Sports Nutrition for Runners – the planning phase
by Alan Jackson MSc
Runners like all sports people will have a number of elements that contribute to their overall sporting performance; the most important two components being genetics and training regime. However there are a few other important aspects such as psychological profile – mentally strong or weak, the degree of self-belief and confidence and how each individual might deal with success or failure, all of which will come into play. Some of variables may be partially modifiable but largely they will be innate traits that may be difficult to alter to any meaningful degree over the long term. Other matters which are in the control of the athlete are the processes of planning and preparation, which are without doubt key to most sporting success. However adequate planning, particularly around food is often neglected as runners focus on ever increasing training regimes – raising intensity, duration and frequency.
In particular optimum nutrition for weekly training can be overlooked as time to fit everything in starts to become unmanageable in the pursuit of a new PB, particularly as race day gets nearer. A sound nutritional plan should be at the heart of any runners training itinerary and this should start simultaneously with the event training routine. Shopping, meal prep and food logistics are vital aspects of the grand training plan, and done properly will provide a sound platform for all runners to implement their training regime and improve performance.
So where to start? First make a list of all the foods that you will need each week, mark down essentials and build a ‘staples’ list which should include: your preferred carbohydrate source – pasta, rice, potatoes, bread, couscous, etc. Quality proteins, meat, fish, eggs beans and pulses are essential for tissue repair following hard training and as the body cannot store protein, daily intake is required. Fruit and vegetables and juices for making isotonic drinks would also be important. You may wish to consider the high Glycaemic index items for refueling and recovery such as jam and preserves and high sugar cereals. (Refueling following a run are the only time that High GI foods are of value to the runner, and when used properly will speed recovery and allow for increased frequency of training). In a hectic schedule it is often helpful to have these items tagged to your online shopping cart and have a weekly order containing all staples, thus negating the prospect of being out of key items.
Next comes food prep and food logistics. Sports and fitness participants should develop a systematic approach to food preparation and put it high on the weekly training agenda. Planning and preparing food to take to work and ensuring that there is always access to the right kind of snacks will help the athlete avoid hunger pangs which could lead to a dash to a vending machine. Always planning to have the right fluid intake appropriate for the training run, followed by a carbohydrate rich snack or meal immediately after – during the two hour rapid refueling phase following exercise, is a key strategy. All fitness and sports people should also pay attention to food hygiene and food safety. During the high training phase of a endurance athlete, there may be a requirement to consume an additional 10,000kcals / week over a sedentary person of the same weight. This significantly increased food intake also increases the chance of food borne pathogens and bacteria entering the gut, undesirable for anyone, but particularly unwelcome for a sports person leading up to an event.
A final consideration for sports people is not to rely on high sugar high fat foods to get their volume of calories (this is obvious if weight control/reduction is an element of the training phase). Many sport people consider that this approach is ok as they wrongly believe that their fitness and training will keep them sufficiently healthy to mitigate the effects of a diet full of junk foods. However what is now apparent is that it is more important for those people that train hard to eat more healthily and this is due to the additional oxidative stress placed on the body by regular exercise. In order to counter this, the body resorts to using an array of vitamins, minerals and phytochemicals which act collectively to provide powerful antioxidant protection for the athlete, allowing them to train harder and recover faster.
So it’s out with the mars bars and in with the fruit and veg. A good strategy to increase calorie intake if required (without compromising on quality of diet) is to drink smoothies daily with frequent snacking on high calorie natural foods such as dried fruits and nuts and seeds. Some athletes prefer to use sports supplements and whilst these have their place in sports performance, the basis of every athlete’s nutritional plan should always be a healthy and balanced diet.