Nutrition basics for running

Nutrition can be a difficult subject for athletes. Sure, we all know you need to ‘eat properly’ for optimal performance, but it can all seem a little too scientific and complicated with so much advice around, and so many different drinks, bars and gels all claiming to be your ‘perfect’ partner.

So, in this running special, we try and simplify matters for you, with some solid advice on what you should eat before, during and after run training, plus of course race day.

Pre-run nutrition

The main issues with pre-exercise fuelling come before early morning runs as the usual ‘2-3 hours for a meal to digest’ are impractical for most athletes chasing a good night’s rest! For an early morning easy-steady paced run, some water or diluted fruit juice may suffice, however, for a longer run or interval session, it is important to pick up low-morning blood sugar levels in order to maximise the benefits of the session (also see race day below).

Practice getting your body used to a small banana, a slice of toast and honey or small cereal bar with some water. If you really can’t tolerate solid food, take a sports drink or gel(s) with you to consume during the session – excellent race day practise!

In longer distance triathlons where you are eating on the bike, plan to consume most solid food early in the ride as this requires more time than liquids to digest. Then switch to a sports drink or gels to fuel in the last 90-120 minutes.

If you suffer from the dreaded ‘runner’s trots’, try cutting down on high fibre foods, fatty foods, caffeine and high fructose sports supplements before exercise.

Always start a run well hydrated by drinking 8-16 ounces (1-2 cups) of water on waking and another 8-10 cups of non-alcoholic fluid over the course of the day. Before a training session later in the day or a race, drink 24 ounces of fluid 2 hours before and a further 8-16 ounces 30 minutes before the start. Studies have shown that just 2% dehydration (measured by loss in body weight) led to a reduction in speed of 6-7% over 5km and 10km race distances!

During a run

Digesting food during running sessions is much harder than when you are on the bike due to the mechanical ‘jolting’ of the stomach. Therefore it is better to consume sports drinks (4-6% carbohydrate) or energy gels rather than solids whilst literally ‘on the run’. When training in warm climates, check that your fuel of choice contains sodium in order to help you stay well hydrated – dehydration is a frequent cause of gastro-intestinal discomfort and of course, premature fatigue in runners. Some gels do not contain enough sodium, so if necessary, add a calorie-free electrolyte tablet / solution to your sports drink or water.

After exercise

As with the swimming and cycling tips, a kitbag snack eaten within 15-30 minutes of your run is the sure-fire way to kick-start your recovery. Glycaemic Index is a measure of how fast a quantity of food containing 50g of carbohydrates delivers glucose into the bloodstream (and subsequently the muscles and liver). Some studies have shown that for athletes who train daily or more than once a day, choosing more high glycaemic index carbohydrates during the first 6 hours post-exercise can help replenish glycogen stores faster than low glycaemic index equivalents, provided that sufficient quantities are consumed. High GI foods include bagels, rice, raisins, sports drinks, ripe bananas, flaked breakfast cereal and wholemeal or white bread (full lists of the GI of foods can easily be found on the internet).

An ideal post-exercise snack will contain about 3g of carbohydrate for every 1g of protein and give you around 1g of carbohydrate per Kilogram of bodyweight. For example, a 60kg female would aim for a snack containing approximately 60g of carbohydrate and 20g of protein. Most food labels or a simple online search will give you the nutrition content of common foods.

Ideas for post-exercise snacks include:

  • Homemade fruit smoothies / milkshakes made with fresh fruit.
  • A bagel with low fat soft cheese or tahini / peanut butter.
  • 3-5 rice cakes with jam and cottage cheese.
  • Flaked breakfast cereal with raisins and low fat milk.
  • Tuna / egg / chicken salad wraps.
  • Recovery drink or sports bar containing carbohydrate and protein.

Competition day

All of the above guidelines still apply and as always, training is for testing, so don’t try new foods or products on race day!

In the 24 hours before a priority race, you may find it beneficial to avoid spicy meals, high fibre foods and gas-forming foods such as broccoli, sprouts, dried cooked beans, cabbage, cauliflower and alcohol (for the sake of your stomach and your fellow competitor’s noses!)

Make sure that you consume a large glass of water on waking and continue to sip water or a sports drink right up until an hour before the race start. Then ease back on the fluid to give your kidneys time to process and expel any excess fluid. 10-15 minutes before the race start, drink a further 200-300ml then start your training session routine as described above for the duration of the event.

Choose a sports drink or electrolyte drink on race day as this will leave the stomach faster than plain water and be less likely to cause discomfort.

Whereas you may not wish to get up at the crack of dawn for a morning run, on race day, if it’s an early start, it is worth putting the alarm on to give yourself time to eat a good breakfast and give it 2-3 hours to digest. For later starts, use the 2-3 hour guideline. Some athletes find that taking a gel or 200-300ml of sports drink ten minutes before race start can give them an added energy boost. This is particularly useful in a triathlon where your next opportunity to take in fuel won’t be until after the swim. You may not feel the need at the race start but by the time the trainers are on this could be paying off!

During and after the race, if you have followed all the guidelines above, you should be on auto-pilot come race day as they all still apply! If you are relying on the race organiser’s food and drinks, make sure that you have tested them in training to see if they work for you. If in doubt, take a gel belt / drink system with your own supplies, the extra grams will slow you down a lot less than an upset stomach!

Finally, a celebratory drink when you have bagged that PB is all part of the fun, but if you want to recover quickly and avoid a throbbing head a few hours later, make sure that you rehydrate and refuel before you reach the bar!

Written by
Henry Budgett
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