniques.
Healthy Race Day Scenario Option #1: Eat Moderate Amounts of Slow Release Carbohydrates With Small Additions of Easy-To-Digest Fats & Amino Acids.
This first scenario is ideal if you want to maximize your use of your body's natural and preferred fuel stores (fatty acids) while minimizing the rate at which you deplete your storage carbohydrates (glycogen).
It allows for extreme metabolic efficiency and fat-burning with minimal gastric distress, and is my preferred mode of fueling for myself, and any athletes I work with who desire to gain the health and fat-burning effects from lower carbohydrate intake or ketosis.
Here is what you need to pull it off:
1) Slow release carbohydrate.
Ideally, an optimal carbohydrate source for athletes should have a low osmolality (to avoid those pregnant mother carbohydrates from releasing all their babies mid-flight), with a slow time-release to avoid rapid fluctuations in glucose and blood sugar spikes or crashes (20). To my knowledge, there is currently only one carbohydrate sources which exists which satisfies this scenario: a product called “Superstarch“, which is made by UCAN.
Contrary to popular belief among athletes and coaches who I've spoken to about this unique starch, SuperStarch is not a sugar or a fiber. Chemically it is a complex carbohydrate or starch that is completely absorbed. It is an extremely large glucose chain with a
molecular weight between 500,000 and 700,000 g/mol.
What does it mean to have a high molecular weight? Since molecular weight and osmolality are inversely related, SuperStarch exerts a very low osmotic pressure in the gastrointestinal tract. This means it is rapidly emptied from your stomach into your intestines, which means it is very gentle on your gut.
When it reaches your intestines, SuperStarch is semi-resistant to digestion, but is eventually completely absorbed into the bloodstream, which gives it a slow time-released absorption profile. Because of this slow rate of release, this also means that your body taps into it's own fatty acids as a fuel source, and you need about half as many carbohydrates as you would normally consume (e.g. if you were accustomed to consuming 3 gels per hour, you would only consume about 1 serving, or 100 calories, of Superstarch per hour).
2) Easy-to-digest fats.
Flip back and check out my recommendations for easy-to-digest fats that you can consume prior to your race. Since the seed-based oils I mentioned are not very heat stable, your top choices for fats are either MCT oil or coconut oil. You can't go overboard with either. Research shows that consuming more than about 10g per hour over the course of a multi-hour exercise session can lead gastric distress. In the case of MCT oil, 10 grams is about the equivalent of 1 tablespoon (22). So you would add one tablespoon per hour to the one serving of Superstarch per hour. Some larger male athletes can handle slightly more MCT oil and Superstarch than this, but need to experiment by starting with one tablespoon and one serving.
3) Easy-to-digest amino acids.
You've already learned about these too. To your bottle that already contains the Superstarch and easy-to-digest fats, you add either 10 grams of a hydrolyzed whey protein for each hour of exercise, or 5 grams of essential amino acids, or 10 grams of a hydrolyzed collagen protein source. Just choose your preferred weapon (I use essential amino acids capsules and crush them in a mortar and pestle or a pill crusher). You mix this with the fats and the Superstarch into one bottle. If you really want to live life on the edge, you can throw in an all-natural amino acid complex derived from the Asian Mandarin Vespa Wasp, which works by shifting the muscles to metabolize a higher level of fat.
If you're a nerd like me, you can add in some extra compounds that allow you body to tap into fat stores more efficiently or maintain higher levels of ATP in the presence of low carbohydrate intake. I do that with a shot of something called X2Performance, which includes a negative glycemic index sugar called D-Ribose, di-sodium ATP, pinitol (which drives glucose into muscle tissue) and trace amounts of caffeine and glucose. I include X2Performance 30 minutes before and then every 2-3 hours during the race.
And that's it. You mix all that in a dense concentrated solution in a water bottle.
Finally, Superstarch tends to “clump” and settle in the bottom of your bottle. To avoid this, it can be helpful to:
1) Mix this brew at the last possible hour, and stir and shake vigorously.
2) Consider blending everything in a blender and putting into a wide mouth “Floe” bottle (which also allows you to add ice if you're racing in hot conditions).
3) Put in small amounts of an electrolytes powder or electrolytes capsules into the bottle, which tends to reduce Superstarch clumping.
Later in this chapter, I'll spell out exactly how you would use this fueling scenario for something like an Ironman.
Healthy Race Day Scenario Option #2: Eat Small Amounts of Liquid Fast Release Carbohydrates and Solid Foods
There are a couple annoying issues with the first scenario you just read about:
1) It's spendy;
2) It's complicated and time-consuming to measure and mix all that stuff together in one bottle or multiple bottles.
But frankly, you only use need to use that first scenario which I just described to you during races and every so often (about once per month) when “practicing” or training your gut for a race.
In every other situation, you can either exercise fasted with water only, or simply eat real food.
If you flip back to Chapter 11, you'll find real food recipes such as trail mixes and chia seed slurries. You'll even find low carb, ketosis friendly real foods for long workouts, such as chia seed slurries, raw nut trail mixes, pemmican, jerky and spirulina or chlorella tablets.
But if you're planning on racing fast, at your peak performance capacity, want to use real food for it, and want the best, most comprehensive resources on using real food during your training sessions or races, I recommend two crucial books:
This cookbook, written by physiologist Allen Lim, has 75 portable food recipes for cyclists, runners, triathletes, mountain bikers, climbers, hikers, and backpackers. It contains delicious portable, real food that is digestive relatively quickly.
Sample recipes you can view on the book's website include Chocolate & Sea Salt Sticky Bites, Blueberry & Chocolate Coconut Rice Cakes and Crispy Rice Omelets (18). Lim even shows you a special wrapping technique which makes it easy to unwrap your real food portables when you’re one-handed or moving, like on a bike ride, trail run, hiking, etc.
Through recipes, anecdotes and practical instruction, this book teaches you the logistics of carrying and eating real food on training sessions, gives you portable real food recipes to fuel your long workouts, and includes everything else you need to ensure you don’t have to damage your body with the typical fake, sugar-packed engineered fuels.
One sample real food that works very well for many athletes: the mighty rice cake. Recipes you'll find in Feed Zone Cookbook include a savory, bacon-egg rice cake, a dark chocolate chip and blueberry rice square and even “sticky” sushi rice energy balls.
Anyways, get either of the books above for a slew of additional recipes. Rice is high in calories but low in fiber, making it a perfect starting carbohydrate, but the books also include gluten-free and healthy options for pancakes, waffles, pies, cooked, brownies, etc. – all transportable. Yes, you are still going to be consuming higher amounts of carbohydrates than what I feel to be “Ancestral”, which is why I personally tend to go more towards chia seeds, raw nuts, etc. – but you will still be consuming far less concentrated sugar than is in a typical engineered gel, sports drink or energy bar.
And of course, the real food options built around carbohydrates such as rice do actually burn quite clean during an actual race (compared to, say, Brazil nuts). So let's say you want to use this same type of real food (rice cakes, rice balls, etc.) during your actual race. In this case, you just need a slight modification, and you would use the concept of:
…”hydration in the bottle, fuel in the pocket“.
This is a concept which I first explored in a podcast episode with Dr. Stacy Sims, sports nutritionist and founder of Osmo nutrition. The episode was called “Why Does A Guy Like Lance Armstrong Have Gastrointestinal Issues During A Triathlon?”, and during the interview, Stacy describes a relatively simple scenario in which you consume trace amounts of water, sugar and electrolytes from a liquid beverage, then derive your primary calories sources from real food – a concept she refers to as…
The liquid beverage used in this scenario is the same type of fueling mix utilized by cycling physiologist and nutrition expert Allen Lim (the author of the Real Food Portables book mentioned earlier), who founded the nutrition company Skratch Labs based on a similar concept.
The science behind both Skratch and Osmo is that the liquid beverage is not a calorie source per se. It does contain 70 calories per 16 ounces, but the sugars and salts in the beverage contain just enough glucose, sucrose and salts to allow your small intestine to maximize fluid uptake. You've already learned about the issue with too much osmolality, so this liquid mix averts that scenario by maintaining no higher a carbohydrate concentration than 4%. And then you simply get all the rest of your calories from real food which you carry in your jersey pockets, a bike's top tube case, etc.
If you don't have the time to make the real food, you can use the “safe” energy bars from Chapter 11, such as the Cocochia Bar, Hammer Recovery Bar or Hammer Vegan Recovery Bar, LaraBar, Nogii Bar, Quest Bar, Zing Bar, BonkBreaker Bar or HeathWarrior Bar.
Both OsmoNutrition.com and SkratchLabs.com lay out the science behind this strategy much more thoroughly than I can in a single chapter of this book, so I recommend you look at the helpful videos, FAQ's and PDF's on their website if you want to learn more. The only reason I don't personally implement this scenario is because A) I'm low carb and race primarily in a state of fatty acid utilization; and B) I have not found solid foods to sit well when running hard (more on that later).
So just as our ancestors were able to hunt and take nourishment with them, if you desired, you can completely break free of highly processed engineered fuels and use portable, real food instead. You simply need to practice this strategy to avoid any race day gut surprises.
Liquids vs. Solids?
But wait…isn't there an issue with using real food based solids during a race? After all, we’ve all been taught that when the going gets tough in a workout or race, liquids beat solids hands down, right?
To see if this is true, let’s break down a March 2010 study in the Journal of Medicine and Science in Sports & Exercise, entitled “Oxidation of Solid versus Liquid Carbohydrate Sources”:
Here’s how the intro reads:
“The ingestion of carbohydrate (CHO) solutions has been shown to increase CHO oxidation and improve endurance performance. However, the majority of studies have investigated CHO in solution and sporting practice includes ingestion of CHO in solid (e.g. energy bars) as well as liquid form. It remains unknown whether CHO in solid form is as effectively oxidized as compared to CHO solutions.”
So the researchers then went on to study cyclists who worked out for a 3 hour aerobic cycling session. Here is what they found:
“The present study demonstrates that a GLU+FRC (glucose + fructose) mix administered as a solid BAR during cycling can lead to high mean and peak exogenous CHO (carbohydrate) oxidation rates (>1g/min). The GLU+FRC mix ingested in form of a solid BAR resulted in similar average and peak exogenous CHO oxidation rates and showed similar oxidation efficiencies as a DRINK. These findings suggest that CHO from a solid BAR is effectively oxidized during exercise and can be a practical form of supplementation alongside other forms of CHO.”
Short and sweet summary: the solid bars did just as well as the liquids. At least for cyclists.
Additional studies – along with lots of anecdotal evidence among professional cyclists – has backed up this idea (7). So while it's established that when you’re doing non-jarring, non-impact, non-weight bearing exercise like cycling, you can chomp away on real food if you don’t feel like drinking liqiuds, what about for more stomach-sloshing motions, like running?
Here's an interesting study on triathletes which gives us a good answer. In the study, Scientists at University of Utrecht in the Netherlands compared liquid versus solid carbohydrate intake before and during prolonged exercise in 32 triathletes who were training for at least a sprint triathlon. Study participants took part in hard workouts that consisted of two bouts of cycling lasting 45-50 minutes about 75% VO2max (85% of maximum heart rate) and two running workouts lasting 45 minutes, also at 75% VO2max (Peters).
So first, the triathlete cycled, and then they ran. Then after a 6 minute rest, they completed a maximal cycling test consisting of three minutes of pedaling at 175 Watts and then three minutes of 100% all-out intensity.
Oh, and they weren’t done yet.
After four minutes of rest, the triathlete then cycled again, rested for six minutes, did a second maximal test on the bike, rested for four more minutes, then ran again, rested for six minutes, and then completed a final cycling test.
If you were doing the math, that is over three hours of exercise with an average heart rate at or above 85% of maximum heart rate.
As if that weren’t enough, each participant had to do this three times through at different times, each time with a different fueling scenario: once with caloric liquids only, once with a mix of solids and liquids (white bread, marmalade and bananas – yum), and once with a non-caloric liquid placebo that was basically just food coloring. Water intake was the same between all groups.
So which treatment was best?
Half of the triathletes in the study were able to complete all three hours of hard exercise when they took in liquids only, but only nine of the triathletes could handle the same workout once solids were added in. And even the ones who didn’t finish the workout weren’t able to go as hard for the part of the workout that they actually did complete.
In other words, once you introduce the stomach-sloshing of hard running (think 10K to marathon, not slow jogs or ultra-runs) liquids beat solids hands down.
Take away message: solids are just as good as liquids when you’re riding a bike or doing non-impact activity, but once you start jarring the body and sloshing the stomach, try to stick to liquids (and I would actually consider a gel just as good as liquid, although there are no studies yet that look at that in runners).
There's two final topics to tackle before I lay out a sample race day fueling scenario for you – and that's the confusing and myth-ridden world of water, electrolytes and post-workout fueling.
It was in the podcast interview “How You’re Being Manipulated By The Sports Drink Industry And What You Can Do About It” with Dr. Tim Noakes that my paradigms were first shattered when it came to a new view of electrolyte intake.
In the interview, Dr. Noakes introduces an argument against the worldwide brainwashing that has been done by the Gatorade Sport Science Institute – particularly the brainwashing that has caused exercise enthusiasts and athletes to rush out and down electrolyte drinks, powders and capsules during hot and humid exercise sessions.
For nearly a decade, I was one of those athletes.
But here’s the deal: your body is very, very good at regulating electrolyte status of the blood and cells. If it was not good at this, then you would die or become severely ill very easily if you were sweating without water intake for a even a dozen minutes. And this just isn’t the case.
Instead, when you have too little sodium on board, the body excretes less sodium in the kidneys, urine and sweat, thus shutting down losses. And when you have too little water, the body excretes more sodium in the kidneys and sweat so that you maintain a proper electrochemical gradient.
Furthermore, when you have too much sodium, the body excretes excess sodium in the kidneys, urine and sweat. And therein lies the rub: people take a bunch of sports drink or electrolytes to workout, find that they’re losing lots of sweat or seeing white salt deposits on they’re skin, assuming they’re losing salt (oh no!) and begin a vicious cycle of consuming even more electrolytes.
Noakes points out multiple studies that have shown people going for days with no salt or electrolyte intake and doing just fine at exercise. In one study, a group of soldiers perform an extremely intense march in the heat and humidity that lasted all day. Although they lose liters of sweat, all they did was drink water. No electrolyes.
And at the end of the march, their plasma sodium levels were the same as when they had started. Their body simply held on to it’s salt stores. But studies like this get suppressed by sports drink manufacturers.
In addition, we’re taught that the body has finite salt stores of about 10,000mg, so at normal salt losses of 1000-2000mg per hour, you could only go somewhere between 5 and 10 hours before you start to cramp. In reality, your salt stores are many, many times more than 10,000mg.
So if lack of electrolytes doesn’t cause cramping, what does? In most cases, cramping is due to fascial adhesions and lack of mobility (revisit the mobility chapter), neuromuscular fatigue from pushing your muscles harder than you've pushed them in previous races or workouts, areas of scar tissue from previous injuries, or very low hydration levels. To learn more about this, listen to this Tri Talk Episode #74, which is an extremely thorough audio about mitigating muscle cramps.
Since I've spoken with Dr. Noakes, I've competed in over a dozen Half Ironman events, two Ironman triathlons and multiple long training sessions in the heat with zero electrolytes, and did just fine, with zero cramping. The only people who may need to worry about electrolyte intake during exercise are folks who have been on a low-sodium or mineral-deficient diet for a long time, or people with medical conditions that can affect sodium retention and loss (such as hypothyroidism).
So here’s the deal: electrolytes aren’t necessarily going to hurt you during exercise, but you should just know that there are probably better places to spend your supplement or exercise dollars than on useless capsules.
As for how this jives with the Osmo and Skratch nutrition approach outlined above, it's important to realize that they're not adding salts to their liquid beverage formulations to stop cramping, but to instead have a proper concentration to drive water and carbohydrate absorption into the small intestine.
And water? It can all be summed up in one simple sentence:
Drink plain, clear water when you're thirsty.
I highly recommend you read the book Waterlogged by Dr. Tim Noakes and listen to my interview on water intake with him if you want to really delve into the detailed studies and science behind how much water to drink (and also how we’ve been lied to and misled by faulty research into both water and electrolytes).
Ultimately, the take-away message is that electrolytes aren't going to hurt you, but they're not as crucial as you think…and excessive water intake can definitely hurt you so you should simply drink when you're thirsty. Experiment with any of this in training before you take it into something like a triathlon, ultrarun or marathon. You’ll be far more mentally confident if you do.
The Post Workout Fueling Myth
You may have noticed that I haven't talked too much about what to eat after your workout – and there's a reason for that.
It’s likely that you’ve seen somewhere the legend of a mystical, magical fueling window. From exercise books, magazine articles and websites to nearly every resource that exists on sports nutrition, you’ll commonly read that “after you finish a workout, you have 20-60 minutes to replace precious energy by consuming a mix carbohydrates and proteins”.
Here’s what they don’t tell you:
In every study or experiment that has investigated the benefit of immediate post-workout nutrition replacement, subjects were fed after completing an exercise session that they had performed in a fasted or semi-starves state.
In other words, of course you’re going to benefit if you eat a meal after a workout in which you were completely depleted of energy. But how many of us actually roll out of bed in the morning, hop on a bicycle, and ride hard for 90 minutes to 2 hours with absolutely no fuel?
So here’s the deal: if you’ve actually had a pre-workout meal, or any other recent meal, there’s no crucial, do-or-die need to eat after your workout – especially if you’re still “burping up” that meal you ate before your exercise session. This is especially true if you have no other workouts planned for the day, since your body is able to totally replenish energy levels within just 8 hours of normal hunger-driven, real-food eating. When combined with what you learned about the health, recovery and longevity benefits of fasting from the chapter 26 Top Ways To Recover From Workouts and Injuries with Lightning Speed, it simply makes sense to fret much less about post-workout nutrition than most of us do.
But it does make sense to fuel within that 20-60 minute window if you:
A) Haven’t had anything to eat before your workout and you’re in a totally energy depleted state (such as an early morning hard session before breakfast) and/or
B) You’re going to be working out again within the next 8 hours.
C) You're trying to pack on muscle as fast as possible (AKA eat every piece of real food in sight and lift heavy stuff).
In any of these cases, after your workout simply eat a big meal real food in the form of a smoothie or any of the quick and easy-to-digest meals from Chapter 11 and you'll be set. Contrary to popular belief, the fat content in these meals does not slow down amino acid or glucose absorption. Ideally, you can combine any of those meals with my comprehensive recovery tips in Chapter 8.
Finally, if you really want to geek out on the nitty-gritty, scientific details of this post-workout nutrition discussion, then you should check out the free Rock Star Triathlete Academy article “Putting the Pre & Post Workout Nutrition Debate Into The Grave” and also listen to my guest recording of the Podcast Episode #73 at David Warden’s Tri-Talk.
A Sample Ironman Race Day Fueling Protocol
Let's finish by applying everything that you've just learned to a sample fueling protocol for one of the most nutritionally confusing events on the face of the planet: the Ironman triathlon (incidentally, you can simply take bits and pieces of this approach and use it for a Half-Ironman, a marathon, etc.).
1) About two hours before the race eat a meal of 600-900 calories. You'll need to experiment with the actual amount in training. If you're eating low carb, this can be 12-16oz of Bulletproof Coffee, or 12-16oz Ketogenic Kale Shake, or 1-2 servings of UCAN Superstarch in coconut milk. For higher carbohydrate intake, eat a couple baked sweet potatoes or yams with sea salt, or 2 cups of cooked white rice. In either scenario, mix into these meals 1-2 tablespoons of MCT oil or coconut oil and for even more calories, 1-2 tablespoons of a cold-press plant-based oil such as Udo's Oil or Panaseeda Five Oil Blend. Also include 20-30 grams of a hydrolyzed whey protein (such as Mt. Capra's DEEP30 protein); 5-10 grams of essential amino acids (like Master Amino Acid Pattern) or 0-20 grams of a hydrolyzed collagen protein source (such as Great Lakes or Bernard Jensen). Once you mix all this together, it will form a thick, gel-like texture in your water bottle.
2) Drink plain, clear water from breakfast up until the swim start. If you want to include supplements, I recommend the protocol I outline in this blog post, which is comprised of a potent cocktail of d-Ribose, wild plant derivatives, Chinese Adaptogenic herbs and essential amino acids, which you consume 30-45 minutes prior to the swim start. That's totally optional, but I consider it to be better living through science.
3) On the bike, mixed into a downtube water bottle, consume for each hour the following: 1-2 servings Superstarch, 1-2 tablespoons MCT oil, and 5 grams of essential amino acids. Optionally, you can include one serving of X2Performance and VESPA every 2-3 hours on the bike. If you decide you're going to use electrolytes, also mix them into this same bottle (you can break open capsules if necessary). You should ideally have one bottle of this fuel mixed for the first half of the bike ride already on your bike's downtube, then the other half waiting for you at the special needs station for the race. Be sure to mix, stir or even blend your bottle's contents well and give it a good shake prior to each dosing, as the Superstarch tends to “clump”. Drink plain water when you're thirsty, from a separate bottle.
4) On the run, do exactly as you did on the bike, but instead use a running flask or fuel belt. I prefer the Nathan Sports Vapor Shot flask, which is very ergogenic and easy-to-hold. You can use one flask for the first half of the marathon and simply have another flask waiting for you in special needs for the second half of the marathon. Continue to drink water when thirsty, and optionally, continue to include one serving of X2Performance and VESPA every 2-3 hours (e.g. in bike-to-run transition and in special needs for run).
5) Cross the finish line with a smile on your face, free of gut-rot and much lower on AGE's and ROS's than you would have been if you'd been stuffing your face with simple sugars for the past day.
The strategy above is exactly what I personally use and recommend for the athletes I coach.
For details on the second strategy of real food plus light liquid, visit OsmoNutrition.com or SkratchLabs.com. Both websites lay that scenario out quite thoroughly, as does Allen Lim's book Feed Zone Portables.
Ultimately, by using the strategies outlined in this chapter, you're going to find a fueling scenario that works best for you and your unique body. When it comes to fueling your body for exercise, there is no one single right way to do things. Not all athletes can function well eating the exact same foods and food quantities because even our organs don’t look the same. The book, “The Atlas of Human Anatomy” illustrates that the human stomach has as many as 19 different shapes!
But just remember – your thought process and evaluation of what works well for you must ultimately go beyond simply what works well in the moment. As I mentioned in the beginning of this chapter, many athletes perform just fine on sugar, processed food and chemicals: however, that doesn't mean it's healthy.
If you strike the ideal balance between eating, health and performance, your body will thank you for years to come. And if you hop on the bandwagon and just eat what everyone else is eating because that's what seems to make people “fast”, you may find yourself wishing later on in life that you'd actually considered factors above and beyond performance. Go back and read the Tale of Two Triathletes to see what I mean.
Leave your questions about what to eat and what to avoid before, during and after your workouts and races, how to use real food vs. frankenfoods, when to eat solids and when to eat liquids, and how to use water and electrolytes below!
LINKS TO PREVIOUS CHAPTERS OF “BEYOND TRAINING: MASTERING ENDURANCE, HEALTH & LIFE”
Part 1 – Introduction
-Preface: Are Endurance Sports Unhealthy?
Part 2 – Training
–Chapter 4: Underground Training Tactics For Enhancing Endurance – Part 1
–Chapter 4: Underground Training Tactics For Enhancing Endurance – Part 2
–Chapter 5: The 5 Essential Elements of An Endurance Training Program That Most Athletes Neglect – Part 1: Strength
–Chapter 5: The 5 Essential Elements of An Endurance Training Program That Most Athletes Neglect – Part 2: Power & Speed
–Chapter 5: The 5 Essential Elements of An Endurance Training Program That Most Athletes Neglect – Part 3: Mobility
–Chapter 5: The 5 Essential Elements of An Endurance Training Program That Most Athletes Neglect – Part 4: Balance
Part 3 – Recovery
Part 4 – Nutrition
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