Fueling Athletic Performance
by Tim Curry, MS ACSM-RCEP
Fueling Athletic Performance
As a coach development manager for the Idaho League, I’ve witnessed countless teams and athletes face consistent challenges with bonking and injuries. Did you know sports nutrition can help safeguard against both of these concerns? Let’s look at the link between sports nutrition, bonking, and athlete injury…
You may be wondering what sports nutrition actually involves. Unlike general dietary intake which looks at a broad range of nutritional factors such as Calories, fat, carbohydrates, protein, and more, sports nutrition focuses on two primary factors: carbohydrates and fluids. There are a few important reasons for this narrow focus:
Carbohydrates are the single most important macronutrient for athletic performance.1
Carbohydrates are the primary source of fuel for our brains.
We can only store around 300-400 grams of carbohydrates in our body which is very limited compared to fat stores.1
A loss of 2-3% of our body weight in water can cause a 10-15% loss in athletic performance.
Dehydration directly impairs reaction time, object tracking time & error rate, perceived fatigue, and overall mood.2
This all means that when we run low on carbohydrates and/or become dehydrated, our bodies not only limit the riding speed we can maintain, but we become more prone to making mistakes and mental processing errors. We experience slower reaction times, feel more fatigued, make more mistakes in our judgments, and our mood deteriorates quickly. If you've ridden with someone or were the person who ‘bonked’ or ‘hit the wall’ during a ride, you know exactly how this looks! It makes for a difficult and outright dangerous time on the bike. So how can we mitigate this risk with our athletes and ourselves?
Addressing these issues is as simple as ensuring the rider, whether a student-athlete or a coach, shows up to rides properly fueled and hydrated. This of course is easy in theory, but more difficult in practice. The time available prior to the ride as well as the duration and difficulty of the ride plan dictate the necessary carb and fluid consumption required to meet your nutritional demands. We can start by following the guidelines outlined below, for how to approach pre- and intra-ride nutrition.
These nutritional demands are best met with a solid plan, rather than a last-minute donut on the morning of a ride. The first hurdle lies in understanding the sheer volume of carbs and fluids necessary based on where you fall within the guidelines. For most athletes, this amount is much higher than what they normally consume. Many coaches I have worked with look at the pre-ride intake and say “I have to eat HOW much?!”, whereas athletes often struggle with the intra-ride intake, especially the carbohydrates.
Our athletes might eat 2-3 individual shot blocks per hour of ride time, but if we use the ubiquitous shot block as our measurement tool for carb consumption demands, they would actually need to eat 1-2 tubes of them per hour, depending on duration and intensity of the ride. Many riders don’t want to consume just one food item for the whole ride, and consuming multiple tubes per ride can become expensive quickly. Here are some quick tips that can help improve nutritional intake with your athletes and coaches:
Hydration is the most important nutrition intake consideration. Checking for appropriate fluid amounts prior to a ride and then regularly throughout can help athletes regulate their fluid consumption and ensure they have adequate fluids for the entire ride.
Before the ride:
The further out you are from the ride the more complex your carbohydrate sources should be, such as whole grains and higher-fiber fruits. As your ride time gets closer you should begin to utilize more simple carb sources, such as white rice and fig bars.
Remember to stay within the guideline that applies to the time window you plan to eat in preparation for the ride. These guidelines are also NOT necessarily in addition to a normal meal. For instance, if you’re riding at 4 pm then a well-thought-out lunch that meets the guidelines above is your pre-ride meal. However, if you’re riding at 6 pm then it would be a good idea to also follow the 1-2 hour pre-ride guideline, starting at 4-5 pm to ensure you’re properly fueled for the ride.
As you get closer to your ride time, make sure to reduce or avoid fats, protein, and fiber as all of them can cause gastrointestinal distress.
During the ride:
The harder you’re effort during a ride, the more you should rely on simple carbohydrate choices for fueling. Using more complex carbs is still an option, but only as long as your gut can handle them.
Mix it up and make it real! “Real foods” such as fig bars, rice cakes, and the like are generally more interesting to eat and encourage more consistent carb consumption during hard efforts. They also tend to be cheaper as well.
Work within your gut’s limits. While real foods can be cheaper and more interesting, they can also inadvertently lead to gastrointestinal discomfort if they don’t work for the individual. Many sports products (blocks, gels, etc) are designed for rapid absorption and can be used in addition to other foods or in place of them for certain instances (ex. racing).
Start small and work up - If your athletes are not used to the volumes of carbs and fluids listed above, don’t be afraid to start slow and encourage them to make small changes to steadily increase what they eat and drink before and during rides. Making large changes too fast can lead to gut discomfort!
Educate and lead by example - Whatever you do as a coach, your athletes will emulate. I have watched teams discuss hydration prior to starting a ride, after which the lead coach takes one water bottle for a three-hour ride! Work to consistently ensure you and other coaches are following the guidelines yourself, and routinely inform (not harp on!) your athletes about the guidelines.
Set and enforce some baselines - Just as we don’t let a rider without functioning brakes start a ride, it’s best to establish rules about hydration and nutrition. It can feel harsh and frustrating to tell a rider that they cannot ride with the team, but it may be necessary for their safety. Start with safety-oriented rules such as ensuring riders have a minimum water volume and food available prior to starting a ride, and make sure the athletes are clear on the rules and consequences BEFORE practice. If you expect one bottle of fluids per hour of ride time based on guidelines and an athlete has less than that, send them home. It is a hard lesson on the day, but it helps make sure the team is safe and makes it less likely the mistake will be repeated.
Tailor your focus - Talk in terms of grams of carbs and ounces of fluid, not Calories. Young athletes are more vulnerable to developing disordered eating and eating disorders, generally, and within the scope of endurance sports. We can help mitigate this risk by framing these guidelines as being set for athletic performance and safety, and not bringing Calories or Calorie counting into the picture.
With some education, nutrition adjustments, and regular reinforcement you can easily make team rides more enjoyable and safer for your riders. To learn more about the basics of nutrition and nutrition guidelines for endurance athletes, check out our recommended courses below.
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