Runner, walker, cyclist, swimmer… no matter the discipline, it takes energy to make us go. Like any engine, we want to strike that balance between having enough fuel on board to get to our destination, but not too much to slow us down. You know your body best, but as a general rule for any run or race longer than a 10k, you probably need to refuel somewhere along the way. And let’s face it; no one wants to find themselves on empty running these hills around Charlotte.
Every athlete has their favorite goo, potion, bar, or energy gel. But what’s in this stuff? Generally, quick carbs, or sugars — like glucose (often maltodextrin from a plant starch), and fructose (also from plants, absorbed more slowly than glucose) — and a touch of electrolytes. Sugars are great for quick energy, but knowing when to eat them and how much to eat is a science on their own. Electrolytes are the salts that let them do their work.
“In general, carbohydrate intake should increase as the duration of the exercise increases,” says Registered Dietitian Matt Dengler of RxRD Nutrition. “Consuming carbohydrates isn’t necessary during exercise lasting less than 30 minutes. During sustained, high-intensity exercise lasting 30-75 minutes, consuming small amounts of single or multiple transportable carbohydrates may enhance performance.”
Unlike carb intake in the days and weeks before a longer run, workout, or race, carbs in gels don’t depend on our body weight. Dengler suggests 30g per hour for activities lasting 1-2 hours, and 60g per hour for exercise lasting 2-3 hours. The salts in electrolytes help your muscles convert the sugar, but keep in mind you’ll need to hydrate to make that happen — so don’t forget to feed your thirst to boost your energy.
Read the labels if you’re not sure what you’re getting, or if you prefer more natural ingredients compared to the highly-processed sugars found in many gels.
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In addition, proteins are an important part of muscle rebuilding, but their place in training is generally thought to be for several hours before or quickly (1-2 hours) after workouts to avoid stomach problems. They’re not an energy source compared to carbs, but protein + carb snacks + hydration can be helpful for ultra distance events, and for rebounding from hard workouts and races.
“Protein helps you recover quicker,” says Jamey Yon, a 22-time Ironman competitor, coach, and nutrition product developer. “You need it throughout the day because it absorbs slowly.”
Yon’s search for fuels to maintain a healthy balance during his endurance events led him to invent Yon Bons, which are a combination of carbs, proteins, and healthy fats. The three elements are mixed in a 50/25/25 percent ration, respectively — a higher protein count than found in most energy bars. Yon uses nut butters, which he likes for its high protein content per gram, and other natural ingredients.
“It teaches body to go longer on less, and burn fat for fuel,” says Yon. A healthy training diet with a healthy balance of foods prepares your body for a great event, but proper hydration and snacking for long race days will give you the endurance you need, he says.
The proper balance for any individual runner depends on the runner, however. Experiment with what works for you in the weeks and months before your race — of course — and not the day of. But doing a little reading (labels) and math (combinations) as part of training can equal top performance.