Dr. Lewis Maharam explains what to do during training to help achieve success at your event.
Written by: Dr. Lewis G. Maharam, MD
Training prepares your muscles, ligaments, tendons, heart, lungs, and entire body for your event. It is also YOUR time to practice. You should practice not only how you will maneuver over hills (interval training), but also how you will eat, drink, and react to pain or injury on race day. The first (and most important) rule of endurance medicine is “Don’t do anything new on race day!” Practice these strategies now, in training, so that you will be ready for your race.
Please remember that you are an experiment unto yourself. The greatest mistake made by participants is relying on the advice of others rather than experimenting for themselves. You should practice, experiment, and have fun figuring out what works best for your body. My basic recommendations are as follows:
Drink water. For athletes, water is the drink of choice for both general health and endurance training lasting less than 30 minutes.
Use sports drinks on longer runs. Sports drinks are recommended exclusively for runs/walks/biking lasting more than 30 minutes. Train to use these drinks undiluted; do not mix them with water. The added carbohydrates and electrolytes speed absorption of fluids and add calories for energy. There is actually decreased benefit to watering down or diluting sports drinks or alternating sports drinks with water because doing so decreases your performance and your body’s ability to handle the stress of an endurance event.
Train with your sports drink before you race with it. As you begin training for your chosen event, find out which sports drink will be available along the course. I always suggest trying this drink during training. You will find that there are some drinks that your body simply does not like during training (you’ll feel bloated or feel that you are not digesting them well). If you don’t like the drink that will be available, make preparations to use an alternate sports drink on event day (that is, carry your own in a “Fuel Belt” around your waist, or something similar).
Drink when you’re thirsty. Rely on your thirst mechanism to indicate signs of dehydration. New research shows this to be the best indicator! You’re unique, so don’t copy what other participants do. Some people need less fluid than you, whereas others need more. Learn your individual hydration needs by focusing on your thirst mechanism: When you’re thirsty, have something to drink.
Maintain a healthy level of hydration. It is vital to stay well hydrated throughout the day. The color of your urine should be similar to the yellow color of lemonade. Urine that is darker (like iced tea) or approaches an amber color is a signal that you are dehydrated and need to drink fluids. Urine that is clear like water means you are overhydrated.
Eat balanced meals. As an athlete (competitive or recreational), your body must be fueled optimally to exercise effectively. To maintain or improve strength, speed, and stamina, consume adequate amounts of carbohydrates, protein, and fat. Most studies agree that a daily diet of 55–65 percent carbohydrates, 15–20 percent protein, and 20–30 percent fat is ideal. Although this concept is great in theory, most people have a difficult time accurately applying it to their everyday lives. The U.S. Department of Agriculture came up with the Food Guide Pyramid to help put these healthy guidelines into practice. Do not get too compulsive about this; do your best to approximate your food intake based on the pyramid. Should you need personal, more specific advice, ask your physician to recommend a registered dietitian/nutritionist in your area.
Eating meals high only in carbohydrates for lunch and dinner pretraining or pre-race is not recommended. Do your best to follow the food guidelines just outlined at all times. It is very important to experiment (during training) to find the “right” foods for your body.
Avoid heavy fats. Emphasize healthy foods in your diet while limiting fried and high-fat foods.
Always eat breakfast. Practice your pretraining or pre-race breakfast, and experiment in regard to food selection. A bagel with jelly, a glass of orange juice, and a banana make a terrific breakfast and create a solid base for exercise. If you want a one-plate meal, I especially recommend what I call the “Elvis bagel”: a bagel of your choice with peanut butter and banana. It covers all the bases, with the bagel for carbohydrate, the peanut butter for an excellent source of protein, and the banana for immediate energy.
No matter what you choose, the most important advice I can give here is to make sure that you eat something before heading out, and leave a little time to digest it. No fuel means poor performance. Balanced fuel means you’ll run longer and better. If you’re not heading out right after breakfast, then eat a light snack in the morning prior to your training session.
Do “the salt.” For triathlon training or run/walk events of 10K or longer, it is important to maintain your salt level and hydration. For that reason, I ask all participants to practice “the salt” (as long as your doctor has not restricted your salt intake). Prior to event day, get two small packets of salt (found at all fast-food restaurants). Just before you start, pour one packet of salt on your hand and lick it; the salt will be absorbed in your mouth. Halfway through the event (or training session), lick the second packet of salt. Maintaining your salt level and hydration will help you feel great at the end of your training session or event. It is not wise to use salt tablets or capsules because with the decreased blood flow to the stomach resulting from the blood being diverted to your legs, this form of salt will be irritative to the stomach lining and not well absorbed.
Use energy gels in moderation. Consider trying the “gel” carbohydrate replacement products. Be sure to chase them down with water (approximately 6 to 8 ounces) to avoid stomach cramps and ensure absorption. These gels should be used sparingly during exercise; once or twice is more than enough if you eat and drink properly beforehand. Consuming too much gel will cause the release of insulin, creating a yo-yo effect of sugar highs and lows that will have a negative impact on the way you feel. Again, practice, practice, practice before the event so that you can see how your body reacts and responds!
Always actively cool down after a run. After completing your training, walk for a few minutes at an easy pace, as this continued movement helps to ensure your blood flow goes from your legs back to the rest of your body. How long should you walk? No specific guideline has ever been published, but we know that the more you walk, the better your body will redirect the blood from your legs to the rest of your body, and the better you’ll feel the next day. After a marathon, 10 minutes of walking would not be too much, and 15 minutes would be better.
Eat and drink after you cool down. After walking, have something to eat and drink. Sports drinks are recommended for the electrolytes and sugar they contain to replace depleted glycogen (muscle fuel) stores (electrolytes are the free ions on that help regulate the hydration in your body, maintain proper blood pH, and contribute to nerve and muscle function). Research has shown that to avoid muscle fatigue the next day, athletes should eat carbohydrates as soon as possible following long-duration exercise.
Try recovery drinks for muscle repair. A “recovery drink” that has carbs and added protein in it is best (3:1 to 4:1 carbohydrate to protein) for giving you the amino acids necessary for muscle repair. If you do not have a recovery drink, be sure to eat protein in your next meal. Peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and chocolate milk are good food alternatives to the commercial sports drinks.
Don’t delay early treatment of aches or injuries. If you develop a pain during training that causes you to change your form, see a sports medicine physician immediately. Usually, early diagnosis and treatment will ensure little or no time away from your training. If you decide to wait, you could be out for much longer or be forced to defer your event altogether. Again, because no two people are exactly alike, get proper help early.
This article was adapted from the book Running Doc’s Guide to Healthy Running with permission of VeloPress. From head to toenails, Running Doc’s book explains healthy running practices and guides runners to the right diagnosis and treatment for over 100 running injuries and related health problems. Running Doc’s Guide to Healthy Running is now available in bookstores, running shops, and online. Download a free sample and preview the contents at velopress.com.