As an athlete, you want to maximize your performance by maximizing your diet. This includes the amount of nutrients, vitamins and minerals that you get from your food. An essential part of any endurance athlete’s diet is to maintain an adequate carbohydrate intake so that muscle glycogen, a body fuel absolutely essential for high-level performance, levels are maintained. Dietary starches and sugars are the body’s number one source for making muscle glycogen. Protein won’t do, and neither will fat. Unfortunately, too many athletes take this concept to extremes; high-starch, cereal-based, carbohydrate-rich diets all day every day and end up watching the scale rise along with their mileage. This type of thinking also impairs performance dramatically.
Achieving balance not only in the macro nutrition (carbohydrates, proteins and fats) composition of your diet but also in the timing of meals and snacks will help shed those extra pounds and optimize your performance. By removing the mind set of “I run therefore I can eat” or “I’ll run it off later” and acquire basic knowledge on how the body breakdowns, uses and stores nutrients will take your performance to the next level.
I will go into more detail about timing before, during and after intense workouts or races, however, now I want to focus on the everyday balance and exercise lasting 60 minutes or less. When exercising less than 60 minutes daily you do not need supplemental calories especially if weight loss is desired.
I am sure you have all heard eat small meals throughout the day. Recommendations range from 4-6 to 8-10 times a day. My professional and personal preference is eating 4-5 times a day with 3 main meals and 1-2 snacks, consuming nourishment every 3 ½ to 4 hours. Sounds like a lot but it is simple: Breakfast, AM Snack optional, Lunch, PM Snack optional and dinner. Eating should cease 1 ½ to 2 hours before bed time.
Ideally, we should always eat the most before we do the most. “Before” in this case means early enough in time to allow the food we eat to digest, breakdown and release caloric energy and nutrients that our body can use. “Catch Up” eating, happens when we go long periods of time without eating or after a heavy workout and we are ravenous consuming large portions of food at once, might be satisfying from an emotional standpoint; yet, it doesn’t do anything to improve endurance or promote weight loss.
Even though we have stores of nutrients waiting in reserve throughout our body, our food consumption during a meal plays a key role in our nourishment during the hours that follow. A good meal should tide us over to the next meal. At the same time, it should supply us with peak nourishment for those activities that we are undertaking between meals. An extremely high-fat meal will not even get fully emptied from our stomach for several hours-is not a good meal to consume prior to a workout. The high fat content will place too much emphasis on digestion and shunting of blood to our digestive tract. At the other end of the spectrum, an extremely high-sugar meal- or (highly processed) carbohydrates-isn't going to improve our stamina either. That simple sugar and simple carb energy will get released too quickly and become stored as fat within 2 hours. Consuming a high protein meal at once especially before a heavy workout is like putting a Band-Aid on before getting cut. The body will digest, breakdown and store it before it can adequately repair damaged muscle tissue.
Why not eat 2 hours before bedtime? Simple, you do not get the extra fat burning effects from your hormone Ghrelin. Ghrelin is produced in the stomach and upper intestines. When your stomach has emptied and you become hungry your gut releases ghrelin. Ghrelin acts as a messenger and travels up your hypothalamus and signals the brain to increase your appetite and decrease your metabolic burn. HOWEVER, at night Ghrelin has somewhat magically powers. If your stomach is empty at bed time and Ghrelin is released it acts a messenger not to make you hungry again but at night tells the brain to release human growth hormone. Human growth hormone travels the body at night repairing damaged muscle tissue and devouring fat cells!!! Who does not want to burn fat while sleeping? But if your stomach isn’t empty, Ghrelin is never released and growth hormone is unable to do its work.
Do not go to bed starving just empty.
Figuring out the exact food balance and meal timing for optimal endurance and life is an individual goal that may take some experimenting. But in general, I recommend that you make sure to include protein-rich and fiber-rich whole, natural foods as part of your meals and snacks consistently throughout the day.