Sound Bites Vol 1 # 3

Sound Bites Vol 1 # 3

fr-veg-chixWe’re now deep into racing season—as I write this, Covered Bridge is a fine but fleeting memory, juniors left for Brentwood this morning, crews of masters and juniors are heading for Opening Day and/or American Lake the first weekend in May–and NW Regionals will be upon us before we know it.  What should your nutrition plan be at this point in the season?  How should those calories we discussed in our last installment be distributed among carbohydrate, protein, and fat?

Generally, a nutrition plan for an active athlete should contain about 60-65% of calories as carbohydrate, 15-20% as protein, and 20-25% as fat.  To calculate your total calorie needs, refer to Sound Bites Vol 1 #2.

Eating before, during, and after multi-day regattas can be a challenge, but remember that fuel replacement is essential to optimal performance, particularly when racing more than once per day.  As soon as possible after a race, be sure to get 15-30 grams of carb on board to replace those spent in your event, for example 5-10 gummi bears, banana, or orange.  This will ensure that you are ready to go for your next event.  If you have 2-3 hours before your next race, you can eat a more substantial mini-meal with carb plus protein, like a turkey sandwich, banana, and water or sports drink.

First Priority:  Carbohydrate Calories

Because practices are intense now, with multiple 1-2 kilometer pieces at race pace, rowers should definitely be eating 60-65% or more of their calories as high quality carbs.  Carbohydrate is the preferred fuel for activity and essential for sprint races at high intensity.  Adequate carbohydrate intake also allows your body to use protein for building and repairing muscle and body tissues rather than for providing energy.

Each gram of carbohydrate supplies 4 calories.  One tablespoon (15 grams) of simple carbohydrate, like table sugar or honey, provides about 60 calories.  Carbs are found in grains/starchy vegetables, fruit/fruit juice, milk/yogurt, and sweets/desserts/snacks.

Carbohydrate Needs

According to the International Olympic Committee’s Nutrition Recommendations, adequate carbs means:

Amount of exercise

Grams carb/lb/day Example 150 lb athlete Carb calories
Moderate exercise (~1 hour/day)         2.5 to 3

375-450 gm/day


Endurance exercise (1-3 h/day)

2.5 to 4.5

375-675 gm/day


Extreme exercise (>4-5 h/day)

3.5 to 5.5

525-825 gm/day


Carbohydrate Content of Common Foods

You can easily calculate the grams of carb you eat in a day by reading the Nutrition Facts Panel on packaged foods, accessing on-line nutrient calculators, or consulting the table below for portions of common foods containing approximately 15 grams carbohydrate.

Food group One portion = approximately 15 gm carbohydrate
Grains/starchy veggies 1 ounce slice bread, 1 cup unsweetened dry cereal, ½ cup plain oatmeal, 1/3 cup cooked rice or pasta, ½ cup mashed potato, ½ cup peas or corn
Fruit/fruit juice 1 tennis ball size apple or orange, ½ banana, 15 grapes, 1 cup raspberries, 1-1/2 cups whole fresh strawberries, ½ cup orange or apple juice
Milk/yogurt 1 cup (8 ounces) milk, ½ cup chocolate milk, 1 cup plain or light yogurt, ½ cup sweetened yogurt
Sweets/desserts  8 gummy bears, ½ cup ice cream, 2 small oreos, 5-6 life savers, 2 small (1/2 ounce each) Reese’s peanut butter cups
Snacks 1 small (1 ounce) bag chips, ½ Odwalla bar, 3 cups popped corn, 3 graham cracker squares, 5 saltine crackers

 What about Protein?

Protein is necessary to build and repair all our body cells.  Intense activity causes increased breakdown of muscle, and a moderate amount of extra protein is needed to ensure that muscles are able to rebuild, enlarge, and stay in good repair. However, there is no need to over-consume protein, which can be expensive and may put an extra burden on the kidneys, whose job is to rid the body of excess nitrogen (found in protein foods) and other waste products.

Most athletes who are very active will consume adequate protein if they eat a variety of foods at the calorie level required to fuel their activity.  An athlete consuming 60-65% carbohydrate calories should eat about 15-20% of their calories as protein.

Here’s a table that lists the basic protein needs of the average person each day, plus an example showing the extra protein needed by an athlete

Age/sex Grams protein/lb/day Example 150 lb person Example for athlete (1.5-2x basic needs)
15-18 yo male  0.40 gm    60 gm/day    90-120 gm/day
15-18 yo female 0.36 gm    55 gm/day 85-110 gm/day
Adults (male/female) 0.36 gm    55 gm/day 85-110 gm/day

Protein Content of Common Foods

The table below gives you an idea of the approximate amount of common foods to provide 7 grams of protein.  Muscles contain about 7 grams of protein per ounce, so if you are building muscle weight at the rate of 1 pound (16 ounces) per week, you would need an additional 112 grams protein/week, which equates to a modest 16 gm/day, or the amount in 2 extra ounces of meat or cheese, 2 cups milk, or 2 eggs.

Food group One portion = approximately 7 grams protein
Meat/ poultry/fish 1 ounce  (a typical 3 ounce portion is about the size of a deck of cards = 21 gm protein)
Egg 1 medium
Cheese 1 ounce
Milk/yogurt 8 ounces
Black/kidney beans ½ cup (cooked)
Soy beans ¼ cup (cooked)
Peanuts 1 ounce (about 40 nuts)
Peanut butter 2 Tablespoons

Fat:  a Bundle of Energy

There is a lot that can be said about fat and its relationship to health and disease.  But for the moment, what’s important to know is that fat contains 9 calories/gram—almost 2-1/2 times the amount in carbohydrate or protein (which have 4 calories/gram).  In terms of food, this means that 1 tablespoon of butter, margarine, oil, mayonnaise, salad dressing, and even peanut butter has about 100 calories compared to about 60 calories for an equal amount of sugar, honey, gummi bears, syrup, or chocolate sauce.

The bottom line is that if you want to be lean and mean (on the race course), keep fat to no more than 20-25% of your total calories per day.  It’s not necessary to count grams of fat—what’s important is keeping high fat foods to small servings of healthy fats and limiting unhealthy fats to once-in-a-while status.  Additionally, fat slows down how fast foods leave your stomach after a meal, leaving you feeling full, sluggish, and constipated.  Unless you know you can tolerate greasy foods like cheeseburgers or sausage pizza, it’s probably best to limit these high fat foods during the 12-24 hours before a competition.

Here’s a table that shows you healthy vs unhealthy fats.  Remember, ALL FATS have a lot of calories, so don’t overdo even the “healthy fats,” unless you are losing too much weight.

Foods with healthy fats Foods with unhealthy fats
Olives/olive oil Coconut oil
Light margarine Butter
Greek yogurt Cream/half ‘n half
Walnuts/almonds Cheetos
Canadian bacon Bacon/sausage
Avocado Cheese
Turkey sub Pepperoni pizza

Don’t Forget Fluids

Just a brief word about fluids.  All the reactions in the body need fluid to work, particularly when muscles are working hard and kidneys are trying to get rid of waste products.  A good gauge of the adequacy of your fluid intake is the color of your urine—it should be pale yellow.  If it’s dark or strong smelling, drink more!   Especially during regattas lasting multiple days, you will need to remember to drink frequently.  Even if the weather is cool, carry a water bottle with you in the boat–you can always dump out the water on the way to the starting line to get rid of any unwanted boat weight.

Sound Bites is written by VIRC rower and Registered Dietitian/Certified Diabetes Educator, Debby Jackson, RD, CDE.