Great Britain’s 2014 European cross country champion shares fueling tips for races and provides a few insights into the foods that work for her in a balanced diet.
A balanced diet is essential to maintain health and not just from a running perspective, but also to promote general wellbeing. After all, a healthy runner is a happy runner and happy runners generally perform better.
A balanced healthy diet is giving your body the essential nutrition it needs to function the best it can. This includes the adequate amount of vitamins, minerals, fluid, carbohydrates, protein, fats and calories. For runners, the amounts can be exact amounts can be tinkered with leading up to a race depending on the distance.
Before race day it’s important to figure out what foods work for you and what doesn’t. This can take time to get right, but it’s worth doing because it can be the difference in making or breaking a race.
For me, through a bit of experimenting, I have come to the conclusion that I should cut down on protein in the days before a race in order to make more room for carbohydrates. This way I ensure my muscle’s glycogen stores are fully stocked up come race day. However, while this work for me it’s important to remember that everyone is different.
While pasta is the preferred carbohydrate for many in the days before a race, personally I get a bit bloated afterwards. As an alternative, I go for jacket potatoes, with a side of rice or couscous. Also Avocado, for some healthy fats, is something I try to include.
If I’m running a 10k then I usually eat a bit lighter, but 10 miles to half marathon I will eat a bit more – two jacket potatoes instead of one.
The morning of the race
I usually stick to porridge (nothing too adventurous) the morning of a race – although this can be testing at races where there is plenty to choose from.
A good tip is to take a lunch box and stock up until after the race when you have earned it!
The main energy you will need should already be stored in your body, built up the days before, so there is no point in last minute cramming – stick to a light breakfast.
Avoiding a heavy breakfast should help ease any digestive problems or stitches – the last thing you want when energy should be used for running.
I would also advise limiting your fruit intake, except for maybe a banana an hour before the race. Any foods containing fibre should also be reduced and maybe stick to white bread instead of brown if you are being really cautious. On the morning of the race, you want to be as relaxed as possible, so maybe hold off on the caffeine until about an hour before the race. Then is the time to have a small coffee or in my case some caffeine tablets from my Forever Living sponsors in the form of ‘Forever Therm’.
Forever Living ‘Freedom’ Gel – this has been the one supplement I swear by (and not just because are a sponsor). I was introduced to it three years ago by a good friend and former Charnwood runner Kate Ramsey and since then I have had no Achilles problems and few injuries.
Maybe not the nicest thing to drink first thing in the morning, however, the aloe vera gel helps cleanse your digestive system helping to increase your ability to absorb nutrients. The product’s key added nutrients are calcium, vitamin c, glucosamine and a full range of essential vitamins.
Arctic Sea fish oil tablets – If you are like me and are you are not a seafood lover these are also like gold dust. Five small tablets a day contain your recommended daily allowance of omega 3 and the quality is second to none. They are regarded as much purer than cod liver oil tablets. They give you clearer skin, better eyesight and that’s before I go one to the running benefits. They help with muscle contraction, lubricate your joints and help you keep your heart healthy.
Favourite foods in my balanced diet
Beetroot has become a staple part of my diet. We grow it on our allotment at home and I eat it almost every day. This root vegetable is high in nitrates which aids blood flow and muscle contraction – and it’s proven to boost performance in endurance athletes. Beetroot is also a source of iron, especially the leaves.
A second nutrient-rich vegetable that I eat a lot of is runner beans (one we also grow). Also, it’s hard to do without spinach, one the best iron rich foods you can eat. The foods just mentioned also contain plenty of fluid and since I am not a fan of drinking lots of water this helps keep my hydration levels in check.
Turkey is my favourite meat and I eat almost every day (it’s not just something that’s reserved for Christmas!) It is also one of the foods to aid muscle recovery and contains serotonin which helps keep moods stable helping you relax for a good nights sleep.
Eggs are great, and free range if you can get them. All the nutrients are found in the yolk so don’t avoid this and the egg white is packed with protein. They are a fast food so good on the go and usually a good choice food for breakfast with toast and beans.
Jacket potatoes for lunch are a good choice as they contain more nutrients than rice and pasta. Don’t underestimate this simple food before training or a race. You can have it with beans or on its own with cheese but go easy on the butter. My advice is to not eat too much of the skin before a race though as they’re full of fibre and could trigger stomach problems.
Cereal is a great snack and most have added vitamins, minerals and iron. If you are putting in the miles then you need these extra bits of energy and a cereal bar drizzled in dark chocolate is always a nice guilt-free choice.
Fruit is great too; strawberries, pineapple but apples are top of the list because they satisfy sugar cravings after training. They are also thirst quenching and refreshing!
I am human and partial to the odd curry as a post-race celebration (desi style, which means with no oil). Like most, I also enjoy eating out every so often, and restaurants such as Frankie and Bennies and Bella Italia have become favourites.
Bella Italia offers lots of pasta as you can imagine but there is always the beetroot spaghetti if you are not a massive pasta fan – and I recommend trying it.
In my opinion, food tastes better if I know it’s doing me some good nutritionally – even post race celebrations. Most people are the opposite, but I believe this has helped shape me to become an international runner and made a difference.
Travelling to races abroad can be a difficult task but my advice is to plan, even down to snacks on the plane. Some suggestions are dried fruit and dates, a few nuts or Naked bars.
Another tip when travelling to unknown lands – like I did for the World Cross Country Championships China a couple of years ago – is that your choices may be limited if your not a particularly adventurous eater.
I was surprised to find we had fried noodles for breakfast, lunch…and supper which wasn’t ideal race preparation. Luckily I was able to get some boiled rice and as I was unsure about the meat I became a vegetarian for five days. Apart from that, the race went well and I was lucky to finish 18th. In hindsight, it made me aware that you can’t always expect stable western foods everywhere.
Thankfully I have never had similar experiences in Europe, and hopefully, it’s the same again this weekend at the European Cross Country Championships. So come Saturday morning in Slovakia I’ll do my best to stay disciplined with breakfast, regardless what’s on offer – but I will have a lunchbox handy to enjoy after the race.
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Read Gemma Steel’s other athlete insights: Cross country is a true test of strength grit and determination, The Holy Trinity: pilates, yoga and body balance and How I train for a 10k and half marathon.