Updated: Dec 15, 2020
by Laura Henry
Training is critical to success in any sport. But second to that, in my time as an athlete and coach, I’ve yet to find something that is more critical to athlete success than nutrition is.
There is an entire industry built around just sports nutrition. Without exaggeration, it seems like there is some new product being introduced or reformulated every few weeks that promises to be the best solution for athletes in their training and racing.
Nutrition (which I am using here as a broad term to encompass all “items” consumed in training and racing, so I am also discussing hydration) is undoubtedly very important and can be tricky to get just right. But I can sum up everything I’ve learned about nutrition in just a few words: Keep sports nutrition as simple as your body allows.
With the aforementioned plethora of sports nutrition products on the market, it is very easy to get caught up in the hype and think that you need to invest in a bunch of different products to be successful. And with so many flavors, textures, and variations, it’s very easy to become overwhelmed by all of the choices.
When giving athletes advice about how to tackle the nutrition side of training and racing, I stick to a few initial suggestions:
If the athlete is preparing for an event where there will be on-course nutrition, I encourage the athlete to try out exactly what is going to be available on-course. If an athlete can consume what is available on-course this significantly decreases the logistics for nutrition on race day, which reduces a lot of stress and decreases the level of uncertainty that the athlete might face. Win-win!
If the athlete isn’t sure what to consume or where to start, I encourage the athlete to visit a local running store or bike shop (where sports nutrition products are readily available) and to purchase a wide variety of sports nutrition products. This includes different brands, flavors, textures, etc. The only way to find out what you like and what works for you is to test a bunch of different products and see how they work.
Once you find what works, stick to it and don’t mess with it unless you have reason to. In other words: If it isn’t broken, don’t “fix” it. (Using a personal example: I figured out what works best for me five years ago. I haven’t ever deviated from that since, and I’ve done very well in my training and races since I dialed this in and stuck to it.)
As a coach, nutrition is almost always something that I need to address when I’m working with an athlete. This part of the athlete’s training and preparation is often “low-hanging fruit” for me, meaning that an athlete’s lack of good nutrition habits is an easy thing for me to identify and help the athlete resolve. It gives a huge return on investment once it is optimized, as the athlete not only performs better in a single workout session when nutrition is dialed in, but they also recover better, which significantly enhances not only the rest of their training sessions, but their regular daily life as well. It’s much easier to go about your daily life activities when you are not feeling overfatigued and tired from lack of or improper fueling!
I have seen the best and worst of nutrition in training and racing. I have seen how developing good nutrition habits can revolutionize and optimize how an athlete feels and performs during workouts and races. I have also seen what poor nutrition habits do. On the best “poor nutrition day,” an athlete feels sub-par physically and doesn’t produce a good performance. On the worst “poor nutrition day,” an athlete either winds up not finishing a workout or race or - at the very worst - ending up requiring medical care.
Yes, it’s true. I’ve seen nutrition be the cause of an athlete’s DNF (Did Not Finish) result in a race. I’ve seen this happen from poor nutrition choices while racing (such as choosing the incorrect type of fuel or not fueling enough), and I’ve also seen it as the result of being too reliant on their own nutrition sources and not being able to or willing to take nutrition that is available on-course. I have also seen athletes carried off on stretchers, having collapsed due to poor fueling or hydration.
Like anything in sport, the body must be trained when it comes to nutrition. This means that if you are not fueling enough, you need to train yourself to fuel with enough calories and hydration. Effectively, this means that you need to train your gut to take on this nutrition. It can take a long time to do this, but like all things in sport that take time, it’s always worth it.
What is “best” depends on a lot of factors, including the sport discipline, duration of the session or race, in-event or in-workout fuel storage options, and what (if anything) is available on-course. For instance, how one fuels a sprint triathlon at sea level in a hot climate is going to be pretty different than how one fuels a cross-country skiing event at altitude in cold conditions.
Flavor is something that comes up often, especially when discussing the options that will be available on-course at a race. Many times, athletes do not prefer the flavors that are available on-course. Very frankly, I often suggest that athletes train themselves to overcome this and to ingest it even if it isn’t their preferred flavor. It is so much easier to know that taking on-course nutrition is a viable option; it decreases the number of things an athlete needs to bring with them to the race and that they need to carry on their person on-course. It also decreases the amount of uncertainty on race day, as then the athlete does not need to worry about something going wrong with that precious nutrition that they are bringing with them.
Of course, there are very legitimate reasons why something may not work for an athlete nutrition-wise. Perhaps particular products cause gastrointestinal distress, or perhaps an athlete is allergic to ingredients in a particular product. If this is the case, then it is very important that the athlete determines what will work best for them, and then not only bring what they need on race day, but additional resources as a contingency plan in case something goes wrong (i.e. accidentally dropping nutrition off of a bike during a triathlon). But even in this case, we do want to make it as simple as the athlete’s body will allow.
Nutrition is one of the more “finicky” aspects of sport in the sense that it can take a long time to get just right and to figure out what actually works best. As you navigate this path in your own training and racing, let the idea of keeping nutrition as simple as your body allows prevail, and you will be set up for success no matter what goal you decide to tackle next!