BY NANCY CLARK
PHOTO BY PETER SPURRIER
If you are a solo athlete, such as a singles rower (or a runner), the benefits that come from fueling your body wisely benefit you personally. If you hang out with rowing groups or teams, however, you might participate in social meals that may focus less on nutrition and more on fun foods. (Nachos and beer, anyone?) Coaches may find it hard to enroll all their rowers in responsible fueling. Yet the team that fuels wisely will have an edge over the team that eats a sub-optimal sports diet, particularly when traveling to regattas.
Rowing teams and their coaches–as well as individual rowers–want to acknowledge seriously that smart food choices can help them get to the next level. Nutrition is invaluable for optimizing not just performance during training and races but also health throughout a long season. When all rowers pay attention to what, how much, and when they consume foods and fluids, their chances for enjoying a winning season get stronger.
Preparing for Race Day
The day before a race, rowers should:
• train only lightly; this allows muscles time to refuel.
• hydrate well; the goal being copious light-colored urine.
• choose carbohydrate-based meals and snacks.
For a 150-pound rower who has been training hard, the goal is about 1,800 to 2,100 calories from grains, fruits, veggies, sugars, and starchy foods to replenish the muscle and liver glycogen stores that got depleted during training sessions. That’s no paleo or keto diet!
More precisely, the target is 3 to 3.5 grams of carbohydrate per pound of body weight (6 to 8g/kg). For a 150-pound rower, this means about 450 to 525 grams of carbs the day before the race to refuel–plus two to three more days afterward. Divided into three meals plus two snacks, we’re talking oatmeal + bagel for breakfast, sub sandwich + fruit for lunch, a pile of pasta with dinner, plus some pretzels and dried fruit for snacks.
Every meal–including when training hard and pre-race–should be carb-based. Rowers who fill up on excessive protein at meals, and choose protein bars and shakes for snacks, commonly eat only half this recommended carb intake. While protein helps build and repair muscles, it does not fuel muscles. Research with soccer players who start a game with low muscle glycogen suggests they run less distance and are slower than carb-loaded players. This is particularly noticeable in the second half of the game. Endurance rowers and those doing extensive training could also notice the same drop in performance.
Race Day Fueling
A pre-race meal, eaten three to four hours before start time will optimize liver glycogen stores that can drop by 50 percent overnight. Anxious rowers who sleep poorly could burn even more. A pre-race meal helps fuel high- intensity sprints; it delays fatigue so that rowers perform better. An adequate pre-race meal is particularly important for a lunchtime start.
For a 150-pound rower, “adequate” means 300 to 450 calories from grains, fruit, or another source of carbs that settles well and digests easily. This could be a bagel and a banana, oatmeal with raisins and maple syrup, or two packets of Nature Valley granola bars. More precisely, target 0.5 to 1.5 grams of carbohydrate per pound of body weight (1-3 g/kg).
Rowers want to tank up with water, a sports drink, coffee, or a familiar fluid in the two to four hours pre-game. This allows time to void the excess fluid and then drink again before the start of the race.
During the regatta
The overall nutrition goals during a regatta are to:
1) drink ample fluid to prevent dehydration (but not overhydrate), and
2) consume ample carbohydrates to prevent blood glucose from dropping. The brain uses carbs to think clearly and focus on the task at hand.
After warm-up, endurance rowers might want to consume about 100 to 250 calories from carbohydrates (about 30 to 60 grams of carbohydrate). Sports drinks and gels can be handy sources of carbohydrates at this time. Most gels offer 25 grams of carb. Rowers who tolerate gels poorly can get the same benefit from natural foods (honey, maple syrup).
For rowers who cannot tolerate any food or fluid in their anxious stomachs, swishing and spitting a sports drink potentially can enhance performance. No need to spit it out if you can tolerate it!
Rowers need less time to recover fully if they do a good job of fueling and hydrating before the event. Preparation and rapid refueling are particularly important in regatta situations where a rower may be participating in more than one event.
To replenish depleted glycogen stores rapidly, rowers want to consume a half gram of carbohydrate per pound of body weight (1g/kg) per hour for the next three to four hours. This equates to 300 calories per hour for a depleted 150-pound rower and can be accomplished with carb-based drinks and snacks at the team tent, followed by a post-game meal near the race site, and snacks while traveling. Refueling for the next day’s event needs to be planned ahead.
Rowers with a poor post-race appetite may initially prefer commercial sport foods, but natural foods offer more electrolytes, along with carbs, protein, and fluid. That is, chocolate milk is advantageous over a sports drink such as Gatorade. Tart cherry juice might help reduce inflammation.
The post-race goal is to maintain a carb-rich diet (3 to 3.5 grams of carb/pound; 6-8g/kg) in the 24 hours post-event, and again for the next two to three days if the rower did repeated depleting efforts. This can happen easily in training, perhaps more so than in racing. Remember: you are either fueling up or refueling.
To repair muscles, rowers want to target 20 to 25 grams of high-quality protein at three- to four-hour intervals. Cottage cheese before sleep might enhance overnight muscle repair.
When adult teams want to celebrate with alcohol after a race, take note: More than two drinks (two beers, 10 ounces of wine, three ounces of alcohol) can impair glycogen replacement, muscle repair, and rehydration–to say nothing of hurting the next day’s performance. When recovery is a priority, rowers should avoid alcohol. Good thing the thrill of victory comes with a natural high!
Sports nutritionist Nancy Clark, M.S., R.D., counsels both casual and competitive athletes in the Boston area (Newton; 617-795-1875). Her Sports Nutrition Guidebook can help you eat wisely yet simply and win with good nutrition. For more information, visit www.NancyClarkRD.com.