Whether you are a recreational runner, training for a ½ marathon, marathon or ultra-endurance event, a well-tailored nutrition plan will help you get the best out of your training and performance.
Choosing food (fuel) for your body can be a complex process, both in training and again on race day. So our own Sport & Exercise Nutritionist, Abby Shaw, has put together some tips to help you out.
It is important to remember that there are many different factors to take into account, such as gender, size, muscle mass, fitness level and training conditions. So what works for one person may not be best suited to you. This is intended as a general guide.
Carbohydrates and energy
Carbohydrates are a runner’s best friends when it comes to energy and getting the most out of your body. As a runner, carbohydrates should make up about 60 – 65% of your total intake.
In long distance running, our bodies rely predominately on glycogen as fuel. Glycogen is a carbohydrate that is stored in muscles and the liver. Runners, especially those running long distances, should try to consume 6 – 10g of carbohydrates per kg of body weight throughout the day.
Protein-rich foods are important for muscle replacement and recovery, maintaining energy requirements, blood sugar levels and boosting the immune system; especially important for long-distance runners. In addition to being an essential nutrient, protein keeps you feeling fuller for longer, which will help with heavy training loads and hunger. Protein should make up about 15% – 20% of your daily intake. Runners doing long distances should consume 0.8 – 1g of protein per kg of body weight throughout the day. It is a great idea to include a serving of protein at every meal. Try to concentrate on protein foods that are low in fat and cholesterol such as lean cuts of meats, fish, nuts, eggs, low-fat dairy products, whole grains, and beans.
While endurance athletes should try to follow a low-fat diet, it is recommended to include ‘good fats’ into your diet as they help with a physiological process such as growth and development, skin health, hair growth, metabolism, reproductive system health and cell membrane integrity.
Foods such as nuts, oils, and cold-water fish provide essential ‘good fats’ called Omega 3’s. These omega 3’s help with delayed onset of muscle soreness, joint pain and repairing cartilage tissue damage.
It is also very important that runners are well hydrated during and after training sessions. For runs less than 45 minutes, water is adequate for your energy needs. However having a high-intensity session, or during a heavy phase of your training (e.g. leading up to an event), you will benefit from either using sports drinks or a readily available source of carbohydrates such as gels, chews or lollies.
Pre-training/ competition nutrition
Less than 1 hour
If you’re rolling out of bed, not starving, and only going for a few kilometers, you probably don’t need anything more than water to help with your training run. Additionally coffee can help, as it will not only help to stimulate your mind but elevate your heart rate and therefore you may gain a better response from your training.
If you are doing a high-intensity short session (e.g. intervals) runners should aim to maximize carbohydrate availability such as having easily digested carbohydrate-rich snacks (e.g toast with honey or a banana) 30min before or try to consume carbohydrates (e.g. sports drink/gel) during the session.
More than 1 hour
If your session is upwards of one hour then you need to look at incorporating a nutrition strategy into the mix. This is where a varied approach can be taken by mixing up food choices depending on the session.
During high-intensity training session over 60 minutes or moderate intensity sessions over 90 minutes, the general rule of thumb is that we require between 30 – 60g of carbohydrate per hour.
‘Real’ food suggestions (containing around 50g of carbohydrates and are low fat, fiber, and protein):
2 x White or fruit bread, bagels or pikelets; with honey or jam type spreads
2 x Muesli bars
2 x banana
75g of dried fruit
700ml of Sports drink (I would recommend Pure Sports Nutrition or Horley’s Replace)
These are all easily digestible carbohydrates that will help with fast digestion.
Tip: If you’re choosing a packaged food, check the 100g column on the label and aim for options with <10g (10%) fat total and <5g (5%) of fiber.
If you are susceptible to gastric problems (stomach pains) due to nerves or other factors, sticking to low fiber foods (white bread) or liquid meals before a race can help alleviate symptoms. The 50g of carbohydrates mentioned (e.g white bread, honey/jam, muesli bars, etc) are all easily digestible low fiber options.
Often, it is best to run on an empty stomach, with the pre-race/training meals eaten well in advance. If this is not practical (e.g. early morning session/race), a sports drink or gel took before, or during the run, may be advisable.
Choosing meat, dairy, high-fat foods, and fiber too close to your event may make you just run to the loo! For training, and especially in competition, try to avoid foods high in dairy (e.g cheese, regular milk etc), meat, and fiber (e.g whole grain bread) at least 30min prior to a run. Additionally, too much fatty food can give you gastric problems and this can last for a few days. Look at your ‘good fat’ options as an alternative.
A great tip is to stick to what you know and to limit trying new foods before a race. Practise first in training to see if your body can tolerate it.
Running will not only challenge the runner’s carbohydrate stores but also cause some damage to muscle fibers, which will delay recovery. Strategic intake of carbohydrate-rich and quality protein foods soon after training will enhance the rate of muscle glycogen repletion and make it easier for athletes to consume enough carbohydrate before their next training session.
Get a personalised sports nutrition plan
Abby Shaw is a degree qualified Sports & Exercise Nutritionist and a former New Zealand representative swimmer. Abby regularly consults with clients on personalised sports & exercise nutrition requirements. To find out more inquire here.