Fueling Optimally: When Is As Important As What

Humans are “energy-first” systems.

If your only nutritional concern centers around what you eat, you may be performing only half as well as you possibly could. Dr. Dan Benardot, Ph.D., RD, professor of nutrition and kinesiology and health, and co-director of the Laboratory for Elite Athlete Performance at Georgia State University, has worked with U.S. Olympic teams to create fueling strategies, including Olympic marathon medalists Deena Kastor and Meb Keflezighi and conducted numerous studies on nutrition for athletes since co-founding the GSU lab in 1990.

After almost 22 years of research, Benardot advocates sticking to the basics: Based on total caloric consumption, 65 percent of those should come from carbohydrates, 25 percent or less from fat and 15 percent from protein. He hesitates to recommend certain types of foods or amounts because of some key findings learned from a study he recently completed on the consumption habits of top U.S. figure skaters: The skaters who had the leanest frames and highest energy not  only matched their consumption and activity levels but also spread out their intake of carbs, protein and fat throughout the day.

MORE: Demystifying Sports Nutrition

“Humans are energy-first systems,” says Benardot. “Once an athlete has figured out how to satisfy general energy requirements, then you can tweak and figure out how the energy is distributed a certain way to optimize muscular generation so you don’t overfill the cells with too much fuel at one time, which could lead to unnecessary fat being stored.”

To illustrate these principles in a convenient, straightforward way, Benardot created NutriTiming, web-based software and an iPhone app that allows users to keep track of everything they do and consume to create an hourly perspective of how energy balance. Far more sophisticated than many other food logs or journals, NutriTiming allows athletes to see exactly when they need to eat more or less, and includes automated nutrient analysis. The system expands far beyond the idea of the 24-hour cycle, breaking down consumption and expenditure on an hourly basis so athletes can make immediate adjustments to improve their fueling. Benardot’s working on a system that makes adding foods that aren’t among the system’s 5,000+ food descriptions easy.

“Everyone can get to what’s right a million different ways,” says Benardot. “I try to minimize my importance and maximize the desires of the individual so whatever adjustments we make will work for that person in the long run.”

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