It’s that time of year when your race calendar is starting to come together. Perhaps you’re one of the lucky ones who’s name was drawn in the race lottery you entered, or you’re preparing to train for your back up race? Perhaps you’ve already hired a coach to help you train for your race and you’re already training? Regardless, goal-setting and preparation occupy ones mind. I think it’s easy this time of year, and especially in the months to come, to focus primarily on getting in the miles, vertical gain, or hours of training, in order to feel adequately prepared for your race. But, something I’ve learned over my years of racing, is that unless you have the proper nutrition, your body can’t absorb that training – it can’t adapt, or get stronger. Wilfredo Benitez MScN, M.Ed, the head nutritionist at On Pace Wellness, has worked with me to help optimize my nutrition throughout my season, to make sure I’m getting the most out of myself when I’m training at higher intensity, lower volume, or in the middle of a huge ramp up to a race. Below are some common nutrition questions, asked specifically from endurance athletes in my community, all answered directly by Wilfredo Benitez MScN, M.Ed. I hope they help educate you, and encourage you to incorporate a nutrition mindset to your training program.

photo credit: Luke Webster

Q: Do endurance athletes need less protein in their diet?

A: If we’re comparing the endurance athlete to an olympic bodybuilder who is aiming for a certain muscle mass and physique, then an endurance athlete probably would be consuming less than them. But endurance athletes absolutely need more protein than the average recreational athlete. All that training leads to more tissue damage and more inflammation in the body. And when you look at an endurance athlete, you’re typically looking at greater lengths of training and volume of training than the average athlete, so there is a greater protein need for tissue repair, general recovery, injury prevention, and immune system health. And another major reason to get more protein in the diet is to increase satiety and help prevent overeating of carbohydrates that can easily happen if protein consumption is not sufficient.

Q: What does ‘bioavailability’ mean and what are the best nutritional sources for it?

A: Bioavailability is often used to describe to what extent a substance is available to the body’s systems or organs that need the substance. In nutrition, we might use the term “bioavailability” to better understand if a certain vitamin is better absorbed through food versus through supplementation. Another reason may be to discuss what form of a mineral might absorption or effectiveness be better for the targeted reason we’re using supplementation. In general, it’s understood amidst those who practice more holistically that it is always best to get what we need from food versus from supplements, but this is a principle that can and should be bent. Some common scenarios for which supplementation could be necessary is if someone is experiencing a health matter that is clearly impeding optimal nutrient levels from being obtained or, and especially, when we’re talking about endurance athletes. Endurance athletes simply need more nutrition to restore nutrients in the body and allow them to get through rigorous training in the healthiest way, and supplementation of some nutrients can often be very helpful for this type of athlete.

Photo credit: Luke Webster

Q: What are the most common nutritional deficiencies you’ve seen in endurance athletes?

A: Low ferritin and Vitamin D are by far the two most common deficiencies I’ve seen. Occasionally I’ll see low B12 as well (and this isn’t only with vegetarians and vegans). This being said, this is only what the more common blood panels will show. When I complete an athlete’s dietary analysis, while it’s not a proven marker of a deficiency in the body, I often see insufficient dietary intake of many more nutrients, and if I had to name the most common nutrients I flag, I’d say they would include: Vitamin E, calcium, iron, magnesium, and omega-3 fatty acids. Now, don’t go run to the pharmacy or your grocery store and pick up supplements for these nutrients…please talk to me or your doctor or another nutrition professional before you do this.

Q: What might be some nutritional signs that an endurance athlete is entering into low energy availability due to under fueling? 

A: The three most common signs I see with my clients are: 1) they are struggling to get and remain satiated; 2) they are struggling with training despite what appears to be sufficient fitness; and 3) they are experiencing low energy throughout the day, despite the same sleep hours. There could be other things going on, and I often have to ask five or more questions before I feel good about how I’m going to address a symptom or new experience, but low energy availability is real, it can creep up on you, and it can wreak havoc if it goes ignored. If you think you are experiencing this, also called Relative Energy Deficiency in Sport (RED-S), then I urge you to have a discussion with your coach, your doctor, or a nutrition professional to help you assess what might be going on.

photo credit: Luke Webster

Q: What are your nutritional best practices for this time of year (off season or maintenance phase)? 

A: 1) Don’t forget about your hydration. In the off season, people tend to drink less water and they stop using electrolytes, so their hydration can take a hit. Be mindful of this as you look to get back into training as dehydration is another one of those areas that can creep up slowly enough to where it’s often unnoticed. Also, remember that off-season is when the body is still recovering a ton and adapting a long training cycle or even a year’s worth of fitness, so off-season is the time for nourishment, not the time for reducing intake too much or eating all the sugar or drinking alcohol all the time because you’re not training. What might also help is tracking your nutrition for a few days. I don’t usually love nor recommend using apps for this, but if you can avoid becoming too caught up in constant tracking, simply tracking your off-season or maintenance-season nutritional intake for a few days can help give you an idea of what your calories, macronutrient intake, and maybe micronutrient intake is looking like. Every person’s needs are different, so instead of recommending specific numbers, I recommend keeping your off-season/maintenance-season macronutrient % breakdown close to the following: Carbs 46-50% // Fat 28-32% // Protein 18%-26%. Oh, and continue eating plenty of greens! 

photo credit: Luke Webster

Q: If someone is looking to optimize their nutrition, what or where is the best place to start?

A: I’ll leave three answers here: 1) Reach out to me! Our team at On Pace Wellness is ready to work with you! 2) Outside of maybe fueling before a run, try to add a major protein source to every meal, especially ones that are overly carbohydrate-heavy. And this doesn’t have to be meat or fish; it could be eggs, tofu, tempeh, hemp seeds, chia seeds, other seeds, legumes, etc. and 3) Focus on fiber. That’s something I usually don’t mind people overly focusing on is fiber, because when we increase our fiber, we increase our nutrient-dense whole foods! If you’re someone with not much fiber in your diet, don’t go full throttle right away or you might increase unwanted gastrointestinal distress! Do this slowly, or better yet, reach out to us so we can guide you.

Wilfredo Benitez, MScN, M.Ed.

Thank you to Wilfredo for answering all these questions. If you’d like to take the next step in your training and performance to optimize your performance, contact Wilfredo over at On Pace Wellness, and get started today. Wilfredo and I will be hosting another Q&A on nutrition, answering your questions from the community. Sign up for my newsletter, to say up to date so you don’t miss the next one.

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