Optimal Performance Series for Endurance Athletes | Part 1

Nov 18, 2019Dairy Council® of Arizona, Optimal Performance Series

Part 1: Training Strategies

Damon McCune, ABD, MS, RDN, LD, Founder of Allied Performance, LLC, Co-Author of The Vertical Diet

There are several approaches to training and nutrition regardless of your overall training goal. In this four part series, I aim to clear the muddy waters of information surrounding endurance training by providing evidence-based suggestions to determine what may work best for you – the athlete. 

Let’s start by agreeing on a few things.

  • Your priority is endurance performance and that will guide your training and nutrition.
  • Any strategy that you will consistently adhere to can “work”.
  • If you are not allowing for proper recovery, you will not reach your peak.

Now, let’s talk about some ways to optimize your training and recovery to maximize your endurance performance, focusing on triathletes as an example.

Where should you place your priorities?

There are many ways to split a training cycle when preparing for a triathlon. At the top of the list is prioritizing your weaknesses in order to gain improvement in these areas.  For example, if the run is your weak point you will want to focus on incorporating training that will enhance your running performance. For some athletes, this is difficult because as human beings we often don’t like to do things we feel less than skilled at, but this is how we build strength.

Are you getting enough sleep?

I can’t begin to explain how important sleep is to your performance, not just in training but all aspects of  life. Yet, sleep is one of the most overlooked components of training strategies and recovery. As a busy athlete, parent, spouse, family member, professional, and every other hat that you wear in your life, sleep is commonly the first thing that gets sacrificed in a training cycle. Athletes will start reducing sleep time to wake up early and train. This can be like stepping over hundred-dollar bills to pick up nickels as far as your performance goes. In fact, sleep deprivation can reduce performance by up to 30% [1-3]. If you are not training at your best, your overall results will likely suffer. Imagine spending months training for your race and your times being 30% slower on race day because you didn’t sleep well the night before. That would be devastating.

Stages of sleep are categorized by non-rapid eye movement (NREM) and rapid eye movement (REM). NREM is divided into 4 stages with progressive depths of sleep with an entire sleep cycle taking roughly 2 hours to fully complete [1-7]. REM is considered the “deep sleep” that is hypothesized to be of most importance to recovery partially due to the potential for increased release of growth hormone [1-7]. Getting to sleep and staying asleep are important to realize the full benefits of REM sleep. If you are constantly waking up, you will not reach the deep stages. That could have an impact on your recovery and performance.

Nutrition also plays a role in your sleep. Several studies have demonstrated that intake of simple carbohydrate within 4 hours of bed has improved sleep onset latency (how quickly you fall asleep) and the amount of time spent in REM sleep [1, 4, 8, 9]. Consuming simple carbohydrates in the evening before bed may also provide the body the ability to restore glycogen since energy demand during sleep is lower compared to being awake.

How you get your carbohydrates can vary based on personal preference. In general, my recommendation would be to find foods that like you as much as you like them. What do I mean by that? Find foods that don’t cause digestive distress that will supply you with the nutrients that you need and not interfere with training or sleeping. That might mean swapping the brown foods for the white foods depending on the timing of intake relative to training and bedtime.

What are the best choices for post-race nutrition?

Extensive studies have revealed chocolate milk as one of the most effective food sources for optimal post-workout recovery. Because chocolate milk  offers nine essential nutrients along with an optimal ratio of simple carbohydrates to protein for glycogen replenishment and repair, it is considered nature’s ultimate sports recovery drink [10].

In general, dairy is a powerhouse of naturally occurring nutrients including calcium and vitamins D and K2, that when included as part of a balanced diet help fuel body systems for activity. Dairy has been well-documented to be the most bioavailable source of calcium [14-16], meaning it is easily absorbed by the body. This is why the National Institute of Health (NIH) and National Medical Association (NMA) recommend that those who suffer from lactose intolerance attempt to establish a tolerable dose intake rather than complete elimination.

Why are calcium, vitamin D and vitamin K2 important?

Vitamins D and K2 are important for calcium absorption and deposition (actually becoming part of your bone mineral density) [14, 17-19]. These nutrients are not just important for bone health, but also for reducing risk of developing atherosclerotic calcification (build-up of plaque in the arteries) [14, 15, 20-24]. Data also suggests that three servings of dairy included in an appropriate diet can optimize body composition [14-17, 20, 22, 24-31][11-14, 17, 19, 21-28].

How can you incorporate these nutrition strategies for your goals?

I would recommend consulting a registered dietitian for help with determining your needs, but here are some general pointers to get you started.

  • Start by calculating your caloric needs using a formula such as the Mifflin St. Jeor equation to establish your basal metabolic rate.
  • Then, factor in your training using an activity factor to determine what you need to consume daily.
  • Maintain a balanced diet that is appropriate for your needs and goals.
  • Include three servings of dairy per day choosing appropriate fat content for your goals and incorporate appropriately into your daily calorie intake. If you are lactose intolerant, attempt to establish a tolerable dose. Hard cheeses are often tolerated better or select dairy products that are lactose free. Use dairy sources that you like. Milk, cheese, yogurt, etc.
  • Do not consume caffeine within 2 hours before or after the dairy. Caffeine will block calcium absorption.

Now, in a perfect world you would make sure to get 7-9 hours of sleep every night, you would go to bed before midnight, you would avoid screens at least 30 minutes prior to bed, you would wake up at the same time every day of the week, and you would consume the optimal amount of calories and nutrients for your needs and goals [1-7, 32-38]. That is what appears to be the most optimal from the literature. With that being said, that may not be possible for your situation.

My recommendation would be to control the things that you can. Try to get consistent with your sleep patterns. Avoid screens before bed. Find ways to enhance your sleep hygiene such as black out blinds, noise-cancelling devices, if you suffer from sleep apnea look into getting a CPAP, and avoid alcohol or stimulants. Eat well and prioritize calories and overall intake over trying to perfectly time each and every meal. Do the best you can to try to get the most quality sleep and nutrition as possible. Understand that the context of your programming will function on a Good<Better<Best spectrum and there are multiple roads to the same destination. Although I have highlighted recommendations from scientific literature, understand that there will be some trial and error involved from training cycle to training cycle. It helps to surround yourself with qualified professionals to evaluate what changes need to be made.

Check back for Part 2 of this series on optimizing your endurance performance where I tackle incorporating resistance workouts into your training split.




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Damon McCune, ABD, MS, RDN, LD

Founder of Allied Performance and Co-Author of The Vertical Diet, Damon McCune is a Ph.D. Candidate in Exercise Physiology and Registered Dietitian. Over the last 15 years, Damon has had extensive experience in program development for some of the top athletes in the world in collaboration with leading medical professionals and researchers. Recently, Damon has served in roles as the Director of the Didactic Program in Nutrition and Dietetics at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas and Coordinator of Performance Nutrition for UNLV Athletics. Damon is also the former President of the Southern Nevada Dietetic Association. In his multifaceted roles, Damon has developed mechanisms to advance exercise science and nutrition education and broaden the reach of that information to optimize health and performance by incorporating simple, sensible, and sustainable training and nutritional techniques into a balanced lifestyle.

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