WHETHER you’re taking part in a half or full marathon, or just exercising to keep fit, training involves more than just pounding the pavement. What you eat plays a pivotal role. The question is: which foods are best? And when should you eat?
Everything you eat and drink has an affect on your body when you exercise. And it’s not just what you eat weeks leading up to the race — you need a balanced diet every day. This includes the right meal before and after you train to help your body recover and repair.
The Training Diet
There’s been a lot of debate around low-carb diets and distance running (aka Banting diets or LCHF eating). However Sports Dietitians Australia warns that low-carb eating will not only deprive the body of important nutrients, but will also compromise performance.
Carbohydrate is a key fuel source for exercise and especially recommended for distance runners to support the high-energy demands of training, fast recovery, and optimal race performance.
Exactly how much carbohydrate you need is dependant on the frequency, duration and intensity of the run, and should reflect your daily training load. In other words, consume a higher proportion of carbohydrates for harder training days and less on easy/recovery days.
But it’s not all about carbohydrates; moderate amounts of protein and smaller amounts of quality fats, such as those found in oily fish, avocado, olive oil and nuts are also needed to ensure sufficient energy, muscle repair, and an adequate supply of vitamins and minerals.
So what’s the ideal training diet?
As a general rule, opt for a combination of low GI carbohydrates to fuel the muscles with a small amount of protein to ensure a slow, gradual release of energy. Examples of pre-training food options that fit this nutrient balance include:
• Wholegrain crackers with hummus or reduced fat cheese
• Fruit salad with yoghurt
• Fruit smoothie
• Rolled oats with milk
• Baked beans on toast
• Lean meat and plenty of salad on sandwich or wrap
• Pasta or rice with a sauce based on low-fat ingredients (e.g. tomato, vegetables, leaner cuts of meat).
• Cereal or muesli bar
Timing it right
When it comes to fuelling your workout, timing is everything. As a general guide, eating a meal roughly 3-4 hours before or a lighter snack roughly 1-2 hours before exercise is a sufficient amount of time for the stomach to empty and to have a positive effect on training, boost energy levels without an upset stomach. This means that if you have eaten your breakfast around 7am, you may need a light snack around 11am before your lunch time workout. Or, if you have eaten your lunch at 12 or 1pm, you will need to eat snack at 3 or 4pm before your afternoon training session.
If you train early in the morning and your workout is less than 1-hour, going without food or drink probably won’t do you any harm. Just make sure you’re staying hydrated. Similarly, exercisers with weight loss goals may find an advantage in exercising first thing in the morning before eating breakfast, as exercising on an empty stomach results in a greater potential to burn more fat.
However, if your goals are performance related (e.g. to improve speed or time), exercising on an empty stomach can lead to an early onset of fatigue, plus a tougher time meeting your goals.
Eating during exercise
You shouldn’t need to eat when you exercise less than 90 minutes. If you do feel tired, it may mean you haven’t eaten enough carbohydrates, or your diet is not well-balanced, or you’re dehydrated.
If you train longer than 90 minutes at a moderate to high intensity, consuming extra carbohydrates is recommended as carbohydrates supplies start to run low. This is where sports drinks or gels are handy and practical. Research with athletes shows that 30-60g of carbohydrates needs to be consumed each hour of exercising to delay fatigue.
Regardless of how long you exercise for, hydration is always key and training provides you with the opportunity to practice your fluid-replacement strategies. While there’s no set recommendation for daily fluid intake, a good rule of thumb is to drink enough fluid so that your urine is pale in colour — this is your quickest guide to know if you’re drinking enough or not. Water is the best thirst quencher in most cases, but a carbohydrate-containing beverages, such as sports drink is recommended for exercising longer than 90-minutes to replace electrolytes and top up glycogen stores.
For training and race recovery, stick with the three Rs of refuel, repair and rehydrate. To refuel, have a protein-rich snack to aid muscle repair, combined with carbohydrates to restock your spent energy stores, along with drinking enough fluids to help enhance recovery and rehydrate. Good examples
• Stir-fry with lean red meat or chicken, vegetables and rice
• Wholegrain rolls made with salad and lean meat
• Flavoured milk or fruit smoothies
• Jacket potato with reduced-fat cheese and legumes.
For more information check out Sports Dietitians Australia’s free nutrition fact sheets.
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