For purposes of this article, let us establish that “during training” does not mean during one singular run. Training for an endurance race or event takes many weeks of solid training runs strung together, and it is in these weeks we can create even more fitness gains through proper nutrition, fuelling and recovery. In order to get to the start line feeling fit, fresh and ready to take on race demands, our dietary habits in the lead up and throughout training are incredibly important.

Nutritional Periodization

Nutritional periodization is a nutritional program that changes according to the type and amount of training a runner is engaged in. It is about balancing energy intake and expenditure to reach a ‘sweet spot’ completely unique to you – everyone is different. Every nutritional plan should have the same goal of enhancing adaptations to training, fighting fatigue/preventing injury and for some people, getting “lean” or race ready.

Many recreational runners train weekly distances of 50-100km for fitness and event preparation when training for races throughout the year. Most runners will do a variety of different sessions over the week at various paces.  For example, slow, longer runs or recovery/easy runs help build aerobic endurance. In contrast, intense continuous runs and interval/threshold sessions aim to improve anaerobic capacity and speed. Dietary strategies can positively influence the factors, which would otherwise limit a runner’s performance such as fluid balance, availability of carbohydrate for fuel and lactate accumulation from anaerobic efforts.

How can I find my balance?

An individual’s carbohydrate intake should reflect their daily training load; increasing total carbohydrate and energy intake during high-volume days and decreasing intake when volume and intensity are reduced (e.g. easy, recovery days). Nutrient dense carbohydrate rich foods (such as wholegrain breads, rice, potatoes, sweet potatoes, fruit, dairy products and legumes) should be prioritised to meet fuel demands, however there may also be a need to include additional carbohydrate rich foods/drinks (e.g. sports drinks, energy gels) specifically around run sessions to improve performance during heavy training loads. Furthermore, consuming a high carbohydrate meal soon after a long and/or hard run will aid rapid muscle glycogen repletion. Including protein rich foods throughout the day assists to build new muscle protein and red blood cells as part of the repair and adaptation process. When thinking or planning your meals – evidence is in favour of putting carbohydrates on your plate first if you have a harder training day. An example of how a light vs. easy day breakfast may differ:

Easy Day: Omelette made with 3 eggs + 40g cheddar cheese + 1 cup spinach + ½ sliced tomato + 1 cup mushrooms served with ¼ avocado and handful of pumpkin seeds

Harder day: Omelette made with 2 eggs + 40g cheddar cheese + 1 cup spinach + ½ sliced tomato + 1 cup mushrooms served with 2 slices of toast + 1 glass of milk or orange juice

Gastrointestinal upset during hard runs is common. Many runners often prefer to run on an empty stomach, with the pre-training food/drink eaten well in advance of the session. If your planned training session is early in the morning, you might consider having a high carbohydrate snack just before bed so as to top up glycogen stores before running in the morning. That way, it will ensure you are well fuelled without having to try cram in food early in the morning. Some great pre-bed snacks are:

  • Yoghurt with fruit
  • 2 slices wholegrain bread/toast with Jam or Honey
  • 1 banana + 1 cup warm milk
  • 5 dried prunes or apricots + ½ cup Greek yoghurt

Low fibre foods or liquid meal supplements before hard training sessions may also help reduce concerns.

Sleep as your Secret Weapon

Sleep is rated as the ‘gold standard’ for recovery for any runner or athlete. In order to recover and prepare for the many training runs yet to be done, sleep should take first priority. Sleep helps restore body tissues, along with the promotion of growth, repair and adaptation of muscle and bones. Here are some nutritional strategies, which may help in getting optimal Z’s to assist in optimal recovery and optimise subsequent training sessions:

  • Fluids: try to limit intake of fluid within 1½ hours of going to bed. Taking in less fluid 90 minutes before going to bed will promotes uninterrupted sleep by fewer trips to the toilet during the night. It is important to rehydrate after a run and throughout the day instead
  • Meals close to bed time: leave 2-3 hours between the last meal eaten prior to going to sleep
  • High-fat foods: it is best to avoid meals high in fat such as creamy pastas, fried foods, or overdoing the pork crackling (hard to resist I know) before going to bed. Fat takes almost 6 hours to digest and can deter from a peaceful sleep
  • Energy restriction: too little food intake can also impair a good sleep. Choose high-fibre and low GI carbohydrates with your last meal to help satiation and stabilise blood sugars before going to bed
  • Foods containing melatonin: melatonin is a hormone that helps regulate sleep cycles. Almonds, walnuts, pineapple, oranges and bananas are rich sources of melatonin. Perhaps try having a handful of almonds and a banana as a go-to dessert?
  • Foods containing tryptophan: tryptophan is an amino acid (type of protein) promotes actually falling into sleep. Nuts and protein from animals (turkey, chicken, fish, eggs) all contain tryptophan and can therefore help get us into a peaceful sleep
  • High carbohydrate snack before bed: consuming a higher-carb snack before bed (fruit, yoghurt, milk, wholegrains) can also assist with sleep. This also is a bonus for recovery by promoting glycogen storage in the muscles so we wake up ready to run!

Article by Milly Clark, Olympic Marathoner | Sports Dietitian

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