Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Nutrition for Endurance Athletes

This past Saturday, I was hanging out at a party with a bunch of ultra runners.  Many of those who were there have years of ultra experience and have done numerous 100 mile races. At one point, the conversation turned to nutrition. As I'm still pretty new at this ultra running thing, I just listened. People were saying that it is really important what you put into your body; one of them even said that running a hundred miles is all about nutrition and hydration. And people were talking about what works for them - their system. I know that Scott Jurek and Dean Karnazes both are very careful about what they eat. At some point during the party, it dawned on me that I have not been doing all I can with my nutrition. 

Yes, I know about calorie intake and expenditure. I know about when to eat carbs and proteins and when not to. But, beyond that, I'm clueless. I have no system. I know I can do better with putting only the best foods into my body. "You are what you eat." Beyond weight control and body fat percentage, there is a lot more to proper nutrition than I know.

Ultra running pushes the body to its limits, as automotive sport pushes the car to its limits. As the speed of the car increases, the engine requires the best grade of fuel to keep functioning properly. In the same way, running a hundred miles necessitates the body to need the best fuel it can get. When you only run a few miles a week, you can get good results even with sub-optimal nutrition. But, when you run several hundred miles a week, you need the absolute best nutrition. Putting it another way, sub-optimal nutrition really shows up when you demand more and more from your body. You must give your body the best fuels if you expect it to perform up to the increasing requirements of ultra running.

To be sure, to get faster and more fit, there is no substitute for following a well structured training regime with strict discipline. Discipline is not a problem for me. I have the mental will and the time for training. I'll train 8 hours a day if my body can handle it. 

Here's what has been happening to me. I am looking forward to a great 2008 season. I got back to training last December after my AC100 in September, and have been slowly increasing my weekly mileage. I am up to about 90 miles and have been unable to go beyond 100 miles. It seems that I'm hitting a wall in terms of fatigue and recovery. My body is just not up to it. Yet, I know people older than me who easily runs more than 100 miles a week, some even up to 120 to 140 miles. Two years ago, some one I know ran a 100 mile race every weekend for 4 consecutive weeks. How do they do it? I needed 2 months to recover from just one 100 miler.

It made good sense to me that my nutrition was standing in the way of my performance. So, I said, "that's it, I'm gonna eat the best foods I can." So, immediately, I went on to the Internet to search for information on sports nutrition for endurance athletes. After about 12 hours of research, I learned a whole lot about what are good foods and what the endurance athlete's body needs for optimum performance. I proceeded to compiled a list of foods that I eat on a regular basis and what minerals and nutrients they contained. 

I knew that I didn't eat very badly. I ate a lot of fresh fruits, bagels, brown rice, fish, poultry, lean meats, soy sauce, and some vegetables. There's no need for change here. But, I never paid attention to things like calcium, iron, magnesium, potassium, selenium, zinc, glutamate, vitamin E, and antioxidants. According to my research, these nutrient and mineral deficiencies are detrimental to performance each in its own way. I also learned about new foods that are good for the body. So, to this list I added foods like, skim milk, soy milk, lentils and other beans, brussel sprouts, kale, spinach, brazil nuts, sunflower seeds, pumpkin seeds, tofu, almonds, walnuts, whole wheat pastas and breads, and quinoa.

From my complied list, I immediately noticed that from the foods which I have been eating, in the quantities which provided enough calories, I lacked protein and many of the minerals. This could explain why I was hitting a wall in terms of fatigue and recovery. So, immediately, I took my new food list and constructed a well balanced menu. And, even from this new food list, I could not get enough magnesium and zinc in the amount of calories I wanted. So, I'm adding supplements to my diet. Generally, I rather get what my body needs from natural foods than from dietary supplements.  

I've already gone grocery shopping and bought things I've never eaten much before. Today was the first day I've followed the new menu. I'm sure that more adjustments to my nutrition will take place in the near future. And that I will learn more about it and discover more food that are good for me and that I like to eat. It makes me feel good that I'm putting good quality and quantity of "fuel" into my "tank". 

This is sort of an ongoing experiment, if things, good or bad, happen.  I'll report back.

Happy trails!


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