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Sports Nutrition for Beginners

Eating properly for the demands of endurance sports can be challenging, especially if you're new to sport. We explore common misconceptions and pitfalls for the beginner endurance athlete.

sports nutrition for beginners
Photo: Vitali Pavlyshynets on Unsplash

I’ve had a challenging relationship with food ever since my days as a competitive figure skater. In that sport, being light was key, not just because of aesthetics, but also because being light improved my ability to complete technical jumps and spins.

Now, as I’ve become more enamored with cycling, I’ve had to work hard to improve my relationship with food. That’s because the needs of my body have drastically changed; to do it well, cycling demands I eat higher quality food—and more of it. Six-hour rides have quickly made me realize that I must view food as something far more than food—it is fuel for performance.

This new perspective hasn’t meant a complete overhaul of my diet. That’s because, particularly as a newcomer to cycling, small changes in my training can yield substantial gains. I won’t dive too deep into all of what I mean by that; instead, check out Fast Talk episode 153: “Forget Marginal Gains and Focus on the Fundamentals” for an overview of how the fundamentals power 95 percent of the gains any athlete is likely to see as they progress.

Today, I’ll focus on the one fundamental piece that has given me trouble for so long: nutrition.

The basics of good nutrition

Ryan Kohler, my coach for the N:1 Challenge, and Head Coach at Fast Talk Laboratories, is also a sports nutritionist. If you are completely new to the subject of sports nutrition, I recommend starting with his three-part series on the Basics of Sports Nutrition.

Eating well, in general, means forming good habits; eating well for sport is much the same. First, you should learn the basic principles. Then you’ll have a better understanding of the increased demands that endurance activity puts on your body’s fuel stores. Finally, that information allows you to adapt your diet as you become more or less active throughout the year.

Eat enough!

One common theme that comes from the consultations Kohler has with athletes, particularly beginners, is the idea of energy availability. It turns out that many new endurance athletes don’t eat enough.

A typical diet, which might be able to support an average amount of physical activity, will not be enough to sustain proper fueling during hours-long bike rides. An athlete, in conjunction with a coach, should calculate the amount of energy per hour that he or she is burning, beyond what is already being used for daily living. This allows you to determine how many additional calories are needed for the ride.

And the equation doesn’t end when the ride stops—increased activity will necessitate changes to your nutrition before and after a workout.

Also realize that you need to do the math, but you needn’t get obsessive or start weighing all your food and counting every calorie. New athletes can fall victim to overemphasizing the importance of every single calorie and gram of carbohydrate.

“As a new athlete, you can stress yourself out about your diet by thinking about an article you read online, or what you overheard from someone at work or on a group ride,” Kohler says. “Thinking that you need to weigh your oatmeal isn’t going to help your performance. This is a common pitfall that you can avoid, because good nutrition doesn’t have to be complicated. Think about what is going to support your exercise. It’s primarily carbohydrates. Additionally, you’ll need a little bit of protein, and a little bit of fat in your pre-exercise meal. But in general, eating for sports performance is not all that different from a generally healthy approach to eating.”

Eat the right foods

Secondly, you need to make sure you are eating the right foods. That’s easier said than done. Classifying foods as “good” or “bad” is not so simple, particularly if they’re being utilized in the middle of an event when your body needs a quick shot of sugar to support a particular type of effort. (Is sugar good for you? No, but it’s what your body demands if you are doing a long, hard session.)

It may seem obvious, but many people get it wrong: Properly fueling for a race means taking into consideration the length of the race. Similarly, a six-hour ride will have greater fueling demands than going on a short hour-long interval workout.

Often, endurance activities and races are associated with the idea of carbo-loading. The traditional example of eating bowls of pasta the night before an event has, thankfully, fallen out of popularity as modern nutrition research and science has become more common knowledge. However, the principle that your body burns carbs during athletic activity still holds true.

What we now know is that some of the best sources of carbohydrates are found naturally in fruits and vegetables. Put down that bagel; set aside that bowl of oatmeal before your race, especially if it doesn’t sit well in your stomach while you’re riding hard.

Keep it simple. If you’ve fueled properly in the days leading into your event, you can get all of the carbohydrates you need before a race from eating a substantial meal three to four hours ahead of the start, and then a single banana an hour before the gun goes off.

The importance of hydration

For an overview of the importance of hydration, check out Kohler’s article on Concepts for Fueling the Engine.

Then check out Coach Trevor Connor’s article on electrolytes and sodium in sports beverages, Sweetening the Truth on Hydration.

For this fueling conversation, we’ll discuss the fluids you’re drinking in terms of the number of carbs they’re delivering to your system. Different drinks, from Coke to Skratch and other powdered mixes, deliver a widely varying array of carbohydrates per fluid ounce.

As you might imagine, a soda is vastly more sugar-dense than a bottle of water with Skratch mix (depending on how concentrated you’ve mixed it, of course). I don’t intend to totally demonize soda—there might be a place for it in a longer endurance race. You need to do the math and run the numbers on what you need.

Your own body, test performance results, and goal event affect how many carbohydrates per hour you need to replenish. Drinking some juice or soda may be a helpful part of your race nutrition.

Cycling, like any endurance activity, requires such significant demands from the body that refueling during races and rides is necessary. Simultaneously, you must account for your body’s ability to digest foods while still performing. Kohler recommends you keep this simple question in mind as you dial in your sports nutrition plan. “How do you feel during the ride, and then after it?” If the answer is any shade of “not great” then you’ll need to revisit your fueling plan, sources, and, perhaps, quantities.

The role of “feel” in eating for sport

Nutrition is a complicated science, but your experience and perception of what you need also have great value. The next question you need to ask yourself is, “How do I want to feel before, during, and after my workout?”

In my limited experience training as an endurance athlete, during which I’ve added in more structured training (for example, interval sessions and increases to the volume of workouts), I’ve found my body craving more of the foods that I’ve learned are good for me.

Maybe some of you can relate to the notion that good nutrition doesn’t just come down to knowing what you should or should not eat for a given meal. The greatest challenge can often be making the more fuel-appropriate choice when the less nutritious option excites your tastebuds a bit more.

As I’ve learned to appreciate the signals my body gives me to seek out more nutritious foods, my mentality toward quality fuels has completely shifted. Once you experience the painful feeling of “bonking” on a ride an hour from home, your cravings seem less important.

Reframing your entire mindset about food may not be necessary, but take the opportunity to look at what you eat in a given week and ask yourself if those foods are giving your muscles, your lungs, your heart, and your mind what they need to create the engine of an athlete.

Race-day eating plans

Maybe you’ve raced before but your experience is limited. Or maybe you’re like me and you’re building up to your first ever race. In either case, fueling for a race has its own demands and challenges.

Kohler has covered race-day nutrition plans in great detail in his three-part workshop series.

I won’t reiterate his points here, but I will point out a common mistake that could be disruptive to your race, if you make it. Since race day can lead to anxiety, there is an extra level that makes fueling tricky. That’s because nerves are an appetite suppressant. Coming up with a plan and making it a habit can help you avoid the mistake of under-fueling due to race-day stress.

There are some other basic principles that are easy to remember. For any race that’s likely to be an hour or less, you won’t need to eat during the race. If it makes you more comfortable to have a bottle with some hydration mix in it, that’s fine. Otherwise, focus on the race and forget about the fuel.

If you’re doing a race that’s about three hours long, you won’t’ need fat or protein, but you will need to supplement with carbohydrates to fuel the activity. This is when you’ll need to determine how much carbohydrate per hour you need to consume. Everyone is slightly different, but a good place to start is 40 grams per hour, according to Kohler.

Ideally, you would consume both liquid and solid fuels (drinks and bars/gels/blocks). If you rely completely on liquid fuel and decide to double the amount of hydration mix you put in your bottles to save yourself the trouble of packing a snack, think again!

“When we try to get high amounts of carbohydrate into our bodies with only liquids, that’s what can lead to GI distress,” Kohler says.

We can also train our guts and digestive system to comfortably take on more fuel. If you can do training rides while taking on 40 grams of carbs per hour without any issues, try to take on 50 grams the next time you do a nutrition-focused training ride. Keep adding more, in small increments, and see how you’re able to tolerate it. As a beginner, you’ll never need to pack in 90 grams per hour like the pros might, but trial and error can help you find what’s right for you.

Consider making notes about how you’re feeling so you can see positive and negative trends and modify your consumption accordingly. There will be a tipping point: On one side you’ll feel more energized and powerful because of the amount you’re consuming, and then when you go beyond that you’ll feel slower and weighted down. When you reach the point of over-fueling, you’ll know where your upper limit is. That will help you set bounds around your fueling plan.

Make it a habit

The most important and final step in your sports nutrition journey is making a habit of your newfound knowledge. Eat healthy, colorful foods every day, and turn up the carbohydrates for performance. Find the ones that work best for you and then practice it.

Make your fueling plan, test it, and adjust it so that you can make it a habit. At some point, you’ll no longer need to think about what you’re going to buy at the store or prep for your epic Saturday ride.

Likewise, you’ll be less likely to get caught out on a lonely stretch of road, energy depleted, with no convenience stores in range. Train your nutrition with the same dedication you train your muscles; once you can get to that effortless place of adequate fueling, you’ll be able to ride at your best.