Today’s Going the Distance: Part 1 focuses on gluten-free nutrition for training. Maintaining good nutrition throughout training is important, not only for the sake of performance while training, but also for the sake of your muscles’ rest and recovery in between training sessions. Traditionally, the mantra for an athlete’s diet has been “rich in carbs, low in fats.” Also traditionally, the carbs part of that equation has meant wheat-based bagels, breads, pastas, etc.
Why the emphasis on carbohydrates? To oversimplify, the rationale is thus: the fundamental unit of energy in exercise is ATP (adenosine triphosphate). You probably learned about this in a bio or chem class long ago… Our mucles generate ATP, in turn, from stored glycogen. And glycogen is the storage form of glucose, a basic sugar that we get from carbohydrates. To reverse the rationale, then, athletes’ strategies focused on ingesting high ratios of carbs in order to maximize glycogen storage in the muscles and liver (in a sense filling up the gas tank in preparation for physical activity).
If only it were that simple. But before I explain a slight complication, I must digress… In training, there’s aerobic activity and anaerobic activity. Anaerobic pathways kick in when we’re outputting high intensity for short durations of time (think sprinters in the 100m dash). The energy is available quickly, but it’s an inefficient process that doesn’t deliver much ATP over time, and lactic acid quickly builds up in our systems, inhibiting our ability to continue performing at that level. Then there’s aerobic pathways, which are much more efficient, supplying plenty of ATP to our muscles and successfully managing lactic acid before it has a chance to build up.
Now here’s the complication: our bodies also have another available energy store, in addition to carbohydrates…fats (triglycerides). And it turns out that the duration and intensity of our training impacts how much we pull from our carb reserves and fat reserves in recruiting energy for a workout. In short, the longer distance, moderate intensity training sessions pull more from fats, and teach our bodies to do so efficiently. Of course, our muscles can also pull from the glycogen (carb) stores when needed, especially during bursts of more intense activity.
The important take home message is that, for endurance athletes, a more balanced diets of carbs, protein and fats (something akin to a ratio of 40/30/30) will yield better results than a carb-rich, low-fat one.
As a gluten-free athlete, then, how do I personally fuel my body? My carbohydrates come largely from potatoes, rices, GF pastas, and breads made with GF flour blends. My protein typically comes from small portions of lean meat – chicken, turkey, lean cuts of pork, and occasionally, red meat (steak). The fats come from the meat, too, as well olive oil, peanuts and tree nuts. (There are plenty of fresh fruits and veggies thrown in there, as well.)
Importantly, I don’t count calories, and I don’t carefully examine each plate of food to ensure the ideal 40/30/30 ratio. Instead, I simply strive to make sure that each meal is generally well-balanced. And my body is pretty good at telling me when a meal isn’t. For example, during peak training and race season, my metabolism feels like it is in overdrive. However, if I eat a meal with too many carbs and not enough protein, or vice versa, I find that I’ll digest it quickly and be ravenously hungry a short time later. The balanced meals, on the other hand, keep my hunger satiated for longer, and my energy feels more sustained throughout the day. I also eat almost no processed foods, and relatively few sweets with refined sugar (except on days…or weeks…when Kelli and I go on a mad baking spree).
Over time, this type of gluten-free diet for endurance training has enabled me to go from a time in my life when running a flat 1.5 mile out-and-back on the road was difficult, to a time now when I complete multiple 10-12 mile trail runs with lots of elevation gain every week. The training certainly has something to do with it, but so does the nutrition.
The next installment: Part 2 – pre-race nutrition.