The importance of proper exercise nutrition cannot be overstated; especially as the length of time you exercise increases. Proper nutrition before and during exercise will give you the energy and fuel required to complete your workout or event and perform at a high level. I learned this the hard way several years ago when I severely under fueled during a half-ironman length triathlon (a 5+ hour event) and finished over my goal time, lacking energy and severely dehydrated.
Since then, I have learned how to better manage my exercise nutrition to ensure peak performance throughout a workout or event.
No Two People Are The Same
The first lesson I learned was no two athletes respond the same to fuel while exercising. What works for me may not work for you and vice versa. Case in point, I was at a triathlon coaching clinic speaking with a fellow coach who told me he ate a turkey sandwich on the bike portion of an IRONMAN triathlon. My stomach got a bit queasy just thinking about it; no way could I pull that off. There are some guidelines, however, and I will cover those below. The main point here, though, is you need to experiment to find what works for you and then practice, practice, practice to really get used to the nutrition you have chosen.
For exercise sessions or races lasting less than one hour, simple water should be all you need. If you are exercising over one hour, leading research recommends at least 30-60 g of Carbohydrate (CHO) per hour with up to 100g/hr if you can handle that quantity based on exercise intensity and your ability to process CHO. This is where it becomes important to experiment with what works for you.
Forms of CHO
Carbohydrate comes in many forms gels, bars, chews and drinks are commonly consumed during races, training and general exercise but real food such as fig bars or bananas should also be considered based on your tastes. Again, experimentation is the key.
Water and fluid consumption is key to preventing gastric distress, preventing dehydration and keeping your body operating at peak efficiency. Water is also critical to your bodys proper processing of other nutrition. The level of fluid needed is highly dependent on the athlete (size, sweat rate) and environment (heat, humidity). As a rule, always consume solid nutrients (gels, bars, other food) followed by water (not sports drink). Use sports drink when not consuming solid food. By doing this, you will be able to better manage your CHO/water ratio which will better allow your body to absorb what you are consuming. Sports drinks contain CHO which need to be factored into your nutrition plan.
While we certainly dont store water like camels, you do want to make sure you properly hydrate prior to races and major training sessions. Drinking water as thirst dictates is a good way to ensure you are staying properly hydrated. As a rule of thumb, try to consume at least 1 20oz bottle of fluid per hour of exercise. This amount will need to be adjusted based on your sweat rate and the environmental conditions.
Obviously when you sweat, you lose salt. Salt is critical to proper functioning of the body and specifically functions to control the volume of body fluid, helps to maintain electrolyte balance, and is an integral part of proper nerve and muscle function. Extreme loss of sodium (salt) can result in a dangerous condition known as hyponatremia which in severe cases can be deadly. Cramps are a tell tale sign your sodium levels are low. If you begin to cramp, use sports drink, sodium enhanced water, and/or salt tablets to help regain your sodium levels. Dizziness and disorientation are serious signs that may be attributed to sodium deficiency. If you find yourself dizzy or disoriented, cease exercising immediately and seek medical assistance.
Fortunately, salt level can be easily managed and maintained. Before a race or longer training period, or during a period of sustained harder training, add additional salt to your meals. This will help maintain your salt levels and also aid with fluid intake and absorption. During exercise, sodium (salt) can be consumed via sports drinks containing sodium along with other electrolytes or by consuming NUUN, GU Brew or similar water enhancements that add sodium, electrolytes and flavor to water without adding CHO.