Today I learned another lesson about nutrition for long runs and rides. When I first started running my focus was to lose weight and get fit. I never ate before a run and never, ever ate during a run. Of course my long runs were 3 miles in about 45 minutes. Eventually those got longer, up to 8 miles for a long run, yet I still seldom ate anything before the run and never during a run. Yea the weight was dropping fast, but I was really having to push myself on these longer runs. As I picked up bicycling again and started doing longer rides, I again didn’t eat much before a ride and never during a ride, even for a 40-50 mile ride. I knew hydration was important and stayed on top of that, but just didn’t think a lot about fueling my body during an activity. I wanted to burn calories and lose weight, not add calories while I was exercising! As I have increase the length of my runs and rides, I have started learning that I need to fuel my body both before and during the exercise and not just depend on the calories stored in my cells.
It is all about burning calories. The muscles start out with calories stored in the glucose – blood sugar – of your blood stream. There is also some energy stored in each muscle cell that can be tapped, but this runs out pretty darn quick and it used for things like sprinting or emergencies. After that your muscles have to fuel from your bloodstream, and insulin is used by the cells to convert that glucose in the blood into glycogen inside the cell for fuel. (I am no expert at this so correct me if I have my terms wrong).
Your body can also get calories by turning fat cells into glucose and then using that fat to fuel your muscles. Hey, great idea, right? Isn’t that what we are all after, burn that fat and lose weight?
Well, yes, to a point. Your body can only convert fat to glucose at the rate of about 200 calories per hour. Considering that I burn about 1,00 to 1,200 calories per hour when exercising, my fat conversion just can’t keep up with my muscle’s need for fuel. For my weight and size, I can tap into about 2,000 calories stored in my bloodstream and elsewhere before I start running out of energy – fuel. So I can go at a pretty good pace for an hour easy, even two hours, but the body is starting to run on fumes after a couple of hours and is busy trying to convert fat into calories. Since it can’t keep up, the body start eating into the muscle cells to get some calories. Oops, we DON’T want this!
So even if the goal is to burn fat and lose weight, when I started doing longer runs and rides I would bonk and run out of fuel, making the run or ride not so much fun anymore. I am learning that if I will fuel my body properly, I can do much longer runs and rides – enjoyably – and still burn fat and lose weight.
Today I ran 11 miles and felt great until the 10 mile mark. Then the run turned from fun to not so fun. Why? Nutrition. Or at least that is my theory.
It was cold when I started – 18 degrees. I am starting to learn how to dress for the cold however. Today I had long underwear base layer and my running tights, long warm socks, a sweat-wicking t-shirt, a second long-sleeved running shirt, a very light running jacket, and then my wind-proof Carhartt jacket – love this jacket. It is thin and light yet blocks wind and cold and cost only $80 compared to $200 for a comparable running or riding jacket. Add to that a Carhartt baclava, knit stocking cap, and a pair of leather TIG welding gloves with short cuffs – yea, I wear $11 welding gloves when I run or ride in cold weather. They are the best, cut the wind, fit my hands great, and are plenty warm down to about 5 degree weather, and they only cost $11. I have $25 and $50 gloves and these are way better. I get them at the welding supply store. Did I say they are only $11? What a bargain.
Anyway, back to nutrition. During my 62 mile gravel ride last weekend I knew I needed to eat during the ride and each time I put something in my mouth, I felt significantly better about 10 minutes later. So I figured I needed to do that while running. And guess what? It worked! I ate two Fig Newton’s before my run. Then about 3 miles in – around 30 minutes, I started eating more fig bars. I would eat one about every two miles – 20 minutes. Each time I ate a fig bar, about 5 minutes later I was thinking “man, this run is fun, my legs feel fresh, I could do this all day”. I started noticing this great feeling so kept fueling every 20 minutes or so and feeling great afterwards. Of course I was also drinking from my camelback as I went, being careful to blow all the water back out of the valve since it would freeze in these cold temps. Had that happen on a recent run and no water for the last 5 miles of an 8 mile run.
I ran out of fig bars at mile 7. I hadn’t planned on eating quite that much, but was running strong and feeling fantastic so just kept going. Then it hit me. At mile 10 I my legs started feeling like lead, the run was turning into something that wasn’t quite so fun, and I was trying to figure out if I should take a short cut back to my truck or just keep on going. I realized that this was partially because my body was starting to run out of fuel – the glucose I kept feeding my muscles was disappearing from my blood stream and my body was starting to find other places to get that glucose. Humm.
I finished up at 11.3 miles but felt I could have run much further if I had kept on fueling my muscles. Actually I could have kept running anyway using sheer willpower, but the fun was gone from the run and I knew I was going to do a long run the next day so no need pushing any more.
Over the past few weeks I have started learning the importance of eating both before and during a long run or ride. I am still no expert at exercise nutrition but starting to learn what works for me. Here are the things I have learned so far that work for me:
- Eat just a little bit before a long run or ride. A banana or fig bar is the perfect amount for me. If I eat too much it is heavy on my stomach and I might get queasy. I try to eat 15-30 minutes before my activity to give the food time to digest and the glucose to get into my bloodstream, where it is ready to feed the muscles as they work.
- Hydrate in advance. I don’t want to drink a LOT of water before I exercise, but I try to drink a fair amount over the 1-2 hours prior to my activity. I don’t want a lot of water sloshing around in my stomach, so I want to give my body time to process that water and get it to my cells where it can be stored and ready for use. So I try to down 12-18 ounces of liquid about an hour before my activity.
- Start eating about 30-40 minutes into the activity, depending on the calorie burn. Running burns a lot more calories per hour than riding a bicycle for me – well, unless I am really hammering on the bike, then it is about the same. I want to stay ahead of the fuel need, not fall behind, so I start eating just a bit before I think I need it. I am never hungry, but I just have to remember to eat so I can keep my blood glucose levels up. One fig bar is perfect. Not to much but enough to give me a few calories to burn. Then I try to eat another fig bar or energy gummy bear about every 20 minutes. Right now based on my fitness level that seems to work pretty well. As I fine tune my workout nutrition that might change.
- During my activity I am focusing on carbohydrates, since those convert quickly to glucose and are a quick way to feed muscles. But after the workout, my muscles need protein to rebuild from the work. So my post-activity meal I try to focus on eating protein – about 20-25 grams is right for me. Usually that means eggs or fish or chicken, but it is hard to get 25 grams of protein from a single meal without consuming a lot of calories to go with it. So I oftentimes will down a protein shake plus a light meal with protein. A protein shake is high in protein without a huge amount of calories, so I can have one of those and say two scrambled eggs and have the protein I need for muscle recovery.
So far I haven’t thought about electrolytes much yet. I need to read up on that. I prefer to just drink water but as it gets hotter I may not be able to replenish my electrolytes fast enough with food and may need to add some to my water or start bringing an energy drink along with me.
Anyway, that is where I am at now. I certainly am no expert and am learning this stuff both by trial and error and also reading a lot on the internet and watching a lot of Youtube videos about the subject. Of course I take all that stuff with a grain of salt, since as we all know you can’t believe everything you read on the internet! I just try to find multiple reliable sources to follow and I try to stay away from the “fad diets” or the people trying to sell me something.