I'm a Registered Dietitian - But These 4 Diet Mistakes Sabotaged My Fitness Routine

I’m a Registered Dietitian – But These 4 Diet Mistakes Sabotaged My Fitness Routine

I remember the exact moment when I really understood the term “hitting the wall”. I was at mile 20 of the New York City Marathon and taking another step seemed impossible. I had been training for over four months, so I was physically and mentally prepared. But something I missed: my nutrition. It’s ironic because I’m a registered dietitian and studied sports nutrition in grad school. But learning to fuel up for sport and putting it into practice are two different things.

Something that was emphasized in my schooling is that sports nutrition is different from regular nutrition. The principles of sports nutrition do not always coincide with the guidelines of healthy eating. For example, sports drinks are reviled as sugary drinks that cause weight gain, but did you know that they were actually formulated with a certain percentage of carbohydrates and electrolytes to keep athletes fueled and hydrated? Sports drinks aren’t necessary for everyone, and knowing when and how to include them in a fitness regimen is just one of the nuances of sports nutrition.

Natalie Rizzo ran the New York Half Marathon in 2019.Nathalie Rizzo

I knew these principles from my marathon training in 2016, but I also fell victim to common fueling mistakes. Since then, I have corrected my mistakes and run many successful races. I’ve also worked with hundreds of people (and written a book on sports nutrition) to help as many athletes as possible avoid these common mistakes.

I didn’t plan my fuel before training

An analogy often made in the world of sports nutrition is that the body is like a car and food is the fuel that keeps it moving. In other words, energy levels are directly correlated to the amount of food you put in your system. Carbohydrates are the body’s main source of fuel for exercise. The body uses two forms of carbohydrates for energy: dietary carbohydrates and carbohydrates stored in the muscles and liver (called glycogen).

Dietary carbohydrates are broken down within hours of eating, while proteins and fats take longer to digest. When eating within 60 minutes of a workout, a high carbohydrate snack is the best fuel choice. But if you have 2-3 hours before your workout, a well-balanced meal with carbs, protein, and some fat works well. That’s why I always say “what you eat depends on when you eat”.

During my marathon training, I had to be at work very early in the morning, so I ran in the afternoon or evening. I relied on what I ate for lunch or a mid-afternoon snack to fuel me during my run. Sometimes I hadn’t eaten in hours and would start my run with very little “gas in the tank”. Other times I ate foods that were technically healthy, but not good for fuel, like an avocado or a salad with tons of fiber (more on that later), and my stomach felt disturbed throughout the race.

I could have avoided all these fueling issues by properly planning a pre-workout snack 1-2 hours before a race. Foods like bananas, dates, granola, or a handful of raisins are simple carbohydrate-rich snacks that are quickly digested and provide energy for a workout.

A combination of protein and carbs, like blueberry trail mix and yogurt, makes for a smart post-workout snack.
A combination of protein and carbs, like blueberry trail mix and yogurt, makes for a smart post-workout snack.Nathalie Rizzo

I skipped recovery nutrition

Looking back, that was the biggest flaw in my refueling. I had never run the long distances required for marathon training, so I didn’t know what to expect. After my long training runs, I actually was not hungry. In fact, I had a little stomach ache.

Believe it or not, this happens to many athletes. After intense training, the body suppresses the production of a hormone called ghrelin, otherwise known as the “hunger hormone”. The result is a lack of hunger after vigorous activity. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t eat anything.

Recovery nutrition is crucial for several reasons: it restores glycogen (the form of carbohydrates stored in the body), helps with muscle repair, and helps control hunger. During the first 1-2 hours after exercise, the body begins to absorb food to facilitate muscle protein synthesis, and this recovery lasts 24 hours.

Neglecting recovery nutrition usually results in excessive fatigue and hunger. This is what happened to me. Rather than eating within 1-2 hours of my run, I waited until my stomach was normal and I was hungry enough to eat. But instead of being hungry, I was hungry. My stomach was a bottomless pit and I ended up overeating. I was also tired during most of my training runs, but thought that was normal during marathon training. I now realize that the fatigue was probably a sign of poor recovery nutrition.

To avoid this, nothing could be simpler: eat carbohydrates and proteins within an hour of a training session. If your stomach feels weird, opt for a recovery drink like chocolate milk or a plant-based protein shake. Having something small will make a big difference later.

I watered down my sports drink

Sports drinks are a beneficial part of some training plans. After 45 to 60 minutes of endurance activity, the body must rapidly absorb carbohydrates to maintain its energy level. Sports drinks provide these digestible carbohydrates and replace fluids and electrolytes lost in sweat. Additionally, most sports drinks are isotonic, meaning they have similar glucose and sodium levels to the body, so they can be absorbed into the bloodstream quickly.

I’m not a huge fan of the taste of sports drinks. When I was training, I thought cutting up a sports drink with water would be just as good at keeping me hydrated. But science shows that a carbohydrate concentration of 6-8% is ideal because it helps the body absorb fluids faster. By diluting my sports drink, I was energizing and probably even dehydrating myself further.

I ate fiber at the wrong time

Make no mistake, fiber is a beneficial part of the diet and most Americans don’t get enough of it on a daily basis. But consuming high-fiber foods at the wrong time can wreak havoc on your stomach during a workout. For example, eating beans for lunch before an evening workout or cruciferous vegetables the night before an intense morning workout can get the digestive system moving faster than you might expect during exercise.

The constant movement of endurance activity jostles your stomach and sends food through your digestive tract faster than normal. Other factors, such as hormones or dehydration, also move food through the digestive tract during exercise. Combine these normal physiological factors with high fiber foods and you have a recipe for cramping, bloating and stomach pain during exercise.

That’s not to say you can’t eat fibrous foods while working out, but it’s probably safer to include them in your post-workout meals. Everyone reacts differently to various foods, so it all comes down to trial and error with your fueling routine. Try certain foods to see how your stomach reacts to them.

My takeaways

As a dietitian, it is embarrassing to admit some of these mistakes, especially since I knew better. After all, I was educated in this field and am constantly reading science to keep up to date with the latest guidelines. But it shows that every athlete (even the most knowledgeable!) makes mistakes in their fueling and training plans, and that’s okay. It’s about listening to your body, recognizing when something isn’t working, and adjusting your routine accordingly. I’m so glad I made these mistakes so I could learn and grow as a practitioner – and hope to help others avoid these common pitfalls.

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