Energize-Fill 'er Up!
by Kim Brown, MS, RD
Do you find yourself fighting to get out on that early morning or post-work run due to a sense of fatigue? Every runner would like to have an endless supply of energy, never feeling the effects of lactic acid "burn" during an intense interval workout or the inevitable "wall" during a long run. While fatigue cannot be avoided completely, it can be significantly reduced with a proper training diet and potentially with certain nutritional supplements. Here are the 10 most common energy-draining nutrition mistakes I have encountered as a nutritionist along with some tips to help keep your energy levels at peak.
1: Insufficient calorie intake to meet training demands.
Because calories are a direct measure of the energy we receive from food, if we restrict calorie intake too much, our energy levels will decline. Think of calories as the fuel we put in our car's gas tank; without an adequate amount of gas, our car stalls. The same goes for our body.
Tip: If you train at least one hour per day, aim to consume 16-20 or more calories per pound of your body weight each day for weight maintenance and to promote optimal energy levels during the day.
2: Improper balance of carbohydrate, fat and protein.
While both carbohydrates and protein provide the same amount of calories per gram of food consumed, carbohydrates are what the body prefers since it is the only direct energy source for both the muscles and brain. Since the human body has a limited storage supply of carbohydrate, it is essential that each meal focuses on such carbohydrate-rich foods as whole grains, pasta, brown rice, high-fiber cereals, fruits, yams, corn, peas and beans.
Tip: At each meal, fill half your plate with fruits and vegetables; a quarter with starch, such as potatoes, brown rice, pasta or whole grains; and a quarter with protein-rich foods that will naturally give you some fat content, such as skinless chicken breast, eggs or cottage cheese. This converts to approximately 55-60% carbohydrate, 15-20% protein and 20-25% fat.
3: Restriction of certain types of food.
With restriction of any of the major food groups, you are bound to develop vitamin and mineral deficiencies that may alter energy levels and performance. If you restrict meat from your diet, you run a greater risk of getting too little iron. If you avoid dairy, you run a greater risk of getting too little calcium. If you avoid fruits and vegetables, you may develop deficiencies in folic acid and vitamins A and C. If you restrict your intake of starchy foods, you place yourself at heightened risk for a deficiency in some B-vitamins. And finally, if you restrict your intake of fat too much, you may diminish your ability to utilize such fat-soluble vitamins as vitamins A, D, E and K.
Tip: Try to consume at least six servings of starch; two servings of fruit; three servings of vegetables, three servings of dairy or dairy alternatives, six servings of meat or meat alternative and, in moderation, healthy fat from such sources as olives, avocado, nuts, flaxseed or canola oil.
4: Lack of fluid intake.
Dehydration is the number one performance inhibitor among runners, perhaps due to its dramatic effect on our energy levels. Because water is the medium for all metabolic activity, a lack of water will severely inhibit your ability to utilize food nutrients efficiently for energy.
Tip: To maintain hydration, aim at drinking 1/2 your body weight (in pounds) in fluid ounces each day. These fluids should not be caffeinated or carbonated. In addition, drink 16-24 ounces of fluid in the one to two hours prior to a run and another 5-12 ounces of fluid every 15-20 minutes during a run.
5: Erratic eating patterns.
If you're a meal skipper, especially breakfast, you will experience low blood sugar levels, which severely compromise your energy and increase your risk for infection and muscular injury during exercise.
Tip: Eat a small meal or snack containing both carbohydrate and protein every three to four hours. Make sure to start your day off with a well-balanced breakfast, such as a "power" oatmeal prepared with old-fashioned oats, low-fat granola, berries, nuts and low-fat milk and served with a glass of orange juice.
6: Excessive intake of carbohydrates with a high glycemic load.
Carbohydrates with a high glycemic load (sports drinks, energy gels, soda, plain bagels) cause our energy levels to rise and fall rather quickly.
Tip: Save your intake of carbohydrates with a high glycemic load for during and within 30 minutes after high intensity or training runs longer than 90 minutes. During the day, concentrate on carbohydrates with a low-to-moderate glycemic load such as whole-wheat pasta, brown rice or beans.
7: Excessive caffeine consumption.
If you're someone who needs that morning cup of java to get you going, you may want to reconsider. Continuous consumption of caffeinated beverages may actually zap energy. Consuming greater than 300 mg of caffeine (equal to 2 cups of coffee) seems to stimulate the hormone insulin, causing blood sugars and energy levels to drop.
Tip: Limit your caffeine consumption to no more than 300 mg per day.
8: Forgetting to eat before a long run.
If you don't eat carbohydrates prior to a long run, you will quickly deplete your glycogen stores and fatigue faster than if you ate a carbohydrate-rich meal prior to running.
Tip: Aim at consuming 1/2 gram of carbohydrate per pound of body weight for each hour prior to a long run. For example, a 150-pound runner needs approximately 75 grams of carbohydrate an hour before running. This would be equivalent to eating a large bagel and 1/2 cup juice or an energy bar and banana.
9: Consuming an inadequate amount of carbohydrate during long runs.
If you don't replace the carbohydrates depleted during a long run, you become less efficient at burning fat thereby depleting your glycogen stores and causing you to "hit the wall."
Tip: For every hour beyond the 60-90 minute mark of a long run, aim at consuming 1/2 your body weight in carbohydrates. For example, a 120-pound runner needs 60 grams of carbohydrates per hour, which can be supplied by consuming an energy gel with a sports drink every 30 minutes.
10: Poor food choices after a high-intensity workout.
Failure to consume a carbohydrate-rich food within 30 minutes after a high-intensity workout will significantly slow recovery, causing you to feel fatigued in upcoming workouts.
Tip: Within 30 minutes of finishing a high-intensity workout, aim at consuming 1/2 gram of carbohydrate and 1/8 gram of protein per pound of body weight. Sample recovery foods include low-fat chocolate milk, energy bars, peanut butter and banana sandwich, and fruit smoothies with a protein boost.
Calories, which can be derived from foods containing carbohydrates, fats and protein, are synonymous with energy and can be compared to the gasoline we put in our car's fuel tank. So remember to eat an adequate amount of calories, remembering to focus on our body's preferred source of fuel, carbohydrates. Don't neglect any one of the major food groups, as this may lead to vitamin and mineral deficiencies. Finally, remember to fuel yourself in three- to four-hour increments throughout the day, including a pre-workout snack before long runs as well as carbohydrate supplementation during long runs.
Fresh figsToasted MuesliLow-fat chocolate milkSweet potatoesFruit smoothie prepared with 1 cup strawberries, 1/2 cup soy milk, 1/2 cup nonfat vanilla yogurt and 1/2 cup orange juice Low-fat yogurt drizzled with honey crunch wheat germWhole wheat toast spread with natural peanut butterHandful of almonds mixed with dried cranberries Black bean burritoSoy nuts
Products on the market today boast energy-boosting ingredients. Weive broken down some of the science behind these nutrients.
B-Vitamins.Unless an athlete is nutritionally deficient, taking additional amounts of B-vitamins (important for the metabolism of carbohydrate, fat and protein) will not increase energy levels.
Ginseng.Ginseng, which appears in several forms (Chinese, American or Siberian ginseng), has been promoted for energy and mental alertness due to its effect on the central nerve system based on research studies. Unfortunately, the dose of ginseng given in research settings is much higher than the doses found in energy drinks.
L-Carnitine.Carnitine, an amino acid found in such animal foods as red meat, plays a role in the metabolism of fat. Scientists purported that increased usage of fat would help spare glycogen, thereby prolonging time to fatigue during endurance exercise.
Guarana.Often called the "herbal" caffeine and found in herbal beverages and teas, guarana should be used in moderation. Excessive amounts of guarana, just like caffeine, can lead to withdrawal symptoms, including fatigue.
Bee Pollen.Often referred to as "nature's most complete food" due to the high concentration of protein (amino acids), vitamins, minerals, fatty acids and carbohyhdrates it contains. Bee pollen is known for its ability to increase energy levels.
Kimberly J. Brown, MS, RD, is a Registered Sports Dietitian and competitive endurance athlete who provides nutritional counseling and meal planning to athletes worldwide. You can contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org