Staying energized during a workout is crucial. Many endurance athletes know the feeling of ‘hitting the wall, which causes major performance loss, concentration and can also lead to fainting or reckless behavior. I’ve had a few of these episodes during cycling training and I pretty much didn’t remember how I got home. It was like the last few hours of my memory were erased. Needless to say, it’s not a fun feeling, nor is it healthy or safe.
First, we need to understand how much energy we need and have stored. This varies greatly per activity. If you do High Intensity Interval training, your heart rate will be much higher then if you are doing a steady hike.
Energy is provided by fats and glycogen. Creatine Phosphate is one as well but unrelated to this article. Protein are normally not used much in the energy process (with the exception of branded chain amino acids or extreme situations). Glycogen is the most important fuel you need for training and competing.
When your body digests food, carbohydrates are turned into glycogen with the help of insulin. The glycogen is used in the energy process to fuel your muscles, brain and organs. If there is enough glycogen available, it is stored mostly in the muscles and liver.
In an average person, about 500 grams of glycogen can be stored which is 2000 calories. This varies on your health, muscle mass, size, weight etc. Some athletes can store much more and there are also techniques (carb loading) to temporarily increase storage capacity. Keep in mind, to store glycogen, your muscles need a lot of water so drink plenty throughout the day.
Once you start working out, your body starts using this glycogen and if you don’t replenish it, a typical person runs out after about 60-90 minutes. That is what we refer to as “hitting the wall”.
Now how can we avoid this? Here are a few pointers:
– Preparation: Make sure you are fueled up before you embark on an intense or long workout (or race). Most athletes try to avoid stomach discomfort by eating 3-4 hours before race time. If you are a regular athlete going to work out, you simply try to schedule your meals in a way that provides you with enough energy but without making you sick. I like to focus on complex carbs for a more steady, gradual release of energy.
– Steady blood levels: Try to keep your blood sugar levels stable. You can do this by eating 5-6 smaller meals/day. It prevents binge eating and huge insulin spikes (one of the causes of diabetes and also “crashing”). I try to combine complex cards, healthy fats and protein in every meal.
– Drink enough water: this does not necessarily refer to glycogen levels but if you become dehydrated, you will loose your energy levels. During a workout, drink regularly but with small sips.
– Keep eating: On long workouts (think endurance athletes), stay energized by eating snacks, gels and bars every 30 minutes or so. Once your glycogen storage is finished, it is hard to catch back up. Try to prevent this by fueling yourself continuously. If you (for example), burn 600 calories/hour on the bike and eat a 350 calorie snack 2 times/hour, you should be able to prevent a burnout. Most likely, your sport bars or gels will have simple sugars for quick digestion.
– About 30-40 minutes before your event, eat something small that is easy to digest. It will increase your glycogen levels in time for your event but without overloading your system.
– Healthy eating: If your body has what it needs in terms of fuel, vitamins, minerals and other nutrients, it will run smoother and be more reliable. If you throw dirt in your car’s gas tank, it probably won’t run very well either. Your body is your machine, take care of it.
– Caffeine: This is shown to be a stimulant and also has some health benefits. If you do take it, make sure not to take too much and hydrate well. Caffeine can dehydrate so drink enough water. As always, try it out during training before taking it to the race. Be careful with too many energy drinks. They go down smooth but may overload your body.
– Don’t eat foods heavy with fats or fiber shortly before or during your event. This takes too long to digest and may cause an upset stomach.
– Sports drinks: These may be a great solution if you are the type of person who forgets to eat enough during exercise or can’t handle ingesting many solid foods at that time.
Of course, every individual is different. Try out new methods during training, not a race. Attempt to find healthy and organic snacks. Chemically enhanced supplements may give you a short term boost but who knows what they do long term. Use common sense and I hope these tips help you improving performance!
By Sander Vanacker for FitGuana
Sander Vanacker is a personal trainer, CEO of Bring Back Nature, Inc. and founder of FitGuana. He believes in improving health and wellness by incorporating more nature into our lives, being active and spending more time outdoors.