Food to fuel your run

Whether you’re training, racing or recovering, what you eat plays a vital role.

Endurance running events are getting bigger in Australia. Many participants have graduated from the shorter ‘fun run’ events, to setting their sights on more challenging goals. The half-marathon is unquestionably the most popular (and achievable) goal for many, but a few hardy souls look ahead to the full 42.2 km marathon challenge with a sense of awe and determination.

Distance running requires dedication to training to prepare physically and mentally for the event. What you eat also plays a vital role in getting the most out of your training, for both first-timers and those pushing for a personal best time.

Training diet

Forget any bad press you’ve read about carbohydrates; for a distance runner, these are your best friends. A diet that is high in carbohydrates is recommended for runners to support the high-energy demands of training. For those training every day, high-carbohydrate snacks and drinks are essential to aid recovery. Good options include sports drinks, muesli bars, dried fruit, bananas and sandwiches.

But it’s not all about carbohydrates; plenty of protein and other nutrients are also needed. And this is where having an overall healthy diet comes in – there are no shortcuts or secrets here. If most of the food you eat fits into the following list, then you’re covering most of your bases for the nutrition your running body needs most.

Here are a few guidelines for a healthy training diet:

  • Eat plenty of vegetables, legumes and fruits.
  • Eat plenty of cereals (including breads, rice, pasta and noodles), preferably wholegrain.
  • Include lean meat, fish, poultry or vegetarian alternatives such as tofu or legumes at both lunch and dinner daily.
  • Include milk, yoghurt, and cheeses or alternatives such as soy milk.
  • Drink plenty of water

Take-away foods, cakes, soft drinks and excessive alcohol should only be very occasional in your training diet as they contribute little in the way of important nutrients.

Staying hydrated

Keeping well hydrated is vital with distance running, so make good hydration a key part of your nutrition training plan. When you’re training, drink enough fluids so that your urine is pale in colour – this is your quickest guide to know if you’re drinking enough or not. Consider also weighing yourself pre-and post-run to see how much water you can actually lose, and then aim to replace this amount with some interest.

On hot days, sweat losses can be significant, especially when running in the sun. Sports drinks are suitable fluids during long training sessions as they contain carbohydrates and electrolytes along with fluid. Warning signs of dehydration include dizziness and light-headedness, muscle cramps, nausea, headaches, dark urine, dry mouth and feelings of extreme heat.

On race day

The day of the race is not the day to break from your routine and try a new and novel breakfast! There are no hard-and-fast rules about what to eat pre-race, but usually it is best to opt for a light breakfast that is high in carbohydrate and low in fat and fibre. Make sure though that you eat around two hours before the race.

Some examples of pre-race meals include:

  • Cereal with low-fat milk and a piece of fruit
  • Pancakes with syrup and a glass of juice
  • White toast with jam or honey
  • Liquid meals such as a smoothie
  • Sandwiches with meat filling and a piece of fruit
  • Sports bar and orange juice

Whatever you choose to eat, make sure it isn’t something that makes you feel heavy in the stomach and most importantly, make sure it is a breakfast you’ve had many times before in training. Also, don’t neglect your fluids on the morning of the race, and this is where sports drinks can come in handy 1-2 hours before the race.

During the race

If you’re going to be running for several hours, it may be worth taking some practical foods with you that are easy to carry and eat when moving. Carbohydrate gels are very popular, though make sure you try them in training first as they can cause stomach upsets. Even something as simple as some soft lollies in a small bag are suitable.

During the race, make use of the water stops and aim to drink a similar amount of water or sports drink over the race to replace the expected fluid losses you’ve experienced while training under similar conditions. That’s why practicing your hydration is so important to prevent you becoming dehydrated and over-hydrated during a race.

Eating for recovery

For training and race recovery, stick with the three Rs of refuel, repair and rehydrate.

After the race, sports drinks, lollies, fruit, muesli bars, sandwiches and muffins are all great foods for recovery and should be eaten within 30 minutes of a training session or race. Later in the day, a more substantial meal containing both carbohydrates and protein is needed.

A runner’s appetite can often be low at the end of a long-distance race so go for foods that are easy to consume such as liquid meal supplements or flavoured milk. Keep a snack handy at the end of the race to help kick start the recovery process.

For more information. check out Sports Dietitians Australia’s free nutrition fact sheets at sportsdietitians.com.au

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