Running and Nutrition: 4 Simple Rules
Good nutrition is the bread and butter of an effective training plan (pardon the pun).
Eat right, and your body will thank you for it. But with so much conflicting advice out there - how do you know what you should be listening to? Stick to these 4 simple rules and you should see your running improve in no time.
1. Know your nutrients
To fuel your runs effectively, you need to understand your food groups and why each is important to you as a runner.
Carbohydrate (50-60% of your diet)
Carbohydrates should make up the bulk of your meals and will provide you with energy for running. Just before a long distance race, up your carb intake to increase endurance and limit the chance of 'hitting the wall'.
However, that doesn't mean you need to be loading up on pasta constantly. Carb loading, while beneficial just before a half or full marathon, is not required for an everyday run.
Protein (20-25% of your diet)
Protein is essential for muscle growth and repair, and should be included in all post-run meals. Meat is an obvious source, but vegetarians do not despair! Eggs, beans, pulses, nuts and many vegetables such as broccoli and peas are also packed with protein.
Fats (15-20% of your diet)
Fats are essential for healthy joints and skin, and also help your body to absorb essential nutrients. Nuts, oily fish, and some vegetables like avocado are great sources of monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats (the good ones!).
Fruit, veg and legumes
Micronutrients are essential for all round health and are found primarily in fruits, vegetables and legumes (beans, pules etc). At every meal, aim to fill half of your plate with a variety of delicious veggies.
2. Eat more
It sounds obvious, but the more calories you burn, the more you need to consume. Many new runners, particularly those who begin with the aim of losing weight, tend not to up their calorie intake enough. To improve performance, you need to give your body the fuel to do so.
That being said, you won't need to up your calorie intake drastically if you are only running short or infrequent distances. If you are training for a marathon, you should see your calorie intake increasing gradually alongside your weekly mileage.
3. Time it right
While most people already know the basics of nutrition, something which runners often struggle to adapt to when they start out is the need to fit different food groups around their training schedule. What you choose to eat before, during and after a run will affect both your performance and your recovery.
Before a run, you should eat carbohydrate-based food. Avoid too much protein or fibre as they are difficult to digest and are likely to cause stomach cramps or stitches. If you run first thing in the morning, get the bulk of your carbs in the night before, and eat a small, easy to digest breakfast in the morning such as toast and jam, or a banana. Before running, leave at least two hours after a large snack or small meal (300-400 calories), and three hours after a large meal (600-800 calories).
You don't need to refuel on shorter runs. As a general rule, you will need to eat something en route if you are running for over an hour. Foods should be similar to what you would eat before a run: high carb, low protein, fat and fibre. Mid-run snacks obviously also need to be portable, so cereal bars are ideal. You may also like to try using energy gels.
You should have a snack and some water straight after running, ideally within half an hour. Your post-run snack should contain 200-300 calories and both carbohydrate and protein - rice cakes and peanut butter is a good example.
Having a quick snack gives you time to stretch, shower and relax before making your full recovery meal. Your recovery meal should adhere to the general nutrition rules as above, including carbohydrate, protein, fats and plenty of vegetables.
4. Listen to your body
Chances are, you won't need to drastically change the way you eat to adapt to your training plan. The beauty of running nutrition is that your body works best on foods that it is used to, so if you aren't a big carb eater, don't suddenly start eating enormous bowls of pasta before you run just because someone told you that you need to carb load.
By all means, experiment with food whilst you are training. Practise makes perfect, and the best way to prepare for race day is to try out different foods and meal times until you find what works for you.