Board? Check. Paddle? Check. Favorite hat? Check. Pre-workout fuel? Ummm…

pre-race nutrition

This is from Amy Beausang, a.k.a. Strongrabbit, is Mrs. Mullet, mother to Baby Mullet (Stella), cousin of Cousin Mullet (not literally, but in practice), and a Doctor of Pharmacy, certified nutritionist, certified personal trainer, and all-around awesome person. Basically, she’s super qualified to help us figure out what to eat and drink in order to stay healthy and in tip top form while paddling. And BOY do we EVER need to know how to do that! Bonking, dehydration, over hydration. You name it, the Mullets have done it. Amy is going to help get us on the right track. Welcome her, share the post, like it, and holler real loud so she’ll write some more!

——Let’s begin—-

Being married to the Mullet means I’ve spent a fair amount of time at SUP events, observing the behaviors of the paddleboarding species. I’ve overheard A LOT of intense discussion (obsession) about boards, paddles, fins, hydration packs, and gear I have no clue about. The extent to which SUPpers go to find the optimal equipment for optimal performance is impressive. I understand this on some level as I used to run quite a bit, and remember fascinating debates on everything from the pros and cons of fuel belts to the best anti-chafing products.

But one thing I don’t hear too much about when I’m hanging around at these events is what you eat and drink before a workout or race. The fastest board, the lightest paddle, the fin with the least drag—none of this really matters unless you’re properly fueling up to get the most out of your body, and therefore, out of your fancy SUP gear. You choose your boards and other equipment with care. You need to choose your nutrition and hydration options with care.

As if on queue, the Mullet himself provided me with the perfect example for this article just this morning—thanks, honey!  John woke up at 4:45a.m to embark on a 15 mile open-ocean downwinder from Carolina Beach to Wrightsville Beach with several buddies. He worked through the details of what time to meet at the starting point, who would leave a vehicle at the finishing point, what board to use, what paddle to use, what fin to use, even what hat to wear (something that would match his cute board shorts). Anyway, the one thing he DIDN’T really think through was what to eat and drink before this intense workout. And according to him, 4 miles from the finish his arms started to “seize up”.  To use a term from my running days, he BONKED.

So, let’s analyze what the Mullet fueled up on pre-workout so you can see how your pre-workout routine stacks up.

John’s Pre-15-Mile-Open-Ocean-Downwinder-Fuel

1. 1 cup of coffee. We are a household of coffee drinkers, the stronger the better. We do limit Stella to one sippy cup of coffee in the morning since she’s under 2 years of age. A number of studies have shown that caffeine boosts performance when consumed pre-workout. I agree, although I also think it’s a personal preference. Coffee or any other source of caffeine makes some people feel jittery, anxious, and nauseated, so it’s not for everyone. But if you’re used to it, my view is go ahead and enjoy a cup pre-workout or pre-race.

2. Zero ounces of water. What??? I was baffled to hear this. Hydration—namely water–is one of the most important components of nutrition, especially when you work out. Water is essential for good digestion, nutrient absorption, energy metabolism, toxin elimination from cells, joint lubrication, and temperature regulation—especially in warmer weather, ie, when it’s already 82F at 7am with 90% humidity.  OK, so John didn’t drink water this morning before working out. So I asked him how much he drank yesterday. “I don’t know.” Better now than never that he starts paying attention to his hydration habits. It’s important to drink enough water EVERY day, not just on training days. As a general rule, aim to drink half of your body weight (in lb’s) in ounces of water.  So a 150lb person would drink roughly 75oz of H2O per day. Want a simple way to see if you’re getting enough water? Do a visual urinalysis –look at your pee! You’re getting enough water if your urine is pale yellow to clear. In terms of hydration just before working out, down 8 to 16 oz 30 to 45 minutes before and then 4oz every 15 to 20 minutes, especially in warm conditions. If your training session will be greater than 90 minutes, you should be mixing in some sports drinks into your hydration, to replenish your electrolytes. Relying solely on water for endurance workouts can lead to hyponatremia, aka “water intoxication”.

Scientific sidebar: What is hyponatremia and why should you even care?

During high intensity exercise, sodium is lost along with sweat. We need sodium for nerve impulse transmission and muscle function. Early warning signs of hyponatremia or low sodium include nausea, muscle cramps, slurred speech, and confusion. A study published in the New England Journal of Medicine (April, 2005) found that 13 percent of Boston Marathon runners developed hyponatremia from drinking too much water.  If we applied those stats to this past Carolina Cup, that would be nearly 60 people with blood sodium levels that were too low.

3.  1 meal replacement bar (370 calories, 47g carbs [20g sugar], 9g protein, 18g fat). What’s good about this choice? The calories are in the range of what should be consumed 1-2 hours before a high-mileage workout such as this one. Maybe he should’ve aimed closer to 500 calories to better fuel his body during the full 15 miles. Typically, you’ll want to take in 300 to 500 calories, comprised of 3:1 carbohydrate : protein ratio.

Scientific sidebar: Why carbs and protein?

Carbs are the body’s primary fuel source during intense or endurance exercise. Stored carbohydrates (aka “glycogen”) in the muscles fuel your workouts during exercise. The liver also breaks down glycogen into glucose to maintain normal blood sugar levels and to feed your brain and muscles during training.  These carb stores are limited, and thus influence how long you can enjoy training. When stores get too low, you feel an overwhelming fatigue and desire to just pass out on your board or curl up in the fetal position and cry. In other words, you BONK. Thus, carbs are important if you want your training to pay off! The carb + protein combo delivers nutrients to muscles, spares glycogen and protein loss, limits immune system suppression, minimizes muscle damage, and speeds recovery.

Now back to analyzing John’s pre-workout food. Based on the 3:1 ratio, maybe he could’ve used a bit more protein. The 18g of fat in the bar is a bit much. Fat can be hard for the body to digest when consumed close to the workout time, especially if it’s an intense workout. A small amount of “good” fat (a teaspoon of coconut oil, a couple slices of avocado, a handful of nuts or seeds, etc) in your pre-workout meal is sufficient to facilitate optimal nutrient absorption without compromising your digestion and performance. Some good options for pre-endurance-workout fuel include:

  • a smoothie with frozen fruit, ½ to 1 scoop protein powder,  a cup of non-dairy milk (coconut, hemp, almond etc), and a tablespoon of nut butter
  • 2 eggs and 1 cup cooked oatmeal with cinnamon, fruit, honey and a teaspoon of coconut oil.
  • 2 pieces of toast with nut butter and banana

Things that Influence What You Eat Before Paddling

Keep in mind that when you workout also makes a difference. If you work out later in the day, your breakfast, lunch and snacks have been filling your tank throughout the day, so having an easily-digestible 3:1 carb: protein snack of 100 to 200 calories 30 to 60 minutes before your session is sufficient. A piece of fruit and a handful of nuts may be all you need.

Duration of your workout also matters. Early morning workouts lasting less than 60 minutes total require less pre-workout fueling, typically ranging from 100 to 300 calories, than workouts lasting more than 90 minutes.

And how hard you go at it also plays a role in determining your pre-workout consumption. As mentioned above, high-intensity workouts and races rely heavily on carbohydrates. During low-level exercise such as walking or a leisurely 2-3 mile paddle, your muscles burn primarily fat for energy. During moderate aerobic training, stored fat supplies approximately 50% to 60% of the fuel.

The bottom line is that no matter if you are recreational or elite, novice or experienced, what you eat and drink before your training session or race will largely determine your performance. Maybe even more than that favorite board or paddle will.


Sources used for this article:

1.     Nancy Clark’s Sports Nutrition Guidebook, fourth edition, 2008.

2.     Matt Frazier. 5 Keys to the Pre-Workout Meal Everyone Should Know.

3.     A Chambers, M.S., and L Kravitz, PhD. Nutrient Timing: The New Frontier in Fitness Performance.

4.     Christopher SD, et al. Hyponatremia among runners in the Boston Marathon. N Engl J Med 2005;352:1550-1556.

How to fuel up to get the most out of your SUP workouts