Eating to go the Distance — From 5K to 100 miles

By Naomi Mead

This article originally appeared in our Summer 2014 Trail Times Newsletter – Volume 19, Number 68.

Whether you’re a novice preparing for your first 5K, or a seasoned marathon runner training for your next step up on the endurance ladder, the way in which you fuel your body before, during and after your race is crucial for optimal performance and recovery. Athletes frequently equate poor performances to not getting their nutrition and hydration right leading up to a big event, and this is something that requires planning — not days, but weeks in advance. Just as importantly, you should never try anything “new” on race day, so as not to risk any sort of digestive upset or discomfort. Have a tried-and-tested formula that works for you and use the following advice for guidance. It’s not just about the carbs!

Super boost your diet
During training, your body’s need for nutrients (vitamins, minerals and antioxidants) will be increased. However, it is important that you don’t simply substitute eating a nutrient-dense diet for dietary supplements in order to meet these requirements. While supplements can prove beneficial for some athletes, they cannot replace a non-processed, whole-food diet rich in fruit and vegetables. Green leafy vegetables such as kale, spinach and broccoli are really the “gold standard” of nutrition, packed full of vitamin C, magnesium, iron and zinc; all vital for energy production, endurance and recovery. Green powders such as spirulina and chlorella, simply added to shakes or smoothies, are another highly efficient way of getting good levels of these nutrients nto your diet.

Pack in the protein
In what remains a hotly debated topic, the consensus from scientists at the 2010 IOC Conference on Nutrition in Sport, was that an intake of protein of 1.3-1.8g per kg of body weight per day is recommended for endurance athletes. Not only vital for increasing lean muscle mass and aiding muscle repair, a good protein intake has also been shown to help maintain a robust immune system. This is especially important for long-distance runners, as the immune system can be weakened for several hours after an intense bout of exercise.

It is of the utmost importance that you start a race of any length hydrated. Practice training with a reasonably full stomach of liquid by drinking 400ml-600ml water approximately two hours before running. You can continually monitor your hydration status by checking the color of your urine, which should be a pale straw color. You should then be sipping regularly throughout the race, guided by your thirst. For races under an hour, water is the best option, whereas beyond this, some of your fluid intake should include an isotonic drink to replace lost sodium and other electrolytes.

Re-fueling during the race
For longer runs over 90 minutes, mid-session refueling is essential to keep your muscles fueled, blood sugar levels steady and to restore electrolytes, to maintain hydration and prevent cramping. If you’re opting for energy gels, always ensure that you chase these with approximately 250ml of water. Do not combine with a sports drink as you risk putting too much sugar into your digestive system at once, which can lead to gastrointestinal distress resulting in stomach cramps and diarrhea. While functional in their purpose, these gels can be highly processed and laden with chemicals, and many athletes are now seeking natural alternatives. Sachets of fruit puree, roasted sweet potato, dried fruit and chia seed-based snacks are all tried-and-tested options, so see what works for you during your training.

You have a window of around 45 minutes post-run when your body is primed to replenish its muscle and liver glycogen stores, and to soak up amino acids to enable protein synthesis for muscle tissue recovery and repair. The approximate guidelines (although this will vary between individuals) are 1g of carbohydrate per kg of body weight, plus 0.25 g per kg of body weight of protein. The amino acid leucine is the key trigger that stimulates muscle protein synthesis and recovery after exercise, and can be found in whey, casein, egg, meat and fish. You can also reduce delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS) by enriching your consumption of anti- inflammatory foods. Tart cherries, pomegranates and blueberries have all been shown to be effective in reducing post-exercise soreness.

Naomi Mead is a nutrition therapist with a passion for food and its therapeutic powers. Mead trained and gained her accreditation at the Institute of Optimum Nutrition and contributes to Healthspan’s Nutrition Expert,
as well as Food First,