Fueling Up for Endurance Athletes

An endurance athlete in preparation for a new season generally has their nutritional focus set squarely on carbohydrate consumption. Timing, frequency and quantity of carbohydrates are all variables that one must consider during their training. While many understand the importance of consuming carbohydrates for energy, you can’t forget the importance of consuming additional protein for endurance purposes either.

Focusing solely on carb consumption and failing to maintain adequate protein intake is a common mistake made by many endurance athletes.

Why is there this stigma when it comes to consuming protein? Many endurance athletes, whether they’re runners, swimmers, road racers or tri-athletes, fear they’ll get too bulky, and slow down as a result of ingesting too much protein. In reality, bulk is reflective of training style and athletes that fail to consume enough protein put themselves at risk of developing a list of problems.

Pre and Post Training Fuel

Carbohydrates are important, this we know. They’re the body’s preferred source of energy for long periods of exertion. An endurance athlete (or any athlete for that matter) stores carbohydrates in the form of muscle glycogen, which is the body’s most efficient and least expensive source of energy. Why? Because it’s easily digested, broken down, and burned for fuel. In order to maintain a high level of intensity over an extended period of time, an athlete must avoid glycogen depletion by maintaining a diet that is rich in complex carbohydrates.

The day before an event we take it one step further and get into carb-loading. Carb-loading is a tactic used by many athletes to ensure they have the energy to finish a race, or an intense training session. This is typically done by consuming  carbohydrate rich meals up to 24 hrs prior to an event. Excellent sources include whole grain breads, pasta, potatoes and rice.

Historical thinking surrounding endurance training has preached the importance of carbohydrates over both protein and fat. When put into the context of endurance training, this does make sense. Protein, for what it’s worth, is not an excellent source of energy. When muscle glycogen is adequate, protein contributes only about 5% of the overall energy needed to maintain intensity. Further, it’s only burned as energy when glycogen depletion has occurred.

Because protein is not able to supply as much energy as carbohydrates, it is considered an expensive and inefficient energy source.

Similarly, fat in an endurance athlete’s diet is kept to a minimum. It’s recommended that an athlete receive no more than 30% of their calories from fat as its digestion and breakdown cannot supply energy fast enough. With this in mind, the consensus is that an endurance athlete should receive 50 -60% of their calories from carbohydrates. The typical diet, therefore, is high in complex carbs, moderate in protein and low in fat.

But as we all know, there is a time and place for everything. Regardless of what you’re training for, your body requires more than carbohydrates to maintain an athletic standard. Scientific research and studies have begun taking a closer look at the benefits of protein ingestion during and following endurance training. In a study produced by Colombani and Associates, it was found that protein was absorbed and partially oxidized during marathon running when it was consumed with a carbohydrate drink. The outcome was improved power output and performance time.

The Role of Protein

Consider this – in the absence of muscle glycogen, an endurance athlete’s body will begin to break down protein (muscle!) for energy. This process is known as gluconeogenesis, and occurs at or around the 90-minute mark in a training session. As glycogen stores become depleted, the body begins to feed off the fatty and amino acids found in lean muscle. This is not good. To avoid this form of catabolism an endurance athlete can protect their muscles by consuming branched chain amino acids (BCAAs), the building blocks of protein, which are readily converted into energy.

During training sessions a supplement like AMINOCORE has been designed as an intra-workout beverage specifically for this purpose – to help maintain anabolism, and in turn, protect an athlete’s muscles.

Similarly, protein is predominantly responsible for muscle repair and maintenance. Whey protein’s amino acid profile contains the highest percentage of essential amino acids (25%). These amino acids (leucine, isoleucine and valine) are the most important for muscle repair. Thus, consuming a good source of a quick absorbing, highly concentrated, whey protein isolate, like ISOFLEX, after a training session is critical in ensuring an athlete is able to recover quickly, and helps maintain their well earned lean muscle mass.

Athletes that fail to consume adequate protein for recovery become susceptible to fatigue, anaemia and lethargy.

As a result, endurance athletes should aim to consume anywhere between 1/2 of a gram to 3/4 of a gram of protein per pound of body weight. If you think this could be difficult to reach, consider this: a single scoop of ISOFLEX contains 27 grams of protein. What’s in your fuel now?

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