There are 2 main components that sports nutrition evolves around: how to fuel to improve performance and how to fuel to improve recovery. Think of food as fuel for cells, muscles, tissues and bone. Training for a marathon is a highly catabolic process. You use up a lot of different nutrients including your own muscle tissue. Nutrition is of paramount importance.
There are four key components that support the energy requirements for endurance athletes: carbohydrates, protein, healthy fats and hydration.
Carbohydrates : Every movement you make requires ATP (adenosine triphosphate), and glucose is the best source for producing ATP. During a long run, if you can’t sustain glucose delivery to your working muscles, you will hit the wall. Carbohydrates can deliver glucose, which is fuel to your working muscles. There is a great deal of research that shows distance runners perform better when they routinely consume a relatively high-carbohydrate diet. As a runner, carbohydrates should make up about 60% of your total calorie intake. Without a doubt, carbs are the best source of energy for distance runners. Carbohydrates can provide you with enough energy to make it through a hill workout, maintain blood sugar levels during a long run and allow for muscle recovery after a track workout.
Ideally, you should consume complex carbohydrates whenever possible. Complex carbohydrates, found in all plant-based foods, take longer for the body to digest than simple ones and are available as stored energy for use when needed. They don’t produce the sharp blood sugar spikes and lows, which can leave you feeling depleted before the end of your run. Carbohydrates are your body’s main energy source, so choose nutrient dense complex carbohydrates whenever possible. Complex carbohydrates such as vegetables, fruits, whole grains, whole breads, unrefined pastas, potatoes, quinoa and oatmeal provide slow and steady fuel.
For optimum muscle repair and recovery, protein should make up about 20% of your daily intake. Protein is important to repair tendons and muscle tissue damaged during training. The more often you run, the harder you run and the further you run, the more repair work there will be for your muscles. In addition to being an essential nutrient, protein keeps you feeling full longer, which helps if you’re trying to get down to your ideal race weight or are left feeling ravenous after a tough workout.
Although the requirement for protein is relatively small, at 20% of your daily intake, protein should be evenly spread throughout the day. Aim for about 30 grams of protein per meal to optimize protein utilization. Most people tend to get very little protein at breakfast, then slightly more at lunch, then way too much at dinner. The excess gets oxidized and ends up as fat. Aim for about 30 grams of protein at every meal. If you distribute your protein intake evenly throughout the day, you will create more efficient recovery, repair and muscle building, which can have positive effects on your running performance.
Try to concentrate on high quality protein sources such as lean meats, poultry, fish, dairy products, nuts, eggs, whole grains and legumes. A chicken breast contains about 30 grams of protein. Five ounces of fish is slightly larger than the size of a standard cheque book and contains about 30 grams of protein. Beans and lentils have about 10 to 14 grams of protein per cup. You can see, how your protein intake at dinner can quickly add up. I wouldn’t recommend eating an 8 oz top sirloin steak for dinner the night before your race. The 69 grams of protein found in the steak might overwhelm the ability of your digestive enzymes to do their work and you don’t want to waste energy on digestion. Be mindful of your protein intake. Are you consuming too much at dinner? If so, cut back. Are you consuming enough at breakfast? Greek yogurt topped with nuts or seeds and a hard boiled egg on the side add up to 30 grams. Most protein powders provide at least 20 grams of protein. Add a scoop to your morning smoothie and spread a tablespoon of almond butter on your toast for an additional 8 grams to boost your protein intake in the morning.
Some runners cringe when they hear the word fat and they think they should keep it out of their diet. As a runner, you need fat to to lubricate and protect your joints, to aid in recovery, help your body with temperature control, the absorption of nutrients, and to keep your body fuelled and your appetite satisfied.
The body needs fat to function. A certain amount of fat is absolutely necessary to ensure sufficient energy and nutrient intake. Vitamins A, D, E and K are referred to as fat soluble vitamins and fat is necessary to properly absorb these vitamins. Deficiencies in these vitamins, caused by a diet low in fat can lead to injuries and illness. Fat soluble vitamin E in particular is a very important antioxidant and a lack of antioxidants can prolong the post workout inflammatory state.
Every time you run, your body produces damaging free radicals which can cause pain and inflammation. Omega-3 fatty acids found in cold water fish, flaxseed, chia seeds, walnuts and brazil nuts have certain attributes that help to reduce muscle and joint inflammation. This means that healthy fats can help to decrease your recovery time after a workout.
Add healthy fats to your diet. Focus on nutrient-rich fat sources such as salmon, mackerel, herring, lake trout, pumpkin seeds, sunflower seeds, sesame seeds, olive oil, chia seeds, ground flax seeds, nuts, kidney beans, navy beans and avocados.
Water consumption is essential for everyone, but even more so for runners. Drinking enough water throughout the day is critical. If you wait until you are thirsty to drink some water, you are already dehydrated. Even mild dehydration can lead to headaches, muscle cramps, stomach aches, poor concentration and fatigue. A good rule of thumb for calculating your daily water requirement is to divide your body weight in pounds by 2. If you weigh 128 pounds, you will need about 64 ounces, or eight 8-ounce glasses of water per day. Drink enough water to keep urine output pale or straw coloured during the day.
Water is a vital source of energy in the body. Dehydration causes the enzymatic activity in the body to slow down, resulting in fatigue. When dehydrated, cells are depleted of energy. Muscle tissue is comprised of approximately 75% water, so the next time you feel tired and sluggish on a run, consider your hydration. Water should be consumed evenly throughout the day to keep fluid levels up and your body evenly hydrated. Waiting to gulp down a bottle of water before you run will simply leave the water sloshing around in your stomach and your muscle cells still dehydrated.
A high production of lactic acid from an extremely intense workout such as hills or a speed workout is more likely to negatively affect a dehydrated runner than a well-hydrated runner because the pool of fluid (blood volume) that accepts the lactic acid leaving cells is larger and, therefore, more resistant to pH change or the change in relative acidity. In other words, the solution to pollution is dilution.
You need to be the most careful and attentive to your body when fuelling before your run. Some runners can chow down until the second they hit the pavement, but others need to let their food digest and stomachs settle first. How much you should eat before a run depends on your distance, your personal tolerance and the timing of your run. The general rule of thumb is if you’re running up to an hour at a low intensity first thing in the morning, you don’t necessarily need anything. But remember, everyone is different and you may find that running on empty, even for a short distance leaves you feeling slow and tired. If you have a longer morning run on the schedule or a moderately paced workout, it’s important to take in a few hundred calories for fuel or you’re likely to feel tired, sluggish or nauseous during the workout.
Carbohydrate foods higher in fibre have a lower glycemic index, meaning they help to maintain blood sugar balance and take longer to digest, which is generally a healthy choice for athletes. However, dietary fibre can leave food sitting in your stomach for a slightly longer time and this may be a problem before a training run or race if you have a sensitive stomach. If so, you may want to choose simple carbohydrates. While complex carbohydrates are a healthier choice, sometimes fuelling for performance, doesn’t equate to the “healthiest” choice, but rather the “best” choice for you. I don’t have a problem with recommending gels, white pasta and white bagels to distance runners. Try to make healthy choices 90-95% of the time, but when it comes to pre-workout and pre-race nutrition, have what works. Choosing the right fuel to provide you with the necessary energy without upsetting your stomach is key.
Stick to something easily digestible. Good options for effective, but easy to digest pre-workout foods are oatmeal or granola with almond milk or low fat milk, bagels or toast topped with eggs or nutbutter, pancakes and mixed toppings, such as fruits and nuts, fruit salad with greek yogurt, breakfast muffins with low-fat cottage cheese and sliced banana. Bananas are easy on the stomach and they pack a lot of low glycemic carbs. They are also a good source of potassium, which can help reduce the risk of muscle cramps. Regardless of which food you choose, select something that’s made up primarily of carbs and easily digestible. When it comes to nutrition for athletes, different approaches work for different people. I can’t give you a one size fits all approach to fuelling for performance. The same fuelling strategy which works great for one runner, can be the approach that causes “runner’s trots” for someone else.
Running depletes your energy stores, breaks down your muscle tissue, dehydrates you, produces damaging free radicals and depletes your body of electrolytes. Post workout, your three main goals are to refuel, repair and rehydrate.
After your run, easily digestible carbohydrates are critical for replenishing glycogen stores and preparing you for your next workout. If you do not replace your carbohydrates, subsequent training sessions or races will suffer. The maximal uptake of glucose is in those first 30 minutes after your run, so optimize your training and try to refuel within 30-60 minutes.
You need to follow your workout with some protein for optimum muscle repair and recovery and add in some healthy fats to reduce muscle and joint inflammation.
Don’t forget to rehydrate after your run. Sip on water, a sports drink or coconut water to replenish lost fluids and help to rebalance your electrolytes.
What should you eat after a run? Ideally, you need a balanced meal consisting of carbohydrates to replenish the ones you burned for energy, protein to aid in muscle recovery and healthy fat to support your joints and reduce inflammation. Try to have something with all three macronutrients: carbohydrates, protein and fat. This could be:
- -an omelete cooked in butter or olive oil with cheese, vegetables and toast
- -chicken breast served over a big salad with olives and feta cheese
- -filet of fish cooked in olive oil with vegetables.
As a general rule of thumb, aim for a ratio of 3:1 carbs to protein. If you are unable to stomach a plate of hot food after a particularly hard workout, you could have a simple post workout recovery smoothie with a frozen banana, berries (carbs), almond milk, protein powder (protein) and chia seeds (fat).
Food is Fuel:
To recap, balanced meals for runners should comprise roughly 60 percent carbohydrates, 20 percent proteins and 20 percent healthy fats. Keep processed food to a minimum and focus on whole, fresh foods. Ensure that you include plenty of colourful fresh fruits and vegetables as good sources of carbohydrates. Eat a rainbow. Too many runners focus solely on pasta and grains and their diets take on a brown hue. Include dark leafy greens such as spinach and kale. Include lots of brightly coloured fresh produce, such as red peppers, mangoes, blueberries and sweet potatoes. Selecting colours rather than beige-tones usually means foods have more nutrients per calorie. High-nutrient whole foods will fuel your body for the long haul. As a runner, you need to be hydrated long before you lace up your shoes. Sip water throughout the day. And always remember this: You can run hard, follow the perfect training program and have the best coach, but if you don’t fuel properly, you won’t be able to maximize your performance. Fuelling for optimum performance and recovery can propel you from being a good runner to being a great runner. Give your body the nutritional support it needs and good luck with your next race!