Sports dietician Renee McGregor tells Katy Barden why our food choices make a big difference
Whether you have signed up for a specific event or are simply looking to improve your running performance, training is going to be key to your success.
However, while putting in the work will take you a certain distance, if you really want to reap the rewards then you also need to look at running from many angles – from the kit you wear to the nutrition you choose.
Sports dietitian Renee McGregor looks at the dos and don’ts of an athlete’s nutrition as part of a training plan and outlines the best ways to boost performance.
How do we meet our training needs?
Nutrition for runners is about delivering enough energy to working muscles, enabling you to complete those tough sessions
which will allow for progression and improvement – but it is also about recovery and developing strength.
The key is to look at your training week and then to tailor your food choices against this. In order to really benefit from your training schedule, it is important that you plan ahead so you know what to eat when.
For example, nutrient dense carbs such as oats, whole grains and sweet potato are very useful for fuelling up before training sessions, but amounts will vary depending on the intensity and length of the session. Carbohydrate availability is very important in order for your body to allow for the hormonal cascade necessary to adapt to training.
Similarly, recovery post-training is also critical to ensure that your body recovers and repairs between training sessions.
This should be a mix of both carbohydrates and protein within 30 minutes of completing your session. Depending on time, this may be your next meal, but if this is not scheduled for several hours post-training, try a milk-based drink such as a latte, flavoured milk or a fruit and yoghurt smoothie, plus a banana, then follow with a balanced meal.
So, before you get caught up in all the hype around the latest nutritional trends, it is essential to first get the fundamentals correct and, once this is optimal, then you can start to think about the added extras.
Here are some top tips to get you run ready:
Preparation is key
Don’t just think about your nutritional intake in the meal or snack immediately before your run session. If you’re about to do a high intensity session, you actually need to think about getting a regular intake of carbohydrates at all meals and snacks during the 24 hours prior to your session. This will ensure that you have sufficient glycogen stores to maintain a consistent pace throughout your session. Only when you get consistent training, can your muscles adapt and progression can occur.
Don’t ditch the dairy
Don’t ditch the dairy! With so many food bloggers evangelising about dairy-free milk alternatives such as almond, coconut and hemp, it is important to know that cow’s milk is actually one of the best recovery options you can choose post-training.
Not only does it have the right proportions of carbohydrate to protein to encourage muscle recovery, it also has the best composition with easily digestible carbohydrates and protein, making uptake by the muscles more efficient. In comparison, if you look at shop-bought almond milk as an example, it is just expensive water.
Dairy foods also contain calcium and this has been demonstrated to have beneficial effects on body composition, helping you to maintain a higher percentage of lean muscle mass. For those of you who are plant-based or lactose intolerant, I would recommend using soya as this is probably the closest to dairy with regards to protein content.
Stick to the tried and tested for race day
When it comes to race day, remember to ensure that you make choices for breakfast and other meals that have been tried and tested. I always encourage individuals to simulate race day so that they can go into it knowing that they have “controlled all the controllable”.
Some of my favourite race day breakfasts include a toasted bagel topped with nut butter and banana – this provides you with around 85g of carbohydrates so is a great top up on race day morning – or, if porridge is your preferred choice, why not try this topped with toasted walnuts and honey.
For longer distance races – and if you have time – I would encourage something like a toasted bagel with scrambled eggs.
Eating on the run
Once you’ve worked out what to eat in the morning, it is important to turn your attention to whether you need to take on any nutrition during your run/race. For runs that last less than 60 minutes, you should be fine to just stay hydrated and not worry about topping up stores; the exception to the rule will be if you are racing and pushing your pace – in this situation you may find taking on 30g of carbohydrate halfway round will just mean you can maintain this higher speed for the duration.
For longer races, I always encourage individuals to take on fuel, even during training runs, as this helps the body to tolerate fuel in races. What to take on, to a certain degree, is entirely personal. Most individuals who are running fast will find that they will need to stick with fast release, easily absorbed options such as gels, jelly, sweets or energy drinks.
However, if the pace is steady, as it will most likely be in trail or ultra-distance races, you may find that you can tolerate real food.
Flapjacks, salted potatoes and peanut M&Ms are all things that many of the athletes I have worked with have preferred to use. Once again, this is about practising during training so that you know exactly what your body can cope with. On longer runs (e.g. over three hours), you will need to aim for around 60-90g of carbs an hour; for runs over five hours, you will find that your body will also benefit from some additional protein.
Many individuals, especially those starting to tackle longer distances, often complain about nausea during the run. This can be related to a number of things:
Salt: When we sweat, we lose salt. If our levels fall too low this can cause dehydration, and because salt helps to draw fluid into the body, it can in turn result in nausea. For longer runs over three hours you should be looking at replacing around 700-900mg of sodium per litre of fluid – this is the equivalent of 2-3 caps. For shorter distances you can use half this amount. However, it is important to understand that salt losses are individual and so some people may need more and others need less.
Dehydration: Salt helps draw fluid into the body; if we become dehydrated through high fluid losses and poor intakes, this can also mean that any carbohydrate we take on during a run becomes concentrated within the stomach. This can lead to feelings of nausea and also stomach distress. Aim for between 150-250ml fluid every 20 min depending on the climate.
Low blood sugar levels: Our bodies will use around 60g of carbs an hour at a moderate to high intensity; if you push too hard at the start of a run, the body will use more. Many individuals understand that they will need to fuel up in longer runs but they often leave it too late. I’ve worked with athletes who have left it 90 minutes before they’ve taken on any nutrition. If this is during a marathon or longer distance, this is too late – blood sugar levels will have already started to fall, resulting in nausea, making it even harder to take on nutrition. Aim to take on nutrition 20 minutes into a long run.
» Renee McGregor (BSc (hons) PGDIP (DIET) PGCERT (sportsnutr) RD BASES), is a leading performance and eating disorder specialist dietitian with over 20 years’ experience working in nutrition. She works with elite athletes, coaches and sport science teams to provide nutritional strategies to enhance sporting performance and manage eating disorders.
She is the best-selling author of Training Food, Fast Fuel and Orthorexia, When Healthy Eating Goes Bad, and is the co-founder of the #TRAINBRAVE campaign which aims to inspire more athletes to share their stories and raise awareness of the risks of eating disorders and RED-S.