Health & Fitness

Carbs: An endurance athlete’s ‘best friend’

Endurance sports coach Lee Zohlman of Coconut Grove, left, and Joe Flynn of Fort Lauderdale pass a chickee hut during warm-up bicycling runs on Virginia Key. Flynn will compete in the South Beach Triathlon on April 3. Part of his training regimen includes eating correct carbs.
Endurance sports coach Lee Zohlman of Coconut Grove, left, and Joe Flynn of Fort Lauderdale pass a chickee hut during warm-up bicycling runs on Virginia Key. Flynn will compete in the South Beach Triathlon on April 3. Part of his training regimen includes eating correct carbs.

Joe Flynn exercises every day, squeezing in biking, running or swimming before or after work, training more on the weekends. But in the six years since he started participating in endurance events, Flynn has learned that doing his best involves more than physical exertion.

“Nutrition is very important,” said Flynn, 45, director of product management for CBS Interactive in Fort Lauderdale. “One of my biggest mistakes was that I used to ignore breakfast. I’d drink a cup of coffee and think that was enough. Not anymore. I now truly realize how important it is to fuel up in the morning.”

Flynn will be joining the more than 2,000 athletes tackling the South Beach Triathlon on April 3, swimming in the ocean, biking across the MacArthur and Julia Tuttle causeways and running through Miami Beach’s Art Deco District, ending on the sands of South Beach. It’s Flynn’s fourth South Beach Triathlon, which he calls “one of my favorite races.”

Flynn credits Coconut Grove endurance coach and trainer Lee Zohlman with helping him get through his initial triathlon struggles. His preparation includes a nutritional regimen to ensure that Flynn gets the food and hydration he needs to make it through endurance events.

“There’s a lot of misinformation out there,” said Zohlman, a USA Triathlon certified coach. “The world of swimming, cycling and endurance sports is different from the general fitness world and different from lifting and body building.”

While body builders focus on protein, endurance athletes need to work on their carbs.

“Carbs get a bad rap, but they’re the main source of energy in the human diet,” said Rachel Scherdin, a Miami nutritionist, USA Triathlon certified coach and triathlon competitor.

“Carbs play an important role before, during and after training or an event,” said Lucette Talamas, a registered dietian in the community health department of Baptist Health South Florida. “Carbohydrates are an endurance athlete’s best friend.”

Glycogen storage

Here’s why: Glucose, a carbohydrate, is a simple sugar your body converts into energy. Glycogen is the storage of glucose in your liver and muscles. “But there’s not much storage” in your body’s fuel tanks, said Lillian Craggs-Dino, a registered dietitian at Cleveland Clinic in Weston.

During long runs or triathlons, you have about 60 to 90 minutes before you tap into glycogen storages for energy. Once that amount is used, “you will start burning your lean muscle mass,” Scherdin said.

And that means you hit a wall or experience a “bonk” — your legs are heavy, you’re dizzy and you’re done.

“You can be going along fine and then boom, you’ve run out of energy and you feel it — that’s bonking,” Craggs-Dino said.

Novices are likely to bonk because they haven’t figured out the nutritional part of their training. It’s more likely they have a lack of carbs than a lack of effort.

There are “two distinct mistakes” in endurance sports, said Anthony Musto, director of fitness programs for UHealth Fitness and Wellness Centers. “First, many ‘newbies’ start training for endurance sports because they want to become healthier, and more specifically, lose weight. So they combine a strict diet with training.

“The issue is that the strict diet might not provide enough calories and nutrients to support the new training regimen,” Musto said. “This often leads to losses in muscle mass. Although the person might lose weight, they become a skinnier, ‘fat’ person.”

The other mistake, Musto said, is that “some people over-predict their caloric expenditure. The mindset is ‘I’m exercising now so I need to carb up.’ When people first start training, their fitness level is low so they don’t train at an intensity high enough to burn an exorbitant amount of calories. They may need more calories but not five pancakes more.”

Athletes and experts have varied opinions about when and what to eat, but all agree it’s important to figure it out before the big race.

“You should never try anything new on the day of an event,” said Carla Duenas, a registered dietitian with Baptist Health South Florida who also consults with Miami triathlon and marathon athletes. “Start working on this way in advance.”

Flynn, who has competed in several triathlons and two full Ironman races, is still working on improving his overall diet, but he has hit on a routine that works for endurance events.

If he has an early competition, Flynn wakes up at 3 a.m. to eat a breakfast of waffles and turkey sausage so he has about four hours before the event starts. He’ll have a sports drink on his way to the site and he’ll have an energy gel, which supplies about 100 calories, about a half hour before he starts. He’ll also have a gel when switching between events. And he drinks sports drinks to get enough liquid. After the race, Flynn prefers Muscle Milk.


Musto recommends a “4-3-2-1” approach to athletes at the University of Miami. Four hours before prolonged exercise he advises eating a regular healthy meal, with lean protein, wheat pasta or rice, fruits and vegetables. Three hours before: a good source of complex carbohydrates like a wheat bagel. Two hours: A soft fruit like a banana. One hour before: Real fruit juice or a fruit drink.

Scherdin advises competitors to have a pre-workout meal about 2 1/2 hours before an event, with a caloric ratio of 60 percent carbohydrates, 20 percent protein and 20 percent fat.

“You want your pre-workout to be comprised of primarily carbohydrates, moderate in protein and low in fat,” she said. For a good pre-workout meal, she suggests having one slice of Ezekiel bread, one-half banana and one teaspoon of honey or a half cup of oatmeal topped with berries, hummus and carrots. She suggests a simple carb snack like a banana 30 minutes before an event.

Sam Karl, a 27-year-old real estate attorney who has competed in triathlons for five years, said he eats about two hours before an event. Normally, his daily breakfast is four eggs, a few pieces of Ezekiel bread and half an avocado. “I like to have a little extra carbs with my meals as the race gets closer,” Karl said. “Things like sweet potatoes are always a great addition.”

Karl said salt tablets “help with hydration” but energy gels don’t work for him. “They give me a horrible stomachache,” he said.

Products like gels and gummies can be a convenient way to get an energy boost during a run, said Baptist’s Talamas. “They have their purpose. The main thing is to see how many grams of carbs they have. What you need is the carbs, not all fancy micronutrients and other additives. And if you’re sensitive to caffeine, watch out for that.”

The need for carbs is also important when you’ve crossed the finish line.

“Your metabolism is still revved up” after you stop, said Cleveland Clinic’s Craggs-Dino.

When finished, competitors should get something to eat within 20 to 30 minutes, when “your body is wide open to take up these nutrients,” said trainer Zohlman.

Chocolate milk, smoothies and bananas are popular post-run snacks, said Baptist’s Talamas. Events often provide a quick snack after the race, but be sure to eat a bigger meal fairly soon.

“Within one to two hours, a normal meal of lean protein, good complex carbs and fruit or veggie is ideal,” Musto said.

The other thing to remember when doing an endurance event, said Flynn, is to not overdue it at first: “Just get out and enjoy the outdoors.”

Training tips: Pre, During and Post Race

▪  If you won’t be able to eat a meal four to six hours before an event, eat a bigger meal the night before and have something like a turkey sandwich or oatmeal a couple hours before the race. If you can’t tolerate fiber before an event, try a snack like saltine crackers or pretzels, Baptist’s Talamas said.

▪  “Milk is fantastic before and after a run,” said Cleveland Clinic’s Craggs-Dino. Studies have shown that green tea and cherries may help reduce inflammation after a race, she said.

▪  Cooking in a little olive oil or adding nuts is a good way to get healthy fats before training or running.

▪  It’s essential to stay hydrated, especially in the South Florida heat. An individual’s height and weight can make a difference in the amount of fluid needed, but generally nutritionists advise drinking 16 to 20 ounces of electrolyte-rich fluids, usually a sports drink, per hour.

▪  If you’re training or competing, forget that beer. Alcohol can deplete your electrolytes, you may get dehydrated and it adds calories, Zohlman said.