Just as you run smart, you must fuel smart. To progress in your training as predicted, nutrition must be built into the foundation of the program. If fueling is neglected, you will struggle to reach your endurance capacity, hit target zones and recover promptly and optimally.
SMART fueling stands for sweet spot, macros, avoid fads, realistic expectations and target nutrition. Each of these areas is important to meeting performance goals.
Sweet spot. The first rule of thumb is to fuel for the work you are doing, not work for your fuel. There is a sweet spot of optimal fueling type, amount and tactics. After doing this work for more than 10 years, I have learned that everyone is unique in what works best. Don’t be afraid during the early part of your training to play around with what this looks like for you. This also allows time for you to train your gut to be able to tolerate more volume during your training and competitions.
Macros. No need to count them; just get them in.
- Carbohydrates should be consistently eaten throughout the day. A big mistake I see is runners tend to only focus on carbs around their run and right afterwards. Carbs serve a purpose for our physical and mental energy. Carbs contribute to neurotransmitter production that aids in sleep, anxiety and mood.
- Protein should be paced throughout the day. Yes, there is too much of a good thing; especially with protein. Your body can only utilize so much protein in a single feeding, whether that is a meal or a snack. A general rule of thumb is for female runners to aim for 25-30 grams of protein at each meal and male runners aim for 30-40 grams of protein at each meal. These ranges can vary, depending on your frame, muscle mass and performance goals.
- Fats need to find a place on your plate. In the past few years, researchers have come to understand that our body needs fat at each meal to better absorb fat-soluble vitamins like vitamin A, D, E and K. These vitamins are very important for runners and are linked to bone and immune health. Fats also can be a great source of anti-inflammatory components, helping your body recover and minimizing injury risk.
Avoid the fads. Despite marketing efforts, there really hasn’t been a particular fad diet that has been shown to improve performance. Some diets contribute to weight loss, max use of body fat stores or increase in muscle; however, when looking at performance indicators specifically for runners, many actually showed increased injury risk, decreased VO2 max or decreased power output.
Realistic expectations. Be honest as to how much time and effort you want to put into your nutrition. I am a mom, wife, registered dietitian, athlete and coach who loves to cook, but I do not have the mental and physical energy to prepare three meals from scratch each day. For some of my athletes, I actually need them to preserve their energy. For example, I worked with a triathlete who was training for Kona whose caloric needs were 5,000 calories (or more), and sometimes his training took 5-6 hours a day. His goal was to fuel and rest, thus we incorporated someone coming into the home during his most critical weeks of training to help him prepare meals. For some of you, this many mean more like the use of Blue Apron or other meal-delivery type companies.
Target your nutrition to match your performance goal. One of the first questions I ask an athlete in my office is “what did you change and why?” More times than not, their change in their nutrition did not match their performance goal. A common example is the runner desiring to increase their endurance capacity who decides to follow a low-carbohydrate diet and who isn’t practicing fueling during their training. They miss two big boats here. One is that to increase their endurance capacity, they have to have fuel for their body for longer, slower mileage. This means the body is using their glycogen (gas tank) to do so. The bigger the gas tank, the longer a runner can go. By not practicing fueling during their training they are depending upon their glycogen, thus continually depleting the stores rather than building them up. They will also struggle with being able to maintain a higher intensity during their week of training.
Train smarter, fuel smarter and run smarter. As Roger Bannister says, “It is the brain, not the heart or lungs that is the critical organ.”
Rebecca McConville MS RD LD CSSD CEDRD is a sports nutritionist and eating disorder specialist. She is the author of Finding Your Sweet Spot in Sport-How to Avoid RED-S.