Primary Nutrients
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Primary Nutrients

by Super Dave, Industry Expert

There are four substances that the body requires in large quantities in order to function properly. These four substances are: carbohydrates, fats, proteins and water. These are called the primary nutrients.


Why are carbohydrates so important? Here's the easy one-word answer: Energy! Carbs, as they're affectionately called, provide a steady stream of energy. So why not just pig out on carbs? Bad idea. The body can store energy from carbs, but only in small amounts (think of a storage unit versus a warehouse). These small amounts are used up quickly during exercise. After a quick jolt, you're running on empty. And you can't overload that storage unit either becasue the body punishes you by turning the excess carbs to fat! The trick is to store energy by eating carbs on a continuous basis. Experienced runners eat the right carbs in the right amounts at the right times! Carbohydrates are also known as sugars. Experts recommend that your diet consist of 50 to 70% carbohydrates. The standard unit for the energy your body uses is the calorie. Each gram of carbohydrate provides 4 calories. Got all that? Be ready for a pop quiz at any time! Now, to continue-carbohydrates are either simple or complex.

Simple carbohydrates

Simple carbohydrates are the most basic form of sugar. Examples of foods containing simple carbohydrates are candy, fruit and sodas. These foods can provide a quick "shot" of energy-but it's only temporary. For this reason, you should keep those simple carbohydrate snacks, like grandma's homemade fudge, to a minimum. But feel free to enjoy a treat now and then, especially after a good run.

Complex carbohydrates

Complex carbohydrates provide energy on a more consistent, long-term basis. That's why experts recommend that the majority of the calories you get from carbohydrates be in the form of complex carbohydrates. Foods that are high in complex carbohydrates include cereals, pasta, breads, rice, and potatoes and vegetables. It's important that you maintain a diet high in complex carbohydrates to support your running program.


Fats, in general, get a bum rap. There's a lot of confusion about how much fat is healthy in your diet and the type of fat you should be eating. So here's the scoop-your body needs fat. The problem is that fat is strongly linked to heart disease and other medical problems. More scoop-not all fats are created equal. They're all okay in limited amounts, but some are more okay than others. Fats are classified as (1) saturated, (2) poly-unsaturated and (3) mono-unsaturated.

Saturated fats

Saturated fats are easy to spot because they remain solid at room temperature. Common examples include lard, butter and cheese. These fats are required by the body in small amounts and should be a small part of your overall fat intake.

Poly-unsaturated fat

These fats stay semi-solid at room temperature. Many margarine and butter alternatives are made with poly-unsaturated fats.

Mono-unsaturated fat

Mono-unsaturated fats are liquid at room temperature. Examples include olive oil and most other natural oils. Some foods containing mono-unsaturated fats have been "hydrogenated." Don't ask what that means but it's not good. Just avoid them! Recent studies have shown that diets with a higher proportion of mono-unsaturates seem to reduce risk of heart disease. As a result, you should obtain 20 to 30% of your daily calories from fats-with more from mono-unsaturated than from the other two. All excess fat in your diet is stored in your body as..? You guessed it - fat!

What does "low-fat" mean?

Low-fat foods are foods in which 30% or fewer of the calories in a serving are from fat. Yeah, that's a head-scratcher, huh? To figure it out, read the nutrition label on the package. First, find the total number of calories in a serving. Second, find total number of calories from fat. If the second number is 30% of the first (or less) you've got low-fat! That doesn't mean you can go on a low-fat binge! You lose weight by eating fewer calories than you burn. Fats contain humongous amounts of calories-9 per gram! When you eat less fat, you reduce a risk factor for disease, but it's no guarantee you'll lose weight. The key is to look at your diet as a whole, and find out where those calories are coming from. And don't forget that the amount of exercise you get is just as important as what you eat.


As you exercise and eat right, you'll feel your body getting stronger. Why? Because of the protein you eat. Protein builds strength in your muscles and tendons, and helps them stay healthy. It also provides energy-4 calories per gram. Meats, eggs, beans and nuts are common examples of foods that contain significant amounts of protein. Experts agree that runners need 10 to 20% of their daily calories from protein. However, most people eat two to three times their protein requirement each day! So many burgers, so little time!


Like the surface of planet earth, your body is mostly water-between 60 and 70%. Although water does not provide any energy (or calories), your body requires large amounts of H2O in order to function properly. Water regulates the core temperature of your body. As you run, your working muscles produce large amounts of heat that must be dissipated to prevent the core temperature from rising dangerously. To dissipate this heat, your body perspires, and loses large amounts of water. As a runner, you should consistently hydrate yourself during both warm and cold weather, so that you never become thirsty. By the time your thirst mechanism is activated, your body is already suffering from dehydration-hurting your running and putting you at risk. You know you're drinking enough water if you urinate about once an hour and your urine is clear. So-gurgle gurgle-drink lots of water, okay?

The Golden Rule of Fluid Intake: By the time you're thirsty, it's too late!

A reduction of only 2% of your body weight through fluid loss can impact performance.

To avoid the dangers of dehydration:

-Drink 8 - 16 oz. of water 15 minutes before exercise.

-Drink 4 - 8 oz. of water for every 15 minutes during exercise.

-Drink 16 oz. of water for every pound of body weight lost after exercise.

A note on sports drinks

For exercise lasting more than one hour, try GU20, Powerade or similar sports drinks. When consuming a sports drink during exercise, water it down to half dilution for easier absorption. Higher concentrations of sports drinks are good for after the exercise session when the body is most receptive to absorbing and storing carbohydrates.

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