Your performance will benefit greatly from a well-prepared nutritional strategy that helps your body to meet the demands of the distance, as Peta Bee explains
While manufacturers of sports drinks and products would like us to believe that your 10km fluid and fuel requirements need to be planned with scientific (and expensive) precision, the reality is much simpler. There are steps you can take to ensure your body is ready without breaking the bank:
Choosing your pre-race meal
Sports nutritionists categorise meals according to their fibre content and also their Glycaemic Index (GI) – foods with a low GI cause a slower, sustained release of glucose to the blood, whereas those with a high GI cause a rapid, short-lived rise in blood glucose.
As ever, the golden rule is to use yourself as a guinea pig in training. Test out how your body responds to different food combinations and pre-race meal timings during your running workouts.
For all the science and all the products promising to get you to the start (and finish) line in an optimised nutritional state, there really is only one researcher who can perform a trial that will determine what best affects your performance – you.
If it turns out you are a runner who best tolerates eating 3-4 hours before a race, then the Australian Institute of Sport (AIS) recommends crumpets with jam or honey and flavoured milk; a baked potato and cottage cheese; baked beans on toast; a bread roll with cheese/meat filling; and a banana or pasta (or rice) with a sauce based on low-fat ingredients (e.g. tomato, vegetables, lean meat).
For those who work best off a pre-race meal consumed two hours before, then a fruit smoothie, meal replacement shake, sports energy bar (check labels for carbohydrate and protein content) and breakfast cereal with milk could work.
Is it okay to have a last-minute snack before a 10km?
For decades, athletes were universally advised to avoid eating an hour or so before training or competing, the theory being that the pre-exercise calories would trigger a spike in blood sugar followed by an equally sudden slump, known as “rebound hypoglycemia”.
However, scientists now know that while a sugar-slump of sorts does occur, it’s usually not significant enough to affect performance.
Guidelines from the AIS suggest “most athletes are able to consume carbohydrate in the hour before exercise without affecting performance, and in some cases it can even improve the outcome”.
In a trial on cyclists at the University of Birmingham, some of those given sugary sports drinks before a hard session experienced low blood sugar in the first few minutes of a 20min tempo ride, but blood sugar levels then stabilised and they completed the workout with no issues.
However, the usual rules apply. It doesn’t work for everyone. So try it in training several times first and stick to easily digestible foods such as sports drinks, gels, rice cakes with peanut butter and energy bars.
What to eat when you finish
When you finish a race, your main objective is to replenish glycogen stores and fluid losses. Replacing normal fluid balance can easily be achieved by consuming a sports drink or by drinking water and eating a regular, healthy meal.
Anything containing a high ratio of water (fruit, soups, vegetables) will contribute to your fluid levels and you should aim for 1.2-1.5 times the weight of fluid lost during the race (weighing yourself before and afterwards is the easiest way to determine this). With foods, the best to choose are those with a high GI that promise rapid return to a glycogen status quo. You will need to aim to consume 1-1.2g of carbs per kg of your body weight during the 2-6 hours after you have crossed the line – sandwiches, milk-based drinks, muffins, fruit and smoothies are all ideal.
Perhaps the best choice, though, is a banana. A study published in the journal PLOSOne last month showed that competitive cyclists who consumed half a banana every 30 minutes during a 47-mile bike ride had lower levels of the inflammatory markers that limit muscle recovery in their blood afterwards than those who had consumed plain water.
Bananas matched commercial sports drinks in that respect but their benefits didn’t end there. Further tests revealed that the banana-eating cyclists’ blood cells produced less of a genetic precursor of an enzyme known as COX-2 which increases production of prostaglandins that intensify inflammation.
Consuming bananas as part of your daily diet and your post-race snack might help to aid recovery.
What about protein?
Adding 15-25g of protein to your post-10km meal might help to re-boot glycogen stores more quickly but, according to a panel of scientists assembled by the American College of Sports Medicine who published the latest position statement on sports nutrition last year, there’s no proof that it then has a direct impact on recovery.
You certainly don’t need to spend a fortune investing in protein balls and pomegranate shots to speed up recovery from your 10km. Shots of cherry or pomegranate juice, rich in antioxidants touted to prevent post workout aches and pains, are probably a waste of time, too.
A Cochrane review published last December (2017) by experts at Sheffield Hallam University showed only a tiny advantage of taking such antioxidant supplements and none that resulted in a meaningful reduction in muscle soreness after exercise. In many cases a placebo was just as effective.
» Peta Bee has degrees in sports science and nutrition and is a health writer for The Times