Wondering what nutrition your body needs when your focus is on endurance activities like running or cycling? Here is how carbs, liquids and protein form the big picture.
Who This Article Is For
This article is for the recreational athlete who likes to do well at his runs or other cardio activities, but is not (yet) on the level of those who go for a half-marathon, or, by Jupiter, a full marathon.
Nutrition requirements for endurance sports in that arena require planning that is complete overkill for those whose goals are more centered around the idea of doing a good 5k.
Carbs, Carbs, Carbs
That out of the way, it simply is like this: the faster you run, the more carbs (scientifically spoken, glucose and glycogen) your body burns. At very high intensities, almost 90% of all the energy used comes from carbs, while the use of fat and protein will have almost been entirely shut down. The faster you plan on running, the more important carbohydrates become, but even if you run for longer stretches and at lower intensities, some carbs are still being burned, so having carbs around is generally a good idea.
This can easily be achieved through whole grain breads, cereals, rice, pasta, pulses and others. All these are complex carbohydrates, which release their energy more slowly than simple carbohydrates (for a detailed explanation of the two, see this article).
But keep in mind that it is not enough to simply load up on carbs a couple of hours before your exercise. It is, as so often, the total picture that counts: if you starve your body the entire day for some carbs, that one pre-workout meal containing them won't be enough to bring your blood sugar level to normal again. Brutally pushing your blood glucose back up through the use of supplements sometimes is even worse.
Eat at regular intevals and make sure that most of your meals come with some carbohydrates.
I'm not telling you anything new when saying that hydration is essential during endurance exercises. If you are well-hydrated, as in not thirsty, and your exercise bout lasts up to 30 minutes, you don't have to make any special preparations. Just make sure you drink afterwards until you feel you quenched your thirst.
Things only get hairier if you run for longer or in hotter climates. If either is the case, have an extra glass of water before your run or carry a bottle with you to replenish lost liquid.
Many people who are into endurance activities like running or cycling don't realize that protein is not an exclusive territory for bodybuilders and other members of the muscle crowd. Runners need protein as well, simply as part of a healthy nutrition, but also because it helps repair damaged muscles. Some research even concludes that protein requirements for endurance athletes are higher than for strength athletes.
In my opinion it is advisable to stay somewhere between 0.4 to 1 g of protein per lb of body weight (or 0.8 - 2 g per kg), which is the same recommendation I gave for protein when strength training, and experiment a bit. The required amount is open for discussion and you may want to find out how much works best for you. Your basic nutrition staple, in any case, should be carbohydrates.
As for protein sources, once more the same goes here as for strength training: protein shakes and powders are a crutch. Food sources work just as well, if not better, as they give your body not only protein, but also vitamins, fiber and phytonutrients.
Taking No Hostages
Last but not least, don't eat right before a run. Let there be two hours between your meal and the session. Otherwise you might find yourself in a ditch, negotiating the hostage situation your breakfast pancakes feel they are in.
Picture courtesy of Celso Flores.