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Nutrition for Competitive Rowers

BY NANCY CLARK
PHOTO BY YOAV AZIZ

Many factors affect your ability to enjoy a winning performance, and some are out of your control, such as heat, humidity, wind, altitude, water conditions, as well as the time of the event, the interval between events, and perhaps jet lag. But nutritional factors are in your control, including what, when, and how much you eat. Simply put, to row at your best, you need to know how to eat well enough to fight fatigue and be strong to the finish.

To address how to eat to row at your best, I looked to the highly respected sports nutritionist Louise Burke, a researcher at Australian Catholic University in Melbourne. Here are some key points from her journal article that may inspire you to consult with a registered dietitian or board-certified specialist in sports dietetics to help optimize your sports diet.  

Eating  
• Carbohydrate is a fundamental source of energy for your muscles. It is stored in your muscles as glycogen. Glycogen depletion (“hitting the wall”) is linked with fatigue.
• Carbohydrate is also a fundamental fuel for your brain. Carbohydrate in the blood, known as blood glucose, fuels the brain so it can focus on, and respond quickly to, the task at hand. To optimize athletic performance, you want to maintain adequate blood glucose levels during exercis, as well as start intense exercise with fully loaded muscle-glycogen stores.

• Blood glucose is supplied by your liver as well as the banana, toast, or other form of sugar or starch (carb) you eat before and/or during exercise. Some rowers avoid pre- and during-exercise fuel, fearing it will create intestinal distress. The better path is to train you gut to tolerate foods and fluids. During training sessions, experiment with a variety of carbs (dried pineapple, granola bar, diluted juice) and/or a variety of flavors and brands of commercial products (sports drinks, gels, chomps, etc.), so you can learn what settles best. Choosing a variety of carbohydrates can increase how fast they’re absorbed and might reduce the risk of GI distress. Having a well-tested fueling plan is helpful.

• Training enhances your ability to burn fat, and it can be enhanced further by adapting to a keto (high-fat, very low-carb) diet. Given that fat stores are essentially limitless, a keto-adapted endurance athlete (theoretically) should be able to perform very well without having to consume additional carbs during exercise, reducing their risk of intestinal upset from drinking/eating during a race. Sounds good, but this theory doesn’t always work. Research shows that keto-adapted athletes can maintain their performance during moderate-intensity exercise but experience a performance decline during real-life high-intensity competitive endurance events. That’s in part because burning fat, as compared to burning carb, requires more oxygen, and at high intensities, such as a breakaway sprint to the finish, oxygen supply to the muscle becomes a limiting factor. 

Brain function 

• As a rower, you need a well-fed brain to help you concentrate, focus, and make wise decisions. A well-fed brain also can help keep you motivated to row at a hard pace. To feed your brain, you want to be well fed when you begin exercising, with blood sugar in the normal range, not fasted and running on empty.

• Caffeine is known to reduce the brain’s perception of pain, effort, and fatigue (even in rowers who regularly consume coffee). The recommended dose is 1.5 to three milligrams per pound of body weight (3 to 6 mg/kg) but one size does not fit all. Experiment to find the dose that’s best for your body.

• Rowers can consume caffeine via gels, caffeinated energy bars, pre-workout supplements, caffeine pills, and coffee. The problem with coffee is the variability of the caffeine content, which makes it hard to identify a specific dose. 

• Some performance enhancers do not need to be absorbed by the body to offer benefits. For example, simply rinsing the mouth with a sugar solution/sports drink (and spitting it out) stimulates reward centers in the brain, allowing you to row harder.

• With some substances, the mouth does not have enough sensors, so you need to ingest the substance to enhance performance. For example, drinking a small amount of a bitter substance such as quinine can trigger a beneficial “fight or flight” response when taken immediately before a short, intense effort, such as a power-lift or sprint.

• Rinsing the mouth every five to 10 minutes with a menthol-containing solution creates a perceived cooling effect that can help increase power or speed during prolonged exercise in the heat. But be careful. If you feel cooler but actually are not, you might overextend yourself and end up slowing down prematurely.

  • Anti-cramping agents such as pickle juice or others spicy substances might be helpful for rowers who experience muscle cramps. These pungent tastes are thought to distract the nerves involved with the cramping muscle, thus reducing the perceived severity of the cramp.

Fluids

• You want to be sure you’re optimally hydrated before you begin rowing. Your first-morning urine should be light-colored, not dark and concentrated.

• Whether programmed drinking (according to a plan) is better than drinking according to your thirst depends on your sport. For example, an endurance rower can develop a large mismatch between sweat losses and fluid intake as compared to a rower who trains for only 45 minutes. 

• The suggested goal is to lose less than two percent of your body weight during exercise. In lab-based research, a loss of more than three percent of body weight is linked to reduced performance. In real life, the drive to win overrides the negative effects of being under-hydrated. Questions remain unanswered: Could under-hydrated athletes have performed better if they were better hydrated? Or, does being lighter because of dehydration offer an advantage? Stay tuned. Sports nutrition is an evolving science.

Nancy Clark, M.S., R.D., counsels both casual and competitive athletes in the Boston area (Newton; 617-795-1875). Her best-selling Sports Nutrition Guidebook is a popular resource, as is her online workshop. Visit NancyClarkRD.com for more information.

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