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Eating and Stretching: Two Hot Topics for Runners

May 11, 2012

By Janet Bond Brill, Ph.D., R.D.

Eating: There are three types of macronutrients that supply energy (calories) for the human body: carbohydrates, fat, and protein. When it comes to eating for good health and optimal athletic performance, it’s all in the balance, and “good” carbs should be the foundation of the diet, with a nice dose of added “healthy fats” and a smaller amount of lean protein. Carbohydrates are the most widely eaten food in the world and should comprise the bulk of any and all healthy diets, as carbs are truly the staff of life. Carbs supply quick energy for the muscles. Plus, if you eat the good whole-grain carbs, you get the added benefits of fiber, loads of vitamins and minerals, and tons of important phytonutrients (antioxidants and natural cholesterol-lowering phytosterols, for example). The best sources of “good” carbs are whole grains, fruits, vegetables, and beans.

So how much is enough? For the mere mortals among us (inactive or modestly active), carbohydrates should make up at least 50% of our total caloric intake. For the dedicated athlete (especially endurance athletes like swimmers, cyclists, and runners), carbs should make up at least 60% of their total calorie intake. Elite athletes are different. During peak training, elite endurance athletes often increase their carb intake to 70%, a necessary adjustment to give them the extra energy and nutrition required to train at an optimal level.

When my patients tell me that carbs are fattening, I always tell them to look at Lance Armstrong, who in the months leading up to the Tour de France routinely ate a 60% to 70% carbohydrate diet. If carbs make you fat, then why is he one of the leanest, fittest humans on the planet? Carbs are not fattening; too many calories, regardless of the source—excess carbs, fat, or protein—are what put on the pounds. So follow the lead of the great athletes among us: Eat a healthy higher carbohydrate, moderate fat, and protein diet—the ideal combination to optimally fuel your training and racing routine.

Stretching: Why stretch? Stretching increases flexibility, a key component of physical fitness that is often neglected. A greater degree of flexibility is believed to help prevent injury (and low back pain) and improve sports performance. We lose flexibility as we age, so practicing a regular program of stretching the major muscle groups can help prevent loss of flexibility and its associated negative impact on quality of life in our golden years.

Stretching properly involves a slow, steady elongation of the muscles and tendons to the point of tightness—never pain—and holding the stretch for several seconds. (Never use bouncing or ballistic-type stretching, which can cause injury.) It is best to stretch muscles that have been warmed up internally from exercise as opposed to cold muscles. In fact, stretching cold muscles can actually increase risk of injury, as a cold muscle is more prone to strains! Think of a muscle as if it were a rubber band. If you stretch cold rubber, it snaps and breaks; however, if you warm the rubber first, it stretches more elastically and fluidly, like taffy.

Stretching is different from “warming up.” A warm-up is what you do before you begin a bout of exercise and generally consists of a low-intensity version of the exercise you are planning on engaging in (such as a fast walk before a jog). A good exercise (running) routine would be to warm up (work up a light sweat with a slow jog to raise the internal temperature of your muscles), followed by a series of brief stretches, then perform your exercise bout, warm down and end with another series of stretches. Practice this plan in training and you will have a well-rounded fitness routine, and be less prone to injury.


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