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The 3 Keys of an Effective Training Nutrition Plan

Despite being in the midst of sports-fuel product and information overload, many athletes fail to meet the three keys of training nutrition. Whether or not they realize it, it's likely affecting their performance.

Before diving into the big three, I recommend first establishing your goals and priorities. Your nutrition plan can follow.

Are you an athlete who wants to optimize performance above all else? Is your main goal to get better, faster and stronger at your sport? I'll call this goal group performance athletes.

Is weight loss your main goal? Are you running simply because you want to lose weight? I'll refer to this goal group as weight-loss athletes.

Lastly, are you a competitive athlete? This group will be named competitive athletes.

Do you fit within any of these three? Remember: This isn't your overall life goal. It's simply your training goal. It drives your nutrition plan, and it's important to fuel yourself to meet your goal.

Here's how each group can use the three keys of training nutrition.

Key #1: Fluids

Fluids are paramount, as both chronic and acute dehydration directly affect performance. Even a tiny amount of weight loss from sweat (1 to 2 percent of body weight) can increase your sense of effort, cause nausea, decrease appetite and reduce performance.

Anytime you're training for more than 60 minutes, I recommend hydrating during training, from at least the 30-minute mark onward. If you're training for 60 minutes or less, you can likely get by with no hydration as long as you're well-hydrated going into training. Or, you can take along water.

In high heat or humidity, you must hydrate while training—no matter the duration. But, what about over-hydration? I'll cover this below in the electrolyte section. Over-hydration is really too little electrolytes compared to the amount of fluid intake. It's not the fluid that's the problem, but the lack of electrolytes.

Quick Tip: Want to know exactly how much fluid you need during training?
Weigh yourself immediately before and after training, in the buff or in only underwear, if possible. If not, have on the same clothes both times. Calculate every pound lost as 16 fluid ounces. Then, add in any fluid you consumed during training. This is the amount of fluid you lost during that specific exercise session. Plan to hydrate proactively for the next one.

Key #2: Carbohydrates

Simply put, you will perform better when you add efficient carbohydrates to any training longer than 60 minutes. Many athletes can push through without negative affects until 90 minutes. My rule of thumb: Add carbs if training at high intensity for 60+ minutes or at any intensity for 90+ minutes.

Your body needs fuel during training from some source. If you want to improve performance and train with any sort of high intensity, it usually works best to provide that fuel source in the form of efficient carbs. If you're goals are more weight loss driven, you can reduce your carbs and oxidize or burn more fat.

But beware, omitting fuel and oxidizing fat doesn't necessarily mean fat loss in the long term as you may not train as well or may overeat later in the day because you're under-nourished. It simply means you'll oxidize more during that workout.

Quick Tip: The goal is not to try to consume every calorie of output.
It's generally a bad idea to try to consume every calorie you burn while training, even at a competitive racing level. Why? The limiting factor is digestion. Your body is under physical stress while training, and does not want or need to deal with huge amounts of food and drink (many athletes burn upwards of 1,000 calories per hour at high intensity).

In many ways, less is more, and you'll avoid many stomach and low energy issues by consuming enough, but not too much, in small amounts every hour of training.

Key #3: Electrolytes

These are the tiny, often-forgotten, deal-breaker nutrients of training nutrition. Don't get enough, and you'll risk dehydration, over-hydration and/or the big bonk. It's a balancing act, but not too difficult to accomplish.

Electrolytes—and especially sodium—are needed during training to improve carbohydrate absorption, water/fluid absorption, and to maintain the delicate balance of plasma fluids and particles in your blood. Potassium, chloride, calcium and magnesium, can also play a factor, but don't seem to be as acutely necessary as sodium.

Quick Tip: It's not too much water, but too little sodium or other electrolytes that causes over-hydration.
Generally, over-hydration occurs when the ratio of fluid in the plasma is no longer balanced with the amount of sodium in the plasma. The electrolytes are diluted. By only drinking water when training, especially when sweating a lot due to intensity, heat and humidity, you're at high risk for diluted electrolytes if you're only drinking water.

What's more, your body may choose to dehydrate further and cause an increase in urine output in an effort to reduce bodily fluid and re-establish fluid to electrolyte balance. Either way, it's not a good situation.

Remember: fluids, carbs and electrolytes. The types and amounts depend on your goals, and training intensity and duration. Of course, you can go beyond these three keys and look at amino acids, whole proteins, functional nutrients and more to optimize your plan. Sometimes these really help, and other times they cause more problems than they're worth.

Above all else, the three keys of training nutrition are the best place to start. They're the foundation, and they'll make a big difference in your performance.