Any endurance athlete knows that nailing your hydration and nutrition is key to performing well—but figuring out your fueling strategy can be one of the trickiest parts of training. Without enough fluids or calories, you’ll hit the wall just a few miles into a long run; meanwhile, the wrong foods or calorie sources can send you sprinting out of the pool and into the bathroom.
Getting ample amounts of the H20 and nutrients you need—and at the right times—is your golden ticket to going farther and faster. Use this list of do’s and don’ts to figure out your best game plan.
Do: Add Electrolytes to Your Water
Proper hydration is a must for any sort of athletic performance. When you’re properly hydrated, your body is better equipped to regulate your core temperature to prevent overheating, enhance your energy, and ensure cognitive function (i.e. your ability to think clearly), explains Alicia Jones, National Coach of Canada (NCCP), Advanced Sport Nutrition-Certified Group Fitness Instructor and Personal Training Specialist.
Read More: Are You Dehydrated Without Even Knowing It?
The thing is, for endurance athletes who perform extended bouts of exercise, plain water might not cut it. During long-haul workouts, your body also needs electrolytes to keep up with a whole slew of vital processes. You see, when we sweat, we naturally lose electrolytes—and since endurance athletes engage in extended activity, they face an increased risk for electrolyte imbalance. “When electrolytes are imbalanced, it can lead to muscle cramping and spasms, headaches, dizziness, and in more serious cases, irregular heartbeats and seizures,” says The Vitamin Shoppe nutritionist Rebekah Blakely, R.D.N. “When an endurance athlete consumes only water throughout their activity with no electrolyte replacement, they might experience hyponatremia, in which the levels of sodium in the blood drop too low.”
One of the most valuable electrolytes is sodium, which literally holds in the water you drink. “It also regulates your heart rate and your body’s natural PH levels,” Jones says. “Magnesium is another important part of the electrolyte puzzle, as it helps regulate heart function and reduces muscle cramps, and potassium is also important.”
The obvious move here: Add electrolytes to your fueling plan! On top of consuming foods containing salt and other electrolytes, Blakely recommends adding an electrolyte supplement, such as True Athlete Balanced Hydration Electrolyte Powder or Bodytech Electrolyte Fizz Packets, to your water.
Do: Load up on carbs before and during training
If we’re talking about endurance, we can’t forget about food (a.k.a. calories). “If a cyclist wants to go out on a 50-mile bike ride, they need to be consuming sufficient amounts of carbohydrates before, during, and after their ride in order to have enough fuel in their tank to complete those 50 miles,” explains sports dietitian Roxana Ehsani, M.S., R.D., C.S.S.D., a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. “If that cyclist doesn’t consume any or enough carbohydrates, they likely won’t see the results they’d like to achieve and may not have enough energy to finish the workout or hit their desired intensity.”
You’ve probably heard of runners and other long-distance athletes housing giant bowls of pasta before races—and there’s a good reason they go all in on carbs. “Carbs provide an immediate fuel source before and during a given activity, help muscles recover after exercise, and are necessary for loading glycogen stores (energy stored in the muscles and liver that the body can use during exercise),” explains Blakely.
While exact needs vary, Blakely recommends endurance athletes consume 30 to 60 grams of carbohydrates per hour during longer bouts of training. You can get that via whole foods (like pretzels, bananas, and boiled potatoes), exercise gels or chews, or carb-containing sports drinks.
Don’t: Go all in on high-fiber and high-fat foods
High-fiber and high-fat foods like quinoa, nuts, avocado, and oatmeal are nutrient-rich and contribute to a healthy diet, however, Blakely warns against loading up on them prior to a workout. “Fats and fiber take longer and more work to digest, and can lead to gas or urgent stools for some people,” she says. “Your pre-workout meal should typically contain lower-fiber carbohydrates, moderate amounts of protein, and minimal fat.” This way, you get the energy and calories you need without any undesirable side effects. One go-to Blakely recommends: a turkey sandwich on lower-fiber bread with a piece of fruit or applesauce.
Endurance activities require adequate fuel and calories, which makes any sort of restriction a recipe for disaster. In fact, Blakely warns that restricting calories and carbs can—and likely will—have a negative impact on your performance. “While some people might naturally see some weight loss during endurance training, others might maintain or even see slight gains,” she says. “It’s most important to make sure you’re properly fueled so you can feel good, recover properly, and perform at your best.”
Do: Get adequate protein
While a runner or cyclist may not need as much protein as a bodybuilder, they still need more than the minimum requirement for the average adult (0.8 grams per kilogram of body weight) in order to fuel their activity and recover their muscles. “Protein recommendations for athletes typically range from 1.2 to 2.0 grams per kilogram of body weight per day, with endurance athletes usually in the lower end of the range, depending on needs, often between 1.2 to 1.6 grams per kilogram of body weight per day,” Blakely says. “That would have a 160-pound endurance athlete between around 90 to 120 grams of protein daily.”
Read More: 9 Easy Ways To Increase Your Protein Intake
On your quest to meet that total daily mark, Blakely recommends incorporating 15 to 30 grams of protein immediately pre- or post-workout to help maximize muscle synthesis and recovery.
Don’t: Skip post-workout meals
“A couple of hours after finishing endurance exercise is prime time for repairing muscles and replenishing glycogen stores,” says Blakely. “Since exercise can be an appetite suppressant, an athlete may not always feel like eating right after finishing an activity, but they’ll get better recovery if they do. It can be as simple as a protein drink and a piece of fruit, or can be a completely balanced meal with protein, starches, and fats.”
Do: Get the post-workout carb-to-protein ratio right
As important as post-workout protein is, make sure you’re chowing down on the right ratio of carbs to protein after a long-haul effort. The nutrient breakdown should equate to significantly more carbohydrates than protein, notes Ehsani, who recommends aiming for a ratio of 4:1 carbohydrates to protein. “Instead of just having a scoop of protein with water post-workout, have a fruit smoothie made with that plus 100-percent orange juice, a frozen banana, mangos, baby spinach, and Greek yogurt,” she suggests. This way, you get enough protein and the ample amounts of carbohydrates your body needs to restock energy stores for your next effort.
Do: Test out new foods and products before competition day
Whether it’s an influx of carbohydrates or a new electrolyte-rich beverage, Ehsani recommends testing out new products or habits during training, not on competition day. “If you’d like to use carbohydrate gels that contain caffeine during your marathon but have never tried before during long training runs, start using it during training or you might experience gut havoc on race day,” she says. “You have to train your stomach to be able to tolerate a carb gel and caffeine first; it will take practice and you can experiment with different ones to see which ones you feel best consuming.”
Do: Determine your sweat rate
Knowing about how much you sweat per hour can help you tailor your hydration regimen for training and racing, and better plan for how much fluid you will need before, during, and after your effort, according to The Vitamin Shoppe nutritionist Brittany Michels, R.D.N. While there are plenty of online sweat-rate calculators you can plug your deets into, she recommends using the following formula: 16 x [(weight in pounds before activity)- (weight in pounds after activity)] + (ounces of fluids consumed during activity) = Sweat loss in ounces per time of activity. So, for example, if you weighed 150 pounds before training, 148 pounds, and drank 48 ounces of water over the course of your two-hour workout, your calculation would look like:
Sweat Loss Calculator Example:
16 x [(150 pounds) -(148 pounds)] + 48 ounces= 80 ounces in 2 hours (a.k.a. 40 ounces per hour)
Since different people sweat different amounts during exercise, understanding your unique hydration needs can be really important for performance and health as an endurance athlete.