Tuesday, 31 March 2009

The big Sports Nutrition post: the background

If transitions are the fourth discipline in triathlon, surely nutrition and hydration are the fifth. Get it right and you set yourself up for a great Ironman; get it wrong and you're bonking/dehydrating/vomiting/passing out all the way to a DNF.

So following some of Jim's musings and experiments in making his own energy gels, and my recent posts to the TriTalk and BikeRadar forums on sports nutrition, I figured it was time to blog some of my own thoughts and experiences about this very important and sometimes frustrating side of endurance athletics. In the second part, I've posted some tried and true recipes for various sports drinks and concoctions.

A bit of background

When I first started training seriously for triathlon in 2004, I had been more of less following the Zone way of eating for the past 5 years; that is, moderating my carbs, protein and fat intake in meals and snacks to be 40%, 30%, and 30% respectively. I had found this was the best way both to eat well (lots of veggies and lean meats with a moderate amount of "good" fats) and to control my appetite and blood sugar to avoid those afternoon dips. In fact, I had gotten good enough at that way of eating that I switched to decaf coffee shortly after starting on the Zone, and never looked back.

The problem is, the Zone diet was designed for ordinary (okay, probably even overweight) people, living normal mostly-sedentary lives and needing a way to control their weight and blood sugar. It wasn't designed for athletes, and especially not for endurance athletes. Its negative skew of all things sugary meant that I started out as a triathlete thinking I needed to avoid taking in excess carbs in the form of sugar, and sticking to my 40-30-30 calorie distribution. Of course, this is only really applicable in the hours outside of training and its immediate recovery period. For time spent exercising and the 2 hours directly afterwards, a much higher concentration of carbs is needed in the diet. And the longer you train, the more important it is both to ingest enough calories during exercise and to recover well with enough calories afterward.

The Research

So I started Googling and reading about it. A friend gave me a free can of Accelerade and I used it as a recovery drink, finding that I suddenly felt much more refreshed the next day. I started buying all the different gels I saw at my favourite Canadian cycling/running store and trying them out. I looked at the ingredients of various sports nutrition drinks, researched what they did and how they worked, and started experimenting with making some myself. Given the simplicity of the ingredients and exorbitant expense of the store-bought ones (and with my unpredictable income as a freelance film industry worker), I was happy to invest some time and energy into a cheap and workable solution to my energy needs.

Right away I learned that simple sugars such as those found in Gatorade and most during-exercise sports nutrition products (glucose, dextrose and fructose) needed to be mixed in lower concentrations in order to prevent stomach upset, and that they tended to produce severe blood sugar spikes. With my sensitive stomach and history of rollercoastering blood sugar, I was therefore drawn to Hammer Nutrition, whose products contain only complex carbs in the form of maltodextrin (which produces a more even insulin reaction and can be mixed in higher concentration due to its greater osmolality). I browsed their website, read a bunch of their articles ("10 Biggest Mistakes Endurance Athletes Make", "15 Simple Ways to Improve Your Athletic Performance" , "Recovery - A Crucial Component for Athletic Success" and the mother of them all, "The Endurance Athlete's Guide to Success") and studied the nutritional info of their products. Then I set about trying to make my own.

The ingredients were pretty ordinary. Plain maltodextrin for short training sessions was easy to get at my local beer-brewing shop, and soy protein (needed for for longer training sessions) I found at the health food store. Whey protein and extra glutamine for my recovery drink was available at the sports supplement store. I managed to replicate electrolyte tablets and powders by mixing salt, lo-salt (containing potassium), calcium powder and magnesium powder in the appropriate ratio. Since moving to the UK, I've even found a source for powdered flavourings, so have said good-bye to the old unsweetened Kool-Aid packets. Jim has furthered the research into things like BCAAs and HMB, so that will be added to future versions of my concoctions as well.

The Current Favourites

Of course, since I started this sports nutrition project I've moved continents once, countries twice, been employed steadily making good money and gotten quite serious as an amateur athlete with Ironman Kona goals. So even though I still make my own training and recovery mixes -- particularly recovery mixes as that's where I don't need to worry about stomach sensitivity so much -- I also buy the following products regularly now from Hammer UK because I can afford it and because sometimes it's just easier. I should point out that unless otherwise noted, I always mix my drinks into a concentrated paste/liquid in a separate bottle or flask, so that I can isolate my water intake from my fuel intake.
  • Perpeteum - My staple for long bike rides including Ironman. The 8:1 soy protein/malto mix with added fat means it digests steadily and I don't get hunger pangs after 5-6 hours in the saddle. I'm going to try to replicate it using egg yolk powder for the fat as soy lecithin powder is not so readily available.
  • Hammer Gel - My staple for runs including marathons, as it's malto-based, easy to carry, easy to eat, doesn't upset my stomach, and comes in many different flavours, both in little packets and large jugs. Jim has a recipe for making gels like this but not a way to package them into one-serving foil wrappers (yet!)
  • Sustained Energy - The original endurance fuel, its 7:1 soy protein/malto ratio makes it a little less heavy in the stomach than Perpeteum. I've made my own and flavoured it with instant coffee granules to add some caffeine. Nice for medium-length rides or mixed half and half with Perp.
  • Heed - The basic carb-only sports drink, and my staple for short intense rides when it's logistically easier to combine my fuel and water into one bottle. It's got electrolytes added too, so great in summer.
  • Endurolytes -Electrolytes including Sodium, Calcium, Potassium, Magnesium in the ratio of 4:2:1:1 respectively. I prefer to use the capsules rather than add the powder to my mix, so that I can control my electrolyte intake better and top up quickly when necessary. I do add my own electrolyte mix to my recovery drink however.
  • Anti-Fatigue Caps - Various hard-to-find ingredients which act as scavengers for the ammonia that's a by-product of protein metabolism. The body burning protein is something that happens after about 2 hours of training, making this good for long rides and runs. Haven't been able to test it "scientifically" enough to say for sure that it works -- it might be a placebo effect after all! -- but it seems to help with muscle fatigue once I get over 4-5 hours in the saddle.
  • Energy Surge - Pure ATP which is what sprinters burn through. Probably not so useful for endurance events unless there's a big climb coming up or a sprint finish predicted. Haven't figured out how to take these little pills when I really need them, like in a cycling circuit or road race, without dropping or losing them. Maybe stuffed inside something solid like a wine gum? Jim likes them for running fast 5km races as they do give an instant kick.
and shortly to try
  • Race Day Boost - Sodium Phosphate "loading" and glycogen storage supplement for endurance events, to set up the blood to buffer lactic acid. Interested to see how/if it works, as lots of users rave about it. Can't seem to find pharmaceutical grade sodium phosphate anywhere, so I haven't been able to make it myself.
and possibly
  • Liquid Endurance - Glycerol loading for hot weather events, which lets your muscles store extra water. Since I no longer reside in the tropics of southern Ontario in the summer, I don't really need this unless we get an unexpected heatwave.
So without further adieu, here are the latest renditions of my recipes for various training and recovery mixes.

By the way, if you've been inspired by what I've written and want to order your own whey and carbo powders from MyProtein.co.uk, please use my referral code! MP107371

1 comment:

sabominator said...

i am so happy i found this post!

i am a newbie triathlete who has just switched to eating according to the zone, due to real problems during training with reactive hypoglycemia and blood sugar crashes (although i am not diabetic). i have been puzzling over how to eat "zone-friendly" during a longer race or training session. reading your recommendations for products is really helpful. i already love the hammer gels because they don't induce the same spike and crash for me, and now i have a list of other things to try.

if you have any more helpful advice on racing with blood sugar issues, i'd love to hear it!
thanks again!