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Nutrition & Hydration

03 October 2022

Not performing at your best? Keep reading.

Sound diet and good nutritional strategies are essential to help you perform at your best. Diet affects performance, and the foods you choose during training and racing will affect how well you train and compete. Getting the right amount of energy and protein to support and promote muscle tissue adaptations to training, as well as to stay healthy and perform to your best level is important. Runners’ nutritional needs are individual, and will change depending on the amount of training you are doing, what your work involves, etc.

In general, a varied and wholesome nutrient-rich diet that meets your energy needs and is based largely on vegetables, fruits, beans, legumes, grains, lean animal meats, oils and carbohydrate should ensure an adequate intake of all essential vitamins and minerals. Runners who eat an adequate balanced diet usually have no need for supplementation. Some of the info below has been adapted from the teachings of top nutritionist Richard Chessor, to give you some guidance on what to eat and when.

CORE

Fresh fruit, berries, and vegetables that grow above the ground contain essential nutrients and goodness and are unlikely to cause weight gain. Eat as many of this group as you like.

FLUIDS

Staying hydrated helps avoid illness and injury. Drink when you are thirsty. Most of the time water works well, while sports drinks (diluted), rehydration drinks, diluted fruit juice might help after or during long periods of exercise.

FUEL

Supplies energy when needed, but eating too much fuel in relation to energy expenditure may lead to weight gain. Use this food group when you have earned it expending energy, or are about to earn it.

RECOVER

After a long run or a hard session, these protein-containing foods can help muscles repair themselves and the body recover.
RESTORE- These foods maintain healthy function, and are generally healthy. Some are calorie-dense, so balance health with potential calorie intake.

GENERAL ADVICE – TOP TIPS

• Plan your approach to your nutrition: consider what you are doing that week and each day, and what types of foods might be helpful. If you don’t think you are getting this right, keep a diary.

• Let your partner/ flatmates know your general nutrition plan, so they can help (or at least not accidentally sabotage).

• Try to stick by guidelines as often as possible. Choose places to stay and eat that are likely to help with this.

• Have some fruit or vegetables (which are an excellent source of key vitamins and minerals) with every meal if possible. Even simple things like fruit on breakfast cereal helps.

• Make sure you have water available. This is generally preferable to sports drinks except during races or training runs of over an hour.

• If you are ill, it is twice as important to eat well.

SPECIFIC POINTS – HYDRATION

• During races, drink to thirst. There has been commercial interest in advising people to remain completely hydrated during competition, but more people have died of over-drinking (due to a condition called hyponatraemia) than dehydration. The body is extremely good at letting you know when you need more fluid. Have fluid available, but drink to thirst.

• Almost every elite marathon performance has been achieved with a degree of dehydration, as it is hard for the stomach to tolerate the amount of fluid sweated out when running quickly. Haile Gebrselaisse was at least 8% dehydrated when smashing the world marathon record in Berlin.

• During races, having carbohydrate (ideally about 6% solution) in your drink is an easy way of getting additional fuel on board and is preferable to water.

SPECIFIC POINTS – NUTRITION

• Have a carbohydrate and protein-based drink, meal or snack soon (within 1 hr.) of completing a run of over 1 hr, or a race. This could include a milkshake, or a sandwich/ baked potato with tuna/ chicken etc.

• If doing a race over half-marathon distance, carbo-load the night before. There is no benefit if the race is shorter.

• During a training run of half-marathon distance or longer, take small amounts of carbohydrate often to replace fuel stores.

• Find food that works for you these sorts of races, as even if the food is scientifically amazing, it is useless if you can’t stomach it.

• Professional athletes usually have their iron and vitamin D levels checked regularly. Prioritise iron, and vitamin D rich foods.

• If you are vegetarian, have heavy periods, or are running more than 100km per week, get your iron checked at least yearly. Low iron stores increase risk of infection and poor endurance, even if you are not ‘anaemic’ (low red blood count).

Here is a table describing how some food types may help optimise training, performance and recovery, with the usual caveat that individual athletes may benefit from slightly different advice based on many factors:

SUBSTANCE WHEN INDICATED HOW TO TAKE
Carbohydrate During and after prolonged training or competition Carb-based food (banana, muesli bar, sandwich, etc)
Sports drink with 5-8% carbs
Fluid with electrolyte During prolonged training or competition in the heat Water, with electrolyte sachet. Or sports drink
Carbohydrate and protein Between 0 and 60 minutes after heavy session or run longer than an hour 3:1 Carb:protein ratio ideal. Chicken/ tuna/ egg sandwich, meat with potatoes

USE WHEN INDICATED

SUBSTANCE WHEN INDICATED HOW TO TAKE
Vitamin C Onset of common cold/ flu Fresh orange juice, or oranges/ citrus
Iron (ferrous) Ferritin level low <40ng/ ml Depending on level. Consult doctor.
Multivitamin Very poor diet Single multivitamin including iron, zinc, magnesium.
Zinc Onset of common cold/ flu 2 zinc lozenges/ day.
Vitamin D Low Vit D level <75nmol/l Prescribed tablets
Probiotic When unwell, diarrhoea, or taking antibiotics Yakulk/ actimel

Note: Be very careful with supplements if you are doing a race where there is drug testing. None of the substances listed is banned, but unless they have been fully tested then contaminated supplements do occur and have cost Olympic medals.

By Doctor Andrew Murray.

Enjoyed reading this? Check out this article: How to Train For a Marathon.

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