When trainers say to eat more food, they aren't suggesting piling on the nachos, margaritas, and brownies. Even just loading up on fruits, veggies, and meat is not going to do it. The food needed for an incredibly long hike, ultra marathon, triathlon, or other endurance activities should be based on the requirements of the endeavor and your specific physical needs.
If you aren't fueling your training properly, you won't get in condition to meet the demands of the event. JR says he sees the signs of under eating all the time - athletes who complain of chronic fatigue, an inability to complete training tasks and trouble concentrating.
"I've had athletes come to me eating only 2,000 calories a day when they were burning up 5,000," he says.
Athletes who don't adequately fuel train or consume enough calories throughout the actual event are likely to "bonk" during the competition or chalk up a dreaded DNF (did not finish).
To figure out how many calories you need, first find out your Basal Metabolic Rate or BMR. This is the amount of calories your body burns when you are just taking it easy. Go to www.iron90.com, select Fitness Tools then BMR and fill in your weight, height, and age to get your approximate daily caloric need.
To that figure, you add the calories it will take to complete a daily six-hour hike or one-mile swim or two-hour weight pumping session or whatever training regime you are undertaking. Treadmills and other cardio equipment often display caloric expenditure. Plus, you can go online or look in books to find the range of calories burned while running, walking, skating, and other activities. For example, a 150-pound person at a 7-mile-per-hour pace burns about 780 calories an hour. That person swimming laps at a moderate speed uses up close to 560 calories each hour. Do some math and you can calculate how many calories are needed for training for the big event.
BMR and caloric expenditure can vary greatly from person to person. The proof is in the performance. If you can't make it through that last mile or need a four-hour nap after your swim, try upping your calories.
As for what to eat, JR says more than half the calories should be from complex carbohydrates such as grains, whole-wheat pasta, and brown rice. Fruits and some veggies supply the simple sugars. Choose lean meats and fish for 20 to 25 percent of protein calories and don't forget the calorie-dense, oils found in nuts as well as good oils like olive and canola.
Athletes learn quickly that an ice cream dinner or a beer with pizza at lunch net reduced performance. Eating frequently, drinking homemade shakes, and carefully planning daily food fare keeps training on track.
Race day is another strategy. High caloric content and easy-to-digest is the goal. Energy drinks, gels, and goo are the fuels of the day. But, JR says every endurance athlete also finds his or her own favorite foods. There comes a point during the eight-hour event where you can't choke down another bottle of sports brew or pack of goo.
"Every athlete has their favorite food during competition," says JR. "Sometimes it is not only about the nutrition, it is about the mental boost you get from a new taste and texture. During the bike of an Ironman, I discovered an incredible boost from red licorice that seems to send energy straight to my bloodstream."
Salt is another nutritional need that must be met by endurance athletes. Hyponatremia or low blood sodium can make you crash and burn. Salt tablets, sodium replacement liquids, or candy bars with salty nuts such as Payday, are common favorites of endurance athletes.