Kate Burks, sports dietician and nutrition coach and Liz Fusco, nutritionist for the US Rowing team, shared their tips for using nutrition to stay on the top. Burks started by comparing muscles to sponges. When a sponge is dried up there are several problems – it is not easy to use, it is not pliable and the little tiny holes are incapable of absorbing any particles. So, what can you do to make sure your ‘sponges’ are ready to row? Burks advises to follow these five tips:

1. Eat carbohydrates to fuel your muscles prior to exercise

Food can be broken down into three major groups – carbohydrates, proteins and fats. “Carbohydrates are your first energy source,” says Burks. “They are stored as glycogen in the muscles, but unlike fat, there is a limited amount that can be stored at one time.” When you begin your workout, on the water, the erg, in the gym, etc, your body’s first reaction is to use up the glycogen stored in your muscles for fuel. In order to maximize your training, it is vital that these stores be full before you start.  

Eating an easily-digestible snack or meal about two hours before a workout will supply the muscles with the necessary fuel. The closer you eat to the time you exercise, the more important it is to eat simple carbohydrates which are broken down and delivered more quickly to your muscles.

What happens if your body does not have enough glycogen? It can actually start to break down muscle as its next source of fuel, which is counterproductive to the training being done.

2. Re-fuel quickly after exercise

Once you have finished your training, you are in a critical period. Especially after an intense training session, or one lasting longer than one hour, you have completely depleted the glycogen stores in your muscles. Using the sponge analogy, imagine that right after the workout, the holes of the sponge are open and ready take in fuel. The holes stay open for up to one hour after the workout before they will close.

This means there is a one hour window to replenish the depleted stores. If, however, this window is missed, it will be very difficult to fully replenish the muscles with glycogen before the next workout. “It is important to not only act quickly, but to choose a post-workout snack with simple sugars,” says Burks. “They are broken down more quickly and will be delivered more quickly to the muscles. Waiting more than one hour, we put 50 per cent less fuel back into the body.”

3. Eat protein throughout the day to prevent muscle breakdown

Carbohydrates are only one part of the equation. Proteins are the building blocks for muscle. The body needs protein to synthesize muscle, which makes you stronger and more powerful. According to Burks, muscle breakdown starts occurring every 3-4 hours in athletes. How can you prevent this? It is vital to eat protein consistently throughout the day.

“It doesn’t have the same effect to eat 10g of protein for breakfast, 15g at lunch and 60g at dinner,” Burks says. “We find the best number to be around 30g of protein at each meal. That is how much the body will actually be able to use at one time. Maybe for a lightweight woman it is closer to 20g and for a heavyweight man it is closer to 40g, but in general, we recommend 30g at each meal.

“Athletes have the goal of building more muscle, not muscle breakdown,” Burks says. “In order to do that, protein has to be eaten throughout the day and not just at one meal.” Following your workout, you not only need to replenish the glycogen stores, you need to give your body some protein to use as building blocks for repairing your muscles. But not all proteins are created equal.

After an intense training session, it is most important to get fuel to the depleted stores in the muscle. Fat slows digestion and could hinder this process. Therefore Burks recommends eating simple carbohydrates and a lean protein to recovery properly.  

4. Hydrate, hydrate, hydrate

What happens to your kitchen sponge when it is not being used? It dries up. Proper hydration throughout the day will keep your muscles wet, pliable and less prone to tearing (or other injury). The sponge should be loaded with energy and fluid before a training session, maintained with fluid during the training session and then replenished with energy, protein and fluids after the training session to make sure that it recovers well.

5. Put it all together

So, what does this look like?

About 3-4 hours before a workout, eat a meal with long-lasting carbohydrates such as oatmeal, whole grains, brown rice, fruits and/or vegetables and lean protein.

If the workout lasts more than one hour, follow it with a meal of 60g of carbohydrates, 20-30g of lean protein and 400-800ml of fluid. Don’t forget that when you sweat, you lose a significant amount of sodium. Depending on your sweat rate, it may be necessary to include electrolytes in the fluid you consume to help absorption.

The 2015 World Rowing Coaches Conference was held in November and attracted coaches from around the world. It featured topics including performance monitoring, endurance athlete development and had New Zealand’s Noel Donaldson, coach of the Kiwi men’s pair, as coach in the spotlight. It also gave attendees an opportunity to visit the venue of the 2017 World Rowing Championships. For links to the presentations: http://www.worldrowing.com/events/2015-world-rowing-coaches-conference/event-information