It’s no secret that most people don’t get enough fiber in their daily diets. But did you know that Americans consume only about HALF of the recommended amount (which is about 25g per day for women and 38g per day for men) per day? Endurance athletes are especially susceptible to inadequate fiber intake when they are trying to manage gastrointestinal symptoms during training and events.
Gastrointestinal complaints are very common among endurance athletes and perhaps the most common cause of underperformance in endurance events. An estimated 30–90% of distance runners experience intestinal problems related to exercise. If athletes assume that their gastrointestinal symptoms are caused by fiber-containing foods this can lead to unnecessary food restrictions, and ultimately nutrient deficiencies.
As with any dietary modification, it’s important to avoid unnecessarily restricting certain foods and take time to figure out what is causing your gastrointestinal symptoms. If you are adjusting your fiber intake, consider the timing of fiber intake and exercise, increase gradually, and ensure adequate fluid intake to help process fiber without bloating or stomach discomfort.
Focusing on consuming calories for energy during endurance activities often means athletes pay close attention to the timing and amount of carbohydrate they consume. Most athletes are keen on proper recovery after endurance exercise by refueling with fluids, carbohydrates and protein. However, fiber is an essential part of your recovery plan, too. If you are restricting fiber intake prior to and during exercise, focus on adding fiber-rich foods to your recovery snacks and meals. If you typically drink a refueling beverage immediately post-exercise, then include more fiber in your next meal. Similarly, aim for higher fiber foods on the days you are not endurance training or competing. Many athletes perform best when their training plans include days for recovery and cross-training. Consider these as days of recovery and cross-training for your diet and plan to eat a varied diet that includes foods high in fiber.
Fiber is naturally occurring in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, avocados, nuts, beans, and legumes. It is also added to many products to help American’s meet the daily serving recommendation. These fiber fact sheets discuss the various enriched fiber available (such as chicory root fiber, inulin, psyllium, oat beta-glucan soluble fiber, polydextrose and soluble corn fiber) and the benefits of consuming a variety of fibers.
When I was training for my first sprint triathlon in 2014, I didn’t think I needed to do anything special with my diet and I failed to learn about proper recovery. I wasn’t having any digestive issues, but I do believe my lack of knowledge about refueling contributed to my 10 pound weight gain. Once I started training for longer bouts I discovered I wasn’t hungry right afterwards, but later in the day I became ravenous. A proper refueling plan would have helped my body be better prepared for the next training day and I may have been better able to control my hunger and therefore my weight. Adding fiber-rich foods to my diet would have helped manage my hunger and weight as well. Research shows that consuming a low-energy dense diet (high-fiber, high-water, low-fat foods) allows you to eat a larger volume of food, increase satiety and reduce energy intake.
You’re making a healthy choice by being active. Don’t undermine that choice by restricting foods that are essential for your health, including fiber. Moving forward, make it a point to focus on fiber when you’re planning your meals and snacks. Your training should include nutrition planning to prepare for, complete, and recover from your event. For example, it could be helpful to determine if you tolerate gels, granola bars, fruits, and beverages during your activity.
Melissa Joy Dobbins, MS, RDN, CDE is a nationally recognized registered dietitian nutritionist with more than 20 years’ experience helping people enjoy their food with health in mind. Melissa is a certified diabetes educator, a former supermarket dietitian, and also a former national media spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (AND). She was named Outstanding Dietitian of the Year in Illinois by AND and Outstanding Diabetes Educator of the Year in Chicago by the American Association of Diabetes Educators. She is a paid contributor to Sucralose.org. Melissa is the CEO of Sound Bites, Inc. based in Chicago, Illinois, and you can connect with her on Twitter (@MelissaJoyRD), Pinterest,Facebook, and check out her blog at SoundBitesRD.com.