In the world of racing efficiency is everything, the most efficient gear, the best shoes, a plan for how things need to go. Right? But efficiency can only take you as far as your body allows you to go. We’ve recently discussed the many benefits of proper hydration and the positive performance boost you can see when doing so correctly, and that brings us to the other thing that can drastically increase or hinder your performance depending on the steps you take, and that is your nutrition intake. Consuming your calories through one way or another at the right time is crucial to performing at peak levels. In a situation where every second counts, nutrition can be the make or break factor in achieving your race goals.
How do we get our calories?
There are a few different ways that we get our calories, we can eat them or drink them which is simply consuming food on the go, the second way is through stored carbohydrates. Carbohydrates are stored in the form of glycogen in both the muscles and the liver. Every person has the ability (depending on the person) to store 2-3 hours of of carbohydrates. The third source of calories is converting fat to glycogen, most people have unlimited sources of fat to convert to glycogen.
What does it mean to “hit the wall”?
Might sound pretty self-explanatory but there actually is a scientific reason why your body hits the wall. This is a classic term which is the point where your body runs out of stored carbohydrates in the muscles and in the liver. We typically burn between 500-1000 calories per hour and that depends upon how much you weigh and the intensity of the activity you are doing. The more you weigh, the more calories you need, the higher the intensity, you guessed it, the more calories you need. If you are burning 500-1000 calories per hour and your body only stores 2-3 hours of energy, what happens when you run out of calories? You hit the wall, which is the point where your body is forced to burn fat to create a fuel source. You’ve ran out of everything available to convert so that is what the body resorts to doing. Now, the problem with converting fat to glycogen is that it is a longer process and it can only deliver energy so fast which causes your body to slow down.
How do we counteract hitting the wall?
So the way to prevent hitting the wall is simple, we eat or drink our calories while on the go to prevent our body from running out. Athletes can consume 200-400 calories per hour while racing (ideally) and most gel packets are typically 100 calories. This depends on what you are consuming of course; gels or simple carbohydrates are so popular because they convert to fuel much faster. People can choose to eat or drink their calories, I prefer to use gels or solid foods because I can regulate my calorie intake, I set a timer and every 20 minutes I can eat 100 more calories which will total out to approximately 300 or so (depending on how much I eat) calories per hour.
What is a sweet stomach?
So what I have found with gels is that when you eat something your body releases stomach acid to help digest the food. When you are only consuming gels which burn off very quickly, often times you are left with stomach acid. When this happens we call it a sweet stomach. There are a few remedies for this that I have found to help; the first one is to eat some source of fat so that it coats the inside of your stomach to prevent the acid from having direct contact with your stomach lining. For me, the trick is cashews. The second thing that helps with a sweet stomach is salt. This is why when you go into an aid station they have things like Pringles chips, tortilla chips, and salty chicken broth and other things like that. So my tip to deal with a sweet stomach is every hour while I am consuming my gels, I will eat a handful of cashews and use salt packets from a restaurant to just have on me and eat a fingertip full every so often. The peanuts or salty cashews give you a good source of calories, salt, and fat as well. Remember, that energy is coming in the source of fat which takes longer to convert than sugars do, so keep in mind that the effect is more long term for settling the stomach and should not be the primary source of nutrition intake during a race scenario. The point that someone gets a sweet stomach during a race really depends on the person. Between 4-7 hours is typically when you begin to feel sick, so the last thing I do is every hour I eat a couple of Tums to help with the stomach acid as well. When someone is serious about racing I feel it is critical to not only regulate their fluids, but regulate their calories. For me, it is 300 calories per hour and I can race pretty well off that, someone else might have a slightly different sweet spot but that information is crucial to know prior to the race.
When do I begin to consume calories in a race scenario?
Nutritional intake during a race is very much the same as hydration intake. If you wait till you are thirsty than it is already too late, the same is true with calorie intake. This is why I recommend that right at the start of the race count up every 20 minutes and eat some calories to maintain proper sugar levels so that your body can continue to produce energy and you can race at the right level. If you are competitive the last thing you want to do is hit the wall and slow down and have to try and bounce out of that all the while maintaining a good position in the race. The other thing that works really well for me is a Prerace food strategy, 30 minutes before the gun goes off I am already preparing my body to race by sipping a small amount of water and eating a packet of gel, then again right before the gun goes off I will eat my second packet of gel. What that does for you is when the gun goes off you have proper sugar levels and you are ready to race, I do this for any race of any length. I hear often times especially in ultra runners that it takes them 5-6 miles sometimes to even feel like they are warmed up or awake. If you are running a marathon you simply don’t have the luxury of not being in top shape stepping up to the line.
Nutrition and hydration are very critical in race scenarios and to be competitive you must have a plan for when and how you consume the things you need to consume. There are many more things that go into proper nutrition and in the near future we will discuss how the body can properly convert fat to fuel in a process called Ketosis. What are some of your race rituals? How do you maintain proper energy levels and more importantly what are some of your favorite race snacks?
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