Nutrition is such an integral part of training and performance but it can also be one of the most confusing topics for runners.
This is often due to so many mixed messages. It is imperative to remember that nutrition advice cannot be anecdotal – just because something works for one person doesn’t automatically mean it is going to be suitable for the whole running population.
One of the main problems with not following advice from a credible source is that there are no long-term studies; you are basing your change in strategy on one person’s evidence on a snapshot of time.
So for example, while someone may feel the immediate benefits of going low carb, high fat, what they are unaware is how this may impact their performance within 6-12 months.
Breaking this down further, here are some of the common mistakes often made.
Most runners know they should eat carbohydrate and this is definitely an important fuel source to be included in all runners’ diets. However, it is important to understand how to tailor your carbohydrate intake to your training. Before a high-intensity speed, track, interval, hill or tempo sessions, it is essential to ensure that you consume carbohydrate in the 24-48 hours prior to this in order to make sufficient glycogen stores.
Aim to include nutrient-dense carbohydrates such as oats, potatoes, whole grains, fruit and yoghurts at three meals (about a 1/3 of your plate) as well as including two-three smaller carbohydrate-based snacks such as bananas, two slices malt loaf or two-three oatcakes with peanut butter.
It is important to adjust this intake around low to moderate intensity training sessions, reducing intakes to around 1/4 plate carbs and sticking to more protein based snacks such as an apple with a matchbox portion of cheese.
With so much negativity around sugar, it is hardly surprising that many runners are equally concerned about their intake. While I would never advocate a high sugar diet, there are definitely times during training and competing, where sugar is the only option.
During endurance events, such as a half or full marathon, the body will need an easily digestible source of carbohydrate to keep stores topped up so that running pace can be maintained beyond 60-90 minutes. Gels, jelly babies, energy drinks are all suitable options and they all contain sugar. So in this case, sugar actually enables and potentially enhances your performance.
There is a lot of hype around protein in the recovery phase, with many runners stressing about not getting enough to enhance recovery. It is important to appreciate that the body will struggle to utilise more than 0.4g/Kg BW post training for muscle protein synthesis and adaptation.
So any additional protein consumed will be used as fuel or stored as excess. Therefore, it is actually really important to spread your protein requirements out throughout the day. Aim for palm size portion of protein at three meals and then half this amount for snacks. This will ensure that your body always has an amino acid pool to draw from in order to repair and rebuild muscles, throughout the day.
5 Essential Nutrition Tips for Runners
Below are the top five nutrition pieces of advice I recommend for runners.
Don’t be drawn to the latest fad – many runners will try almost anything to improve their performance. Focus on training and getting the building blocks of your diet correct first – this is going to have more impact than whether you are gluten-free or not.
Periodise your nutrition – take a look at your weekly training, highlight the quality sessions and then plan your nutrition around this. In this way, you will meet your fuelling and recovery requirements.
Post-training – after a very hard training session and especially when you will be training again within 12 hours, taking on something like flavoured milk is an ideal choice to start recovery as quickly as possible. The combination of added sugar to the natural milk sugar causes insulin to increase in the blood. Contrary to what you might think, this is actually really important. Only when our insulin levels are raised, can we draw carbohydrates and protein into the muscles to start the recovery process.
Always practise your race day nutrition – the worst mistake you can make is to use what is available on race day without previously having tried it –this could have real negative effects on your performance.
Work out what is right for you – just because your training partner swears by a bowl of porridge every morning, this does not necessarily mean this is the right fuel choice for you.
About the Author
Renee McGregor RD SENr is a Performance Dietitian and author, who works with elite athletes, coaches and sport science teams to provide nutritional strategies to enhance performance and manage eating disorders.
She is the author of Training Food, Fast Fuel books and Orthorexia, and soon to be released Healthy eating goes bad.