By Milly Clarke
It is often easy to reflect back over a disappointing run or race and blame everything from lack of sleep, to the weather to bad shoes. Furthermore, the abundance of gels, bars, powders and tablets available to the public can make things even more confusing. Nutrition is often overlooked as playing a huge role in our sporting performance. Without the right nutrition, it can be very hard to elicit the physical adaptations we stimulate by training. Well-planned eating practices or strategies can help runners train hard, stay healthy and injury-free, and compete at their best.
The Distance Runners’ Diet
Skeletal muscle responds remarkably to mechanical load (running) and nutrient availability. Basically, this means we can build upon our strength and fitness simply through the foods we decide to eat on a daily basis. It is important to keep in mind that as runners, we are doing something that goes above and beyond what the human body is designed to do, therefore our eating habits should reflect this. The diet of a distance runner should ideally be comprised of the following:
- Quality carbohydrates – such as fruit, starchy vegetables, dairy products and whole grains
- A moderate amount of protein – meat, poultry, fish, beans/legumes, dairy products
- A variety of healthy fats – oily fish, olive oil, avocado, nuts and seeds
- Micronutrients such as iron, calcium, sodium and magnesium
- Fluids and Electrolytes
Current research indicates carbohydrates offer a significant advantage over fat or protein for energy when it comes to higher intensity exercise. For endurance runners or athletes, daily carbohydrate intake should reflect and match training load. This means increasing total carbohydrate intake on high volume or high intensity training days and lower intake on a rest day or low intensity day. Planning your carbohydrate intake around training sessions will also help recovery and assist with physiological adaptations from training.
Protein is perhaps the most highly marketed supplement available to athletes – but how important is it for distance runners? Together with carbohydrates, protein works to assist with muscle repair and remodelling – but beyond that, protein is not the nutrient we rely on for a PB. Think of protein as building a house. The basic framework of that house is the foundations for putting up the walls, roof and later furnishings. We need protein for stability and to ensure nothing falls apart. The only times we use protein for energy is when carbohydrate or fat stores are low – something we don’t want to do because essentially it means we are eating our own muscles to use for energy! Including protein rich foods throughout the day will rebuild muscles and red blood cells as part of the repair and adaptation process.
Protein intake, like carbohydrate intake is highly individual. Those who are more muscular require more protein to maintain their lean muscle mass. Daily intake will still be higher than the normal person, but certainly not as high as you may think. It is important to get the balance between carbohydrate and protein intake right so that you can train hard, and recover well ready for the next day.
IRON: the carrier of oxygen around your body. This is arguably the most important micronutrient for runners, and one that we lose the most of during training. Iron stores can be depleted from periods of rapid growth (teens), training at high altitude or heat, menstrual loss, injury, and even foot strike on the ground. Low iron can impair muscle function and limit our work capacity. Runners need up to 70% more iron than the average individual. Iron comes from a variety of foods, but sometimes is not absorbed well, which means a supplement could be a good idea just to be safe. Great food sources include red meat, chicken, fish, eggs, beans, whole grains, green leafy vegetables, prunes, and nuts. Females require more than double the amount that males do – so it is a good idea to check with a sports dietitian or consider a blood test every 6 months to ensure your iron status is within a healthy range.
CALCIUM: is especially important for growth, muscle and nerve contractions and the repair of bone tissue. A common overuse injury for runners are stress fractures, and the more you run, the higher the risk. A general rule of thumb to makes things easier: if its white, there’s calcium in there! There is calcium found in other fruits and vegetables, but the richest sources are those coloured white. Some great examples are: dairy products, white or baked beans, chickpeas, tofu, cashews, chia seeds, almonds, broccoli and spinach
Vegetarian and Vegan Diets
All of us can benefit from eating more natural plant-based foods, however, distance runners who follow a vegetarian or vegan style of eating need to carefully structure their nutrition to best promote training adaptations and recover optimally for peak performance. If you have, or are considering adapting a vegetarian approach, it’s important to realise that your protein needs cannot be met simply by eating tofu occasionally or throwing some chick peas into the odd salad.
Fear not, it is absolutely possible to be an excelling vegetarian athlete. However, focusing on coupling the right foods at the right time remains vital. For example, low fat dairy and eggs are great exercise recovery options due to their high biological protein value. Plant based foods such as legumes, lentils, rice, cereals, and nuts contribute substantial amounts of protein to the overall diet as well as being wonderful carbohydrate sources. Some vegetarians and vegans in particular may need to consider supplements such as iron or B12, as these micronutrients are found mostly in animal products. Nonetheless, this is where your sports dietitian can be called upon to take away the guess work and ensure adequate daily intake.