For Michelle Zamora, being a triathlete is a way of life. While she works as an acupunture physician and massage therapist, she spends at least an hour every day either riding a bike, running or swimming.
“I’ve been doing it so long, I never stop training,” said Zamora, 39, of West Kendall. Like other hard-core athletes, she knows that her success depends on nutrition, as well as working out.
“People are becoming more aware that if you’re not eating correctly, you’re not going to perform the way you want to,” said Zamora, who runs about 25 to 40 miles a week. “I wasn’t eating the right foods before. I think there’s a big difference performance wise.”
Zamora now takes her dietary cues from Miami nutritionist Rachel Scherdin, who helps her plan what to eat and when.
Scherdin knows firsthand the importance of the right diet for active people. She’s a USA Triathlon certified coach, certified personal trainer, pilates teacher and a triathlon competitor herself.
“Even when you’re not running or training, you have to focus on nutrition,” said Scherdin, who owns the company, Nutrients Lab. “Nutrition is the hardest part.”
Everyone needs a mix of protein, carbs and fats at each meal, including snacks, she said. But it’s especially vital for runners, triathletes and fitness buffs to know what they need to eat and drink while training.
Losing track of calories and fluids can mean losing energy and stamina, said Marie Almon, a licensed and registered dietitian at Baptist Health Primary Care. You can end up fatigued, dizzy, with cramps or have increased heart or breathing rates if you’re not careful.
“Hydrate, hydrate, hydrate,” Scherdin said. “For runners, hydration is critical. You should be consuming half of your body weight in ounces of water. Also for every cup of coffee or alcoholic beverage you drink, you need to add an extra one cup of water.”
Finding the right dietary plan isn’t easy, so it’s crucial that active people figure out what works well in advance of an event, said Toby Bass, a licensed nutritionist and registered dietitian at Memorial Healthcare System Fitness Centers in Hollywood and Pembroke Pines.
“You want to definitely try foods way ahead of time,” Bass said. “You don’t want to try a food the day before a run.”
Carbs are the main source of energy. Simple carbohydrates include fruit, sugar, honey, refined pastas and breads. Complex carbohydrates are made of multiple sugar units starches and fibers including sweet potatoes, whole grains, barley, oatmeal and yams.
Glucose is a simple sugar that is an important energy source and is a component of many carbohydrates. Glycogen is a readily mobilized storage form of glucose.
“It is important for runners to consume a diet rich in carbohydrates because during long runs, you tap into glycogen storages for energy,” Scherdin said. “You have about 90 minutes worth of glycogen stored in your muscle. Once used, you will start burning your lean muscle mass.”
Proteins “are the building blocks of life,” Scherdin said. “Without proteins, the body would not function.” Lack of protein can lead to weak muscles that are easily strained and injured.
Don’t forget fats. They also play an important role in making your body function. Avocados, nuts and olive oil provide monounsaturated fats. Fatty fish like salmons, sardines and tuna, sunflower oil or flaxseed oil and seeds are high in certain Omega-3 and Omega-6 fatty acids, which have largely been processed out of food. Nix the trans fats.
Whether you’re working out at the gym, preparing for a 5K or training for a triathlon, here are some key nutrition tips:
▪ Don’t skip meals. “Proper eating and drinking makes a difference,” Bass said. Eat three meals a day plus two to three healthy snacks. “If you don’t eat every three or four hours, your body goes into a starvation mode, holding onto food and storing it as fat,” said Scherdin.
▪ Eat a pre-workout meal about 1 1/2 hours before your run, Scherdin said. “You want your pre-workout to be comprised of primarily carbohydrates, moderate in protein and low in fat.” Her pre-workout ideas include: one slice whole grain bread (she likes Ezekiel), one-half banana and one teaspoon of honey or a half cup of oatmeal topped with berries, hummus and carrots. Other options include a half bagel with peanut butter and fruit or a waffle with peanut butter, fruit and milk, Bass said.
▪ Have a snack about 30 minutes before the event. Grab an orange, banana, melon or apple. You could add a few almonds. “It’s very important to eat before running,” to increase energy, decrease recovery time and prevent loss of muscle tissue, Scherdin said.
▪ After a marathon or other hard-core workout, participants “should replace carbohydrates and proteins within 15 to 30 minutes to decrease muscle injury, said Memorial’s Bass.
▪ Bring a healthy post-race snack. Bass suggests low-fat chocolate milk or fruit and bagel with almond or peanut butter. Another option, Scherdin said, is a half sandwich with turkey or ham. Races typically offer bananas, oranges and pretzels at the finish line
▪ Staying hydrated is crucial for anyone exercising or competing, especially in the heat of the South Florida sun, said Baptist’s Almon. ”It’s one of the most important things you can do before, during or after a race.”
▪ One to hours before your workout, drink 16 to 24 ounces of water, Scherdin said. “For each hour you are running, you should be consuming anywhere from 13 to 30 ounces of fluid per hour.”
During exercise, you lose fluid and electrolytes as you sweat. “The No. 1 source of electrolytes is sodium,” Scherdin said. “If you don't replace water and sodium, you will become dehydrated. Losing over 2 percent of your body weight due to fluid loss will result in dehydration.”
Among her suggestions, Scherdin recommends watermelon and a half tablespoon of sea salt “as a great way to hydrate.”
“You can put slices of watermelon in a pitcher of water in the fridge overnight. “It turns into a liquid,” which you can pour into bottles, she said. “Watermelon has four times the amount of electrolytes than sports drinks.”
Scherdin also recommends salt sticks with sodium phosphate and magnesium, which runners can keep in their pockets. For endurance athletes, she may suggest using a BCAA powder (branch chain amino acids).
Nutritionists generally discourage the use of sugary sports drinks. Almon said they “have their place” for some athletes in “really long” events.
A Miami marathon runner and triathlete, David Ayala, 42, said he always devises a plan for staying hydrated. He carries frozen water bottles in a cooler packed with ice to an event, but also drinks water all day as part of his demanding routine.
Ayala starts his daily exercise regimen at 4 a.m. so he has at least two to three hours for running, biking or swimming before going to work. His diet includes salads, spinach, fruit, chicken and fish, and if he’s craving red meat, leaner bison and game meats.
“I’d continue this lifestyle even without the training,” said Ayala, a general manager of a facility that repairs airplane parts. “I cook my own meals, bring my lunch and I drink at least a gallon of water every day.”
Before getting help with her nutrition plan, Zamora tried carb loading on pasta or pizza the night before an event. That didn’t work.
“Those foods made me feel heavy,” she said. “A sweet potato replaced the pasta for me.’’
Nutritionists want you to eat a variety of foods, but here are some powerhouse choices you’ll want to include for your active lifestyle:
Artichokes:They’re high in fiber, antioxidants and magnesium, which helps generate energy. They also contain vitamins C and K, folate and potassium.
Avocados: A source of healthy, monounsaturated fat, they’re rich in fiber and help lower cholesterol. “They’re a powerhouse of nutrition,” said Baptist’s Almon. The American Diabetes Association and the American Heart Association recommend avocados for a heart-healthy diet.
Berries: Blueberries are rock stars but don’t forget raspberries, strawberries, blackberries and pomegranates, all sources of antioxidants to help fight cancer and inflammation. They’re a source of vitamins C and K, high in fiber and low in sugar.
Beans: Packed with protein, beans also decrease the risk of heart disease and cancer. They’re low in calories, high in fiber and loaded with antioxidants. Black beans contain 40 times more antioxidants than white or light-colored beans, Almon said. Lentils are also a protein powerhouse that provide folate, a nutrient that may prevent certain birth defects.
Chia seeds: They’re rich in omega-3s, fiber and protein, help stabilize blood sugar and lower cholesterol.
Kale: Low in calories, high in fiber, packed with calcium, iron, and vitamins A, C, and K and full of antioxidants. Kale is also a good source of the nutrient lutein, which may slow macular degeneration. Also very good: Broccoli, cabbage, Brussels sprouts and spinach.
Kefir: Originally from Russia, slightly sour Kefir tastes a lot like yogurt but it’s thinner and you drink it. Kefir is gaining popularity because of its yeast and probiotic bacteria, which boosts the immune system and supports good digestive health. Greek yogurt is a popular probiotic pick.
Salmon: The fatty fish is a top source of Omega 3 fatty acids, known for lowering levels of bad cholesterol and reducing blood clots. Go for darker wild salmon. Other Omega sources include tuna and sardines, which provide B12, selenium, vitamin D, phosphorous and calcium.
Sweet potatoes: The high-fiber spud is also an excellent source of vitamins A and C, manganese, potassium and the antioxidant beta-carotene. Pumpkin also has high fiber, vitamins A and E and beta-carotene.
Steel-cut oatmeal: These grains take longer to cook because they’re the least processed but worth the wait. Almon suggests cooking a batch in a slow cooker overnight so they’re ready in the morning. Oats are rich in manganese, selenium, phosphorous, B1, fiber and magnesium. Oats keep cholesterol levels down and fight heart disease.
Walnuts: Walnuts are a source of Omega-3 fatty acids, vitamins, protein and fight inflammation. Keep servings small, though, because they’re high in calories. Other top choices include almonds, peanuts, Brazil nuts and hazelnuts.
Watermelon: “It’s one of the best foods you can eat,” Scherdin said. It’s rich in vitamins and lycopene, an antioxidant that can help protect against degenerative diseases. Watermelons aid hydration, and the juice can relieve muscle soreness.