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Nutrition

Tips and advice

Good nutrition is critical to how you feel and perform during training and the race. So, part of your training programme should include choosing the right foods that will give you enough energy to fuel your body and help it repair and grow.

Carbohydrates – A runner’s friend

Carbohydrates are the most important source of energy for your body when you training for a marathon. They should provide 50-60% of your daily calories. When starting out, aim for 50% or half your plate to be carbohydrates, which includes both starchy foods (such as breads, rice, pasta, cereals) and fruit and vegetables. As your training sessions increase in duration and frequency (to over 60 min a session) you may find you need to increase your intake of starchy foods.

Typical runner can store 1,800 kcal worth of carbohydrate calories, mostly as muscle glycogen. But this will only last for about 2 hours at moderate intensity pace or half the race, so it is important that carbohydrates foods are replenished on a daily basis. Muscle glycogen deficits can grow from one workout to the next – if you are running on half empty all the time you will fatigue early and be forced to curtail your training.

Including carbohydrates in each meal will help keep your muscle glycogen topped up. The best types to choose are those that release their energy slowly. Low Glycaemic  Index (GI) foods are more complex in structure  and take longer to be digested  and should be the basis of all meals . Good examples include: whole grains, pasta, basmati rice, oats, beans, sweet potatoes and fruits and vegetables.

Choosing carbohydrates that are made with simple sugars and refined flours (high GI foods) such as white bread and cereals, biscuits, cakes, fruit juice ,sports drinks and gels will give you short term energy.  They are useful as an energy booster during and after long runs (greater than 90 min). Their quicker release energy can help spare muscle glycogen and keep you going for longer as well as help with the recovery of muscle glycogen stores after a long run.

Protein

Protein is not used as an energy source but is needed to help repair and grow muscle that is damaged during exercise. Although your protein requirements are slightly higher when training for a marathon, most people already eat more than require, so there shouldn’t be any need to increase protein portion sizes or rely on special high protein supplements.

The best way to ensure you are getting enough protein for muscle repair and growth is by choosing meals with good amounts of carbohydrates, which will be sued for energy and a good mix of low fat protein choices at each meal – lean meat and poultry, fish, low fat diary, eggs, beans, and lentils.

Aim to:

  • Eat regularly, every 3 to 4 hours
  • Eat balanced meals – low GI carbohydrates, protein, fruit/vegetable, healthy fat 
  • Plan ahead – tailor your shopping list 

Carbohydrate Rich Foods 

  • Bagels, Bread, Tortillas, Pita
  • Wholegrain Cereal, oats
  • Fruit : fresh, dried, tinned
  • English  muffins
  • Cereal bars  (20-30g carbs)
  • Rice
  • Pasta
  • Couscous
  • Sweet potato
  • Crackers
  • Popcorn

Protein 

  • Lean meat
  • Fish, fresh, frozen tinned
  • Poultry
  • Cheese – block and individual
  • Eggs
  • Diary – low fat 
  • Beans – including tinned
  • Peanut butter
  • Hummus
  • Soya products – tofu, soya milk

Example meal plan

Remember this is a guide with no mention of portion sizes so you can adapt it to suit yourself (e.g. men usually require larger portions than women)

Porridge or wholegrain cereal with low fat milk

1-2 slices wholegrain toast with peanut butter or cream cheese

Fruit juice/fruit

2 oat cakes with cottage cheese/hummus and fruit

Sandwich – wholegrain bread, pitta, wrap – with lean ham, chicken, tuna and salad

Yoghurt and handful nuts

Cereal bar and fruit

Lean steak, poultry, fish

Basmati rice, pasta sweet potato

Lots of vegetables

Yoghurt and fruit

Bowl of wholegrain cereal and low-fat milk

Balancing lifestyle, meal times and running

If you a person who can’t eat before an early morning run, then   the emphasis is on ensuring you have a good carbohydrate containing meal and snack the evening before. The breakfast after is very important – porridge, cereals, toast with fruit juice/fruit.

You have to eat after the run, but you're on the clock. Be prepared – use previous night’s leftovers that you can microwave and eat at your desk or have a desk sandwich, fruit and yoghurt or fruit smoothie . 

If you can't sit down to your evening meal within an hour of your run, graze on fruit, crackers, bread, and a individual cheese to tide you over until a healthy dinner – This means  mean you will be less likely to snack on something like choc/ sausage roll/croissant/ pastry to take the edge off any hunger. 

Finding good recovery-window foods after late-night running will involve some experimentation. Try eating half of your dinner before and the other half after or have half to one cup of cereal and milk after.  This is a time where a recovery drink may be the easiest solution. The key is to end up not starving at dinnertime or after the run. This can easily lead to overeating. 

The following outlines some evidence for and handful of foods that make us fitter i.e. they are considered to positively impact our health, and those that make us faster, in that they have been shown to improve running or sports performance.

Before we begin…

We’re surrounded by information – all day every day, and nutrition is possibly the worst culprit when it comes to grabbing headlines and findings of scientific studies being blown out of proportion. Take time to question what you read, and you’ll find that instead of following the trends, you stick to your own plan and your training and racing may improve as a result.

Foods that make you fitter

Eating plants simply makes sense as a runner. Dark green leafy veg are associated with many positive health outcomes, such as reduced disease or cancer risk so eating a broad range covers many bases. They are also a good source of antioxidants, flavonoids and calcium, whilst acting as an important secondary source of iron. Something to bear in mind though is that they contain little to no carbohydrate so whilst a great accompaniment to a meal, they contribute minimally in terms of fuel. That said eating your greens often generally leads to a decreased risk of disease and an improvement in health.

Fish oils like dark green leafy vegetables tick a number of boxes, possibly making them a lifelong supplement or accompaniment to a strong diet. 

Fish oils are known to improve brain activity, blood flow and vascular function. They may also help with memory and in combatting muscle soreness, with emerging research into immunity, muscle growth and body composition also suggesting positive things. The only caveat being to consult your doctor or a dietician if you’re currently taking blood-thinning medication, before supplementing with fish oils. Try and eat oily fish such as salmon or mackerel twice a week, and use this supplement as a top up.

Foods that make you faster

The pink stuff has been in vogue for a while now, and we’re still learning more and more about it. Beetroot juice is a convenient source of dietary nitrate, although green vegetables are also fantastic. The body converts nitrate to nitric oxide, which relaxes the blood vessels and lowers blood pressure, and the cost of exercise. Supplementing with beetroot juice has been shown to improve runners’ performance in time trials and time to exhaustion tests. There is a downside however, beetroot juice is less effective in elite athletes, so loading protocols are often recommended for this group. For the rest of us mere mortals 2-3 beetroot shots 90 minutes before the big race should suffice.

Coffee is a source of caffeine and capable of a brilliant boost to running performance. 1-2 cups about 2 hours before a long run, hard training session or race can have a number of benefits including but not limited to improved power output and production, and increased fat oxidation. Some athletes experience stomach issues following coffee so consider caffeine gum, or swilling a caffeine containing energy drink in your mouth as an alternative if you’re susceptible. Coffee has previously received criticism as being dehydrating – some recent research refutes this, and with coffee consumption being positively associated with a number of other health outcomes it makes sense to be smart with your daily cup of java!

Where do I go from here?

The first step is to question claims made in the press, and online. Unfortunately, there are no quick dietary fixes or super boosters when it comes to running performance. However, try things out in training, monitor how you go and incorporate what you find works for you into your racing. 

Staying hydrated throughout your daily routine, training and racing is vital to ensure that you can run to the best of your ability. Some recent studies have found that dehydration can reduce performance by as much as 2% during a normal day, training and racing.

If you fail to hydrate sufficiently during a hot race though, your performance can drop even more dramatically as your body struggles to stay cool especially in warm races.

So why do we need to stay hydrated?

Drinking fluids is crucial to staying healthy and maintaining the efficient functioning of every system in your body such as your heart, brain and muscles. Fluid will carry nutrients to your cells, flush bacteria from your bladder, and prevent constipation.

What is Iron?

Iron is a mineral found in the body and forms a key part of haemoglobin, the protein found in red blood cells that is responsible for carrying oxygen from the lungs to the rest of the body.

How much do we need?

Iron requirements vary depending on age, menstrual status and most likely training volume and environment too. The current UK guidelines state Reference Nutrient Intakes (RNI) of 8.7mg/day and 14.8mg/day for males and females respectively. Female recommendations fall to 8.7mg/day following menopause. 

How does Iron help runners?

The main function of iron, as you probably guessed, is to help with oxygen transportation from the lungs to wherever it is required. Being predominantly aerobic beasts, this suggests that keeping on top of your iron levels should be a regular priority for runners, especially females, vegetarians and those athletes training twice a day or on high weekly mileages.

We lose iron in a number of ways: Haemolysis is the loss of red blood cells through impact or exercise intensity, certainly common for the pavement pounders amongst us! We also lose small amounts of iron through sweating and display an increased need for iron when training or competing at altitude. Ultra-endurance or marathon runners may also show signs of gut damage, and this too can affect iron levels and stores. 

 

Where do we get Iron?

We store very little iron within our blood, suggesting we need a consistent supply of iron from our diet. Iron is also poorly absorbed by the body (15% from meats, 7-8% from plants), again suggesting a steady supply of iron is best for us. Offal, game and red meat are typically considered the best sources of iron, with dark green leafy vegetables, dried fruits and fortified cereals being plant-based sources. 

Can I do anything to help my absorption of Iron?

Yes! Vitamin C helps with the absorption or iron, so consider dressing meat or vegetables with a squeeze of citrus (orange, lemon or lime) juice. Whilst Copper (yes, another metal) helps get the iron to the bone marrow, where red blood cells are produced. B-vitamins are also important for red blood cell production, and these are often found in fortified cereals, red meats, or as a supplement complex. 

The timing of iron rich foods or supplements may also be important: avoid eating iron rich foods or supplementing close to exercise or after a coffee. We say this because hepcidin (a hormone released after exercise) and caffeine (found in coffee and tea) both interfere with the absorption of iron.

 

An iron rich day

As a working example, the following would provide ample iron for a recreational runner, with healthy iron stores.

Fortified cereal, glass of orange juice (iron: 6.0mg)

3 digestive biscuits (1.6mg)

Lunchtime run of 30-40 minutes at an easy effort level

Jacket potato, beans and salad (6.3mg)

4 dried figs (3.2mg)

Spaghetti Bolognaise (4.8mg)

21.9mg

Please note that this is in excess of the RNI. This is to account for inefficiencies in intake, possible haemolysis and losses through sweat or urine. But, see how easy it was to meet the recommended intake?

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