By Brooke Schohl, MS, RD
You have many, many choices when it comes to fueling for endurance races. Your local running, bike or triathlon shop’s shelves are lined with countless products and options…making things a little confusing! Before you wade through all of the brands, nutritional content, ingredients and flavors, it’s important to answer one question: will you use solid or liquid nutrition to get you across that finish line with flying colors?
Most pro triathletes and elite runners use liquid nutrition alone in the form of drinks or gels for longer races. But then again, they are pros. They finish the race up to nine hours sooner than the age groupers do, which makes a big difference. Remember that you are unique and that your fueling strategy probably won’t be the same as your favorite pro, or even your training partner.
I get this question all of the time — solids or liquids? — and the answer is dependent upon a variety of factors. The following considerations will help you make your decision:
The Task at Hand
What event are you training for? Half marathon? Marathon? 70.3 triathlon? A huge factor determining your fuel plan is the type of activity your race entails and of course, the length of the race. Most people have a tough time getting solids down during a run, whereas consuming these foods on the bike is much easier due to the nature of the activity. It’s important to really get in tune with your body — your likes, dislikes and toleration of fuel sources. I always feel that more natural food and drink options will produce better results. So many athletes have adopted clean eating regimens in their everyday lives, and why muddy that up by consuming chemical-filled, engineered products on race day?
Most liquid nutrition options are primarily carbohydrate. Of course protein can be added to these drink mixes, but carbs are the star of the show. For many of my athletes, consuming large amounts of carbs (without protein and fat) is a killer on the old GI tract. The fuel is absorbed quickly, leaving athletes feeling hungry with inconsistent energy levels. On the flip side, some athletes are unable to consume any solids during racing due to the intensity of the pace or fickle stomachs. Which one are you? Do you do best with mainly carbs, or some protein and fat? Maybe you can handle a combination of liquids and solids if the race is long enough to demand it.
Hourly Caloric Intake
How many calories do you need per hour to get through the race? Athletes with lower caloric requirements can more easily get away with just liquid nutrition. When fueling for training and racing with metabolic efficiency in mind, the amount of calories you actually require is probably much lower than what you are consuming. Metabolic efficiency is a way of fueling that promotes burning fat stores (we all have them) for fuel rather than the more common reliance on high-carb food or drink sources. Wouldn’t it be nice to unload some of those race-day calories and take in only 10 to 30 grams of carbohydrate per hour? You can do it!
Did you know that your body is only able to efficiently digest and absorb a limited amount of calories per specified amount of time? I had an athlete who was over-concentrating his bottles by mixing too many calories into his water bottles. This quickly led to GI distress on race day due to the body’s inability to digest and absorb all the nutrients. For this reason, it is very important to avoid overloading drink mixes and opt for lower calorie options.
Preferences During Training
What do you like to eat during training? During racing? What foods work best for you? If you don’t know, now — during training — is the time to experiment. Challenge yourself to try new things; you may be surprised at what you can get away with. I recommend consuming carbs with protein and fat for as long as possible, then switching over to carb alone towards the end of the training session or race. The longer you can control blood sugar by not consuming carb alone, the more fat is being oxidized. Train your body to stay in a fat-burning place longer by adding fats and proteins to those training/racing fuel carbs. A great example of this is Pocket Fuel, a fruit and nut puree that contains almost equal amounts of carbs, fat, protein and has demonstrated great success among ultra runner and triathlete populations.
Like many other aspects of nutrition and training, there are different strokes for different folks. Meaning, what works for you may not work for your training buddy and vice versa. There are many variables at play here; trial and error during training blocks will help you determine the best course of action for you. Seeking the advice of a sports dietitian never hurts either.
Brooke Schohl, MS, RD, METS, is a registered sports dietitian and the owner of Fuel to the Finish Endurance Nutrition Coaching in Scottsdale, Arizona. She is an avid triathlete, having completed many triathlons of all distances including three Ironman races. She integrates that personal experience and knowledge into developing customized, sport-specific, metabolically efficient fueling plans for her clients. Brooke and her husband, John, own two Scottsdale, Arizona-based triathlon stores named Destination Kona. For more information on services and offerings, visit her website at www.fueltothefinish.com.