“There is no special secret, but it’s crucial to get the food and fluid intake right and the optimal balance of nutrients to be able to perform at your best,” says Wendy Martinson, sports nutritionist for the British Olympic Association. “Of prime importance is energy intake. Runners must take in sufficient calories to fuel their training.”
A 1.8-metre tall, 70kg marathon runner needs around 3,500-4,000 calories a day – considerably more than the average couch potato. This is best achieved by consuming more carbohydrates, because carbs are the primary fuel source for running, says Wendy.
While recreational runners are unlikely to be using enough energy to merit upping their calorie intake, it is important to have a carb-rich source at every meal: “Preferably low glycaemic-index (GI) carbs, such as porridge oats, wholegrain bread or pasta, brown rice, beans and pulses, which release their energy more slowly,” says Wendy.
As a general guideline, she advises consuming four to five grammes of carbohydrate per kg of your body weight if you run for a total of three to five hours a week. If you run five to seven hours a week, aim for five to six grammes per kg.
Pile on the protein
A good protein source at each meal is also important. “Protein helps muscle repair and recovery,” says Wendy. “For example, milk on your cereal, tuna or chicken on your lunchtime sandwich and lean red meat or fish at dinner.”
Like any healthy diet, the runner’s should be rich in a variety of fruit and vegetables. “The vitamins, minerals and antioxidants they contain aid recovery and support the immune system, which gets a battering from hard training.”
Monitor your mealtimes
When you eat is also important. “If you had lunch at 2pm and intend to go running at 7pm, you should have a carbohydrate-rich snack at around 5pm,” says Wendy. “A cereal bar and a banana or a fruit smoothie would fit the bill.” If you don’t have time for a pre-workout snack, opt for a high-GI food or drink such as a handful of jelly babies or a sports drink, for a quick glucose boost. “This is adjusting your carb source to the situation,” says Wendy. “Low GI for sustained energy release, high GI for instant energy.”
As soon as your run is over, fuel up. This should be high carb with a little protein – for example a milkshake, a tuna sandwich or yoghurt with banana and honey. “This is very important if you are training more than once a day, says Wendy. “But if you are training just two to three times a week then eating your usual meal soon after is sufficient.”
Hydration is also key for runners. “Begin your session well hydrated, and on runs longer than 30 minutes, carry fluid with you,” she says.
The American College of Sports Medicine advises drinking 5-7ml per kg of body weight over the four-hours before you run. “Weigh yourself before and after exercise, adjusting for the amount drunk,” says Wendy. “One kg weight loss equals one litre fluid loss. You should aim to lose less than 2% of body weight through fluid loss during exercise.”
Water is fine for runs shorter than an hour, but an isotonic sports drink is recommended for longer runs, providing carbs for energy and electrolytes to replace salts lost through sweat. Make your own by mixing 200-250ml of squash (not sugar-free) with 800ml water and adding a quarter of a teaspoon of salt.
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