WA, UNITED STATES
Story by Douglas Stutz
There’s a nourishing parallel between running a 200-mile relay to conducting flight deck operations or being involved in field exercises.
Whether it’s daily grind duty, operational readiness obligation, or weekend warrior mode, there is a crucial nurturing principle – when applied – capable of helping anyone sustain and boost their mental and physical effort.
Welcome to the science of Performance Nutrition, an apt term which focuses on how – and what – people chose to eat influences their effort during that demanding duty, training exercise or sporting activity.
Gone are those days of fueling up with gas station corn dogs and stale leftover coffee.
“There’s been enough studies done to show that our bodies perform better when we provide the best nutrition such as protein, carbohydrates and healthy fats, that we can,” said Lt. Lorna Brown, Registered Dietitian assigned to Naval Medicine Readiness Training Command Bremerton.
Brown practices what she preaches, having just completed a 200-mile run relay July 15 and 16, 2022, in the Pacific Northwest along with 11 other runners assigned to NMRTC Bremerton, including two other registered dietitians, Kayla Kangiser and Stefany Jones.
“Preparing for an event like this, or any event that requires a lot of physical effort and makes someone think, can really be taxing if we’re not doing enough before, during and after for the energy we need,” Brown said. “There’s those who think that fast food is okay because it is convenient. But it’s just not a good source of fuel for our body to use, or handle. Our body will zap right through it, and most fat food has a lot of sodium which can dehydrate us. Just not good. With a little planning and foresight, anyone can up their nutrition game.”
The night before the relay, Brown ensured she got the necessary nutrition with a homemade tortilla, providing fiber for digestion, magnesium for the heart and muscles; filled with beans for protein and avocado and tomato for such nutrients as potassium and vitamin C.
“Additionally, don’t start a workout or exercise without adding something beforehand. Consume a small balanced snack one to two hours earlier such as half a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, or fruit like a banana,” suggested Brown.
After her first leg of 7.3 miles (followed by the second leg of 10.5 miles in the dead of night, and a 6.4 miler to wrap up) she replenished the spent carbs and protein with peanut butter on whole wheat.
“Even trail mix is good and research indicates that chocolate milk is also a good source,” explained Brown. “When doing any sort of physically training exercise, like a distance run, we deplete our body’s stored energy we use for fuel. We need to replace what we depleted. It’s as simple as that.”
To break it down, carbs are fuel, protein for energy and help the body build and repair muscle, and (healthy) fat provide energy density for the body to use a ready fuel.
Jones recommends such options as a turkey sub sandwich with baked chips and a side of fruit or a grilled chicken wrap on a flour tortilla with pretzels and fruit juice as examples of meals that will help meet the energy demands for a long training exercise or competition.
“When possible, aim to eat 3 to 4 hours before a long training exercise. A low-fat meal with about 150 to 300 grams of carbohydrate and about 30 grams of lean protein will ensure you have enough fuel on board but will leave time for your stomach to empty before you start training,” noted Jones. “If there is not enough time to eat 3 to 4 hours in advance of your event, try eating a snack 1 to 2 hours before practice or competition.”
Some of the easily available good choices include juice, fruit, granola or cereal bars, a small bagel or crackers with peanut butter.
The trio of registered dietitians also insist that the hydration factor is just as important as the performance nutrition aspect, advocating that a person should be drinking approximately 64 ounces of water days before any big event like an demanding training exercise or running an equivalent of a half marathon or more.
“We perform better and won’t fatigue as easily if we’re well hydrated,” stated Brown. “If the physical activity is an hour or less, water is usually fine for our personal hydration purposes. For longer periods, replenishing with electrolytes can help keep someone from becoming dehydrated.”
Yet how does someone know if they’re dehydrated?
“Common signs of dehydration in athletes include dry mouth, thirst, dark urine, dizziness, irritability, rapid pulse, fatigue, muscle cramps and decreased athletic performance,” explained Jones, who ran three legs of 6 miles, 5.5 miles and 7.7 miles. “If you’re feeling thirsty, your body is likely already dehydrated, so staying ahead of your thirst is key. The goal is to be hydrated well before you even begin physical activity. Plan to drink at least 16 ounces of water two to three hours before an event, then drink at least eight ounces every 10-20 minutes.”
“Hydration needs change depending on the athlete’s body weight, sex, sweat rate, ambient temperature and humidity,” continued Jones. “Sports drinks containing electrolytes are a good choice when you have a hard training exercise lasting longer than an hour, or if you sweat heavily. Be sure to check your urine as an easy hydration status indicator – hydrated bodies will produce pale yellow urine.”
“Everyone is different. What we like, what we don’t like. But we all need to follow a few needs, such as hydrate with water, include a combination of carbs and protein – the perfect combo – to boost and sustain our energy levels,” added Kangiser, who ran a 4,2 leg, followed by a 9 miler and 5.1 legs.
The summer months around Puget Sound, home of the third largest fleet concentration in the U.S., can have a few days of sweltering heat. But the area is nowhere near the weather patterns someone stationed in Florida might be experiencing when they step outside for a run.
“We don’t tend to have the humidity up here,” remarked Brown. “But that doesn’t mean that we can’t forget to daily drink enough water. There’s a reason why the old Navy saying ‘hydrate or die’ is still applicable.”