There is magic in fighting battles beyond endurance.
It’s straight forward and simple. When our body runs out of fuel, it can no longer perform at the output we desire. Whether it’s 20 minutes into your workout, or 3 hours the body will slow down due to lack of fuel. You can’t control this, it will just happen. I know we have all been there. It’s defeating when it happens because you know you can do better, you did better your last workout.
How do we prevent this? In a previous post I covered fueling before your workout. If you haven’t read it, you might want to. It will help you in performing as best as you can for workouts that will last up to 60 minutes, or on the edge of 90 minutes. There are more workouts, events lasting longer than 60 minutes. It used to be that most long lasting workouts were marathons. But now we have boot camps, cross training classes, tuff mudders endurance events that are anywhere from 90 minutes to hours in duration.
You need to refuel during these events, with the right fuel to continue.
The science of it
ATP. Three letters that represent a chemical compound that is responsible for everything we do. Anything your body does is fueled by ATP.
For simplicity we can think of three different sources for our body to create ATP: Creatine Phosphate, carbohydrates, and fat. I’m not going to get into Creatine Phosphate since generally you won’t be in the intensity zone needed to use that as a source. And fat? Not going to talk about fat that much either. Carbohydrates is what this post is going to focus on.
Carbohydrates, or sugar, is what the body processes into glycogen and glucose. Glucose is what is in our blood to be used with oxygen to create ATP so we can function. Think of glycogen as the unused glucose. Glycogen gets stored in our liver and in our muscles. When the body needs glucose the glycogen is then converted to glucose. Our body can store only so much glycogen. If you have ever heard of someone ‘carbo loading’ the night before an event such as a marathon, that person was trying to fill up the glycogen fuel tank so they are heading into the event with a full fuel tank. Studies have shown that this carbo loading may not be all that effective or necessary. Your body can hold only so much glycogen, about 500 grams or 2000 calories worth. If you eat more food than needed, that extra amount of carbs gets turned into fat. Studies have also shown that a meal high in carbs a couple of hours before the event should satisfy the amount of carbs needed to top out your glycogen stores as long as you are not already overly depleted.
This 500 gram supply of glycogen can last for as much as 90 minutes when exercising at a low intensity level or up to 30 minutes when training at a high intensity level.
Is it starting to make sense why what we eat and when we eat is very important to how we perform? And there’s still more to cover!
We hit the 90 minute mark and have depleted our glycogen stores. Bone dry. Our body comes to a crashing halt, unable to move anymore without fuel. Well, not really. But things do happen that we really don’t want happening. Our body will be forced to slow down into a lower intensity level where we can use fat as a fuel. But we cannot use only fat as a fuel. Our body still craves glucose and will do anything to get it. You’re not going to like this part. It’s somewhat disconcerting and demoralizing. Your body will turn on you and metabolize muscle. Muscle that you have been working your butt off to build. Your body has turned against you and your gains that you made are starting to diminish. The body does what the body needs to do. The longer the event the more muscle lost to being converted to fuel.
Don’t worry, there’s hope. There are steps we can take to prevent this from happening and to be strong at the beginning, middle and end of the event.
You have probably already figured it out, what it is we need to do. We need to eat! We need to get carbs back into our system. So reach into your backpack and pull out a couple of donuts you have in there for this purpose. Might as well enjoy it, right? Alright, not really. There are better ways to get carbs into our system.
When do we do this? Do we do this after our glycogen stores are depleted? No. Let’s not get to that point. Let’s get those carbs back into our system before our performance is impacted. Ideally to not get impacted you will want to take a form of carbohydrates about every 30 minutes during exercise. And you will want to do this in a way that is easy. Forget the donut and lets use something easier and better.
Gels, sport drinks, fruit. These are some options. If you have a bit of a break during your event you might want to consume an orange, or banana, or maybe some dates. If you don’t have a break, or you want something easy to digest try a sports gel or a sports drink. Easy to take and easy to process. Remember, we are all different. The amount you need is probably different that the amount I would need. This comes under training smart. Try using varying amounts as you train and find the best combination. Maybe a gel pack to start then a couple of mouthfuls of a sports drink later. Or maybe a gel pack and a couple of mouthfuls of a sports drink to wash it down. You have to play with it. But at least you are taking something! That alone should help you. One warning though. Once you have found what works for you, the brand of sports gel, amount, etc. don’t go messing with that combination on the day of the event. It could be the worst thing you do. Just like a marathoner wouldn’t run the event in a brand new, never worn pair of shoes you never want to introduce anything new. You never know how your body, or digestive system will react. It very well could react negatively ending your event prematurely.
Finished, time to rest
You have finished your event, your workout. What you do know is important to how you will feel that day or the following day. Our glycogen stores are still depleted and we need to fill them back up. Don’t go for the protein shake yet. You will need some protein but that’s later. If you were to eat protein instead of carbs you may not have enough glucose and glycogen to create the energy to digest the food and once again your body will be eating itself. Try to refuel with a combination of 4 carbs to 1 protein. If your event was exceptionally long, you will want to continue to reload carbs up to 24 hours after the event.
Be the best
I probably sound redundant but I believe a good message deserves to be heard over and over. Train smart. I’ll give you an example. Years ago people would train and compete in events without drinking water and sometimes in extreme heat. You were a wimp if you drank water. You were told to ‘suck it up’. So what happened that you hardly ever see anyone training without water. Even the military, the bastion of this type of thinking is taking hydration seriously. What happened? People died! And people started to find out that people were dying due to dehydration.
You probably won’t die due to depleted glycogen stores but you could be causing short and long term damage. And you performance will suffer, and you will feel like crap. Really. Running out of glycogen is called ‘hitting the wall’, not ‘laying down in a nice soft bed’. That should tell you something.
I have another reason for you to do this. You owe it to yourself. You owe it to yourself to be as strong as you can and have an awesome experience doing it instead of it being disappointing. At least, I think you do.
Yours in health,