As a coach to many endurance athletes, I witness many of these athletes struggling with exercise related cramps, dehydration, inadequate fueling and depletion of electrolytes and energy during endurance type activities. These issues can limit your performance and derail your training and racing. Lack of proper nutrition will cause the above problems. I will discuss the various problems, why they happen, how to deal with them and how to avoid them in the future.
Muscle cramping affects 59% of all endurance athletes. To me, the majority of exercise related cramping is caused from dehydration and sodium depletion. Your body needs fluids, salts and potassium for large volume workouts. If you show up to a big training day or a race without proper fluid intake you will end up suffering. Once you get behind in your fluid intake, it is very difficult to catch back up and regain your energy and stamina. Hydrating for a specific event or training weekend should start 3-5 days leading up to the day. Too many athletes start focusing on hydration just the day before the event. Drinking adequate fluids should be a habit for endurance athletes in their normal daily lives and training regimen, but it must be a big focus as a training weekend or race is approaching. When we exercise we sweat and release fluids. As this happens we must replenish as much as we can during the event. Again, ONCE YOU ARE BEHIND YOU WILL SUFFER. Water should be your main source of fluids during the day. But with a race or training weekend approaching it is a good idea to supplement an electrolyte drink into your daily plan. If you are a heavy water drinker you could possibly cause an electrolyte disturbance in which your sodium levels become extremely low. This is called hyponatremia, which could cause confusion, fatigue, loss of appetite and MUSCLE CRAMPING. You could be pounding high amounts of water leading up to the event, drink water during the event and you could still suffer from muscle cramping because your body is depleted of salts. Severe water intake without sodium and electrolytes can cause this issue. That is why it is crucial to add an electrolyte supplement into your regimen. I advise 8-15 ounces of liquid electrolytes like Gatorade, Hammer Nutrition or Accelerade (or your product of choice) daily, 3-5 days leading up to an event. The more training you have or if you find your sweat to be very salty, the more you need. If you know the weather calls for hot and humid conditions and extreme sweating I would look into supplementing electrolyte tablets the day of, and leading up to the event.
Stay away from high amounts of coffee, alcohol and soda as these liquids can dehydrate the body. A small cup of coffee or a 12-ounce beer will not hurt you, but once you start indulging in 3+ servings you can increase your chances of creating the above issues.
"Hitting the wall" or "Bonking"
This can be a debilitating issue if you allow yourself to get to this point in a race or training weekend. We have all seen the endurance athlete crumble to the floor during an event. This is tragic to see because this individual put in the time to train, was hard working but did not execute a proper nutrition plan. “Hitting the wall” can stem from different inadequacies like dehydration, pushing out of your element, or nutritional dysfunction. I am going to discuss nutrition dysfunction as the main reason for "hitting the wall". Food is our fuel and we need a plan so our muscles can work efficiently. Muscles need sufficient glycogen levels to continue working at high levels. As we exercise and deplete our muscle glycogen, it is imperative to replenish the calories, sugars and fuel we need to keep moving. DON'T allow yourself to get low because just like trying to get hydrated it is very difficult to catch back up once you are down on fuel. If you are depleting your calorie consumption because of a weight loss program, not keeping a dialed in nutrition log or you just don't think it needs improvement, then you will run into problems. When you have a big event it’s a must to concentrate on healthy and adequate food consumption 3-5 days leading up to the weekend. What food should you eat you ask? Well I think for the most part you know the answer to that question. Healthy fruits and vegetables, moderate amounts of whole grains like brown rice, quinoa, whole wheat breads and pastas, lean proteins and healthy fats. Endurance athletes need approximately 50% of their calories coming from healthy carbohydrates, 30% healthy proteins and 20% healthy fats. For longer distance events like marathons, Ironmans and ultra distance marathons, athletes should increase their carbohydrate intake to 60% of their daily caloric intake. And you won't know if you don't track your foods. Practice tracking everything you eat 3-5 days leading up to training weekends. Also track the food you eat before, during and after the training day. You will start devising a nutrition plan that works exactly for you and then it will be your goal to execute this plan leading up to a race. Personally, I usually up my calorie intake 100-200 calories 4 and 5 days before a big event, 200-350 calories 2 and 3 days before and eat to stay satisfied the day before. I DO NOT OVEREAT the day before an event. My loading of carbohydrates and liquids should have already happened. I want to eat high quality and anti-inflammatory foods the day before but just enough to not be hungry anymore. The morning of, I want to eat food that is light on my stomach, quickly digestible and will top off my glycogen tank and give me the energy for the beginning of the training or raace. There are many options. I ask, "What works for you?" Practice with different foods and strategies and find the best sources that work for you. Once the race or training begins, how and when you replenish your loss of calories will play a huge role in how the day will unfold. I usually focus on drinking my electrolyte drink every 5-15 minutes. I start this right out of the gate. Do not wait because you will quickly fall behind. And sip, don't chug. If you feel you need a few sips then take them. A great strategy to keep you on target of fluid intake is to set your watch to 5-7 minute intervals. When the watch beeps you sip fluids. For workouts or races longer than 90 minutes it’s a must to add more than my liquid calories into the plan for proper replenishment. Liquid calories can come from gels, fluids or soda. Solid calories can come from bars, fruits, sandwiches, etc. The question I ask again, "What works for you?” That is why food logging is crucial because it can assist you construct an individualize nutrition program that works for you specifically. Once training comes to an end, quickly consume a post-workout snack. At most large events there are plenty of fluids and food to consume post-training. Quickly grab water, drink your post-workout source, like chocolate milk or muscle milk and find some whole food. The quicker you can get calories into the body, the quicker you can start the rebuilding phase. When you are in this rebuild and regeneration phase, this is when the body is at its highest response to improving and getting stronger.
All of these concepts take practice. You should never try something new on race day. Practice smart nutrition and hydration principles in your training so then when a race is approaching a plan will be in tact and you are more likely to succeed.