Original article was published here
From the author of Sweat. Think. Go Faster
It’s important to understand there’s no such thing as an expert when it comes to sports nutrition. There are just too many variables to consider and unfortunately for athletes there’s no one perfect plan that will suit everybody. As an athlete you need to find what works best for you through experimentation, experience and assessment. Here’s a checklist of things to think about.
1) Knowing Your Numbers
Before you can even decide which sports nutrition products are best suited to your needs, you have to have an understanding of what your losses are. Specifically, your sweat rate in varying conditions, the sodium concentration of your sweat and your calorie expenditure. Too often athletes guess about what they need, or just hope for the best. Once you know your sweat rate, the sodium concentration of your sweat and your calorie expenditure, you’ll know the amounts of fluid, sodium and calories you need to access to compete at your best. I mention above – sweat rate in varying conditions – for the simple reason that your sweat rate will change based on the environmental conditions and your need for fluid will change based on the environmental conditions you are experiencing at the time. If you compete regularly it’s likely that you will experience varying conditions and for this very reason you should have some understanding of what your fluid requirements are in these varying conditions so you can adjust your intake accordingly. You can’t just plan a set volume of fluid for every race and expect that it will suit all conditions. Find out here how to get your numbers.
2) Refined, Processed Sugar
The stomach has a huge bearing on how you perform during activity and not every athlete’s stomach will tolerate the same type, volume or concentration of ingredients. Working with athletes over the years to eliminate stomach issues and solve muscle cramping, I’ve discovered that certain ingredients can be consumed by athletes without causing any issue, but for others, they result in terrible stomach issues, including painful cramping to uncontrollable diarrhea and vomiting. For the athletes I’ve worked with, the most common cause of stomach issues has been refined processed sugar, whether that be the crystalline form of sucrose or fructose, and the most common source of processed sugar for athletes on race day is some brands of energy gels and most powdered sports drinks. Not sure of the mechanism behind why some athletes tolerance to these heavily processed crystalline sugars is worse than others, but it certainly drives home the importance of providing the body a clean fuel (not heavily processed, or altered) that the stomach is more likely to recognise with less likelihood of causing stomach problems.
3) Low sensory impact
This is a very important consideration when choosing your sports nutrition products, given the stomach and digestive system are under a lot more stress during activity than they are at rest. Senses are heightened during activity and anything mildly irritating at rest will be compounded at high heart rate. You need to trial in training the very products you intend using during competition and be sure to test these products at the intensity you intend competing at. Is the taste pleasing to the palate? Is it a smooth consistency, not tacky and thick? Does it irritate the back of your throat? Are there any signs of stomach discomfort? Take note of your experience with the particular product in training, learning what works best for you so you can limit any issues during competition. Best practice is to read the ingredients and take note of whether there is a particular ingredient that maybe causing a problem. Stomach problems don’t have to part of your endurance racing, learning more about your stomach and what it can tolerate per hour without compromising it will give you confidence going into an event and less likely to be slowed down or sidelined with stomach problems.
4) Energy to Volume ratio
When choosing your calorie source, you need to be very mindful that the stomach has limitations as to the volume of fluid it can tolerate per hour and the amount of calories the stomach can process per hour. There is a ceiling, and if you go beyond your stomach’s limitation, you will compromise your stomach and this will slow you down. Energy to volume ratio is the amount of calories (energy) compared to the size or volume of the fuel. Using this simple calculation, you can estimate what volume your stomach will have to tolerate based on the amount of calories you require per hour. How many calories do you need per hour? That will be based on your calorie expenditure per hour. If you can reduce the volume and still get the same amount of calories, this will effectively take pressure off the stomach, which may allow you to take on a greater amount of calories than you had previously. If you rely on calories in your drink you are having to consume a large volume of fluid for your calories, which can compromise the stomach, particularly in cooler conditions when the need for fluid is not as crucial. Which leads me to point number five.
5) Bridging the gap
My definition of sports nutrition is bridging the gap as best you can between how much you are losing and how much your stomach can tolerate. In regard to your calorie intake, going back to energy to volume ratio, when you have an understanding of your calorie expenditure per hour, say for example 850 calories per hour, you can then practice in training how many calories per hour your stomach can tolerate. Having trialed calorie intake on athletes over many years, the maximum amount of calories the stomach can tolerate per hour over an extended period of time is around 350 calories per hour. Your current calorie intake may be spot on for your needs and your stomach’s tolerance, but it’s worth finding out in training whether you are able to take on more and be better able to bridge the gap between your losses and your stomach’s tolerance. For some of you the gap between your calorie expenditure and calorie intake is quite large and no matter how great your fat burning capabilities are it will never provide enough fuel to bridge the gap between expenditure and intake. The best you can do from a fatigue management perspective is to learn the maximum amount of calories your stomach can tolerate per hour having energy to volume ratio in mind.
In regard to your fluid requirements, you will have different losses to someone else, regardless whether you are similarly conditioned. Bridging the gap for fluid has greater consequence in hot/humid conditions as losses will always be greater and minimising percentage of loss is the key to a sound hydration strategy in these types of conditions. Check out, if you haven’t already, ‘Do you have the numbers for competing in the heat’ where I discuss the different sweat rates and varying sodium concentrations in sweat. Please note that in cold conditions, your sweat rate and the accumulative loss of sodium will not be as much and athletes, especially the ones with a low sweat rate, need to be mindful not to drink beyond what they require, because drinking beyond what you require will compromise the stomach and slow you down. It’s worth remembering that your calorie intake will not change, regardless of the weather conditions – How you can avoid a basic mistake with your sports nutrition.
6) Thermic Effect
Thermic effect is the amount of energy required to metabolise a food. This is a very important consideration for athletes during competition, where you want as much energy as possible available to support brain and muscle function and not be wasted on the processing of calories. I discuss this in a lot more detail in my book Sweat. Think. Go Faster and it’s something that’s not generally discussed in the sports nutrition field but it was a huge consideration when developing products for athletes. Utilising sports nutrition products that use ingredients and formulas that require the least amount of energy to metabolise should be on the list when factoring in your choice of nutrition.
7) Customising and Adapting
I go into detail regarding customising and adapting in – How you can avoid a basic mistake with your sports nutrition. If you want to avoid stomach problems or solve muscle cramping, you need to shift away from the one-size fits all powdered drinks and remove the calories from your fluid. This allows you to customise your hydration to suit your individual needs and adapt the volume of fluid you require per hour based on the environmental conditions at the time. Don’t lock yourself into a set volume of fluid. More info here >>
8) Drinking Water with Sodium
While drinking plain water during competition may be suitable for some athletes in cool conditions, it’s something you want to be very mindful of in hot/humid conditions. This advise will be a lot more important for those of you that have a high accumulative loss of sodium, especially as temperatures increase. Drinking plain water dilutes the sodium concentration of your blood. Some athletes I’ve worked with can lose upwards of 4000 – 5000 mg of sodium per hour in hot conditions, and combined with drinking plain water, it can put you at risk of hyponatremia, which apart from slowing you down, can put you in hospital or worse. Hydration is very specific to each athlete and if you take your sport seriously having an understanding of what your sweat rate is in varying conditions and the sodium concentration of that sweat is paramount for planning a hydration strategy that will suit your unique physiological makeup. You can’t rely on what someone else does.
9) Learning Your Stomach’s Limitation
Having a sound understanding of what your stomach can tolerate is key to nailing your nutrition on race day, regardless of the environmental conditions. Do you practice your competition day nutrition strategy in training? Do you know the maximum volume of fluid your stomach can tolerate per hour in varying conditions? Are there certain ingredients that don’t agree with your stomach? Do you think stomach issues and muscle cramping are just part of endurance sport? They don’t need to be. Every athlete I’ve worked with has learnt that stomach problems and muscle cramping can be fixed by following some simple rules. You spend an enormous amount of time, effort and money on performing at your best; you need to put some of that time and effort into planning and testing your nutrition strategy.
Learning in training whether you have a heightened response to a particular ingredient is a great idea, because finding out during an event can ruin your day.
Know your numbers, learn more about your stomach, then customise and adapt so you can bridge the gap.
Get the book Sweat. Think. Go Faster at www.thinkgofaster.com