Thursday, September 17, 2015

Does Having a Nutritional Strategy Improve Race Times?

Do you have a race day nutrition plan for your next endurance event? If not, don’t feel bad you aren’t alone. Most athletes I work with have no idea how many calories or fluids they consume during long training sessions or races.
The question is DOES IT EVEN MATTER? Will having a nutritional strategy improve your race times?

Who Might Benefit From Having a Structured Nutrition Plan?

It is clear that fueling for endurance sports lasting over 1.5 hours is important. Some athletes who benefit the most include:
1.       Half-marathoners
2.       Triathletes (all distances—sprint to iron-distance)
3.       Marathoners and ultra-marathoners
4.       Obstacle racers (Spartan, Tough Mudder, etc…)
5.       Adventure racers

The Biggest Challenge

Sports science research supports the use of increased carbohydrate and fluids during prolonged exercise. For more specific fueling recommendations during exercise read a recent blog post.
The problem is that a majority of studies on fueling for endurance performance are conducted in a laboratory. During these experiments, subjects are in a VERY CONTROLLED environment, usually connected to a metabolic cart while also being poked and prodded. I’ll let you use your imagination.
Unfortunately, this is NOT very practical. Less is known about applying nutritional strategies during real endurance competitions. These types of studies are called field tests and are important because they put “science into practice.”

Recent Research Provides Insight

A 2014 study from the International Journal of Sports Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism tested the notion that a scientifically-based nutritional strategy will lead to faster race times compared to one that is freely chosen.
The Subjects
A research team from Denmark recruited 28 recreational (non-elite) marathoners who were competing in the Copenhagen Marathon. Runners were divided into two evenly matched groups based on fitness level (a 10k time trial), previous marathon times, and estimated finish time of the upcoming race.  Also, all participants kept a training diary which indicated no differences in training volume between groups for the duration of the study.

Use of Different Nutritional Strategies
One group was instructed to freely choose how much to eat and drink during the marathon while the other applied a structured nutritional plan created by sports nutrition experts.

Participants using the structured plan consumed:
·         Pre-Race
2 energy gels and 1 cup of water 10-15 minutes prior to start.
·         During
1 energy gel 40 minutes into the race.
  1 energy gel every 20 minutes until the finish.
  Gels contained 20 grams of sugar (80 calories) and a small amounts of sodium and caffeine.
  3 cups (24 oz) of fluid per hour.

Practice Sessions
A month before the marathon, subjects were asked to complete a local half marathon. This allowed runners using the scientifically-based plan to become familiar with the nutritional strategy to be used on race day. These runners were also encouraged to practice this strategy in their training sessions leading up to the event.

The Results

Marathon times of subjects using a nutritional plan were 11 minutes faster (3 hrs 38 min vs. 3 hrs 49 min) than those allowed to freely choose their eating and drinking strategy.

A post-race questionnaire also found that symptoms of gastrointestinal distress were low with NO differences observed between groups.

Interestingly, runners who used a freely chosen nutritional strategy consumed the SAME amount of fluid but considerably LESS carbohydrate compared to those applying a more scientific approach.

Key Take Home Messages

·         Having a plan works! If you don’t have one develop one. It improved marathon race times by 5%in these recreational marathoners. For some of you this could mean the difference in an age-group award or qualifying for Boston.
·         If your race is longer having a structured nutrition plan could save you A LOT more than 11 minutes.
·         Those who freely selected their carb intake consumed less than those who had a plan.
·         Practicing your nutrition plan in training is extremely important. You should train your gut before the race.
·         The subjects using a structured approach used 60 grams of carbohydrate per hour. Figure out in training the maximal number of grams/hr you can handle.
·         Subjects applying the structured plan used gels with caffeine. Could the caffeine have directly influenced the results? Maybe…but I doubt it…I think the amounts were very small.

In Summary
Nutrition plays a big role in your race times. Developing a fueling plan that is right for you can take your training and racing to the next level. Athletes invest a lot of training time and money on gear, entry fees, travel etc… For some of you nutrition is the missing link. It doesn’t have to be, let me know what you are struggling with and how I can help!

Train hard and eat well.

Reference: Hansen, et. al (2014). Improved Marathon Performance by In-Race Nutritional Strategy Intervention. International Journal of Sport Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism. 24, 645-655.

About the Author:
JJ Mayo is an endurance athlete, a sports science professor, and a registered dietitian.  He believes that nutrition is the missing link for many endurance athletes. Even the best training plan will only take you so far.
Unfortunately, many athletes don’t know where to start when it comes to putting together an effective nutrition plan. You can find him at Fuel For Endurance.