So what constitutes a long workout?
For everyone except the complete couch potato, a long workout would be any workout that…
A) has extremely great potential to almost completely deplete your body’s carbohydrate reserves, which in most cases is about 2+ hours;
B) a workout that may not be quite as long as 2 hours, but is incredibly physically demanding for at least longer than an hour, such as a tough day at the gym doing the Hardest Workout Ever Invented;
C) any physical effort that simply leaves with the feeling of having done something totally epic (and yes, “totally epic” is an acceptable, peer-reviewed term in scientific literature…I think).
So if you got exhausted just reading A, B or C, then it may be a good idea to skip this article, because if you use the nutrition tricks I’m about to give you, you’ll probably just take on unnecessary calories (although “sipping” small amounts of sugar during short, intense workouts may possibly give you some benefit for enhanced exercise performance).
OK, here we go:
Long Workout Fueling Trick #10: If you’re using gels, make sure you choose the kind of gels that have amino acids in them.
Same for sports drink. Anytime you go long, and especially over 3 hours, higher blood levels of amino acids will keep you from cannibalizing muscle, and also reduce your rating of perceived exertion. GU Roctane is an example of a gel that has amino acids, Carbo Pro now has a sports drink with amino acids in it, and other drinks with protein include Infinit, Perpetuum and First Endurance.
Long Workout Fueling Trick #9: Three to four times per month, try to include semi-long or long workouts that are minimally fueled.
In the article 4 Crucial Reasons To Think Twice About Eating Carbohydrates Before A Workout, I talk about how this can train the body to utilize more fats as a fuel and also to spare carbohydrate use, both of which can be useful during a long workout. If you’re training for a long race, such as Ironman, just don’t do all your long workouts in this state, since you do want to train your gut to be able to absorb the number of calories you plan on eating during the race.
Long Workout Fueling Trick #8: When it counts, such as in race or competition, eat early and eat often.
During the bike leg of an Ironman triathlon, I take in 350-450 calories per hour. Ironman legend Mark Allen was able to train his gut to absorb up to 600 calories per hour. So while avoiding voluminous carbohydrate intake during some training sessions can have advantages, it’s the last thing you want to do on a day that is going to last close to double-digit hours.
Long Workout Fueling Trick #7: Take amino acids about 30-60 minutes before you head out.
Another amino acids trick, which I talk about in detail in another article, is to consume some kind of amino acid capsule or powder before you even head into the exercise routine.Sure a piece of chicken has amino acids in it, but will take far longer to digest than an amino acid supplement (like MAP, for example), which you can pop right before you head out for your long workout.
Long Workout Fueling Trick #6: Try fats.
Medium chain triglycerides (MCT’s), such as what you would get from coconut oil, whole coconut milk, or coconut flakes, can actually provide more rapid and readily available sources of energy than other types of fat. If you overdo consumption of MCT’s, you can get stomach distress, but before a long workout or long day of exercise, chomping down a few tablespoons of coconut oil, guzzling a tall glass of whole coconut milk, or grabbing a handful of unsweetened coconut flakes can keep you going. Cocochia flakes (coconut + chia seeds) are also a tasty option, and what I use on long workout days.
Long Workout Fueling Trick #5: Electrolytes can save your butt.
I have NEVER had a decent Half-Ironman or Ironman triathlon performance without the regular consumption of electrolytes, like 2 every half hour for 9 consecutive hours, and my worst performances have come when I’ve dropped or forgotten my electrolytes.
I personally consume the equivalent of 700-1200mg of sodium per hour (depending on temperature), mixed with other electrolytes such as calcium, magnesium and potassium. You can carry electrolytes in coin purses, empty film canisters, tiny ziplocks – whatever works for you.
Long Workout Fueling Trick #4: Go high carbohydrate on longer workout days.
A chronically high carbohydrate diet can leave to nerve and blood vessel damage, risk of chronic disease, weight gain, insulin insensitivity, metabolic syndrome and a host of other issues – but if you, for example, have one day of the week, or once every couple weeks, where you A) go long and go hard and B) aren’t planning on using the “restrict carbs to teach your body to burn fats” strategy, you should choose that day to pig out on carbs. T
he big workout day will be the day during which this high carbohydrate intake is least likely to cause significant body damage.
This strategy can work well from a social perspective too. You can plan your big 4 hour bike ride or epic 2 hour weight training routine on the day you’re planning on hitting a backyard barbecue or going out for a dinner and a night on the town. This strategy can also keep you from being chronically carbohydrate depleted.
Long Workout Fueling Trick #3: Eat clean before a long workout.
There’s nothing that ruins an epic workout like farts, bloating, gas, cramps, indigestion, constipation or diarrhea. And it’s likely that big bowl of granola with milk (gluten + vegetable oils + dairy), or an egg sandwich from McDonald’s (slow-burning fats + vegetable oils + gluten + super-sodium) is not going to make your stomach any happier. I recommend a big meal of clean burning carbohydrates 2-3 hours prior to your workout. Consider sweet potato, yam, brown or white rice, quinoa or even a fruit smoothie.
If you need to satiate your appetite, you can top these carbs off with a little almond butter or a handful of seeds/nuts. Frankly, I usually have my best long workouts by simply rolling out of bed, not eating anything, then beginning to fuel about 30-40 minutes into the workout.
Long Workout Fueling Trick #2: Don’t forget water.
Water is not a sexy topic, but for most workouts in which you’ll be sweating for long periods of time, you’ll be needing at least 24 ounces of water per hour, and in some cases, in excess of 30 ounces of water. In most cases, if you get thirsty during the workout, you should drink.
Even if you can easily complete a 2 hour workout with no water, your workout will be higher quality and your well-hydrated cells will recover more quickly compared to rationing water, even if you feel like a hardcore Chuck Norris wannabe because you’re powering through your workout with a cottonmouth.
Long Workout Fueling Trick #1: Energy drinks and powders work.
I’m usually not a big fan of beating up your adrenal glands through overstimulation of the central nervous system with high doses of caffeine. But this strategy can have a magical effect if you’re an hour into a hardcore weight training session or halfway through a marathon. I use delta-E, because I’m not a big fan of the stroke increasing risk of Red Bull, but you can even do the trick with generic caffeine tablets.
Get even more information on this hot topic over at http://www.bengreenfieldfitness.com, where you can grab a free book from author Ben Greenfield, jam-packed with over 75 pages of fitness, nutrition and human performance content. You’ll also get instant access to a free weekly audio podcast, videos, free iPhone app and more!