Nov 2, 2017Leading the Way
By promoting fresh foods, nutrient timing, and healthy body composition, the University of Colorado is ahead of the pack in keeping its distance runners fueled optimally.
This article first appeared in the November 2017 issue of Training & Conditioning.
Competing at the collegiate level can be very demanding for distance runners. Between cross-country, indoor, and outdoor track and field, the athletes are in-season for 10 months out of the year. At the University of Colorado, this means training together six days a week, with the women logging anywhere from 45 to 75 miles per week, and the men running 70 to 100 miles.
As you can imagine, fueling this high level of activity is no easy task. Because of the intensity and frequency of their training, distance runners must strive to follow a structured nutrition plan that accounts for the physical stressors their bodies endure. Fortunately, that’s just what we offer at Colorado, and providing support to Head Cross-Country and Track and Field Coach Mark Wetmore’s athletes is one of my favorite responsibilities as Director of the Performance Nutrition Department.
Our fueling plan for distance runners starts with fresh food. Then, we provide lots of different ways for athletes to have access to it and educate them on nutrient timing. Combined with comprehensive physiological monitoring of potential relative energy deficiency syndrome (RED-S), our fueling program plays a significant role in athlete recovery and supports our runners being able to train and compete at an elite level.
WHAT’S ON THE MENU
Perhaps the most important piece of our fueling plan for distance runners is our emphasis on eating food that’s fresh. The Colorado Performance Nutrition Department works to minimize the prepackaged items distributed to our athletes and focuses instead on freshly prepared food and high-quality ingredients. By doing this, runners can see that the meals and snacks we offer have a specific purpose for their training, nourishment, and recovery.
Supplying this quality food also helps bridge the gap between the nutrition advice I give athletes and them being able to appropriately build their own plates. For example, I often talk to distance runners about the significance of getting enough iron. After I educate them about it, I pull up the menus for our dining facilities that week and identify high-quality options that will help them meet their iron needs. This can be the critical link between understanding performance nutrition and actually applying it.
Education on fueling with fresh, flavorful, simple foods is only a portion of what it takes to help our athletes succeed. Serving those foods is the next step, and we do this in three ways. The distance runners, along with other Colorado athletes, have access to two Fueling Stations, Fueling Hubs, and a Gold Card program. While many institutions only focus on nutrition for football or men’s basketball, I have amazing support within the athletic department to provide these services to all our athletes.
The Fueling Stations are open in the mornings and afternoons, and the hours of operation are designed to work around athletes’ training schedules. The stations are conveniently located on the third floor of the athletic department, so they’re easy to access from our indoor training facilities, locker rooms, and academic support areas.
In general, foods offered at the Fueling Stations in the mornings include: eggs, breakfast meats, oatmeal, pancakes or French toast, breakfast sandwiches, cereal, fresh fruit, yogurt, and our Buff Blend Bar (a fully operating smoothie bar complete with nutrient-rich add-ins like chia seeds, ground flax, liquid vitamin pumps, protein powder, oats, and granola). The afternoon Fueling Stations serve a choice of two lean proteins (such as chicken, salmon, beef, pork, turkey, and tuna), two low-energy dense carbohydrates (LED CHO) (including veggies like green beans, Brussels sprouts, asparagus, cauliflower, carrots, and bok choy), two high-energy dense carbohydrates (HED CHO) (such as grains, potatoes, quinoa, rice, and pasta), a full salad bar, nut butters, the Buff Blend Bar, a variety of soups, and a beverage bar. I suggest runners eat at least one lean protein, healthy fat, LED CHO, and HED CHO at each meal, with the portion size depending on their specific needs.
Our Fueling Hubs are located in our weightrooms and are meant to be utilized for quick snacks or to help initiate the post-practice recovery process by providing carbohydrates and protein. The hubs are especially beneficial for distance runners because our Fueling Stations are typically closed by the time they complete evening practices and need recovery fuel. Items offered at the hubs include Rapid Performance (a cherry juice and whey protein isolate), Gatorade recovery shakes, and Muscle Milk. The hubs are also the only location in which prepackaged recovery bars are available in case athletes prefer a bar over a drink after practice.
The Gold Card program supports athletes who live off campus by allowing them to get groceries or meals at selected locations. Each Gold Card is loaded with a set dollar amount every week that does not roll over from week to week. The cards are accepted at close to 40 restaurants and food stores surrounding campus that provide healthy options.
In addition, the Performance Nutrition Department utilizes the Gold Card to teach the fine art of fueling for performance on a tight budget. Educational materials, including grocery lists, recipes, and evening snack ideas are all available through the Gold Card program to help athletes when they are not on campus. Using these resources, if the runners manage their time and Gold Card funds, they can take care of their food for the week.
Despite our emphasis on fresh food, I’d be lying if I said I never get questions from distance runners about supplements. At Colorado, the Performance Nutrition Department has developed specific protocols that guide supplementation recommendations when necessary. For instance, sometimes biochemical/lab parameters indicate an athlete is iron- or vitamin D-deficient, so we will initiate supplementation of those nutrients. Depending on the individual circumstances, we may also consider probiotics or omega-3 fatty acid supplements.
TIME TO EAT
Our Fueling Stations, Fueling Hubs, and Gold Card program teach distance runners how fresh, unprocessed foods can play a significant role in their nutrition plan. But when they eat is just as important as what they eat. I’m sure our athletes get tired of hearing me say this, but not understanding nutrient timing can impede their performance.
Once they understand this, I begin to advise them on what to consume before, during, and after practice. I suggest they eat two-and-a-half to three hours before practice to top off glycogen stores (carbohydrate stores in the body) and prevent hunger during training. The foods I recommend are often the same-lean protein and healthy fat, with both LED CHO and HED CHO-but the portion size of each should depend on where the runner is in their training cycle, the volume of training, and what specific body composition goals they are pursuing.
For example, the team typically does their toughest training on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Sundays. These sessions require more diligent pre-practice nutrition planning, so I recommend athletes increase their amount of HED CHO to support the higher usage of glycogen in the intense practices.
Pre-practice fueling also depends on what athletes can personally tolerate. Some runners have to be mindful of what they consume before training due to the potential for gastrointestinal distress. A sample Fueling Station menu might include grilled chicken or steak, grilled zucchini, and a baked potato or quinoa. But if those foods will not sit well with a runner, they may opt to make a sandwich with deli meat or have the grilled chicken with a side salad and a piece of fruit.
During training, if athletes have practiced adequate fueling and are well-hydrated, consuming water and/or an electrolyte replacement drink for salty sweaters should be sufficient to keep them going. I often encourage athletes to weigh themselves before and after a practice to get an accurate sense of how well they are hydrating while running, as well as how their sweat rate varies in different intensities and environmental conditions.
For a more personalized approach, I use a sweat analyzer to assess individuals’ sodium content in their sweat. With this tool, I am able to provide athletes with very specific guidelines to follow regarding fluid amount and electrolyte consumption before, during, and after training.
Post-practice, I recommend that distance runners consume fuel within 15 minutes to initiate the recovery process. Their choice should consist of 20 to 30 grams of protein and anywhere from 30 to 80 grams of carbohydrate, depending on the intensity and volume of the training session. Ideally, the food should also have a high glycemic index, such as the drinks and shakes offered in our Fueling Hubs. These have shown to be more effective at glycogen re-synthesis and are therefore better for recovery on a day-to-day basis.
For athletes who struggle with eating immediately after a training session, I recommend focusing more on the carbohydrate component than the protein. This could come from a sports drink or a piece of fruit. Then, I tell them to consume a more well-balanced meal containing all macronutrients within the next 45 to 90 minutes.
Lastly, any distance runner’s nutrition plan would be incomplete without consistent monitoring for RED-S. This is a syndrome that occurs when athletes experience low energy availability for an extended period of time. RED-S can have several detrimental effects, including damaging bone health, disrupting menstrual function in females (potentially other hormone function disruption in males), and causing other physical and psychological problems.
At Colorado, I monitor for RED-S by developing an individual nutrition profile for each runner to track their maturation over the course of their career. Within this profile, I include an in-depth method of body composition analysis from the International Society for the Advancement of Kinanthropometry (ISAK). This method of anthropometry is specifically concerned with composition changes as the result of shifts in nutrition, training, and lifestyle.
The ISAK test is a fantastic tool because it allows for a more diligent and specific monitoring than simple body fat percentage equations. I present the results from this assessment as a sum of skinfolds (sum of seven) to minimize the risk of the findings being distorted. Other information in the athlete’s nutrition profile can include any notes I have from interactions with athletes regarding nutrition education provided, supplementation history based on bloodwork and trends within their bloodwork, bone mineral density history, sweat analysis/hydration protocol, and other pertinent lab results.
As a practitioner, it is also important when reviewing anthropometrics (ISAK results) to be sensitive and clear with athletes and coaches that there can be distinct variability in runners’ physiques. I tell them the body type and level of adiposity that equates to optimal performance in one athlete may not be the same for another. Thus, weight on a scale is not often the focus within our Performance Nutrition Department.
With the ISAK results, I have developed high performance ranges (HPR) for both male and female distance runners based on normative data published on elite distance athletes. Using consistent monitoring, I can help each athlete identify within the HPR where they are able to train and prevent injury, as well as the more specific range that I call “go time,” in which they perform at a very high level.
This part is fun because it is very individualized, and when executed correctly, it can provide a performance advantage to the athlete. Further, it allows me as the sport dietitian to have concise, beneficial conversations with the coaches on where the athletes are at during specific training times of the year. For example, it is really important that proper rest follows a high stress training period, and for most athletes, this means increasing adipose tissue slightly.
The assessment of RED-S goes beyond collecting and interpreting anthropometrics. At all times, I work within an interdisciplinary team to monitor the athlete’s ability to perform, train, recover, and maintain healthy biochemical parameters. By collaborating with our athletic department’s Student-Athlete Wellness Team (SAWT), consisting of our sports medicine physicians, a sport psychologist, athletic trainers, and coaches, we do our best to ensure our runners are staying healthy and preventing injury.
When the SAWT team identifies that an athlete has RED-S symptoms through a specific assessment tool that we developed, we initiate a multidisciplinary intervention. The goals are to resolve the RED-S and prevent injury that could potentially cost an athlete their season.
As you can see, fueling the body correctly is only one component of being a successful collegiate distance runner, but it can be a game-changer for the athletes who buy in to the program 100 percent. By providing the distance runners at Colorado with the nutritional know-how to meet their specific needs, we can create higher-quality training sessions and improve performance.
HITTING THE WALL
If University of Colorado distance runners have abided by my pre-training nutrition and hydration guidelines, they should have no problem getting through workouts. But sometimes the busy life of a student-athlete prevents them from doing this, and they experience the dreaded “bonk.”
The bonk, or “hitting the wall,” is an indication that the body’s glycogen stores are depleted, and the athlete’s ability to work at high levels may be compromised. Symptoms include feeling weak and tired, being shaky, sweating, dizziness, and lightheadedness. Most athletes have experienced this dreadful feeling, and it is next to impossible to continue at the same intensity pre-bonk, even for the most metabolically efficient runners.
During individual nutrition sessions with each runner, I do my best to help them plan strategies for keeping the bonk at bay. When training or racing, I encourage them to have products on-hand such as a sport drink, gels, bars, or blocks to provide their body with an endogenous form of carbohydrate and allow them to complete the practice or meet at the intensity expected of them.
Presently, there is a lot of conversation in the endurance world about improving performance by following a low carbohydrate diet. While there is solid research showing an increase in the body’s ability to utilize fat at a high intensity, thus preserving glycogen stores, there isn’t solid evidence of actual performance improvement in real-life endurance athletes. Until that time, I will continue to educate the athletes on how to periodize their carbohydrate consumption around training sessions and body composition goals during specific times of the year.