Nutrition tips to fuel your work-out!

By Ellen McDonell, ND and Julie Ennis, PhD. 

Don’t I need more carbs?  Do I need sports drinks or electrolyte replacement?  What about beet root juice, and coffee… I heard those improve athletic performance? 

Photo by Geronimo Giqueaux on Unsplash

We hate to break it to you, but for most people nutrition doesn’t need to change to compensate for exercise.

Many people eat more when they exercise, and this is one reason why exercise plays a small role in weight loss.(1) This is known as compensatory eating, and often results in people eating more calories than they burn, and therefore gaining weight. The sports drink, gel and bar industry have done a great job of making consumers believe we need these products when exercising. There certainly is a time and place for using such products, but not for the typical recreational runner.

The information discussed below is appropriate for a recreational athlete exercising for fitness, and engaging in an occasional race shorter than a marathon. Individuals competing at a high level, engaging in distances longer than a half-marathon or with medical conditions (such as diabetes, heart conditions, or active cancer) are encouraged to seek individual nutrition counseling from a naturopathic doctor (ND), registered dietician (RD), or medical doctor (MD) with training in sports medicine, or their specific health condition. 

Don’t I need more carbs? Won’t I “hit the wall?”

“Hitting the wall” is a phenomenon that occurs when glycogen stores are depleted. Glycogen is how our body stores sugar (glucose).  Sugar comes from carbohydrates in our diet (grains, fruit and sugar-filled treats). Generally speaking, it takes about 2 hours at a race-pace effort (meaning high intensity) to deplete muscle glycogen.  Therefore, if you are exercising for less than 2 hours, or exercising at a lower intensity (walking, hiking) it is unlikely that you will need to think about “carb loading” as you won’t deplete your glycogen stores anyway. Consume a balanced, healthy diet and that will likely suffice. Fruits, starchy vegetables (such as sweet potatoes, carrots, beets and corn), and whole grains provide all the carbohydrates the typical person needs.

What is a “balanced diet”?

This is a big topic, and beyond the scope of this blog post! If you are unsure of how to eat a healthy diet, we recommend you see a naturopathic doctor or registered dietician for more detailed and specific information. In general, a healthy diet will be rich in vegetables and fruit (minimum of 5 servings/day!), protein from animal and plant sources, healthy fats such as avocados, olive oil, nuts and seeds, and can include dairy such as yoghurt, kefir and milk.  A healthy diet will be low in processed food, added sugar, trans fats and will not be excessive in calories.  These are the same principles that apply even if you are exercising or training.

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Do I need sports drinks or electrolyte replacement?

See the chart below to help you decide if these will be necessary. Sports drinks are generally electrolytes + sugar, whereas electrolyte replacement drinks generally don’t have the added sugar. Electrolytes are minerals in our body that play an important role in the functioning of all our major organ systems.  Electrolytes are lost in sweat and therefore may need to be replaced if you are sweating a lot. The most common electrolytes are calcium, chlorine, magnesium, phosphorous, potassium and sodium. The latter two are the ones most important to consider during exercise, as they are the most likely to get off kilter. For activities lasting an hour or less, electrolyte imbalances are very rare, and generally you only have to start considering electrolyte replacement in activities of a moderate to vigorous intensity for over 1 hour. How much you sweat will play a big role, more sweat means more electrolytes lost.  Sports drinks and electrolyte replacement tablets can be purchased at any running or athletic store, you can also make homemade electrolyte replacement drinks – see the recipe below.

What about beet root juice, and coffee… I heard those improve athletic performance?

There is a lot that can be done with nutrition to optimize performance, but that will not be discussed in this post as that goes beyond the basic information needed for someone exercising for health. Athletes training in a more competitive manner may use certain foods, nutrients or herbs to enhance athletic abilities. Some of these have research to support their use, but should be discussed with a qualified expert in the area.  

Some basic guidelines

Note: These guidelines (2) are for moderate-intense exercise such as running. For walking, these suggestions can be more lax and based more on how you feel. 

These are basic guidelines, and will vary based on temperature, humidity, and how hard you are working. Check the temperature, ensure you are hydrated before heading out, and listen to your body. For many people, adding some fuel and hydration during an event is an important mental boost to get them to the finish line. The mental side of long distance running can’t be ignored so if this is something that you feel will help you, we say go for it! Just be aware of the number of calories that you are consuming during the run and don’t fall into the trap of compensatory eating.    

Photo by Victor Freitas on Unsplash

Some additional tips for endurance running!

  • Check out where water fountains are around the city so you can plan your run to pass by a few.
  • Run with a partner or bring a phone if you are going for longer distances in case you need help (or an Uber!), and some cash or credit card in case you need to pop into a store.
  • Don’t change anything race-day! If you’ve never had a sports gel before, mid-way through the race is not the time to try it! You may find yourself running to the port-a-potty, or struggling with muscle cramps.
  • Most importantly, listen to your body. If you are thirsty, drink. If you are hungry, have a snack. If you are dizzy, light headed or uncomfortably hot, have a seat, find some shade, drink some fluids and get some help!

Homemade “sports drink” recipe

Consider if you are running for more than 1 hour

  • 1 liter of water
  • ¼ tsp salt
  • 2 tablespoons honey or maple syrup
  • Juice of ½ an orange or lemon

Nutritional information: 

(note: this will vary slightly as real food can have slight variations in nutrient content)

  • Carbohydrate: 35g
  • Sugar – 35g
  • Sodium: 600mg
  • Potassium 150mg

What do Ellen and Julie do to prep for training and racing? 

Since we’ve both been running and engaging in endurance sports for quite some time, we have figured out what works best for our bodies and  suggest you do the same. Trial and error is the only way to figure it out.

 Dr. Ellen McDonell, ND

  • I usually run first thing in the morning. If my run is 1 hour or less, I don’t eat before. 
    I have 1- 2 glasses of water, sometimes a black coffee and head out. After my run I have
    my regular breakfast and a couple more glasses of water.
  • For runs 60-90 minutes, I usually have ½ banana with 1 Tbsp almond butter (150 calories, 15g carb, 7g sugar, 9g fat, 3g protein), 1-2 glasses of water and a black coffee. Depending on the weather, I may or may not bring water with me.
  • If my run is longer than 90 minutes, I have the same pre-run snack, but bring a sports gel with me to have half way through, and water.
  • Race morning, since I will be up earlier and have more time for food to digest, I usually have a piece of toast with almond butter and banana, water and coffee. 
  • After long runs, I also focus on hydrating properly the rest of the day. Keep water handy so you don’t end up dehydrating yourself.

Dr. Julie Ennis, PhD 

  • Like Ellen, I often run first thing in the morning and we have pretty similar morning routines.
  • This year I started run commuting from work once in a while so had to get used to running at a different time of day. This usually takes about 40-60 minutes depending on the route. I found that my usual afternoon snack of a banana or apple, a handful of mixed nuts, a coffee and glass of water didn`t need to be adjusted to support this run. When I get home, I have 1-2 glasses of water and my usual dinner.
  • I’ll admit it; I am a pretty heavy sweater while running so I pay close attention to my hydration during training. I carry water with me for runs over 60 minutes (especially in the summer) or have at least one planned stop at a water fountain.  For runs over 90 minutes, I carry both water and a sports drink. I also try to make sure that I stay well hydrated throughout the day.
  • I always carry a gel or chews for runs over 90 minutes. I have experimented with different sports gels and chews and have found a couple that agree well with me and a few that really did not. I was very glad to have done this experimenting before race day.
  • The Ottawa Race weekend 10k will be my first time with a race in the evening.  I plan to experiment with some different meal options over the next couple of weeks to make sure to find something light and easy to digest that will work well for me.